Today's Papers

Power Plays

The Washington Post and the New York Times lead with the Senate’s passing a budget plan that includes a $1.2 trillion tax cut over 10 years, about $400 billion less than President Bush had wanted. The Los Angeles Times leads with Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s decision to file for bankruptcy rather than continue to work with California politicians to solve the state’s electricity crisis. The government plans to continue talks with the state’s two other big power companies.

Democrats are claiming victory in the vote on tax cuts, even though only 15 actually voted in favor of the final plan. This may seem a bit strange, especially when one considers that a year ago Democrats said they would not support any tax cut bigger than $250 billion. But President Bush has stuck to the $1.6 trillion package he promised during the election campaign, so the Democrats really won by reducing the tax cut at all, the papers explain. The WP goes a bit further and fronts a piece critical of Bush’s tactics during debate on the proposal. Instead of calling key Democrats to the Oval Office, Bush tried to take the proposal directly to the people, plugging it during stops in several Democratic senators’ home states. The Post contrasts this with Bush’s first few weeks in office, when he bent over backward to be chummy with prominent Dems. But as the (online) headline on one NYT piece (“VICTORY FOR BUSH IN DEFEAT”) points out, getting the Democrats to up the cut by $1 trillion was a major victory in itself.

The NYT says PG&E, California’s biggest power company, has about $24 billion in assets and $18 billion in debt. No one says the company is out of cash either. PG&E is instead frustrated with the pace of talks with California Gov. Gray Davis. Davis has been pushing a plan that would have the California government buying transmission lines from the state’s three biggest utilities for $7 billion. PG&E has instead demanded that it be allowed to increase its rates. Thursday night, Davis finally conceded that rates would have to rise, but apparently that was not enough. Lawyers for the company were at the bankruptcy court in San Francisco first thing Friday morning, documents in hand.

All three papers front news that the U.S. and China may be close to resolving the surveillance jet situation. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin have exchanged drafts of a letter that expresses regret that a Chinese pilot appears to have died when his plane collided with the surveillance jet, but the letter would not assign responsibility to either party. Meanwhile, plans are in the works to have the accident investigated by a joint commission that apparently was set up in 1998 to keep military situations between the U.S. and China from spinning out of control. (No one explains why this commission has not been mentioned until now.) The papers also say American officials were allowed to meet privately with the surveillance plane’s 24 crewmembers–another sign that tensions between the two countries are easing.

The NYT and the LAT front the results of a recent study of fourth-graders that shows the gap between the best readers and the worst is widening. (The WP stuffs this story inside.) The study, which compares test results from 1992 and last year, found that 37 percent basically could not read at all–a figure that sounds astounding until one learns that it has not changed in the last eight years. Nonetheless, the study showed that the worst readers’ scores have slipped by a statistically significant amount, while good readers’ have improved slightly. The split in scores comes even as the government has been trying to lift the performance of low-performing schools. Some possible reasons for the discrepancy include economic circumstances, demands for better test scores, and poor training of teachers on the best methods for teaching reading.

The LAT also goes high with a look at a woman obsessed with starting a battery-recycling program in China. The article, which complements a piece the Post did a few weeks ago on Chinese who oppose the use of disposable chopsticks, illustrates China’s nascent environmental movement. China is the world’s top maker and user of batteries, and it still uses toxic, mercury-based varieties. But the Chinese give little thought to how they dispose of used batteries, prompting the woman, Tian Guirong, to start her own battery recycling program. She has spent about $3,000–roughly six times the average worker’s annual salary–buying batteries from people, the LAT says. And what does Tian have to show for it? So far, just a big pile of batteries. The government has yet to create a way for her to dispose of them safely.