'Reflect, Rejoice, Renew,' is the theme of this year's holiday decorations at the White House. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Washington (CNN) - Unveiling the White House Christmas tree and holiday decorations Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama explained why she chose this year's theme, "Reflect, Rejoice and Renew."
Related video: Mrs. Obama on holiday giving
"For the Obama family, Christmas and the new year has always been a time to reflect on our many blessings, to rejoice in the pleasure of spending time with our family and our friends, and to renew our commitment to one another and to the causes that we believe in," she said in the Grand Foyer of the White House.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - On the eve of what's expected to be a tough confirmation hearing Thursday, one senator has thrown a political roadblock intended to stymie Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's second term.
Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., issued a statement late Wednesday saying he will prevent Bernanke's nomination by placing a hold, an informal practice by which a senator informs the majority leader that he does not wish a particular measure to reach the floor for a vote.
"The American people overwhelmingly voted last year for a change in our national priorities to put the interest of ordinary people ahead of the greed of Wall Street and the wealthy few," said Sanders, one of Bernanke's sharpest critics, in a statement. "What American people did not bargain for was another four years for one of the key architects of the Bush economy."
Sanders said Bernanke, who took the helm of the Fed in 2006, could have averted the financial crisis in several ways, but failed at "core responsibility of the Federal Reserve" and thus "it's time for him to go."
Among the litany of reasons he cited for his move, the statement from Sanders' office noted that unemployment had more than doubled under Bernanke's watch and more than 120 banks have failed since he became chairman.
Bernanke's first term expires next month.
Majority leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., would not need to recognize Sanders' hold, but Sanders could filibuster the motion to nominate the Fed chairman for another 4-year term.
A spokesman for Senator Reid would not comment on the hold by Sanders.
Washington (CNN) - The nation's leading advocacy group for senior citizens on Wednesday endorsed the spending cuts that the Senate health care bill proposes for the government-run Medicare health program for seniors.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who is leading the effort to pass the Democratic bill, the AARP says the measure "does not reduce any guaranteed Medicare benefits" while it makes needed reforms to the program that is predicted to become insolvent within a decade.
The letter, signed by AARP Chief Executive Officer Addison Barry Rand, calls for the Senate to reject an amendment by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona that would effectively kill the health care bill by sending it back to committee to remove all provisions that reduce Medicare spending.
In debate on his amendment this week, McCain has criticized the AARP for backing the health care bill, which he claimed would harm senior citizens by reducing Medicare benefits.
Republicans unanimously oppose the Senate health care bill so far, and the first three days of debate have been slowed by procedural maneuvering and drawn-out rhetoric. Several amendments have been proposed, including McCain's, but no votes have occurred due to what Democrats complain are Republican stall tactics.
Washington (CNN) – The White House is adjusting its security protocol to prevent uninvited guests from crashing future events, a top administration official announced Wednesday.
Going forward, White House staff will be stationed at security checkpoints alongside U.S. Secret Service agents, Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina said in a memo posted on the White House Web site.
"Guests will be checked off of the list by White House staff and the Secret Service will continue to ensure that all guests have been properly cleared before entering the White House," Messina wrote in the memo. "Guests whose names are not on the guest list will be assisted by White House staff present at the check point for appropriate resolution."
"As always, the Secret Service will provide security and remain ultimately responsible for controlling access to the White House complex," Messina added.
Washington (CNN) – Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld criticized President Obama's assertion Tuesday that the Bush administration ignored requests for more troops to battle the Taliban, declaring the president's remark made during his address on Afghanistan a "bald misstatement."
Rumsfeld said Wednesday that during his time as Bush's Secretary of Defense, he was "not aware of a single request of that nature."
"The President's assertion does a disservice to the truth and, in particular, to the thousands of men and women in uniform who have fought, served and sacrificed in Afghanistan," Rumsfeld said in a statement. "In the interest of better understanding the President's announcement last night, I suggest that the Congress review the President's assertion in the forthcoming debate and determine exactly what requests were made, who made them, and where and why in the chain of command they were denied."
But Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since October of 2007, said Wednesday that the former top commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, had requested more troops during the previous administration, but they were sent to Iraq instead.
Washington (CNN) - Thirteen new human embryonic stem cell lines have been approved for use in federally funded research - the first to be approved under an executive order from President Obama - the National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday.
Under the administration of President George W. Bush, federal funding for such research was limited to cell lines created before August 2001. Obama issued an executive order in March repealing that policy and ordering the NIH to adopt guidelines for the creation of new stem cell lines and their use.
"I am happy to say that we now have human embryonic stem cell lines eligible for use by our research community under our new stem cell policy," said NIH Director Francis Collins. "In accordance with the guidelines, these stem cell lines were derived from embryos that were donated under ethically sound informed consent processes. More lines are under review now, and we anticipate continuing to expand this list of responsibly derived lines eligible for NIH funding."
The NIH said 11 stem cell lines from a lab at Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, qualify for federal funding, as do two lines developed at New York's Rockefeller University.
(CNN) – Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, is asking residents of Arkansas, Colorado, Nebraska and North Dakota to pressure their senators to support a legislative move that would effectively end Senate Democrats' efforts to pass a health care reform bill this year.
McCain began making the plea Wednesday in a taped message that was sent to home telephones in each state. When a person picks up the telephone, McCain is heard asking the listener to support an amendment that would send the health care reform legislation back to the Finance Committee.
The calls specifically target five Democratic senators: Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Lincoln, Bennet and Dorgan are all facing re-election in 2010.
Lincoln and Dorgan are facing re-election in 2010. Bennet, who was appointed to his seat, is running for his own six-year term next year.
Listen: McCain's call to Arkansas voters
(CNN) – Members of President Obama's own political party are charging that the White House and the Democratic Congressional leadership are not doing enough to help the unemployed and are threatening to organize a march on Washington of jobless Americans.
"Obviously there's something that's not getting through to them," said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois. "And we're going to let the White House and everybody who's concerned know that we have got people in our districts who are depending on us to deliver for them."
Rush and Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and Candice Miller, R-Michigan, chair the new Congressional "Jobs Now Caucus," which is comprised of 112 Democrats and 17 Republicans.
Rush and Kaptur argue that a new jobs program is more important than health care reform, but stop short of threatening to hold up a vote on one of Obama's most important domestic policy initiatives.
"We're not there yet," Kaptur said.
Some of the proposals being floated by the caucus include: redirecting existing stimulus and TARP money to jobs programs and pressing for a new jobs bill, which they're careful not to call a "stimulus."
More than one member of the caucus told CNN the stimulus was crafted without enough input from lawmakers whose districts suffer from the highest jobless rates.
(CNN) – After three days of debate in the Senate over health care reform, Senate Democrats accused Republicans Wednesday of slow-walking the legislation and searched for parliamentary procedures to speed up the discussion.
So far, only a handful of amendments have been considered and no votes have occurred.
"Unless the Republican leadership comes forward with a reasonable approach to these amendments, I think our patience is wearing thin," Senate Majority Whip Dick Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said. "They don't want to call these amendments for votes and we're just not going to sit here forever and see this bill go down."
Republicans denied they are purposely delaying action on the bill, but said they won't agree to end debate on individual amendments until they've had ample time to consider them. One pending amendment is authored by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, which aims to prevent cuts to Medicare contained in the Democrats' bill.
"They're not done talking about it," a GOP leadership aide said of Republican senators and the McCain amendment. "There's still a large amount of people who want to talk about it. When they're done, then we'll do it."
If the two sides can't reach agreements on the length of debate for amendments and when votes will be held, Democrats could use several floor procedures to accelerate the debate. But each procedure also contains potential pitfalls that make Democrats reluctant to employ them.
At a closed meeting Wednesday on the subject, Senate Democrats vowed to work weekends and even Christmas Day, if necessary, to pass the bill by the end of the year, their stated goal.
Critics argued the president was inconsistently setting an "arbitrary" deadline while also claiming any transfer of responsibility to the Afghan government ultimately will be based on conditions on the ground in that country.
Obama's blueprint faced questions Wednesday as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Announcing a firm date for starting an American withdrawal while also saying such a withdrawal depends on conditions on the ground "are two incompatible statements," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the committee's ranking Republican.
"You either have a winning strategy ... and then once it's succeeded, then we withdraw or, as the president said, we will have a date [for] beginning withdrawal in July 2011. Which is it? It's got to be one or the other. It's got to be the appropriate conditions, or it's got to be an arbitrary date. You can't have both."
Updated: 5: 00 p.m.