WASHINGTON (CNN) - Sen. Ted Kennedy, who has been recuperating from brain cancer surgery, was back in Washington on Thursday as President Obama set out to tackle a major domestic policy item on his increasingly loaded plate - health care reform.
Kennedy, 77, suffered a seizure in May 2008 at his home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Shortly afterward, doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. He has been holed up in Massachusetts to recover, rarely returning to Washington.
On Inauguration Day, the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts again suffered a seizure, this time at a luncheon for members of Congress and the newly inaugurated President Obama.
But according to aides, Kennedy has been meeting with his staff multiple times a day, and is actively engaged in directing and coordinating movement on his committee on health care reform.
(CNN) – In the wake of a series of controversies surrounding Senate appointments, several lawmakers are trying to put an end to the practice of allowing governors to hand-pick senators to fill vacant seats.
The Senate and House Judiciary Committees will hold a joint hearing on March 11 on a proposed constitutional amendment to make states hold special elections to fill Senate vacancies, instead of the tradition of allowing governors to choose their successors. Democrats Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan will preside over the hearing.
The bipartisan bill doesn’t have a lot of support so far, with only two cosponsors in the Senate and six in the House. Feingold first proposed the amendment at the end of January.
The issue over how to fill Senate vacancies has gotten more attention this year, after the November 4 election and subsequent administration appointments left four open seats. Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached over allegations that he auctioned off President Obama’s former Senate seat and New York Gov. David Paterson faced intense criticism over the way he handled filling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vacant spot.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Obama on Thursday called for a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. health care system, warning that soaring medical costs present "one of the greatest threats not just to the well-being of our families ... but to the very foundation of our economy."
Obama made his remarks while addressing a group of lawmakers, doctors, hospital officials and advocates at a White House summit on health care reform - one of the president's top domestic priorities.
"We cannot delay this discussion any longer," Obama said. "Health care reform is no longer just a moral imperative, it is a fiscal imperative. If we want to create jobs, rebuild our economy and get our federal budget under control, then we must address the crushing cost of health care this year."
Among other things, Obama is seeking to set aside $634 billion in a health-care reserve fund over the next 10 years to help move the country closer to the goal of universal coverage. He also would require senior citizens making more than $170,000 annually to pay a greater share of their prescription drug costs under Medicare.
"This isn't a luxury; this is a necessity," Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told CNN's "American Morning" on Thursday, explaining that health care reform is a must for the U.S. to get its "economic ship steady."
Updated 2 p.m.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the latest lawmaker to defend congressional earmarks Thursday in the wake of calls from the White House earlier this week to reform the process.
"The legislatively initiated proposals in the appropriations bill, I think, are an appropriate function of the Congress of the United States," Pelosi said.
But the Speaker also said she does believe Congress should cut back on the number of earmarks: "I certainly agree with the President that we need to have fewer earmarks, that we have to have transparency and accountability.” And she argued that when Republicans controlled Congress the number of earmarks exploded, mocking their fierce criticism now on the issue. "This whole thing on the Republican side about earmarks is so disingenuous," she said.
Pelosi said she planned to work with the Obama administration this year after Congress finishes the $410 billion spending bill to find ways to reduce the number of earmarks in future spending bills.
President Obama has signaled he will sign the spending bill even though it contains over 8,000 earmarks.
Earlier this week, another senior congressional Democrat - House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer - also pushed back when asked about President’s Obama’s plans to issue new rules on earmarks. "I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do," he told reporters.
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) - The Obama administration announced Thursday that it would commit another $438 million toward redeveloping Gulf Coast communities still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The announcement came as two Cabinet officials, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured parts of the New Orleans area, including suburban St. Bernard Parish.
Katrina killed more than 1,800 people when it struck near the Louisiana-Mississippi state line in August 2005. Most of those deaths were in the New Orleans area, where more than 1,500 people were killed when the storm breached the city's protective levees and flooded more than three-quarters of town.
The city's population is about three-quarters of what it was before the storm, and nearly 85,000 residences in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes remain vacant, according to January figures from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - As President Barack Obama hosts a Thursday summit at the White House on health care reform, recent national polling suggests that nearly three out of four Americans support government programs to improve the country's health care system.
Seventy-two percent of those questioned in recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey say they favor increasing the federal government's influence over the country's health care system in an attempt to lower costs and provide health care coverage to more Americans, with 27 percent opposing such a move. Other recent polls show six in 10 think the government should provide health insurance or take responsibility for providing health care to all Americans.
"That doesn't mean that health care reform is a slam dunk," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Americans tend to support those goals. The question - just as in 1994 - is how they will react to the details of future legislation to address those goals."
President Bill Clinton and then First Lady Hillary Clinton tried by failed to reform and expand health care coverage during a two year period from 1993 to 1994.
(CNN) - As a spending bill loaded with pork makes its way through Congress, President Obama is getting pushback from members of his own party who are questioning his vow to end wasteful spending.
The president on Wednesday pledged turn tide on an "era of fiscal irresponsibility," reiterating his campaign promise that the days of "pork ... as a strategy" are over.
And in a prime-time address before a joint session of Congress, Obama last week praised the $787 billion stimulus package signed into law, telling the nation, "I'm proud that we passed a recovery plan free of earmarks, and I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities."
But some in the audience found that hard to swallow.
"There was just a roar of laughter - because there were earmarks," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri.
Earmarks, sometimes called "pork," are unrelated pet projects that members of Congress insert in spending bills.
The scoffing continues as the president hammers away at reducing wasteful spending and saving taxpayers money while lawmakers on Capitol Hill load up a spending bill with more than 8,000 earmarks totaling nearly $8 billion.
NEW YORK (Fortune) - Officials shouldn't reveal which Wall Street firms pocketed billions of dollars in the government's bailout of AIG, a top Federal Reserve official said.
Firms that did business with the troubled insurer did so "expecting confidentiality," Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn told the Senate Banking Committee in testimony Thursday.
He said publishing a list of the firms that benefited from government support of AIG - as lawmakers have been demanding - could undermine trust in the markets and increase financial instability.
"I would be very concerned if we started revealing lists of names of companies that did transactions" with AIG or with the government on AIG's behalf, Kohn said in response to questions. Doing so, Kohn added, could "undermine confidence" in the financial system.
The comment was met with incredulity by senators who said the government must do a better job explaining how its actions over the past six months have benefited all Americans, and not simply troubled big companies and their trading partners. AIG has received more than $150 billion in federal aid since its brush with bankruptcy last fall.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Republican National Committee announced Wednesday it is transferring $1 million to both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Senate and House groups in charge of electing Republicans to Congress.
"The Republican National Committee stands by our outstanding leaders in both houses of Congress," said RNC Chairman Michael Steele in a statement. "This is an investment in strong, principled Republican leadership."
That endorsement appears to represent an about-face for Steele, who has said he is open to supporting primary challengers to the three Republican senators who supported President Obama's stimulus package.
Just yesterday, Steele told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that he remains open to supporting primary challenges, as long as state GOP leaders are on board.
"As I said, that is something that is absolutely on the table for me," Steele told Ingraham. "I'm not backing down from that."
NRSC Chairman John Cornyn thanked Steele for the "strong financial commitment" from the RNC.
"Strengthening and modernizing our fundraising operations is a top priority for the NRSC this cycle and this support from Chairman Steele today helps us build on a strong foundation moving forward," Cornyn said.
BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) - The United States is calling for a conference on Afghanistan and the broader regional challenge to take place March 31, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Thursday.
Clinton made the announcement in her first address as secretary of state to the North Atlantic Council at NATO.
Ministerial-level officials would participate. Clinton did not name a location for the conference but said the United States is discussing this now with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, including whether the U.N. would chair the meeting.
Clinton said that Afghanistan must be seen as a single strategic concern and that a small area in that region is now a "nerve center for extremists." The situation on the ground right now, she said, is serious.
She called for better coordination within the U.S. government, with NATO and with the international community. She said a better-integrated civilian and military strategy is needed. "Any long-term solution," she said, "will require the participation of Afghanistan's neighbors," but she did not specify any of those countries.
Clinton said the second-most immediate challenge for NATO is "to forge a more constructive relationship with Russia and a stronger consensus about our relations with the emerging nations of Europe's east." As for Russia, she said, "it's time to explore a fresh start."
However, in comments certain to anger Russia, Clinton said that NATO should continue to hold open its door to membership for Ukraine and Georgia. The North Atlantic Council, in a late addition to its schedule, held a meeting of the NATO/Ukraine commission and the NATO/Georgia commission.