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In Washington, President Bush is being sworn into today as part of a $40 million inauguration celebration in the capital. According to prepared remarks of his inauguration speech, Bush will focus on the theme of freedom. A part of his 17-minute speech reads "We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom, and America will always be faithful to that cause." Inauguration Day will begin with a worship service at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House. At noon, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist will administer the oath of office.
According to Reuters, President Bush is entering his second term with less support than any other second term president in the last half century. President Reagan began his second term with an approval rating of 62 percent. President Clinton’s stood at 60 percent. But President Bush’s approval rating is only at 49 percent according to a new poll by the New York Times and CBS News.
In Washington today 7,000 law enforcement agents from more than 100 federal, state and local agencies are joining together for the most heavily guarded inauguration in history. Coast Guard cutters are stationed in the Potomic River. Anti-aircraft missiles are set up near the Capitol. Sharpshooters will be on rooftops. More than 100 city blocks will be closed to automobile traffic. And some 4,000 troops will be stationed nearby on call. The inauguration is also expected to be one of the most lavish in history. A record-tying $40 million will be spent over the four days of celebrations largely thanks to unregulated donations from corporate America. Donors who gave donors $250,000 will be rewarded with four seats to Bush’s swearing-in ceremony; 10 VIP seats at the inaugural parade; and two tickets to a special luncheon featuring Bush and Cheney.
Last week Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner from New York, wrote to President Bush questioning his decision to stage such an expensive inauguration. Weiner wrote "Precedent suggests that inaugural festivities should be muted–if not cancelled–in wartime." Weiner noted how in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt limited the inauguration to a ceremony on the White House balcony followed by a lunch of chicken salad, cake and coffee. A new Los Angeles Times poll found 75 percent of the country feels the inauguration festivities should be scaled back "because of the costs of the war in Iraq and the tsunami disaster in Asia."
In other news from Washington, Democrats have forced the postponement of the votes on the nominations of President Bush’s two key cabinet nominees–Secretary of State nominee Condoleeza Rice and Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales.
On Wednesday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 16-2 to approve Rice’s confirmation. Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer cast the two dissenting votes. The White House had wanted a quick vote on the floor of the Senate but the Democrats have called for debate to continue on her nomination next week.
Meanwhile the Senate Judiciary Committee have put off its vote on Gonzales. Democrats accused the nominee of stonewalling as he has refused to answer numerous questions about his role in building the legal framework that led to the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib. In newly released written answers to questions from Senators, Gonzales repeatedly declined to give responses. According to the Washington Post he wrote the words "I am not at liberty to disclose" at least 10 times. He wrote "I do not recall" or "I have no recollection" six times and he used the phrase "I have no present knowledge" seven times.
In other news from Capitol Hill, Energy Secretary nominee Samuel Bodman said Wednesday that he would advocate for oil and natural-gas drilling exploration to take place in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. He also called for the jumpstarting of the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, Michael Leavitt, Bush’s choice to take over the Department of Health and Human Services refused on Wednesday to rule out budget cuts for the state-federal health program Medicaid.
In other nomination news, the Forward newspaper is reporting that President Bush has decided not to re-nominate controversial Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes to the board of the United States Institute of Peace. In 2003 Pipes was given a recess appointment to the panel.
In news on the war in Iraq, the Daily Telegraph of London is reporting the British government is urging the Bush administration to announce a possible timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Unnamed officials said a tentative timetable is needed in part to serve as evidence that the United States is not planning to occupy Iraq indefinitely. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that after the Jan. 30 elections, Iraqi officials are expected to ask the US to set a timetable for withdrawal.
In other Iraq news, The FBI has launched an investigation into the recent killing of a U.S. contractor in Iraq who died just days after he accused the Iraqi Defense Ministry of corruption. 43-year-old Dale Stoffel worked for the company Wye Oak Technology which was refurbishing old Iraqi military equipment. According to the Los Angeles Times, he died shortly after he alerted U.S. officials that Iraqi officials were part of a kickback scheme involving a multi-million dollar contract awarded to his company. On Dec. 8 he met with coalition officials to discuss his concerns. Shortly after Stoffel left the meeting, he was shot dead along with a business associate and an Iraqi translator.
The global death toll from last month’s tsunami in the Indian Ocean has soared to above 226,000. It is now clear that Indonesia was by far the hardest hit country. The government has put its death toll at 166,000. In addition, the Indonesian government estimates 617,000 people remain homeless.
In northern Afghanistan, warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum has survived an assassination attempt. A suicide bomber blew himself up at an outdoor religious festival marking mark the festival of Eid. The bomb went off just as Dostum had finished praying and was walking back towards his car. The attacker died. Two other people were injured.
The Guardian of London is reporting the Bush administration has blocked the reappointment of a top United Nations official working with Palestinians following a campaign by conservative and pro-Israeli groups. The UN official, Peter Hansen, headed the UN Relief and Works Agency. Hansen had infuriated the Israeli government when he publicly criticized the Israeli military’s practice of demolishing Palestinian homes. He also spoke out against the killing of children by indiscriminate Israeli gunfire hitting UN-run schools, and Israeli policies that have contributed to economic collapse and growing hunger among about 1 million refugees in Gaza. The Israeli government had described Hansen as a QUOTE "Israel hater." The Guardian reports the World Jewish Congress and the America Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied strongly against his reappointment.
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