The Wall Street Journalleads its world-wide news box with the Israeli government issuing a stern warning against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel wouldn't hesitate to use force to retaliate if a series of recent rocket attacks continues. "I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I'm telling them stop it," Olmert said. "We are stronger." USA Todayleads with an in-house analysis that reveals more than one-third of top congressional staffers who left Capitol Hill have gone on to work for groups that seek to influence the government. Out of the 193 top staffers who have left the government this year, 32 went on to register as lobbyists, and 42 went to work for a variety of other influence-peddlers. The Los Angeles Timesleads with the horrifying killing spree that a man in a Santa suit launched at the home of his ex-wife's parents in a Los Angeles suburb. The man, who was apparently angry following the divorce, killed at least eight people at the Christmas Eve party and was found dead of a single gunshot to the head in his brother's home.
The Washington Postleads with a look at how states across the country are making deep cuts in Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor. States are seeing their programs stretched to the limit due to the combination of decreased revenue and more people losing their jobs and health insurance. Nineteen states have already made cuts in payments and coverage, and many are planning even bigger cutbacks next year. The New York Timesleads with a look at how a key part of President Bush's health care legacy will be tied to community health care centers, which have seen funding double under his watch. Almost 1,300 clinics in underserved areas have opened or been expanded during the Bush administration.
All signs seem to indicate that Israel is preparing an offensive in the Gaza Strip after about 100 rockets and mortar shells were fired across the border over the last two days. The rocket attacks came after a cease-fire between the two sides expired last week. The saber-rattling appears to be getting more intense as Israel's Feb. 10 parliamentary election gets closer, and candidates seem to be competing on who can take on the hardest line against Hamas. Egypt's president met with Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, last night and urged restraint, but the pleas were quickly dismissed. "Enough is enough," Livni, who is a leading candidate to replace Olmert, said. Olmert has so far resisted pressure from many officials to launch a major operation against Hamas, but he might have little choice in the matter if the rocket and mortar attacks continue. A Reuters story published inside the NYT says Olmert's statement "amounted to a public call to Gazans to overthrow Hamas."
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the Israeli Cabinet has given authorization for an attack that will last a few days and will apparently have "clearly defined goals." Word is that Israel will launch a "limited operation" in Gaza "within days" and will "combine an air attack with some ground operations." A total of 22 mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip overnight and early this morning.
The federal government sets minimum rules about who is eligible to get Medicaid and what the program covers, but states often add on to these basics, and that's what many are cutting or thinking about cutting now that budget woes are mounting. States are asking lawmakers and President-elect Barack Obama's team to help out with the bill, and Democrats are signaling that they'll be willing to lend a hand next year. But since they don't know when this help might come or how much money it would involve, many states are planning big reductions in their Medicaid programs. Experts say the situation is particularly dire because states had already slashed much of the fat a few years ago and now have to cut core aspects of the programs.
Obama hasn't talked much about how community health centers fit into his plans for the uninsured, but it's likely that whatever plans he will put forward to reform health care will include an increase in funding for these centers. There are still many underserved parts of the country, and the centers are seen as an efficient way for those living in poor or isolated areas to get basic health services without having to seek out overburdened hospital emergency rooms. Demand for their services has already seen a spike this year with the increase in job losses, and the problem is only likely to get worse in 2009.
As Obama continues his vacation in Hawaii, he can add one more thing to his list of accomplishments: Americans admire him more than anyone else in the world, reports USAT. It's not even close. When asked whom they admire most, one-third of Americans put him as their first or second choice. It marks the first time in more than 50 years that a president-elect has topped the annual USAT/Gallup poll. President Bush fell to a distant second place with 5 percent after holding the top spot for the past seven years, a steep plunge from the 39 percent rating he received in 2001. Hillary Clinton tops the list of most-admired women, just like in 13 of the past 16 years. Gov. Sarah Palin, a newcomer to the list, comes in second place.
The WP gets word that U.S. intelligence officials in Afghanistan have won over allies with the help of Viagra. CIA agents trying to make friends with warlords and tribal leaders sometimes resort to unconventional means to secure their cooperation. That can include everything from school supplies, offers for surgeries for sick family members, school equipment, and "occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos," as the WP puts it. The Afghan leaders expect to be paid for their cooperation, but just handing cash is rarely practical since it immediately becomes obvious to those around them that they are cooperating with the Americans. "Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people—whether it's building a school or handing out Viagra," one agency operative said.
The LAT and NYT front (while everyone else covers) news that British playwright Harold Pinter died on Wednesday. The Nobel Prize winner was "the most influential and imitated dramatist of his generation" ( NYT) and "changed the face of 20th century theater" ( LAT). He was most famous for the way he used silence to evoke emotion in what is commonly known as the "Pinter pause." Although Pinter is best known for such plays as The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, and The Homecoming, he was also an actor and wrote more than 20 screenplays. He was 78.
Everyone also notes the death of Eartha Kitt, a singer, dancer, and actress who began performing in the late '40s and won international acclaim in a career that spanned six decades. The sultry performer rose from South Carolina cotton fields to become an international symbol of sophistication and was one of the first widely known African-American sex symbols. Kitt acted on Broadway and in movies and recorded several hit songs, including "Santa Baby," by far her most famous. She was 81.
It was a bad holiday season for retailers. Yes, a decrease in sales was widely expected, but as numbers start coming in, it turns out that the season was "much worse than the already-dire picture painted by industry forecasts," reports the WSJ. Despite deep discounts, retail sales plunged 2.5 percent in November and 4 percent in December through Christmas Eve, excluding automobiles and gasoline. Some sectors were particularly hard-hit. Luxury goods were once considered immune to economic downturns, but, including jewelry sales, the luxury sector plunged 34.5 percent this year. Many retailers were hoping the holiday season would save them from a bad year, but the dismal sales will likely mean that more stores will file for bankruptcy in 2009.
"This will go down as the one of the worst holiday sales seasons on record," a retail expert tells the WSJ. "Retailers went from 'Ho-ho' to 'Uh-oh' to 'Oh-no.' "