Tales from the Trail

All smiles at the White House, for a moment anyway

Earlier today President Barack Obama signed a law about prison sentences for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine and the photograph of the smiling group of people who supported the legislation gave us a brief pause.

The Democrats and Republicans gathered around the president in the Oval Office rarely agree on anything.  Let’s take a minute to dissect this photograph.

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There’s Attorney General Eric Holder (pictured second from the left), a close confidante of Obama’s. But he has drawn intense criticism for his plan to prosecute the five alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a criminal court in the heart of Manhattan (now highly unlikely). He also has been lambasted by Republicans for affording full legal rights to terrorism suspects who have been arrested on U.S. soil.

Next to him is Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy who has been the president’s man shepherding through the Senate his two Supreme Court justice nominees. The second nominee, Elena Kagan is expected to win Senate support but with only a handful of Republicans backing her.

Then just over the president’s left shoulder is Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Obama’s home state of Illinois. He  has been a big proponent of bringing terrorism suspects to trial in traditional criminal courts and even housing some of the suspects at a prison in his state (can we say jobs during a recession?).

Senator to USAID: Stop your high-flying ways

An influential senator warned the official U.S. overseas aid agency: come down to earth with the impoverished people or see your funding cut.

QUAKE-HAITI/FRANCESenator Patrick Leahy said he was concerned that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had become “distant from the trenches,” sometimes more eager to deal with foreign elites than the suffering masses who had no voice.

Leahy’s opinion matters because he chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the budget for USAID, which the Obama administration hopes to transform into an important tool to boost the U.S. image abroad.

Will Obama get a Senate Christmas gift?

Senate Democrats are confident they will pass a sweeping healthcare overhaul and give President Barack Obama a significant victory on one of his top domestic priorities. But will they do it by Christmas? OBAMA/

It will be hard. Right now the bill is hung up over a Democratic amendment that would allow patients and pharmacies to import cheaper prescription drugs from other countries, including Canada. Democrats are also waiting for an official cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office on a proposed compromise that would drop the government-run public option from the bill.

The compromise would call on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to contract with insurance companies to provide non-profit health plans that would be offered on proposed new insurance exchanges. The compromise would also allow people 55 to 64 to buy into the Medicare health program for the elderly.

Senator Leahy takes Obama to task over landmines

With President Barack Obama poised to order more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, a senior U.S. senator hammered the administration Tuesday for not joining an international treaty banning landmines.

“I think the Obama administration has made a dramatic mistake in this area,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said in remarks on the Senate floor. “This is not what we expected from this administration.”
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The Vermont senator, a longtime supporter of the 10-year-old international Mine Ban Treaty, said one argument the Pentagon made for opposing the accord was that it wanted to preserve its option to use landmines in Afghanistan.

“Yet we have seen how civilian casualties in Afghanistan have become one of the most urgent and pressing concerns of our military commanders, where bombs that missed their targets and other mistakes have turned the populace against us,” he said.

Sotomayor hearings begin, lines drawn

The political lines are drawn.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee wasted no time in setting the battle plans for the debate over the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to become the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

After all is said and done,  she is expected to be confirmed to the highest court in the United States — a lifetime appointment.

But to get there, she must listen to senator after senator talk about whether she is qualified for the job, with her family sitting behind her in the hearing room, and in full public view on televised proceedings. USA-COURT/SOTOMAYOR