Watch for a particularly hot potato to land in the Democrats’ lap soon after they take over Capitol Hill — the Pentagon’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy on gays and lesbians in the military.

Rep. Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, intends to hold hearings early next year on reversing the 13-year-old policy, which essentially permits homosexuals to serve as long as they do not disclose their sexual orientation.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed on to Meehan’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts last year to kill the policy. So far, Pelosi, a San Francisco lawmaker with a long record of supporting gay rights, isn’t saying whether she’ll continue her support.

No doubt Bill Clinton’s experience won’t be far from her mind. His presidential debut was rocked by a debate over allowing openly gay people to serve, which Clinton had promised on the campaign trail to do.

Such a hoohah erupted that the embattled new president reneged on his vow, and came up with the "don’t ask, don’t tell" concept, which, of course, has been criticized by all sides ever since.

South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s medical emergency this past week brings to mind a host of other senators who have taken absences from their duties for health reasons.

Some examples:

Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., missed five months after a 1991 heart attack. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., was absent for about seven months in 1988 after surgery for a brain aneurysm. Sen. Robert Wagner, D-N.Y., stayed home from 1947 until he resigned two years later, blaming a heart ailment.

The longest absence, by far, was that of Sen. Carter Glass, D-Va., who was so aged and infirm that he couldn’t make it to work from 1942 until he died in1946. Even though it was wartime, and Glass was both president pro tem of the Senate and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he kept his seat for those four years, even winning re-election once.

The Johnson health scare aside, statistically speaking, the GOP side of the aisle is at somewhat greater risk of having a seat switch party hands than the Democrats.

A look at the lineup of governors with different party allegiances than one or both of their state’s senators reveals that 25 Republican seats in 17 states would be in peril if a member died or resigned, while 19 Democrats in 12 states stand to have a successor named by a Republican governor, notwithstanding a handful of states with laws on the books that require a governor to replace a departed senator with one of the same party.

Yule imbalance of trade: According to the Agriculture Department, the nation’s Christmas-tree farmers netted about $85 million from their evergreens last year. By contrast, between January and August this year, China exported $605 million worth of Christmas-tree ornaments, and another $65 million in artificial trees. China’s the leading foreign source of both, says the Commerce Department.

Whom do you trust inside the Beltway? The American Red Cross, AARP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce top the list, according to a new Harris Poll.

Asked for their assessment of prominent groups who are big players in Washington, 84 percent of those who replied said they trust the Red Cross; the same percentage trusted the advocacy group for seniors and the U.S. Chamber scored 77 percent.

On the down side of the scale was the National Rifle Association, with a trust score of 54 percent; the AFL-CIO, with 51 percent; and the American Civil Liberties Union, with 49 percent.

Animal-rights advocates say they expect to accomplish more in Congress with the Democrats in charge. Topping their agenda is a new horse-slaughter ban, which easily passed the House only to stall in the Senate when the session ended earlier this month. Other targets: a measure to increase penalties for animal fighting, a ban on interstate commerce of chimps and other primates, and a requirement for the humane euthanasia of ill or injured livestock unable to walk.

So that’s why we can never find a parking spot: There were 241.2 million vehicles registered in the United States last year, the most ever, according to new figures just released by the Department of Transportation. And those vehicles traveled a total of 2.9 billion miles, another record.

Marvel Comics has come up with a limited-edition comic book as a holiday present for U.S. troops. Featuring superhero Captain America, the free book will be in base exchanges — including those in Iraq and Afghanistan — next week. "The New Avengers: Letters Home" will foil the evil Hydra, who has taken over a military communications satellite and sabotaged holiday e-mails home from the troops. Other cast members in the 36-page comic: Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider and The Punisher.

The Pentagon is keeping a wary eye on Kosovo, where 1,600 American National Guard troops are trying to keep the peace between ethnic Albanians, who want Kosovo to be independent, and Serbs, who insist the territory remain under Serbian control. The commander of the Kosovo task force has now ordered the U.S. troops to prepare for possible violence. The United Nations is expected to make a decision on the breakaway republic’s future soon, and the signs are that whatever is decided could trigger big trouble.

Last reminder: If you’re planning on visiting any Western Hemisphere land next month, you will need a U.S. passport to come back home. As of Jan. 23, all travelers — including U.S. citizens returning by air from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda — won’t be allowed in without that official document. The State Department says it is prepared for a rush of first-time applicants and renewal seekers.

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