Tales from the Trail

Washington Extra – Kids, cover your ears

It’s true, you learn much more out in the real world than you do in school. Just look at the kids who today attended the State Department press briefing for Take Your Child to Work Day. Instead of lessons in nation-building or food aid, they were treated to a discussion of prostitutes and strip clubs. 

With Washington gripped by a widening Secret Service scandal, reporters just couldn’t steer clear of the salacious story. Soon after spokeswoman Victoria Nuland saluted the handful of underage observers, the questions moved to charges that Secret Service agents and other government workers cavorted with strippers and prostitutes while on overseas assignments. Nuland lamented the topic du jour and one Department employee jokingly moved to cover his daughter’s ears.

The roughly half-dozen kids were models of decorum. There they sat, on the sidelines of the briefing room, staring down at the floor. None asked a question. But they might have been thinking “Mom, Dad, when we get home tonight, you’ll have some explaining to do.”

Here are our top stories from Washington…

US on guard for attacks ahead of bin Laden anniversary – President Obama has reviewed potential threats to the United States ahead of the anniversary next week of the killing of Osama bin Laden, but there is no concrete evidence that al Qaeda is plotting any revenge attacks, the White House said. Bin Laden’s killing last year by U.S. commandos is touted by the Obama administration as one of his top accomplishments and it may help inoculate the president from Republican election-year claims that he is weak on national security.  For more of this story by Alister Bull, read here.

Biden knocks Romney for “back to the future” foreign policy – Vice President Joe Biden blasted Mitt Romney’s foreign policy vision as backward-looking and tied to George W. Bush, hammering the presumptive Republican nominee for thinking like a CEO and not like a commander in chief. The remarks were Biden’s latest attempt to define Romney as out of touch with Americans, and his foreign policy critique marked a shift from the Obama campaign’s focus on economic and domestic differences with the president’s Republican rival.  For more of this story by Jeff Mason, read here.

Washington Extra – You win some, you lose some

capitol_domeDemocrats scored some noteworthy wins today. They pushed the nuclear arms treaty with Russia past a Republican hurdle. They adopted Internet rules that Republicans and some big media companies called unwarranted, excessive and maybe even illegal.

But it’s hard for Extra to call this a good day for Dems. Republicans have promised to unravel everything from Tuesday’s net neutrality decision at the FCC to Dodd-Frank and Obamacare. They’ve pushed the fight over government spending into 2011, when they’ll run the House and have more leverage in the Senate. That means regulators won’t get the extra funds they’ve requested to tighten oversight of Wall Street, as Mary Schapiro lamented to Reuters today.

Lest you think Extra’s too short-sighted, too focused on 2011, consider what could be the most politically significant news of the day — new Census data. Democrats cannot be anything but bummed by the Census showing a population shift from blue states to red ones. It means a redrawing of congressional districts that will likely add Republicans to the House. We won’t bog you down with the details, but just remember it’s the number of House seats that determines a state’s representation in the Electoral College

Washington Extra – START not yet finished

So far, the U.S. Senate has spent six days debating New START — the strategic nuclear arms limitation treaty with Russia. Not so long, you say? Democrats are rushing it through? Well consider this, Congress has already spent longer on this agreement than it did on START I almost two decades ago — and the original is a much more complex treaty.

It is not just President Barack Obama and the Democrats who support this treaty. Former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, supports it. So does Republican Condoleezza Rice and every other former secretary of state who is still alive. And the military? Well those folks really support it, just ask the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the uniformed officers in charge of nuclear security.mcconnell2

So what’s the problem?

“The American people don’t want us to squeeze our most important work into the final days of a session,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell argued. Republicans, it seems, think Obama and the Democrats just want to notch one last victory before Republicans take the House in January.

For Biden, it’s START “day and night”

Instead of counting sheep to fall asleep at night, we imagine Vice President Joe Biden may be counting votes.

OBAMA/That’s because President Barack Obama just announced that he has told Biden to focus “day and night” on getting the START treaty ratified by Congress. (That’s what happens when you let the boss “drop by” one of your meetings.)

Obama said ratifying the nuclear arms treaty with Russia was the single most important national security issue for the lame duck Congress. “It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New START treaty this year.”

Washington Extra – From Russia With(out) Love

Not a great day for US-Russia relations. The United States won the extradition of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout from Thailand against Moscow’s vehement objections. The Russian government said the extradition of the man known as the “Merchant of Death” was not only illegal but also the result of “unprecedented political pressure from the United States.” Earlier this month we had news that a key Russian spymaster and double agent had defected to the United States after unmasking the spy ring here. And then to top it all off, Republicans signaled they would block ratification of the START Treaty this year.  It looks like more of a meltdown than a reset in US-Russia relations.

THAILAND-BOUT/Not that START is dead yet, with Joe Biden leading the charge today to twist arms in the Senate and Hillary Clinton due on the Hill tomorrow. But if anyone was hoping President Barack Obama would rescue the second half of his presidency by focusing on foreign policy, it has hardly been an auspicious couple of weeks, after the debacle of the G20 meeting, the failure to strike a trade deal with South Korea and now this.  Still, here’s hoping the president can strike peace in the Middle East or negotiate a successful exit from Afghanistan.

The best news on the foreign stage so far this week has a British flavor (or a British flavour, to be more accurate). And no, I am not talking about the Royal engagement. It’s news that the Beatles will finally be available on iTunes. Three years after the two big Apples settled their trademark dispute, the Fab Four’s 13 albums will finally be available on the world’s biggest digital retailer. You don’t know how lucky you are boys…

Senate Republicans ask: What’s the hurry on the new START treaty?

When it comes to ratifying President Obama’s nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Russians, Senate Republicans say: don’t rush us.

Obama has said he would like to see the Senate ratify the new START treaty with Moscow this year. But he will need some Republican support to get the 67 votes required for ratification. And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says Republicans don’t yet have the answers to their questions about the agreement and related concerns about how much money will be spent modernizing U.S. nuclear forces.

“The only way this treaty gets in trouble is if it’s rushed,” McConnell said in an interview with Reuters. “My advice to the president was, don’t try to jam it, answer all the requests, and let’s take our time and do it right,” he said.RUSSIA/

Swapping spies to advance a post-Cold War relationship

RUSSIA-USA/SPIESIt’s hardly ever been a rock-solid relationship but has had its moments. So what does one do when deceit is discovered but no one wants a divorce?

When Russia was caught engaging in the second oldest profession in the United States the two partners decided that the overall relationship was too important to disintegrate over such an indiscretion. Their answer: swap spies.

But the public story so far has raised questions about why the hurry?

“Looks to me that the Administration was in one mighty big rush to put aside this annoyance in the U.S.-Russian relationship. What a deal. We swap 10 Russians for 4 Russians,” a former U.S. intelligence official says.

GASP! Russia spying on the United States

There’s gambling in Vegas (sharp intake of breath)… Tea grows in China (eyes widen)… Russia spies on the United States (hand over heart stagger backward).

SHOCKING, SHOCKING, SHOCKING! (Get out the hanky and smelling salts).

Well, hold on a minute… it’s not exactly Robert Hanssen is it? The former FBI agent was charged with selling U.S. secrets to the former Soviet Union and then Russia and is now serving a life prison sentence in what was seen as a huge intelligence disaster – Russia penetrated the FBI. RUSSIA-USA/SPYING

In this spy story, a multi-year U.S. investigation into the “illegals” program nabbed 10 “alleged secret agents” in the United States and charged them with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of Russia. A charge that carries a 5-year prison sentence.

White House to Kremlin: how r u? OMG…

President Barack Obama suggested to visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that it might be time to toss out the red phone from Cold War days and open new lines of communication between the United States and Russia — Twitter.

(Although Obama may want to get the terminology down first, it’s Twitter not Twitters). USA-RUSSIA/

Obama cracked the joke at a news conference at the White House with Medvedev, who earlier this week visited technology firms in California and stopped at Twitter offices where he sent his first tweet.

Senate Republicans keeping powder dry on START treaty

There appears to be no rush among Senate Republicans to finish what President Barack Obama STARTed when he signed the new arms reduction treaty recently with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev.

NUCLEAR-SUMMIT/At a closed-door meeting Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans listened to arms experts and leaders in their caucus discuss the deal, a follow-on to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

But the general feeling in the room was that it was way too early to decide whether the new START merited a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the Senate, some participants said.