The CNN Washington Bureau’s morning speed read of the top stories making news from around the country and the world. Click on the headlines for more.
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CNN: Congress faces imminent deadline to pass a spending plan
With time running out on the government's authority to spend money, the Senate is expected to vote this week on a $1.1 trillion bill that would settle the issue for the rest of the fiscal year. However, conservative Republicans oppose the plan and threaten to obstruct its progress by having it read out loud in the Senate chamber, which could take more than two days. The House has already passed its version of the legislation in the form of a $1.08 trillion resolution that sets spending at the same level as last year. Such spending authorization is necessary to keep the government running, and the current resolution expires on December 18. Both chambers will have to approve a common approach to prevent the government from shutting down after that.
CNN: GOP senators will vote against spending bill over earmarks – theirs and others'
Two prominent Republicans vowed Wednesday to vote against the $1.1 trillion spending bill, citing concerns over pork-laden pet projects, although millions of dollars of earmarks in the bill were requested by the two senators. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has requested 54 earmarks worth more than $170 million and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota has made 43 requests totaling more than $165 million, according to an analysis by Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Taxpayers for Common Sense and WashingtonWatch.com, which collected data from disclosures on Congressional websites. When asked by Fox News to explain his earmarks, Cornyn said Wednesday, "I believe I can. But I'm not going to, because I'm going to vote against this bill. ... So I am for voting this bill down, even though it could arguably help some of my constituents."
CNN: Senate passes controversial tax cut deal
The Senate approved a controversial $858 billion tax cut package Wednesday, overwhelmingly voting to extend the Bush-era tax reductions despite a series of objections from both the left and the right. The measure passed 81-19 to advance to the House of Representatives, which will take it up on Thursday, according to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland. The package includes a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire December 31. It also would extend unemployment benefits for 13 months, cut the payroll tax by 2 percentage points for a year, restore the estate tax at a lower level and continue a series of other tax breaks. President Barack Obama praised the vote and urged the House of Representatives to quickly approve the bill, which the White House negotiated with Senate GOP leaders.
CNN: Dem: Obama says not passing tax deal would be 'end of his presidency'
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, on Wednesday claimed that President Obama put pressure on Democrats to vote for a controversial extension of Bush-era tax cuts, saying it would be "the end of his presidency." In an interview with CNN's Eliot Spitzer on "Parker Spitzer," DeFazio said "The White House is putting on tremendous pressure, making phone calls; the president's making phone calls saying that's the end of his presidency if he doesn't get this bad deal." Asked by CNN's Kathleen Parker if he had personally received such a phone call, DeFazio said he had not, adding, "I won't name the members cause they said this to me, you know, not for public disclosure, I talked to one member who had that call." DeFazio argued the plan would harm the administration, and called the deal with Republicans a "trap."
Washington Post: Afghan war 's next debate: Troop withdrawal
President Obama's national security team this week revisited the same vexing issues it worked through a year ago in devising the administration's troop escalation in Afghanistan. This time, one key element was missing: impassioned dissent. While the group concluded that Obama's counterinsurgency strategy is showing signs of progress, divisions persist beneath the appearance of harmony. But skeptics in the administration have decided to hold their fire until late next spring, when Obama must decide how many troops he intends to withdraw starting in July to fulfill a pledge he made when he announced a troop increase last December. The postponement means that the administration's internal divisions over the war's long-term strategy and cost will play out publicly again just 18 months before Americans go to the polls to decide whether to give Obama a second term.
CNN: House passes 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal
The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to overturn the ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers serving in the U.S. military, passing legislation repealing the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The bill - a so-called "stand alone" measure not tied to any other legislative items - passed 250 to 175 on mostly partisan lines. It now advances to the Senate. The House previously passed a repeal of the ban as part of a larger defense policy bill, but the measure stalled last week in the Senate.
CNN: Snowe supports repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, announced Wednesday that she now supports a repeal of the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy, making four Republican Senators in all who have publicly endorsed the end of the 17-year-old prohibition against openly gay soldiers from serving in the U.S. military. In a statement, Snowe said she came to the conclusion after "careful analysis," but also stressed the importance of allowing time to implement a plan for repeal. Snowe also said she will not vote for a bill that only addresses the repeal until the Defense Department is fully funded and criticized the Senate for the delay of the defense authorization bill. Originally, a repeal of the policy was included as part of the Defense Authorization Bill – a strategy supporters of repeal hoped would speed passage, as senators who oppose repeal would be forced to make a politically risky vote against defense policy.
CNN: Senate votes to take up START pact
The Senate voted Wednesday to begin debate on ratifying a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, a top presidential priority that conservative Republicans were trying to block in the current lame-duck session of Congress. Immediately after the 66-32 vote to take up the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, Senate leaders announced that the formal debate on the issue would begin Thursday, avoiding an expected request by conservative Republicans for the entire treaty to be read out loud. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky agreed with the debate schedule announced in the chamber by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, noting that the treaty is supported by some leading Republicans, including Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
CNN: Summers to stay in White House post two weeks longer than planned
Larry Summers has agreed to work two weeks longer than planned as President Barack Obama's top economic adviser, a White House official said Wednesday. Summers, who officially announced in September he planned to step down as director of the National Economic Council, had previously said his last day would be December 17. "President Obama has asked Larry Summers to remain at the White House as NEC Director until the end of the year," the White House official said on condition of not being identified by name. "Dr. Summers has agreed to continue to serve through December 31st." Obama has yet to name his replacement, but investment banker Roger Altman was widely believed to be the top contender.
New York Times: U.S. Rethinks Strategy for the Unthinkable
Suppose the unthinkable happened, and terrorists struck New York or another big city with an atom bomb. What should people there do? The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe. The advice is based on recent scientific analyses showing that a nuclear attack is much more survivable if you immediately shield yourself from the lethal radiation that follows a blast, a simple tactic seen as saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Even staying in a car, the studies show, would reduce casualties by more than 50 percent; hunkering down in a basement would be better by far. But a problem for the Obama administration is how to spread the word without seeming alarmist about a subject that few politicians care to consider, let alone discuss. So officials are proceeding gingerly in a campaign to educate the public.
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USA Today: CDC shows lower count on food illnesses
There may be fewer foodborne illness in the country than we previously thought — almost 40% less, in fact. It's not that the numbers of foodborne illnesses have suddenly decreased, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says its counts have become more precise. Since 1999, the CDC has listed the number of cases of foodborne illnesses in the USA each year as 76 million, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths — numbers the food industry had at times disputed. Now, after almost a decade of work, the CDC is releasing new estimates and they're 37% lower — 47.8 million cases of foodborne illness, 127,000 hospitalizations and 3,030 deaths. The new numbers reflect what CDC officials say is improved surveillance, better criteria for determining an actual food-related case, and exclusion of international travel-related illnesses. The numbers are still too high, says Christopher Braden, director of CDC's division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.
Houston Chronicle: 2 oil traders indicted in alleged kickback scam
Two oil traders with ties to former international fugitive Marc Rich have been indicted in a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme that includes allegations of wire fraud and money laundering. Clyde Meltzer, of Houston, and Bernard Langley of the United Kingdom appeared in Houston federal court Wednesday to plead not guilty and seek release on bail. They have been in federal detention since Dec. 9. The bail hearing included testimony about recorded conversations in a Galleria steak restaurant that mentioned bribes to foreign officials, and about seized computers that an investigator said recorded Swiss bank transactions moving millions of dollars to accounts around the world.
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CNN: Official: Al Qaeda is planning U.S., Europe attacks for holidays
Iraqi authorities have shared information obtained from captured insurgents who claim al Qaeda is planning suicide attacks in the United States and Europe during the Christmas holiday season, according to a U.S. official. The official said the threat report is being taken seriously, but there is no intelligence indicating there is a specific or credible threat against the U.S. homeland. But the official added al Qaeda in Iraq remains a dangerous force.
CNN: Clinton unveils blueprint for America's diplomatic arm
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday unveiled a sweeping assessment of how America's diplomats can meet the dual task of countering expanding international challenges and shrinking government budgets. "We are redefining success based on results achieved rather than dollars spent," Secretary Clinton said as she introduced the department's first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR.) "This will help us make the case that bolstering U.S. civilian power is a wise investment for American taxpayers that will pay off by averting conflicts, opening markets and reducing threats." The report, nearly 200 pages long and 18 months in preparation, is a blueprint of how the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) can use "civilian power" to prevent and resolve conflicts; help poor countries develop and build global coalitions to address global problems.
CNN: New Mexico governor goes to North Korea
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says he hopes to "to bring down the temperature in the Korean peninsula" during his trip to North Korea. Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador, will be in North Korea Thursday on a four-day visit with officials during a tense time in the region. Both Koreas have traded tough talk and conducted aggressive military drills in the weeks after North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month. Richardson, who spoke to CNN Thursday at a layover in Beijing as he waited to fly to Pyongyang, North Korea, said he hopes he can help the situation even if it is just "a little bit."
CNN: Long-range missile defense test fails
A test of the United States' only long-range missile defense system failed Wednesday - the second failure this year in two tries. The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said both the intermediate-range ballistic missile target and the long-range interceptor missile launched successfully, radar and sensors worked properly and the "kill vehicle" deployed. But the "kill vehicle" didn't hit the target. "Program officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to intercept the target," the agency said. "The next flight test will be determined after identification of the cause of the failure."
CNN: 22 dead in Nepal plane crash
A DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft that went missing en route from Lamidanda to Kathmandu in eastern Nepal crashed in a mountainous area east of the capital, killing all 22 people aboard, an airport spokesman said Thursday. "The aircraft seems to have hit a mountainside," Purusottam Shakya, operations supervisor at Tribhuwan International Airport, which serves Kathmandu, told CNN. The plane disappeared Wednesday, and search and rescue teams looked for it until night fell. A search team in a helicopter found pieces of the aircraft Thursday morning about 150 kilometers east of Kathmandu, said Shakya.
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Financial Times: US claims progress in China trade talks
US officials have claimed “progress” on a number of thorny issues in trade relations with China, from intellectual property to beef to software, following two days of high-level talks in Washington. After strong criticism that Chinese policies to promote so-called “indigenous innovation” were damaging US business, Washington’s officials said China had agreed not to discriminate in government procurement based on the origin of intellectual property. China also pledged to accelerate its accession to the World Trade Organisation’s government procurement agreement.
In Case You Missed It
Sen. Harry Reid attacks Republicans for whining about staying in session during the holiday recess to get work done.
In Afghanistan's Herat region, U.S. aid projects are succeeding, but Afghan government is getting the credit.
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