Tales from the Trail

Washington Extra – Hunkered down

In all the words said over at the White House today about the Afghanistan review, one name was not mentioned — Osama bin Laden.

The al Qaeda leader, who former President George W. Bush once declared wanted dead or alive, has eluded a manhunt and grown nearly 10 years older since the Sept. 11 attacks.

USA-AFGHANISTAN/Bin Laden was last heard in an audio message aired on Al Jazeera television on Oct. 27 railing against France, and his freedom remains a symbol of how difficult it will be to declare victory against al Qaeda.

Security officials suspect he is in the border region of Afghanistan-Pakistan, but if they knew for sure where he was, they would have found him.

President Barack Obama said the reason why U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan is 9/11, and the core goal is “disrupting, dismantling and defeating” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Washington Extra – Making nice (or not)

It was President Obama’s day for showing the business community he cares. He invited CEOs to Blair House across the street from the White House to discuss ideas for creating jobs and revving up the economy.

USARepublicans tried to turn the olive branch into an inconsequential twig. House Speaker-to-be John Boehner (who wasn’t invited) tweeted while the meeting was underway that it amounted to a “nothingburger.”

Honeywell CEO David Cote, who attended the meeting, had some sympathy for Obama: “We avoided a depression largely because of the actions of the president … I think he gets zero credit for it in the business or political community, because it seems like you get zero credit for the problem you avoid, even though that may be the biggest thing that you do.”

Washington Extra – jumpSTART

There are 11 days to Christmas, time for Congress to do the end-of-session roll in which proposals that grew cobwebs for months and months are now heading through the chambers at breakneck speed.

Tax cuts are closing in on the finish line — House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer signaled that resistance was waning among Democrats when he said there were “compelling reasons” to back the measure.

USA/Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today is holding out the possibility that the START treaty will be ratified before lawmakers wrap up the lame duck session. Debate could start as early as Wednesday, and Reid says he’s got the votes.

Washington Extra – Question of Constitution

Constitutional or unconstitutional? That is the question the U.S. Supreme Court eventually may get to decide on President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare law.

(By one definition, constitution can also refer to one’s health — just throwing that in.) 

A judge in Virginia declared unconstitutional a provision that requires individuals to buy health insurance or face a fine, backing arguments by the state that Congress exceeded its authority. USA-COURT/KAGAN

Washington Extra – Imagine

To look ahead, sometimes it’s necessary to look back.

OBAMA/In January, President Barack Obama said in an interview with ABC News: “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” At that time, his signature domestic issue, healthcare reform, had been dealt a setback with the election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate seat long held by the late Edward Kennedy, and some senators were balking at approving Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke for a second term.

Bernanke got confirmed in late January and healthcare reform passed in March.

An outsider looking at the current hand-wringing on Capitol Hill over extending tax cuts could be forgiven for thinking the issue is on a razor’s edge, when in fact it is highly likely that Obama’s compromise with the Republicans will pass in some form. Vice President Joe Biden, the president’s arm-twister on this issue, has been up on the Hill talking to reluctant Democrats and in the end will likely have the votes.

“I expect everybody to examine it carefully. When they do, I think they’re going to feel confident that, in fact, this is the right course — while understanding that for the next two years we’re going to have a big debate about taxes and we’re going to have a big debate about the budget and we’re going to have a big debate about deficits,” Obama said.

Washington Extra – Cold shoulder

It’s a chilly day in Washington, and we’re not just talking about the weather.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are giving President Barack Obama the cold shoulder after he blinked first in the stand-off with Republicans over extending tax cuts. USA/

“We will continue discussions with the President and our Caucus in the days ahead,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. (Translation – House Democrats are not on board with this yet.)

Washington Extra – Reaching for the stars

Democrats are pulling out the big guns in tax talks. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are meeting with Democratic congressional leaders today to discuss the “progress being made” in negotiations with Republicans. The meetings will give Obama a first-hand account of the lay-of-the-land on Capitol Hill, and perhaps a chance to discuss areas of potential compromise. Of course without Republicans in the room, it will be a one-sided discussion, but may provide some fresh ammo. OBAMA/

Sometimes tackling the big issues in Washington can seem a bit like reaching for the stars. Obama spoke today about America facing a “Sputnik moment” in its quest for economic recovery. When President John F. Kennedy had his “Sputnik moment” a half-century ago, he called for an American to be sent to the moon, and ultimately succeeded. Will Obama’s “Sputnik moment” end just as well? 

Be sure to look at Scot Paltrow’s special report on the depth of questionable signing and notarization practices at Lender Processing Services, a Florida-based firm that handles more than half of the country’s foreclosures. LPS is not a household name, but it is a central player in the so-called robo-signing controversy.

Washington Extra – Go figure

PHILIPPINES-ECONOMY/RESERVESIt seems slightly surreal to see a concerted attempt to rally support behind a radical plan to bring the U.S. budget deficit down to a manageable level, while at the same time Republicans and Democrats haggle over the extent of tax cuts which will achieve exactly the opposite.

But deficit hawks will be pleased to see support growing for the final draft Simpson-Bowles deficit-cutting plan, a plan all but written off a few weeks ago. Two more votes were pledged today, bringing the number of commission members in favor to 9. The hurdle of 14 votes that would trigger congressional consideration still looks elusive, but many of the proposals that form the plan may have legs.

The atmosphere around the Bush-era tax cut talks was altogether less bipartisan today, with Democrats forcing a vote through the House to extend the cuts for the middle class only. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner dismissed the vote as a “political maneuver” and then used a bit of verbal maneuvering to call it “chicken crap,” without quite calling it that.

Washington Extra – Chicken and ducks

USA-HEALTHCARE/The wrangling continues over the Bush-era tax cuts. President Barack Obama said he was confident Democrats and Republicans could break the deadlock and reach a deal soon. But with time running out, there is something of a game of chicken being played by the two sides. Each is watching to see who blinks first, and with the economy still struggling, both know the stakes are high.

 

Texas Republican Congressman Jeb Hensarling warned of the risks of failure:  “In a lame duck session, a lame duck Congress should not turn our economy into a dead duck economy.”

 

Let’s just hope they don’t duck the issue.

 

Here are our top stories from Washington today…

 

White House memo outlines new anti-leak measures

The White House has set up a special anti-WikiLeaks panel after the embarrassing flood of State Department cables leaked by the website, and its proposals include teams of inspectors who would prowl government agencies looking for ways to tighten security. A four-page draft memo circulated by the White House says President Obama’s national security staff has created an “Interagency Policy Committee for WikiLeaks.”

Washington Extra – Pirate justice

The U.S. government would surely love to get its revenge on Julian Assange, and the Justice Department says a criminal investigation has already begun. But specialists in espionage law tell us that peculiarities of American law make it virtually impossible to bring a successful case against Assange, even if he were to set foot on U.S. soil. Evidence would be needed that defendants were in contact with representatives of a foreign power and intended to provide them with secrets, evidence that has not yet surfaced. SWITZERLAND/

So although the leaked documents may make intelligence sharing harder in the future, and may make foreign governments reluctant to trust the U.S. with sensitive information, retribution could be tough.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took aim at whoever leaked the documents, saying they should be tried for treason and “executed.”  Others might yearn for a bit of pirate justice, for both Assange and the leaker.