Today's Papers

Senate Takes Over Stimulus

The Los Angeles Timesleads with the Senate debate on the $885 billion stimulus plan, which began yesterday and is expected to last for more than a week. Everyone expects that it will receive at least a bit of Republican support, but not before some intense horse-trading sessions in which lawmakers will try to tack more of their priorities onto the package. President Obama will attempt to convince the public of the need for a stimulus package in interviews with five television networks, but most Americans don’t need convincing. USA Todayleads with a new poll that shows two-thirds of Americans think the package would at least provide a little boost to the ailing economy. But that doesn’t mean they expect to benefit personally. Fifty percent of people say that their own family finances would not be affected or could get worse.

The Washington Postleads with preliminary results from Iraq’s provincial elections, which appear to have handed a big victory to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. Iraqis as a whole seemed to favor parties that emphasized nationalism and a strong central government. The Wall Street Journalleads its world-wide news box with Senate Democrats expressing support for Tom Daschle, the nominee to head Health and Human Services, who issued a public apology for his failure to pay more than $100,000 in taxes. The New York Timesleads with yet another look at how Obama’s campaign rhetoric doesn’t quite match his governing style. You know the drill: He promised his administration would abide by high ethics standards and bar lobbyists from the White House, but he has hired many Washington insiders and two of his picks for Cabinet positions didn’t pay all their taxes. Those who are disappointed now may not have been paying enough attention to the details. Even during the campaign, Obama’s language “was always more sweeping than the specifics,” notes the NYT.

As debate began in the Senate over the stimulus package, members of both parties have reservations that it devotes far too little money to housing and infrastructure. To deal with these issues, there is talk about doubling the tax credit for first-time home buyers to $15,000, as well as $25 billion more for highway, transit, and water projects. The LAT notes a “seeming paradox”: Many senators complain the bill is too large but will probably end up producing “a bill significantly more expensive than the House’s $819-billion version.” Still, there seems to be general agreement that the package shouldn’t extend beyond $900 billion, meaning that some spending items would have to be nixed. Rooting out spending deemed inappropriate will be one of the Republicans’ main priorities this coming week.

The Obama administration seems open to amending certain portions of the bill in order to get it moving through the approval process as quickly as possible. This urgency isn’t just due to the need for speedy relief; it also shows that Obama wants to get the stimulus package out of the way before he goes back to Congress to ask for yet more money to prop up the nation’s financial system. “Given the widespread anger over Wall Street bonuses and what are seen as other excesses, proposing to shell out more tax dollars could trigger extreme sticker shock in both parties,” notes the LAT.

USAT’s poll gives Obama an approval rating of 64 percent and notes that two-thirds of Americans support several of the reversals from the Bush years. But only 44 percent of Americans support closing Guantanamo within a year, and only 35 percent approve of the move to lift restrictions on foreign aid given to family-planning organizations that also provide abortion services.

The NYT gave some preliminary results of the Iraqi elections in yesterday’s paper, but today the WP is much more thorough and details how different parts of the country voted. Besides Maliki, Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr also appeared to make gains in a few Shiite areas. Some Sunnis, particularly the leaders of the resistance groups that were funded by the United States, also appear to have done well. Overall, urban areas voted for more secular candidates, while religious parties continued to win big in rural parts of the country, “highlighting the ideological divide in the nation,” notes the Post.

After meeting with the Senate finance committee, Daschle issued a public apology and said his failure to pay the appropriate taxes was “completely inadvertent.” Democrats were quick to rally around Daschle, a former majority leader of the Senate, and say that the mistake was certainly embarrassing but understandable. Republicans aren’t so sure, and some continue to raise questions that go beyond taxes and have more to do with potential conflicts of interest for a man who made so much money from health care companies after he left Capitol Hill. But it seems clear “senators will almost certainly confirm the former member of their club,” as the WP’s Dana Milbank puts it.

Having friends in high places isn’t just helping Daschle maneuver through the controversy; assuming he’s confirmed, it will also be of great help once he settles into his new role in the Obama administration. “Daschle is likely to be one of the best-connected Cabinet secretaries in the administration, if not history,” declares the Post. Obama has depended on Daschle protégés and his former aides since his first days in the Senate through the campaign and transition. After Daschle lost re-election in 2004, he basically handed his team over to Obama, so the former Senate leader’s “tentacles … stretch far beyond the agency Obama picked him to lead.” That means Daschle would be well-positioned to play a key role in the administration and ensure that his priorities get heard.

In other Cabinet news, the Senate confirmed Eric Holder as the nation’s first African-American attorney general with a 75-21 vote. In addition, the White House confirmed that Obama is set to nominate Republican Sen. Judd Gregg for commerce secretary today, a move that would make him the third Republican in the Cabinet. But it looks as if Democrats can let go of their 60-seat dream, because Gregg emphatically stated he would not take the job if a Democrat were to take his place.

When attention turns away from the stimulus package, a clash over how far Washington should go to reshape the nation’s financial system is inevitable, notes the LAT in a front-page analysis. So far, the discussions have been kept largely under the radar, but that will all change once Obama outlines why he wants more money to prop up the financial system and how he’ll prevent the problems from happening again. The debate that will ensue is unlikely to remain confined to the financial sector. In outlining its plans, “the administration will offer the first hints of how aggressively it is prepared to intervene in other damaged or seemingly dysfunctional sectors of the economy such as housing, healthcare, autos and energy,” says the LAT. Many Democrats are arguing in favor of a more robust regulatory system that would undo much of the hands-off policies conservatives have been fighting for since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Republicans, on the other hand, want much more narrow legislation, and many believe that much of today’s problems are due to an excess of regulation.

It’s already well-known that many of the banks that have received money from Uncle Sam haven’t increased their lending, but today the Post takes it a step further and points out that banks that got government money have reduced their lending more than those that didn’t receive anything. According to new Fed data, banks across the country tightened their lending as the volume of outstanding loans decreased by 1 percent during the last three months of 2008. But the decline was almost twice as large among banks that received government money. One of the main reasons for this is that the government mostly decided to help out banks that needed money to solve problems, rather than trying to figure out who was in a better position to increase lending.

The deepening recession and increasing unemployment has turned out to be a boon for online entertainment sites, reports the WSJ. Some sites claim business has never been so good, as more people with more time to kill are spending an increasing number of hours in front of the computer, looking for an escape. It seems the Internet has taken the place of movie houses, where many unemployed workers spent entire afternoons during the Great Depression.

The WP’s Sally Jenkins writes that while some people are surely disappointed to discover that Michael Phelps smoked pot, he merely got caught doing what 42 percent of Americans have done at one time or another. “No one is condoning illegal activity. … But frankly, it’s better than drinking and driving, which is what Phelps did last time,” writes Jenkins. “And it’s organic!” Those who “insist their champions be superhuman ideals” may never be able to forgive Phelps. “But it’s absurd to expect Phelps to maintain his brand of physical and mental discipline 24-7, while the rest of us privately anesthetize to our hearts’ content.”