Today's Papers

Blago: I’m Still the Decider

The New York Timesand Los Angeles Timeslead with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s surprise announcement that he has selected  former state Attorney General Roland W. Burris to take the Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama, which he has been accused of trying to sell. Blagojevich defied Senate leaders, who have said they would refuse to admit anyone who is appointed by the governor, and said he had no choice in the matter because the state’s lawmakers had refused to approve a special election.

The Washington Postleads with Israel saying that it was willing to consider a 48-hour cease-fire of its air assault on the Gaza Strip. It marked the first time that Israeli leaders have publicly said they were considering pausing their offensive and came at a time when Israel is facing growing international pressure to halt the attacks. Early morning wire reports reveal that Israeli leaders decided to continue the aerial assault for a fifth day but emphasized that they are still discussing cease-fire proposals. The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with word that Pakistan’s investigation into the Mumbai attacks has found “substantive links” to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group that its spy agency supported for many years. As the year comes to an end, USA Todayleads with a look at how 2008 had the lowest combined total  of U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq of any year since the Iraq war began in 2003.

In announcing his selection to the Senate seat, Blagojevich pretty much challenged Senate Democrats to refuse to seat Burris, the first African-American elected to statewide office in Illinois. Just in case he was too subtle, Rep. Bobby Rush joined the news conference and pointed out that there are no African-Americans in the Senate and emphasized that he doesn’t think any senator “wants to go on record to deny one African-American from being seated.” Rush asked lawmakers not to “lynch” Burris, who does not have “one iota of taint on his record” and “is worthy” of the seat.

“The governor is going back on offense,” a political science professor tells the WSJ. “He loves political surprises and to kind of stick his finger in your eye. It is so removed from reality, it’s almost surreal, and yet it’s typical Blagojevich.”

Democrats immediately emphasized that they have nothing against Burris but made it clear that anyone appointed by the embattled governor couldn’t be an effective representative and would not be seated. Obama followed the same tune, praising Burris as a “good man and a fine public servant” but also saying he agrees that Senate Democrats “cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat.”

Can they do that? No one knows, but some legal scholars have their doubts. As the LAT and WSJ detail, the Supreme Court has ruled that neither the House nor the Senate can refuse to seat new members who meet all the qualifications for office. But the court was referring to someone who is elected to office, and it’s not clear whether the standard would be different for someone who is appointed. The WP says the Senate could choose to refer the appointment to the rules committee for an investigation before Burris can be seated. That could prevent the courts from taking up the issue and could give Illinois lawmakers enough time to finish impeachment proceedings. “The Senate, basically as a practical matter, is going to do what it wants to do,” the former chief counsel of the Senate ethics committee said.

As Israeli leaders discussed the cease-fire proposal, troops continued to converge along the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground offensive. “The leading option right now is still a ground invasion, but the target of this operation is an improved cease-fire, and if that can come without the invasion, fine,” a close aide to Israel’s defense minister told the NYT. “But, of course, Hamas has to agree, and there has to be a mechanism to make it work.” Haaretzreports that the Israeli government declared that the French cease-fire proposal was unrealistic because it “contained no guarantees of any kind that Hamas will stop the rockets and smuggling,” as the spokesman for the foreign ministry said.

The LAT says the death toll among Palestinians increased to 384, including nearly 70 civilians. But, as Slate’s Juliet Lapidos explains, the civilian death toll can hardly be considered a reliable figure since it’s based on a U.N. count that only added up the number of women and children who had been killed. The NYT says that the number of targets that could be hit from the air is decreasing, which makes it more likely that Israel will decide to launch a ground invasion. The LAT talks to one expert who says Israel is now at a fork in the road and must decide whether to carry out a ground invasion or agree to a cease-fire. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Israel would agree to a cease-fire and continue to prepare for a ground invasion in case no resolution can be reached.

The LAT says that while the Bush administration has been adamant in supporting Israel, it is “increasingly nervous” about the Gaza offensive and is urging Israeli leaders to come up with a timetable and exit strategy. There’s growing concern that the Israelis won’t be able to destroy Hamas and will actually end up making it stronger. But don’t expect Obama to jump into the debate. Although Obama likes to say that “there is one president at a time,” the WP points out that not all issues are created equal. While Obama has kept quiet on foreign policy, he hasn’t been shy about outlining his plans for the economy.

In a separate front-page piece, the WP takes a look at how the Israeli offensive is being led “by a triumvirate of politicians” who are “known to mistrust one another deeply” but “have staked their futures on a highly risky military operation.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini are vying to take over for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and have seen their public approval increase since the attacks began. Olmert isn’t running, and the Gaza operation “could be his last chance to rehabilitate a legacy badly tarnished by Israel’s failure to achieve a clear-cut victory against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in 2006.” Outside the triumvirate is former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been leading in the polls and has long advocated for Israel to take a tougher stand against Hamas.

A top commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba who was captured earlier this month has confessed that, just as the United States and India have affirmed, the militant group was involved in the Mumbai attacks. The question now is what Pakistan will do with this information. When the 2001 attack on India’s parliament was tied to Lashkar, the militant group was banned but continued operating openly. The top leaders who were arrested were released a few months later. “They’ve got the guys. They have the confessions. What do they do now?” a Western diplomat tells the WSJ. “We need to see that this is more than a show. We want to see the entire infrastructure of terror dismantled. There needs to be real prosecutions this time.”

The NYT reports that the United States and NATO are working on expanding supply lines through Central Asia to deliver goods to forces in Afghanistan. While these arrangements would allow supply convoys to circumvent the dangerous tribal areas of Pakistan, it also means that the United States would become more reliant on cooperation from authoritarian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Officials are also in negotiations with Russia, which illustrates “the continued importance of American and NATO cooperation with the Kremlin, despite lingering tension over the war between Russia and Georgia in August,” notes the NYT.

In an interview with the WSJ, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales opens up a bit and says he’s writing a book about his time in the Bush administration. Gonzales has kept a low profile since resigning 16 months ago and still very much sees himself as the victim of unwarranted criticism. “[F]or some reason, I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with,” Gonzales said. “I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror.” Although he has given a few paid speeches, Gonzales has had trouble landing a job and said that law firms have been “skittish” about hiring him.

The WP notes that while the ball drop in Times Square is certainly the most famous celebration to mark the New Year, it’s hardly the most exciting. At least as far as what is being dropped is concerned. In Maryland, the city of Annapolis decided to drop a sailboat this year. In Georgia it will be giant peaches and chicken nuggets, and in Maine, a sardine. In Key West, Fla., a drag queen named Sushi will be lowered to mark the beginning of 2009. “Honestly, we just started it because we were tired of watching New York’s ball drop every year,” a resident of Easton, Md., said as she prepared the huge crab that will be lowered tonight and reminisced about how parties always used to end around a TV screen. “This year, I mean, it’s a big, huge crab on a hydraulic lift. No one’s going to want to miss something like that.”