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Congressional leaders reject invitation to China State Dinner

Three of the four top congressional leaders have snubbed President Obama’s invitation to attend Wednesday evening’s White House State Dinner for the visiting President of China, Hu Jintao.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was the first to reject the invitation citing scheduling conflicts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also jumped on the bandwagon and will not be attending the black tie event.

Boehner and Reid will be meeting the Chinese president on Thursday in a separate private meeting. But the meeting is unlikely to be filled with backslapping camaraderie — during an interview with a Las Vegas radio station on Tuesday Reid, described Hu Jintao as a ‘dictator’ –- though he quickly backtracked on his comments:

“He is a dictator. He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have,” said Reid, before quickly continuing, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said dictator, but they have a different type of government then we have, and that is an understatement.”

The atmosphere on the hill was far from friendly ahead of the Chinese delegation’s arrival with the promise of forging greater cooperation between the two economic superpowers. At a briefing on Wednesday morning, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) questioned whether China was a “responsible stakeholder” on the global stage, rhetorically citing China’s trade policy, relations with the Koreas and military action in the South China sea.

“We are back with a new energy from our newly-elected Members who are determined to take back America’s economy and are committed to a foreign policy that stands with our allies and holds accountable those who threaten our Nation’s security interests,” Ros-Lehtinen concluded her address.

Eighty-four lawmakers from both parties wrote a letter to Obama demanding that he takes a strong stance against alleged unfair competition by China. “America’s patience is near an end,” said the group, “We can no longer afford to tolerate China’s disregard [for international trade rules].”

Human rights is another contentious issue on many people’s minds as Obama and Hu meet for talks. A number of lawmakers have called for Obama, as a Nobel Laureate, to clearly voice his disapproval of China’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who remains under house arrest.

Obama did make a thinly-veiled reference to human rights as he welcomed Hu to the White House on Wednesday morning:

“The world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being,” the president said.

Hu countered Obama comments, saying that both powers should “respect each other’s choice of development path and each other’s core interests.”

At a press conference held Wednesday afternoon, Hu did concede that “a lot still needs to be done” on human rights in China.

These comments have put political commentators on tenterhooks as the meetings between the leaders move into the second day.

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