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: President Obama hails progress made by lame-duck Congress
President Barack Obama on Wednesday hailed major legislation passed by Congress in the lame-duck session and said the progress showed "we're not doomed to endless gridlock." At a year-end news conference before leaving town for his delayed holiday, Obama emphasized the achievements of his administration and the Democratic-led Congress while also acknowledging that tough issues still face the nation in the coming year. Obama later departed for Hawaii to join the first family for the holidays, and both the Senate and House adjourned for the year. A new Congress with Republicans controlling the House and holding a stronger minority in the Senate convenes on January 5, 2011.
CNN: As Congress closes, Pelosi reflects on accomplishments of 111th Congress
Outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Wednesday she is, "very, very proud of the work that was accomplished by this Congress." Pelosi spoke to reporters just before the House was set to pass the 9/11 first responders health care bill and then adjourn. "We came here to do a job, we got much of it done," she said. Pelosi had kind words for both parties calling this "quite an exhilarating week." She says she will be back in January, and even though she will no longer be Speaker, "As long as the American people have a high unemployment rate, as long as families are looking for jobs, as long as people have uncertainty about their children's education and about their own economic security our work is far from over," Pelosi said.
CNN: House passes 9/11 health bill
The vote for the 9/11 first responders health bill which passed in the house was 206-60. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, gaveled it – this was her last time presiding over the House as Speaker. The bill now moves to President Obama's desk for his signature. Even though the vote was kept open for over an hour (it was a 15 minute vote), a large number of House Members- over 160- did not vote.
CNN: Senate approves nuclear arms pact
The Senate voted Wednesday to approve the new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia - a major foreign policy victory for the Obama administration near the end of the lame-duck session of Congress. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, was cleared by a 71-26 vote. Several Republicans joined a unified Democratic caucus in support of the accord. Under Senate rules, the treaty required support from a two-thirds majority of voting senators for final approval. "This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades," President Barack Obama said after the vote. It "will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them."
CNN: Days after surgery, senator returns to vote
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden returned to the Senate to vote on the START treaty just two days after surgery for prostate cancer. Wyden had surgery for early stage prostate cancer on Monday at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. A spokeswoman for Wyden says the Senator returned to the Senate because it's an "important vote." According to his spokeswoman, Wyden's doctor said the surgery couldn't have gone any better, and that it is even good for him to get some short walks in while he's recovering.
CNN: Congress approves defense authorization bill
A revised version of the defense authorization bill that provides leeway on how to spend the Pentagon budget won approval from Congress on Wednesday, sending it to President Barack Obama to be signed into law. The measure, which passed by unanimous consent in both the Senate and House, was a compromise version worked out in the final days of the congressional session that ended Wednesday night. A previous version of the bill was blocked by Senate Republicans because it included several controversial provisions, including the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring openly gay and lesbian soldiers from the military.
CNN: Jovial crowd cheers the signing of 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal
Everyone knew a lot of people would want to see President Barack Obama sign the bill repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring openly gay and lesbian soldiers from the military. After all, the administration moved Wednesday's event to an auditorium at the Department of the Interior that holds far more people than any room in the White House. What might not have been anticipated was the zeal of the crowd gathered to witness the end of a 17-year policy that forced gay and lesbian military members to hide their sexuality. "Enlist us now," one audience member yelled as Obama was speaking. Beaming audience members who have been working for years to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell" hugged and kissed each other in celebration.
Politico: GOP unveils strict House rules
The new House Republican majority will force lawmakers to vote when they want to raise the nation's debt ceiling, publish committee attendance records, keep former members from lobbying in the House gym and require new mandatory spending to be offset by cuts to other programs. Those planned changes to rules in the House and elsewhere, scheduled to be adopted Jan. 5, are described in a summary that was provided by House Republicans early Wednesday morning. The actual text of the rules package, which still could be amended by the full Republican Conference on Jan. 4, was not yet available. House Republicans will even provide for a reading of the Constitution in the House chamber on the second day of the next Congress.
Washington Post: Norton will lose ability to vote on floor amendments
What little right to vote Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has on the House floor will be gone come January, as Republicans have decided to take away the right of delegates and resident commissioners to vote on some amendments. When Democrats have controlled the House, they have allowed Norton and her fellow delegates to vote in the Committee of the Whole - a parliamentary term that describes when the full House becomes a committee for the purposes of considering legislation. That has allowed Norton to cast votes on amendments to tax and spending bills, though technically her vote could be considered symbolic since it does not count if it is the deciding one on an issue. Republicans took away that right when they controlled the House from 1995-2007, and Norton had hoped they would not do so again.
CNN: Alaska Supreme Court rules against Miller
The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled against Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller in his appeal, denying his claim that state law was not followed on counting write-in votes and setting up the very likely scenario that write-in candidate, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, will be certified the winner of the Alaska Senate race. In the ruling, the Alaska Supreme court affirmed the decision of the superior court, saying, “There are no remaining issues raised by Miller that prevent this election from being certified.” A spokesman for Miller’s campaign said they were “disappointed” with the decision and are “weighing our options.”
CNN: Assange lashes back at U.S. critics
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange hit back at high-profile critics in the United States in a TV interview Wednesday. Speaking to MSNBC, Assange responded to statements from Vice President Joe Biden, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Biden and Palin had likened WikiLeaks' dissemination of classified State Department cables to terrorism, and Huckabee went as far as to say that "I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty. Just another idiot trying to make a name for themselves," Assange said. "If we are to have a civil society you cannot have senior people making calls on national TV to go around the judiciary and murder people. That is incitement to commit murder. That is an offense."
Los Angeles Times: Polar bear status pits environmentalists vs. administration
A dispute about how much the government should protect polar bears has turned into a battleground for environmentalists and some of the country's most powerful business organizations over the larger question of global warming. On Wednesday, the Interior Department filed arguments in federal court defending its decision to classify polar bears as "threatened" rather than "endangered" despite widespread shrinkage of the sea ice that forms the bears' natural habitat. What makes the issue so sensitive is that, if polar bears received the stricter endangered classification, the Obama administration would be pressured to attack the problem at its source: the petroleum, coal and manufacturing companies that emit the greenhouse gases scientists say are a major factor in climate change.
CNN: Chinese president to make a state visit on January 19
Chinese President Hu Jintao will make a state visit to the White House on January 19, including a state dinner that night, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced Wednesday. It will be the third state visit that President Barack Obama has hosted since taking office in January 2009. It reciprocates Obama's state visit to China in November 2009, according to the statement from Gibbs.
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CNN: Person held near Dallas home of former President George W. Bush
Authorities detained a person near the home of former President George W. Bush on Wednesday night after an incident in his Dallas-area neighborhood, a U.S. Secret Service spokesman said. The person who was detained was coming to visit a neighbor of the former president, according to Ed Donovan of the Secret Service. The person was authorized to come onto the street, Donovan said. The incident is being investigated by the Secret Service, and there was no perceived threat to the former president, according to Sgt. Warren Mitchell with the Dallas Police Department.
CNN: Soggy southern California facing even more rain, forecasters say
Monsoon-like conditions overwhelmed southern California on Wednesday, creating flash floods that kept workers at home and businesses and streets knee deep in mud and water. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning Wednesday afternoon for much of Los Angeles County and for several parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The Mojave Desert also was included in that warning. As many as 40 homes in the San Bernardino County community of Highland were damaged by mud and water after two small rivers in the foothill town overflowed, said Bill Peters, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in six counties Wednesday as the rainstorms continued for a fifth day and another powerful Pacific front moved in.
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CNN: South Korea conducts large military drills
Military exercises by the South Korean army, billed as the largest land and air winter drills, ended Thursday, defense officials said. The long-planned drills were held just 15 miles from South Korea's longtime adversary North Korea. More than 800 military personnel were scheduled to take part in the exercise in Pocheon, a media officer from the South Korean army said. It will include six fighter jets, anti-tank missiles, and involve more than 100 types of weapons. The drills, which were scheduled in 2009, lasted 50 minutes. They came as the country is on high-alert after Pyongyang shelled a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea that resulted in four deaths.
Jerusalem Post: US stop-gap budget missing pledged increases for Israel
US President Barack Obama signed a stop-gap budget measure Wednesday for the next three months that does not include hundreds of millions of dollars for Israeli defense that he pledged earlier in the year. The bill does not provide $205 million in what would have been first-time American funds for the short-range Iron Dome missile defense project, nor does it contain the increases in medium- and long-range missile defense for 2011 approved earlier in the year by the House of Representatives. In addition, the bill keeps general military aid for Israel at the same level as 2010 – as it does for almost all other funding – even though it was supposed to increase from $2.775 billion to $3b., according to a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the US and Israel. Once this temporary measure – passed to keep the government from shutting down – expires in March, Congress will have a chance to restore that funding. The White House indicated it would push for its commitments to Israel to be filled at that time.
The Telegraph: North Korea brands US politician 'human scum'
In a blistering attack on the Republican politician from Florida, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Ms Ros-Lehtinen's calls for "strong countermeasures" against Pyongyang for its artillery attack on an island off South Korea in November were a "malignant vituperation against the dignified DPRK and its system." Ms Ros-Lehtinen has also urged the State Department to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and described its as a "rogue regime." Pyongyang has not taken too kindly to her descriptions, but made the mistake of assuming its detractor was a man. "He is a political illiterate, ignorant of the background against which the nuclear issue cropped up on the Korean Peninsula and the processes to settle it," KCNA stated in its editorial. "It is natural to hear such rubbish from him."
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CNN Money: Gas prices near $3 a gallon
Gas prices were poised Wednesday to top the milestone $3 mark for the first time since Oct. 17, 2008, as the national average compiled by motorist group AAA reached $2.997 a gallon. Gas prices have risen more than 4% from $2.872 a month ago and are nearly 16% higher than the $2.585 average a year ago, according to the AAA figures. Prices have been climbing steadily since bottoming out at $1.616 in December 2008. "We've never had Christmas Day with gasoline at three dollars or higher," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst with Oil Price Information Service, an energy trade publication based in Wall, N.J.
McClatchy DC: How the Fed let small banks take on too much debt, then fail
The Federal Reserve Board, chastised for regulatory inaction that contributed to the subprime mortgage meltdown, also missed a chance to prevent much of the financial chaos ravaging hundreds of small- and mid-sized banks. In early 2005, at a time when the housing market was overheated and economic danger signs were in the air, the Fed had an opportunity to put a damper on risk taking among banks, especially those that had long been bedrocks of smaller cities and towns across the nation. But the Fed rejected calls from one of the nation's top banking regulators, a professional accounting board and the Fed's own staff for curbs on the banks' use of special debt securities to raise capital that was allowing them to mushroom in size.
New York Times: U.S. Says China Fund Breaks Rules
The Obama administration filed a case against China with the World Trade Organization on Wednesday, siding with an American labor union, the United Steelworkers, in accusing Beijing of illegally subsidizing the production of wind power equipment. The decision is the second time in less than four months that the United States has accused China of violating world trade rules. It represents an escalation of trade tensions between the United States and China over clean energy, viewed by the Obama administration as a frontier in which American companies are struggling to remain competitive.
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