Today's Papers

Mr. Franken Goes to Washington

The Washington Postand New York Timeslead with the end of an eight-month election dispute in Minnesota as Al Franken packs his bags and gets ready to join the Senate. His victory officially gives Democrats a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority. The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Franken’s favor yesterday, declaring that the comedian turned politician won by 312 votes out of 2.9 million cast. Two hours later, Republican Norm Coleman conceded. “I join all Minnesotans in congratulating our newest United States senator,” Coleman said. “I can’t wait to get started,” Franken said.

USA Todayleads with, and is alone in fronting, the Yemenia Airways Airbus A310 that crashed yesterday in the Indian Ocean, 12 miles away from the island nation of Comoros, carrying 153 people. European officials said that a 2007 safety inspection found the jet had “faults,” but Yemeni officials say those problems were fixed. A 14-year-old girl appears to have been the only survivor. The Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox leads with the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraqi cities. The Iraqi government declared the day a national holiday and was officially in celebration mode, which included fireworks and parades. But a car bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk that killed at least 34 people served as a reminder of the challenges that Iraq’s security forces will have to confront. The Los Angeles Timesleads with news that California lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to reach a budget agreement  last night. If the two sides are unable to agree before Thursday, the state’s controller will begin issuing IOUs as payment to contractors and some citizens.

The WP highlights that while the Democrats “now have their largest majority in the Senate since 1978,” that doesn’t mean President Obama’s agenda is now on easy street. With 60 votes—including those of two independents—Democrats should theoretically be able to avoid filibusters, but the truth is that two of the party’s senior senators, Sens. Robert Byrd and Edward Kennedy, haven’t been in the Senate much lately due to medical problems. And, of course, some conservative Democrats have also shown a willingness to break with their party. Franken himself tried to talk down the significance of being vote number 60. “Sixty is a magic number, but it isn’t,” Franken said. For their part, Republicans weren’t having any of that and were eager to emphasize that Democrats have only themselves to blame if they can’t pass effective legislation. “With their supermajority, the era of excuses and finger-pointing is now over,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

Hours before U.S. troops formally withdrew from cities, four American soldiers were killed south of Baghdad, “a grim reminder of the vulnerability of U.S. troops as more of them are deployed to rural outposts,” notes the WP. In a front-page piece, the NYT says that all the official excitement about the handover “rung hollow for many Iraqis,” who fear for their safety and don’t really believe the government’s claims that Iraq has achieved “independence.” President Obama was low key about the whole thing, declaring the withdrawal “an important milestone” while also warning that the country will face “difficult days ahead.”

The WSJ reports that some Shiite extremist groups say they are increasing attacks in Iraq “in tandem with Tehran’s post-election crackdown on protesters.” The turmoil in Iran has apparently increased the resolve of hard-liners to exert their influence in Iraq, and they’re pressuring militants to increase attacks. “We are coming back, and we have new missions now,” a member of a Shiite extremist group said. Sunni militants will also be in the spotlight, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he expects al-Qaida to launch new attacks now that American troops have left the cities.

The WP’s Dan Balz points out that the United States still has around 130,000 troops in Iraq, and the “real drawdown will not begin in earnest until after the national elections in January 2010.” But the issue that was often at the center of the presidential campaign has now “faded into the background” to such an extent that Obama’s withdrawal plan barely caused a debate. Unless there’s a dramatic development, it seems possible that “what happens in Iraq may play out largely outside the consciousness of the American public,” writes Balz. “Who would have thought that was possible not so very long ago?”

Everyone reports that a much-hyped public auction where energy companies could bid to work in Iraq’s oil fields was pretty much a failure. The event lasted all day and was broadcast live on national television, but the government managed to strike just one deal. A joint venture of BP and the China National Petroleum Corporation was awarded the right to develop the giant Rumaila field in southern Iraq. Other companies said they’re eager to get their foot in Iraq but balked at the strict financial terms the government had attached to the 20-year technical-service contracts.

In a story written in conjunction with ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, the WP reveals that staff for Sen. Daniel Inouye got in touch with federal regulators last fall to find out the status of a bailout application for Central Pacific Financial, a Hawaiian bank that the senator helped start. At the end of 2007, Inouye and his wife owned shares of Central Pacific worth $350,000 to $700,000, which represented at least two-thirds of his total reported assets. Although Central Pacific “was an unlikely candidate” for a bailout, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. had already recommended against giving the bank federal cash, it ended up receiving $135 million. Inouye insists he wasn’t trying to influence the process by asking about it, and administration officials insist their decision was made independently. Experts say that even if Inouye had made the call himself he would not have broken any Senate rules.

The NYT and WP both front an analysis of the Supreme Court’s term and state that the nation’s highest court is likely to continue moving to the right, “even as the recent elections moved the nation to the left,” as the NYT points out. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court is likely to continue down this path as it seems unlikely that Obama will get the opportunity  to replace a conservative justice with a liberal. Over the last few months, the court may have “avoided the blockbuster decisions that at one point seemed inevitable,” notes the WP, but the steady shift to the right was unmistakable. The NYT says Roberts has “emerged as a canny strategist” who was often able to stick to his stated belief in minimalism while also making it clear “that the court is only one decision away from fundamental change in many areas of the law.” Justice Anthony Kennedy continued to be the court’s swing vote, but it seems Roberts has “found a reliable ally when it counts.” Roberts and Kennedy agreed 86 percent of the time.

The WSJ fronts news that Wal-Mart parted ways with most other large companies by telling the White House that it supports the idea of requiring large employers to provide health insurance. The National Retail Federation said it was “flabbergasted” by Wal-Mart’s position. Most large companies have strongly come out against an employer mandate, but having the support of the nation’s largest private employer could “give momentum to one of the most-contentious aspects” of the health care legislation currently being discussed on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the NYT reminds readers that not all health insurance is created equal. The paper looks into the fact that three-quarters of the people who were forced into bankruptcy by medical problems had insurance to note that even if everyone in the country were suddenly covered, it wouldn’t “be enough to fix what is wrong with the system” because many people have “what essentially is fake insurance,” as a former Cigna executive told lawmakers last week.

The LAT has a few more details about what may have been Michael Jackson’s last will, which the WSJ wrote about yesterday. An entertainment attorney who worked with Jackson produced the will yesterday, and the family was apparently evaluating its validity. The will names Jackson’s mother as guardian of his children and orders all of his assets to be moved into the Michael Jackson Family Trust. Meanwhile, there was talk of a memorial service, but like most Jackson-related developments, there was “a storm of rumor, supposition and educated guess interrupted by snatches of information more intriguing than complete.” One source tells the paper there are discussions about holding a memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which would be followed by a procession to the Neverland Ranch.