The New York Times leads on news that business lobbyists are racing to win approval for a wide range of health, safety, labor, and economic measures before the end of George Bush's presidency, spurred by concerns that the next tenant of the Oval Office will be less sympathetic to their causes. The Los Angeles Times leads with an investigation into a major lobbying drive that persuaded officials to nix plans for an improved anthrax vaccine. The Washington Postleads local, reporting that the D.C. government issued more than $44 million in questionable property tax refunds over the past nine years.
Fearing that Democrats could sweep the board in next year's elections, business groups are rushing to persuade the Bush administration to pass rules covering everything from mountaintop mining to medical leave. "There's a growing sense, a growing probability, that the next administration could be Democratic," says one senior lobbyist. "Lobbying firms have begun to recalibrate their strategies." The so-called "midnight regulations" passed by outgoing administrations can prove difficult to reverse; the Supreme Court has ruled that new presidents cannot arbitrarily revoke rules that have passed into law.
Scientists have long warned that America needs a better anthrax vaccine: The existing version can cause adverse reactions, requires a series of six injections over a period of 18 months, and has a shelf life of just three years. Officials awarded a massive contract to a company that appeared set to deliver a superior product—but pulled funding for the project after intensive lobbying by the old vaccine's producer. "National security took a back seat to politics and the power of lawyers and lobbyists," says one former biodefense official.
The NYT off-leads on reports that corruption has reached epidemic proportions in Iraq: Bribery and petty crime are a way of life, and virtually everything the government buys or sells can now be found on the black market. Meanwhile, U.S. officials say one-third of what they spend on Iraqi contracts and grants goes unaccounted for; an estimated $18 billion has gone missing from Iraqi government coffers since 2004. "Everyone is stealing from the state," says one Shiite leader. "It's a very large meal, and everyone wants to eat."
The Post goes above the fold with a profile of Elizabeth Whiteside, an Army reservist who faces court martial after attempting suicide while serving in Iraq; the prosecutor dismissed reports that she had a severe mental disorder as "psychobabble". The case highlights a gap between official policy—the Pentagon has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to care for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder—and a military culture that still stigmatizes mental health problems.
Turkish military officials said yesterday that they had launched an attack on Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq; details remained hazy, with Iraqi officials denying that troops had crossed the border. A Turkish lawmaker said the attacks were not part of a large-scale offensive: "It's not an invasion or a war," he told the NYT. "This is just a limited operation at the moment." The Post notes that the attack, along with violence in Diyala province and continuing political tension, underscores Iraq's lingering instability even as the security situation improves.
An ice storm struck Iowa yesterday, but everyone notes that the atmosphere was unusually warm at the Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, with the candidates lobbing one another relative softballs. The Post notes that the race remains hard to predict: "Iowans make up their minds late," sighs one Clinton staffer. The NYT fronts a look at Barack Obama's efforts to convince women voters to pick him over Hillary; on the paper's op-ed page, Frank Rich argues that Obama—battle-tested, and popular even among some conservatives—could provide Democrats with their best shot of winning the White House.
Meanwhile, the LAT fronts a look at GOP hopeful Mike Huckabee; a poll published today shows him leading Mitt Romney in Iowa by five points. The NYT notes that Huckabee's change in fortune has prompted criticism from fiscal conservatives concerned at his record as governor of Arkansas—and caused Mitt Romney's campaign to rethink its talking points.
Venezuelans go to the polls today in a referendum on proposals to grant President Hugo Chávez sweeping new powers; the Post says the result is likely to be close. In the paper's Outlook section, Donald Rumsfeld argues that countering the likes of Chávez will require an overhaul of outdated international institutions: "The free world has too few tools to help prevent Venezuela's once vibrant democracy from receding into dictatorship." Writing in the LAT, Sergio Munoz argues that Chávez is a threat to his own people but lacks the leverage to do much harm to America.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin's United Russia party looks to be guaranteed victory in today's parliamentary elections; the Post notes that a substantial majority in the Duma would allow Putin to maintain influence even after he steps down as president next year. The LAT speculates about the Russian leader's next move: One option would be for Putin to take a post as prime minister.
Iran's new nuclear negotiator warned this week that progress made in previous talks was no longer relevant; the NYT interviews several officials involved in the talks, who branded the meeting a disaster. "We can't do business with these guys at this point," one said.
The Post has details of a classified war game in which U.S. officials pondered options for securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal if the country's political institutions began to fall apart; they considered tactics ranging from full-blown military intervention to attempting to quarantine nuclear sites by sowing minefields from the air.