GAZA CITY, Gaza (CNN) - A U.S. congressional delegation visited Gaza Thursday, marking the first time that American lawmakers have entered the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory in eight years, according to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
The delegation included Reps. Brian Baird, D-Washington, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, who is the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. Congress.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, also visited Gaza separately from the two congressmen, according to an official who was traveling with the senator.
None of the U.S. lawmakers visited representatives of Gaza's Hamas leadership. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.
Baird said that the visit represents a change in the United States' attitude and approach to Gaza, under newly elected President Barack Obama.
(CNN) - Canadians have set their expectations high for President Obama as he heads to Ottawa today in what will be his first international trip as president. A recent Harris/Decima Poll revealed that a majority, 57 percent, feel that Obama will do better than expected as president, while 30 percent think he will be less successful then expected.
And Canadians are so confident Americans share those views that respondents in the poll released late last month were almost nine times as likely to say President Obama will be successful than not in a 2012 re-election bid.
Three in 10 Canadians polled say Obama's done an excellent job since winning the presidency, with another 42 percent characterizing his actions as good. Ten percent say they've been fair, and 1 percent poor.
Harris/Decima interviews just over 1000 Canadians each week through teleVox, the company's national telephone omnibus survey. The data in this survey was gathered between January 15 and January 18, 2009 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.
(CNN) - California lawmakers in Sacramento passed the state's budget - closing a $42 billion deficit - early Thursday, and it now awaits the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hailed the lawmakers.
The budget package includes tax increases, spending cuts and borrowing to close the deficit.
It was first approved by the state Senate during a grueling overnight session after lawmakers there agreed to demands from a holdout Republican senator. It was then passed speedily by the Assembly.
"I am extremely proud of the members of the legislature, both Republicans and Democrats, who had the courage to stand up and put the needs of Californians first," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
"Rather than approaching this unprecedented crisis with gimmicks and temporary solutions, we took the difficult but responsible steps to address our entire $42 billion budget deficit and pass historic bipartisan reform measures."
Schwarzenegger said he was pleased that the legislature that his budget proposal served as a blueprint for this spending plan, which included "spending reductions, revenue increases, economic stimulus and government efficiency."
"This is a very difficult budget, but we have turned this crisis into an opportunity to make real, lasting reforms for California."
There had been a stalemate over budget, and it caused Schwarzenegger to declare a fiscal emergency and send layoff notices to 10,000 state workers.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Obama takes his first foreign trip as head of state Thursday when he travels to Canada.
And though he enjoys an 81 percent approval rating north of the border, Obama is expected to tackle several explosive issues with America's largest trading partner.
• The war in Afghanistan: Canada has about 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, but Parliament has voted to pull them out by 2011.
At the same time, Obama has approved a significant increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, bringing the total there to 55,000.
"My hope is that in conversations that I have with Prime Minister Harper, that he and I end up seeing the importance of a comprehensive strategy, and one that ultimately the people of Canada can support, as well as the people of the United States can support," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday.
• A "Buy American" clause in Washington's economic stimulus package: Canadians worry about protectionism because of a provision in the package that requires the use of U.S.-produced iron, steel and other manufactured goods in public works projects paid for by the $787 billion package.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) - Muntadher al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist on trial for throwing his shoes last year at then-President George W. Bush, said the former American leader's "bloodless and soulless smile" and his joking banter provoked him.
Al-Zaidi threw both of his shoes at Bush during a December news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad. Neither shoe hit the president, and other people in the room quickly knocked al-Zaidi to the ground before security officials arrested him.
He explained his actions in an hour-long appearance on Thursday at the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. Asked if anyone pushed or motivated him to do this, al-Zaidi said he was spurred on by the "violations that are committed against the Iraqi people."
"I could only see Bush and feel the blood of the innocents flow under his feet, as he was smiling that smile - as if he had come to bid farewell to Iraq and with the last support and more than 1 million martyrs," al-Zaidi said. "At that moment, I felt this is the man who killed our nation ... the main murderer and the main person responsible for killing our nation."
Speaking in his first public appearance since his arrest two months ago, al-Zaidi told the court he "got emotional and threw the shoe at him" and "the second one was involuntary."
(CNN) – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Pope Benedict XVI Wednesday at the Vatican in a closed-door meeting following the General Audience.
“In our conversation, I had the opportunity to praise the Church's leadership in fighting poverty, hunger, and global warming, as well as the Holy Father's dedication to religious freedom and his upcoming trip and message to Israel,” the Speaker said in a statement released following her meeting with the pontiff.
But the office of the Holy See highlighted another aspect of the discussion between the two – their views on Catholic politicians’ stances on abortion.
“His Holiness took the opportunity to speak of the requirements of the natural moral law and the Church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death which enjoin all Catholics, and especially legislators, jurists and those responsible for the common good of society, to work in cooperation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development,” says a statement released by the Vatican.
Pelosi, who refers to herself as an “ardent” Catholic, has been criticized by bishops for her dissent from traditional church views on abortion for her position in favor of abortion rights. Pope Benedict XVI has publicly stated individuals who support abortion rights should not receive communion.
Pelosi’s meeting with Pope Benedict came on the Speaker’s fourth day in her eight-day trip in Italy. The Speaker is leading a congressional delegation on an official visit to the Italian Republic.
(CNN) - Having just upped the ante in Afghanistan by 17,000 troops, the United States will look for greater commitments from its NATO partners this week, but isn't expecting much of a response.
"I think the likelihood of getting the allies to commit significant
numbers of additional troops is not very great,' U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on his way to Krakow, Poland. "To give credit where credit is due, the allies have increased the number of non-U.S. troops by about 15,000 over the last year or so."
"The question is whether additional commitments beyond that can be made, and I think there will be some, but I don't think they will be big numbers," he added.
Allied defense ministers are holding informal meetings Thursday and Friday in Krakow ahead of the coming NATO summit in April.
The notion of sending more combat troops to Afghanistan is unsavory to many allies, especially in the aftermath of an unpopular war in Iraq. It's a reality Gates recognizes.
For the latest political news: www.CNNPolitics.com.
In a blunt assessment of race relations in the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday called the American people "essentially a nation of cowards" in failing to openly discuss the issue of race.
Even before President Obama unveiled his home foreclosure plan Wednesday afternoon, some Republicans and political commentators questioned how exactly it would work to stave off a crisis plaguing the country.
A New York Post cartoon Wednesday drew fire from civil rights activist Al Sharpton and others who say the drawing invokes historically racist images in suggesting an ape wrote President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has denounced political parties as a “swamp of dysfunction,” has bankrolled a campaign to eliminate them from the New York City elections and has dismissively cast off his own party affiliations like ill-fitting garments. (Democrat? Been there. Republican? Done that.)