WASHINGTON (CNN) - Two Republican congressmen ripped Congressional Black Caucus members for ignoring Cuba's "myriad gross human rights abuses" Thursday, saying this week's caucus trip to the island nation ignored the plight of political prisoners under the Castro regime.
They also urged the Obama administration to refrain from easing trade embargo or travel restrictions until the Cuban government releases all "prisoners of conscience," shows greater respect for freedom of religion and speech, and holds "free and fair" elections.
The call from Reps. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, and Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, came three days after the administration signaled that new rules on family travel and remittances to Cuba may be announced before President Obama goes to the Summit of the Americas on April 17.
It also followed statements from several Black Caucus members Tuesday arguing for consideration of an end to the trade embargo and other diplomatic restrictions placed on Cuba for five decades.
(CNN) – Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday the Obama administration is working "around the clock" on the pirate situation off the Somali coast.
Asked at the end of a stimulus funds meeting what the United States was going to do regarding the capture of a U.S. container ship captain by Somali pirates, Biden began to speak when an aide shouted, "This way guys, out that door."
"We're not going to settle that here," Biden cut-in adding, "This is being worked on around the clock since this happened. I'm not in a position right now (to comment)."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gives details Thursday about the government's help with ship hijacking by pirates.
President Obama was also questioned by a reporter about the hostage situation following a meeting with U.S. homeowners about refinancing mortgages, but declined to comment publicly.
"Guys, we're talking about housing right now," the president responded when asked at the close of the event about the standoff.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to news of the attacks Wednesday saying the Obama administration is "closely monitoring" the piracy crisis and "assessing a course of action to resolve this situation."
"Our top priority is the personal safety of the crew members on board," Gibbs said.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds just fired a warning shot across the bow of local politicos who regard him as something of a third wheel in the state's crowded Democratic primary race.
Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, announced Thursday that his campaign raised $600,000 in the first three months of 2009. That might not seem like a large number - until you consider that Deeds was unable to raise money for roughly half that time, because Virginia law prevents state legislators from collecting checks during legislative sessions.
More importantly, Deeds now has $1.2 million in the bank. That's more than rival Brian Moran, a former House delegate who has $824,000 on hand, and it's about $1 million less than the third candidate, Terry McAuliffe, a deep-pocketed millionaire with a healthy rolodex of donors from around the country. McAuliffe announced Wednesday that he entered April with $2.5 million in his war chest.
"My opponents had twice as much time to fundraise," Deeds said in an e-mail to supporters. "Brian Moran even resigned his seat so he could raise money full-time for his campaign, but it didn't pay off. I now have 41 percent more cash on-hand than Brian."
Deeds also raised 97 percent of his funds in the first quarter from inside the state of Virginia, a greater percentage than both of his Democratic rivals. Moran raised 90 percent of his money from Virginians, while McAuliffe raised less than 20 percent from donors inside the commonwealth.
Deeds will surely play that figure up as he tries to sell himself as the Democrat with the best chance of beating Republican Bob McDonnell in the fall.
McDonnell has not yet announced his first quarter fundraising total.
UPDATE: Deeds' cash on hand total includes an $80,000 transfer from his senate account.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The White House is planning to start dealing with the nation's immigration system as early as this May, according to two senior administration officials.
The president will rely on a bipartisan, diverse group of experts to help build the framework for legislation, the officials said.
One official noted that immigration will "not be on the same track" as other key initiatives like health care and energy, and "nobody's promising legislation or a vote this year."
Meanwhile, the administration is dismissing suggestions that taking on immigration this year will put pressure on the president's already ambitious domestic agenda. Moving forward on immigration would fulfill another campaign promise.
(CNN) – Former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith is running for Sen. Mel Martinez's Florida seat, according to a report Thursday by the New Hampshire Union Leader.
The Republican, who now lives in Sarasota, Florida, reportedly made the announcement in a letter to supporters and friends.
"'I have agonized over whether to re-enter national politics,'" Smith reportedly wrote in the letter. "'I have concluded that I can no longer sit on the sidelines in this fight for the soul of America.'"
Smith plans to launch a Web site and file the necessary paperwork with the Federal Election Commission soon, according to the report.
Martinez is retiring in 2010. Florida Democrat Rep. Kendrick Meek has announced a run for the open seat while fellow Florida Democrat Alex Sink has announced she is not running. On the Republican side, there is widespread speculation that Gov. Charlie Crist may seek to replace Martinez.
(CNN) - She's become decidedly more outspoken since her father lost his bid for the presidency last November, but there's one question Meghan McCain refuses to answer: whether she sees herself supporting Sarah Palin should the Alaska governor run for president.
In an interview on CNN's "No Bias, No Bull" Wednesday night, the daughter of Arizona Sen. John McCain said she couldn't "possibly make a prediction about 2012 right now."
"I honestly don't think that's a relevant question," McCain said when asked if she would support her father's running mate. "I have to find out who is running in 2012, I mean, what - there's broad personalities that happen. And it's four years from now. A lot of things can happen. A lot of things can change.
"...I have to see who else is on the table."
It's not the first time the usually blunt McCain daughter has gone silent on the issue of the former vice presidential candidate. McCain told an interviewer in January, "Sarah Palin is the only part of the campaign that I won't comment on publicly."
WASHINGTON (CNN) – The federal government is establishing a new system for updating medical records of servicemen and women both during and after their military careers, President Obama announced Thursday.
The Joint Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record will, among other things, help ensure a streamlined transition of health care records between the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration.
It will provide "a framework to ensure that all health care providers have all the information they need to deliver high-quality health care while reducing medical errors," the White House noted in a background statement.
"When a member of the armed forces separates from the military, he or she will no longer have to walk paperwork from a (Defense Department) duty station to a local VA health center. Their electronic records will transition along with them and remain with them forever," Obama said in remarks delivered near the White House.
Listen: What's the price of progress on veterans' health care? CNN Radio explores
The system will "cut through red tape" and allow new veterans to start receiving their benefits more quickly, he promised.
Photo Credit: White House
(CNN) – The White House Press Office accidentally e-mailed a draft version of President Obama’s Thursday schedule on Wednesday night that included the back-and-forth between White House staffers.
The e-mail – sent on a daily basis to inform the media of the next day’s events – at first appeared like any other press schedule. But at the bottom of the e-mail, there was a series of exchanges from the press team, as well as a draft of the schedule.
The first section of the schedule noted that Obama planned to hold talks in the morning with homeowners who have re-financed their homes and benefited from lower mortgage payments.
One staffer recommended changes to that line to “put more emphasis on the real people aspect of this.” The draft version said Obama will hold talks “with his economic team” and also attending the meeting “will be a handful of households.” The final version took the emphasis off the economic team and said "Attending the meeting will be a handful of homeowners. .. as well as members of President Obama's economic team."
The draft schedule also showed the president hosting Seder to celebrate Passover. The dinner was marked “closed press,” meaning no reporters allowed.
One staffer asked, “Can we remove the dinner at the end of the day?”
“We put it on yesterday’s deal – so folks already know that it’s happening. They’ll wonder why it’s not listed if we don’t include it on there,” another staffer replied.
The staffer who asked to remove the dinner from the schedule replied, “Apparently Jewish here and in neighboring states are now calling wondering why they have not been invited.”
The dinner was not listed on the final schedule.
(CNN) - What does "Hannah Montana" have in common with "Entourage?" Both shows are likely to be playing on the White House television.
It seems President Obama can't live without the hit HBO show Entourage, according Politico. The show features a Hollywood agent based on real-life super agent Ari Emanuel – the younger brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
During the campaign season, Obama was actually late to a Sunday night conference call because he was catching his favorite show, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told Politico.
"I remember one time I e-mailed him because the call was scheduled for the last 15 minutes of 'Entourage' and I said, 'Just be late and we can just watch Entourage and still get on and do the call.'"