The New York Timesleads with word that Pakistan is objecting to the Obama administration's expansion of the war in Afghanistan due to fears that retreating Taliban militants will slip across the border. Coming at a time when President Obama has made it clear he wants to step up efforts in the region, Pakistan's objections threaten to create new divisions between the two allies. USA Todayleads an interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who expressed confidence that Congress will work through the current disagreements and pass legislation to overhaul health care. Pelosi said she would rather pay for the legislation through savings rather than taxes. "Many members think that there's more to be squeezed from hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and docs," she said. The Wall Street Journalalso leads its world-wide newsbox with health care, noting how the White House will be spending more of Obama's political capital on the issue. In advance of today's prime-time news conference, Obama met with fiscally conservative Democrats and urged them not to abandon the legislation.
The Los Angeles Timesleads with the opposition to the deal between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders to close California's budget deficit. A day after the deal was announced, Los Angeles County officials said they would sue the state over the proposal to essentially seize local funds for the state, government workers threatened to strike, and Republicans said they couldn't support it because it would cut the number of prison inmates. Schwarzenegger steered clear of the back-and-forth, except for a video he posted on Twitter that shows him holding a huge knife and talking about autographing state property to be sold at an auction to raise money. The Washington Postleads with mounting evidence that the problem that led to the fatal D.C. Metro train crash last month might be widespread throughout the system.
The main lesson from the "nearly two-hour briefing" that officials at Pakistan's main spy service gave to the NYT is that Pakistan still thinks it can deal with Taliban militants through dialogue, and whatever threat they do pose is no match to the country's archenemy, India. In fact, Pakistan might even become allies with the Taliban in Afghanistan after the United States leaves. Officials have told the White House that Pakistan doesn't have enough troops to make sure Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan don't slip into the province of Baluchistan. That is, unless it takes away troops from the Indian border, which appears to be out of the question. The Pakistani intelligence officials also made it clear they don't think the Taliban militants are using their country as a base of operations, a continuing source of frustration for the United States. But isn't Pakistan fighting the Pakistani Taliban in the country's tribal regions? American officials say this is a prime example of how Pakistan is choosing to fight only militants that threaten its own government.
Although the White House has largely left it to lawmakers to fight out differences in the health care legislation, today's news conference will officially mark an end to that tactic. "We're going to have to wade in a little deeper into the nitty-gritty to keep the process going," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said. But at a time when Americans are expressing doubts about the effort, and Republican leaders have made it clear they hope that by defeating the legislation they can spike much of the president's domestic agenda, it "will be the stiffest test yet of [Obama's] political skills."
The NYT agrees and declares that Obama's handling of this issue over the next few weeks "could shape the rest of his presidency." Right now Obama has to decide whether he'll continue to insist that both chambers of Congress pass health care bills, which could risk losing the support of Republicans and conservative Democrats, or signal that he's willing to be flexible, which could give opponents more time to build up the case against the effort. One thing is clear: Whatever he decides to do will be seen as a sign of how he plans to pursue other controversial items in his agenda.
The WP points out that if lawmakers do end up agreeing on a health care bill, it seems "virtually certain" that, for the first time, Americans will be required to have health insurance. All three bills now making the rounds include an individual mandate provision that would require everyone who is uninsured to get insurance or risk having to pay a fine. Massachusetts instituted a similar system when it overhauled its health care system and has had pretty impressive results. Although opponents predicted Massachusetts voters would be up in arms about the requirement, that never happened. "I don't see people revolting over having to have a driver's license or insurance to drive a car," an economist said. "And we haven't seen it with the mandate."
In a front-page column, the NYT's David Leonhardt writes that health care has given Obama "a challenge worthy of his skills" to explain complex issues. The current health care system is designed "to resist change" mostly because the people who pay for it often don't really realize they're doing so. The typical American household will spend around $15,000 this year on health care, but so far no one has come out as "the defender of the typical household," and the White House "has not yet shown that it's willing to fight the necessary fights." Lobbyists have so far done a great job in getting Congress to "defang" some of the very ideas that would cut costs. But it seems everyone would rather ignore the simple fact that "the current fee-for-service system needs to be remade."
The WP goes inside with a look at how the fight over health care has led the insurance industry to "cherry-pick the facts" as it tries to defend its business. Hardly surprising, of course, but still worth revisiting as the fight over whether there should be a government-run insurance option heats up. Although the insurance industry likes to claim that the vast majority of Americans are satisfied with their health coverage, the truth is that they favor the creation of a public plan and think the government would do a better job than private industry. And while the industry likes to claim that a government plan would reduce choice, the truth is that in the private market, "options are limited by employers who restrict employees' choice of insurers and by insurers who restrict their choice of doctors."
As the WP's Harold Meyerson has been watching centrist Democrats come out with reason after reason why the health care overhaul can't work, he's been "struck by a disquieting thought: … Suppose we can no longer address the major challenges confronting the nation. Suppose America is now the world's leading can't-do country." Health care is "just one element" in "our growing inability to meet our national challenges." Elected officials seem increasingly unable to act in the interest of the country as a whole if it would mean hurting Wall Street, or making someone, somewhere pay more taxes. "As our former president might put it," writes Meyerson, "Heckuva job, Brownies."
The NYT is alone in fronting news that the Senate voted 58-to-40 to kill $1.75 billion in financing for seven more F-22 jet fighters. It marked a key victory for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been campaigning against the planes as a key example of how the Pentagon needs to change the way it does business and move away from equipment that is of no use in the current conflicts. Obama had threatened to veto any attempts by lawmakers to continue purchasing the advanced fighter jets, and the NYT hears word from Senate aides that some Democrats chose to vote against the bill to avoid hurting the president in the health care fight. The WP says that, ultimately, "the nation's current economic travails might have played a larger role than military strategy in the vote."