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Obama plans a swift start

Repealing an abortion aid policy, setting a timeline to pull troops out of Iraq and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay top the list, aides say.

January 20, 2009|Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — In one of his first acts as president, Barack Obama is planning to lift a rule that prevents federal money from going to international family planning groups that counsel women on abortion or perform the procedure.

Obama's repeal of the abortion aid policy is one of several executive actions he will take soon after his inauguration today, according to Obama transition aides. He is also considering lifting Bush administration restrictions on federally funded stem cell research.

Obama's first month in the White House will be busy. On Wednesday -- his first full day as president -- he is expected to meet with military advisors and order them to submit plans for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.

That pledge was a staple of his campaign speeches, and aides said he would follow through. But Obama also has promised to heed advice from ground-level military commanders, some of whom think the 16-month timetable is too rushed. So the deadline could slip.

Within days of taking office, Obama will order the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a transition aide said. About 250 inmates remain at Guantanamo. The Obama administration plans to assess each one to determine where the prisoners should be sent. The review could take months, so the prison won't be closed right away, the aide said.

Next month, Obama will convene a "fiscal responsibility summit," where participants will discuss the spiraling growth of Medicare and Social Security -- popular but costly programs that may require a combination of tax increases and benefit cuts to remain viable.

Obama's team also is reviewing scores of rules and regulations set in motion by Bush administration officials as the president's term was winding down, the aides said, with an eye toward putting them on hold until the review is completed. Critics say some of the rules weaken worker protections and civil liberties.

The Obama aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about policies that had not been officially announced.

On the eve of Obama's inauguration, aides were still determining the schedule under which the 44th president would make specific announcements. But one date that has special significance in the debate over funding for international family planning groups is Jan. 22 -- the 36th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

The rule prohibiting federal aid for international family planning groups, called the "Mexico City policy," was announced by President Reagan during a 1984 population conference in that city. Critics call it the "global gag rule" because it discourages family planning groups from discussing abortion.

The policy has been alternately revoked and reinstituted, depending on the party controlling the White House.

President Clinton rescinded the policy on Jan. 22, 1993, two days after he was sworn in and on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. President Bush reimposed the rule eight years later, also on the anniversary of the court decision.

Obama aides are aware the anniversary is Thursday, but there is no indication they will announce the new policy that day.

Opponents of the funding ban said they had learned through the U.S. Agency for International Development that preparations were underway to lift the restrictions within a week of the inauguration.

"This is a big victory for women overseas," said Tod Preston, vice president for government relations at Population Action International, a group that supports increased funding for international family planning programs. "We know their health has been severely impacted by the cutoff. If you want to reduce unintended pregnancies, abortion and women dying from high-risk pregnancies because they don't have access to family planning, you don't do it by cutting off U.S. assistance."

Obama's transition team also appears intent on stopping some of the rules and regulations the Bush administration sought to install as the transition neared. Liberal interest groups especially want Obama to freeze some of the pending rules, as the Bush White House did when it took over from Clinton.

The rules under consideration include one that would change the way the Labor Department conducts risk assessments on the use of chemicals in the workplace in a way that critics complain would weaken enforcement.

Another would give local law enforcement officials more power to conduct surveillance without a warrant.

Though Obama can change some Bush policies through executive fiat, he also has the option of pushing new laws through Congress.

Stem cell research is an area where Obama is weighing the merits of each approach. In a recent interview with CNN, he said he might try to lift the stem cell research limitations through legislation.

"We're still examining what things we'll do through executive order," Obama said. "But I like the idea of the American people's representatives expressing their views on an issue like this."

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