Feb 172011
Authors: McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON –– The prospect of a government shutdown loomed larger on Capitol Hill on Thursday when Republicans leaders ruled out the easiest path around a budget impasse and Democrats accused them of playing a dangerous game of chicken.

Tensions over funding the government for the rest of this year escalated as House Republicans crept closer to approval of a massive package of spending cuts to social services, environmental programs, foreign aid and research.

The package, amounting to more than $61 billion, is five times larger than any previous discretionary budget reduction proposed in the House, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Thursday, and makes good on a Republican campaign promise to make swift and substantial cuts to spending.

But the plan is unlikely to get far when it moves to the Democratic-led Senate.

It also has been rejected by the Obama administration as potentially harmful to the frail economic recovery.
The resulting stalemate comes with a firm deadline: Current funding for the government expires on March 4.

With the House still debating the GOP package, Democrats had widely expected Republican leaders to agree to temporarily extend current spending levels, giving both sides more time to negotiate.

But Boehner on Thursday rejected that approach outright, saying he would not allow a stop-gap measure that did not include cuts.

“When we say we’re going to cut spending, read my lips: We’re going to cut spending,” he told reporters.

Boehner’s blunt declaration immediately turned up the heat on the spending talks and appeared to derail what many had seen as the obvious way to buy time.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested it was evidence that Boehner “can’t control the votes in his caucus” and had resorted to “threats” of a shutdown. “It’s not permissible. We will not stand for that,” Reid said. Democrats argued that a resolution extending the budget at current levels would already include spending reductions. Roughly $41 billion in cuts was included when the current spending plan was put in place by the last Congress.

That argument is unlikely to placate the most ardent budget hawks in the Republican House, who already have successfully pushed their leadership to dig deeper into non-defense spending.

These lawmakers, many of them freshmen, have shown a near-singular focus on shrinking the size of the government and share an uncompromising ethos.

Many took the $61 billion offered in the GOP bill as a mere starting point and have proposed hundreds of amendments to further reduce spending.

Debate on those amendments went in the wee hours early Thursday morning and crept forward at a laborious pace all day. Lawmakers late Thursday were braced to work well into the night without a scheduled vote in sight.

In early votes, the House voted to take $20 million out of the National Endowment for the Arts and to cut the remaining $15 million out of a trust fund for the Presidio historic site in San Francisco.

 Posted by at 5:03 pm

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Feb 172011
Authors: McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON –– A burst of deadly violence against demonstrators in Bahrain has left the Obama administration again confronting the awkward task of trying to stabilize an essential allied government besieged by growing opposition from its citizens.

A tiny monarchy in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain does not have the size or cultural importance of Egypt, whose president was forced out by demonstrators one week ago. Yet Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and the fall of its government could scramble the strategic order in the Middle East, potentially weakening U.S. leverage and leaving Iran in a stronger position.

In an acknowledgement of the kingdom’s crucial role, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other officials rushed to reach out Thursday to Bahraini officials, urging them to halt the violence and to quickly adopt political reforms that could satisfy the protesters.

Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, commanded by Vice Admiral Mark I. Fox, controls U.S. naval ships and aircraft operating in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Most months of the year, there are dozens of U.S. naval vessels in the region.

The Fifth Fleet’s broad mission is to protect the flow of oil and, in case of a military crisis with Iran, to keep open the Strait of Hormuz, the 29-mile choke point near the entrance to the Persian Gulf. More than 20 percent of the world’s petroleum shipments travel through the strait.

“The importance of the Fifth Fleet’s mission cannot be overstated,” said Mark Kimmitt, former deputy director for operations for U.S. Central Command and a former senior State Department and Pentagon official. “They have the mission to keep the Persian Gulf open, defeat terrorism, prevent piracy and respond to crises, whether environmental, security or humanitarian.

“Few commands worldwide have as many daily challenges and responsibilities as the Fifth Fleet.”
The administration carefully crafted its outreach to Bahrain’s leadership, deploring the violence by security forces that killed at least five people, but stopping short of condemning the government. The U.S. appeared to be striving, as it did in the early stages of the Egyptian crisis, to leave the Bahraini government room to work out a solution.

Clinton, in a call to Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, voiced “deep concerns” about the security forces’ violent crackdown on Thursday, and warned against more violence on Friday, when there would be “funerals and prayers.”

But the U.S. message to Bahrain differed from how it approached Egypt in a key way: While Cairo for decades had resisted reforms, Clinton praised Bahrain as a “friend and ally” that has taken some steps to reshape its government. She urged “a return to the process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there.”

In a visit to Bahrain in December, Clinton praised King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and said she “was impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on.”

The U.S. knows its handling of Bahrain is under scrutiny by other Middle Eastern allies, who saw the Mubarak regime tumble in Egypt and questioned whether the United States would support them if they faced similar unrest.

Some analysts are predicting that Saudi Arabia, worried that Iran could emerge with a new ally if Bahrain’s Shia majority topples its Sunni monarchy, would send an armored column across the 16-mile causeway to Bahrain if it thought the government was teetering.

The Saudis “see this as their sphere of influence,” said David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

U.S. officials declined to offer details on their conversations with the Saudis about Bahrain.

A U.S. defense official said the protests were causing U.S. military officials to review backup plans in case the U.S. was asked to leave Bahrain. Pentagon officials said U.S. naval vessels also put in at several other ports in the Gulf, including Jebel Ali in Dubai.

But another senior military officer said, “We’re not at that point right now. We have no indication that any of this is directed at Americans or American interests.”

 Posted by at 4:59 pm