Today's Papers

Light at the End of Housing Slump?

The New York Timesleads, while the Wall Street Journaland USA Todaygo high, with new data that suggest there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for the housing market. Eight cities saw increases in real estate prices in May, and an index that tracks home prices in 20 metropolitan areas increased 0.5 percent in May from April. When adjusted for seasonal factors, the index was “virtually flat,” rather than down. These surprisingly strong numbers joined a slew of other indicators that have also shown positive signs in recent months and raised hopes that the housing market has hit bottom. The WSJ leads its world-wide newsbox with the Senate judiciary committee voting 13-6 to send Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate. Only one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.D., voted for the nomination.

The Washington Postleads with an overview of where health care legislation stands. The Senate finance committee is expected to finish negotiations in the next few days and vote on a plan before the recess that begins Aug. 7. Assuming the group of six bipartisan senators who are negotiating in the committee can agree on a plan, it’ll likely end up abandoning many of President Obama’s priorities. And while it may anger most Democrats, it could also make it more difficult for Republicans to resist. USAT leads with campaign-finance records showing that the lawmakers who are leading the fight against allowing generic drugs to compete sooner with expensive biotechnology drugs list pharmaceutical companies as one of their biggest contributors. President Obama has proposed that drug companies should have seven years of exclusive rights, but several lawmakers are pushing for 12 years. Cutting the period of exclusivity could save the government billions of dollars in health care costs. The Los Angeles Timesleads with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finally signing a budget to close California’s huge deficit, but not before using his line-item veto power to cut $500 million more that will affect children’s health care, AIDS treatment and prevention programs, and the elderly, to name a few programs. Democrats expressed anger over the move, but Schwarzenegger said he had no choice because lawmakers failed to completely close the budget deficit.

The positive signs from the residential real estate market hardly mean that everything is great. The Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller index rose for the first time in 34 months, but home prices are still down around 17 percent from a year earlier. Prices are still plunging in some of the worst-hit cities, including Las Vegas and San Francisco, and pessimists insist it’s only a matter of time before the upward trend reverses itself, mostly due to rising unemployment. But most economists agree the new data show there has been a “significant change in direction,” as the WSJ puts it. The NYT says buyers are taking advantage of good deals and getting the opportunity to examine properties methodically before finalizing a purchase. But the WSJ says that those in the market for heavily discounted properties frequently find themselves in bidding wars.

No one doubts that the Senate will confirm Sotomayor, but, if yesterday’s committee vote is any indication, it won’t be with any help from Republicans. The LAT highlights that the partisan opposition to Sotomayor shows that any future Obama nominees are unlikely to get Republican support “even if they have solid legal credentials and moderate records” and illustrates how filling the high court’s seats  has become “a test of party solidarity.”

The WP is alone in fronting news that Iraqi forces stormed a camp of an Iranian dissident group that had long been protected by the U.S. military. The raid of the camp that housed more than 3,000 people is seen as a stark example of how U.S. influence in Iraq is on the way down while Iranian clout is growing. Analysts say the raid seemed to be a clear attempt by Iraqi officials to assert their independence. The Iranian government had been demanding action for a while, but the United States long protected the group, which has supplied information about Iran’s nuclear program. The raid was violent, and members of the group say Iraqi forces killed four residents. The raid took U.S. officials completely by surprise, particularly since it coincided with a visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The NYT fronts, and everyone else goes inside with, the Iranian government releasing 140 prisoners at a time when a growing number of accounts of abuse and torture in the country’s prisons have outraged many. Relatives of the imprisoned are speaking out, as are some of the protesters who have been released in the past few weeks. Independent human rights organizations say more than 1,000 people have been arrested and almost 100 killed in the post-election violence. More violence is expected Thursday as the government refused permission for the opposition to hold a ceremony in honor of those killed. But opposition supporters quickly began circulating plans to commemorate the symbolically important 40 days since the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, among others who were killed in the June 20 demonstrations. The LAT highlights more evidence of divisions within Iran’s conservative circles after a group of hard-liners warned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he could be deposed.

The NYT got a look at internal documents, including e-mails, that show how BlackRock and Goldman Sachs were so eager to get a piece of the action from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation that they may have broken contracting rules. When Charles Millard became the head of the agency that oversees the retirement funds of bankrupt companies, Goldman and BlackRock began working their lobbying skills. Millard also used his position to set up meetings and interviews that could help him land a job once he left public service. The agency revoked the contracts last week due to questions surrounding the bidding process. The records reviewed by the paper “illustrate the clash between Washington’s by-the-letter rules on contracting and the culture of Wall Street, where deals are often struck over expensive meals,” notes the paper. “Both sides should have known better,” said a contracting expert. “What happened here is wrong, stupid and probably illegal.”

The WSJ gets word that Yahoo and Microsoft are close to reaching a deal to unite forces against Google that could be announced as early as today. Last year, Microsoft’s $47.5 billion takeover bid for Yahoo failed, but now it managed to get “what it wanted most from the Internet pioneer,” reports the WSJ, “huge volumes of queries that run through Yahoo’s search engine.” The deal could also help Yahoo get more money from its search-advertising business. It seems Yahoo will use Microsoft’s Bing brand, but users shouldn’t notice much difference on either of the company’s Web sites since the technology in question “operates behind the scenes.”

German Paul Biedermann rocked the swimming world yesterday when he beat Michael Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle with a time of 1 minute 42 seconds, 0.89 under Phelps’ world record. He beat Phelps by 1.22 yesterday. But the big focus wasn’t on Biedermann, who had earlier broken a seven-year-old record by 0.01 of a second, but his swimsuit. Biedermann even acknowledged that he was helped by his speedsuit but said it wasn’t his problem because the sport’s governing body, FINA, had allowed it. FINA has been working on implementing guidelines but yesterday said they may not go into effect until next spring. Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, practically went ballistic and threw a diva-sized rant. “Well, then, they can probably expect Michael not to swim until they’ve implemented it,” he said. “The sport is in shambles right now, and they better do something or they’re going to lose their guy who fills these seats.”

The NYT reports that a carbonated drink based on the series True Blood will go on sale in September. Omni Consumer Products reached a deal with HBO to produce Tru Blood, the drink that allows vampires to survive without having to munch on humans. The bottle would be similar to the one in the show and the drink would have “a crisp, slightly tart and light sweet tang.”