On the final day of the 111th Congress, the Senate adopted an arms reduction treaty involving the U.S. and Russia and approved a $4.3 billion package to help the 9/11 rescue workers who were sickened by the toxins at Ground Zero. President Obama said the last-minute votes proved that Democratic and Republican lawmakers can work together.
President Obama: "A lot of folks in this town predicted that after the midterm elections Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock, and instead this has been a season of progress for the American people."
The 9/11 health bill only passed after Republicans demanded that the size of the compensation plan be reduced from $7.4 billion over eight years to $4.3 billion over five years.
New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer described passage of the bill as a Christmas miracle.
Sen. Charles Schumer: "And so here we are. Those people who did rush to help us and who thought they were being abandoned are now in the bosom of America, and this is a proud day — a proud day for everyone who has been involved in this effort and for everyone who bears the title 'citizen of the U.S.A.'"
On Wednesday morning, President Obama signed a landmark law repealing the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. For the first time gay men and lesbians will be able to serve openly in the U.S. military.
President Obama: "No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love. As Admiral Mike Mullen has said, our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity, as well."
After a ceremony at the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with Army Lieutenant Dan Choi, who was discharged under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." In July, Choi gave Reid his West Point ring and discharge papers in a move to protest "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." At the time, Reid vowed to give the ring back once the law was repealed. Reid and Choi met again on Wednesday.
Sen. Harry Reid: "Did you ever think that you would get it back?"
Lt. Dan Choi: "I didn’t know."
Sen. Reid: "Well, this is a very important day for you and our country, and also it brings such dignity, I think, back to West Point, which is a place I’ve been. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place that has such history to it. And today, not only do we return your ring, but the President signed the repeal of ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’"
Lt. Choi: "I want to thank you for your leadership and fulfilling your promise. I appreciate real leadership. And I know that it’s been a long year, so you deserve the credit for your service."
Sen. Reid: "Congratulations. Congratulations."
Lt. Choi: "Thank you."
In other news from Capitol Hill, Congress passed legislation that would effectively bar the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to the United States for trial. The bill also bans the purchase or construction of any facility inside the United States to hold prisoners now being held at Guantánamo. The measure was passed despite opposition from the Obama administration.
The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has launched an investigation into the U.S. military’s treatment of Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of leaking classified material to WikiLeaks. Manning has been held in solitary confinement since May. His attorney has claimed confinement has been in violation of a military rule against "pretrial punishment." Friends and family of Manning say his mental and physical health has been deteriorating.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Wednesday that he had never heard the name Bradley Manning before it appeared in the media. Assange made the comment in an interview with MSNBC.
Julian Assange: "If we are to believe the allegations, then this man acted for political reasons. He is a political prisoner in the United States. He has not gone to trial. He has been a political prisoner, without trial, in the United States for some six or seven months. That’s a serious business. Human rights organizations should be investigating the conditions under which he is held, and is there really due process there?"
In other WikiLeaks news, the CIA has become the butt of many jokes after the spy agency formed a task force to assess the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosures on the agency. The CIA named the panel simply the WikiLeaks Task Force, or WTF, which is a popular internet slang acronym.
In other WikiLeaks news, a newly released U.S. diplomatic cable reveal the Obama administration’s decision to renew military ties with Indonesia was made in spite of serious concerns expressed by its own diplomats about the Indonesian military’s activities in the province of West Papua. The Australian newspaper The Age reports the cables show the United States fears that the Indonesian government’s neglect, rampant corruption and human rights abuses are stoking unrest in the region. The leaked embassy cables also reveal that U.S. diplomats privately blame Jakarta for instability and "chronic underdevelopment" in West Papua, where military commanders have been accused of drug smuggling and illegal logging rackets across the border with Papua New Guinea. In addition, the cables confirm that the U.S. mining company Freeport-McMoRan has paid millions of dollars to members of the Indonesian security forces to help "protect" its operations.
In news from Ivory Coast, the United Nations reports 173 people have been killed over the past week in political violence stemming from last month’s disputed election. In addition, the U.N. reports it has substantiated at least 90 cases of torture or ill treatment. Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara has been widely recognized as the winner of the election, but Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step down. On Wednesday, a key backer of Ouattara called on the international community to use force to oust Gbagbo.
In other news from Africa, the U.N. Security Council has agreed to increase the size of the U.N. force in Somalia by 50 percent, from 8,000 to 12,000 troops.
China’s move to subsidize new wind power technology is coming under attack by the United States. On Wednesday, the U.S. asked the World Trade Organization to probe whether the Chinese subsidies are illegal.
In Latin America, former Argentine military dictator Jorge Videla has been sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, including the torture and murder of dissidents.
And in Alaska, the state Supreme Court has ruled unanimously on all counts against Republican Senate hopeful Joe Miller’s challenge of last month’s U.S. Senate election. The ruling effectively affirms the victory of incumbent Lisa Murkowski, the longtime Republican who ran a write-in campaign after she lost the Republican primary. Since the election, Murkowski has become an increasingly independent voice in the Senate. Politico reports she was the only Republican to cast votes for all four items on President Barack Obama’s wish list: a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a tax cut compromise, the START treaty, and cloture for the DREAM Act.