8 a.m. ET: This week marks a turning point for the two thorniest issues of Barack Obama's young presidency, as the Senate begins debate on its health-care bill and Obama announces his decision on the way forward in Afghanistan.
How Obama "manages those two challenges will provide the biggest trial yet of his ability to use the mandate he claimed more than a year ago to bring about substantial change in a political system that often conspires against it," the New York Times reports, noting that he "is heading into this pivotal moment with his job-approval ratings down and much of his initial shine tarnished by months of political combat." The Wall Street Journal takes a similar tack, writing that "a cascade of events this week ... is challenging the Obama White House's strategy of launching so many initiatives so fast in its first year," adding a mention of Thursday's "jobs summit." Walter Shapiro says "the week's calendar of challenges should make us all ponder why anyone without an intense masochistic streak -- man or woman, Democrat or Republican -- would willingly take on the no-good-options-anywhere challenges of the 21st century presidency."
As debate begins Monday, "the all-hands-on-deck Democratic coalition that allowed the health care reform legislation to advance is coming apart," the Associated Press writes. "The debate is expected to last at least several weeks. Democrats would like to pass a bill by Christmas, but have yet to find a formula that can win 60 votes," according to the Wall Street Journal. With so many amendments expected, Jonathan Cohn writes, "it's hard to imagine opponents of reform stopping a bill from passing, [but] it's not at all hard to imagine the opponents of reform drastically altering the bill before it goes forward."
The biggest remaining sticking points: Abortion restrictions and the public option. Ben Nelson's vote -- if it's available at all may well hinge on the former issue -- while Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln are all strong opponents of the latter. USA Today looks at eight key players in the Senate debate, including those five plus Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell and Roland Burris (he says he will vote against the bill if it doesn't include a "strong" public option). Some moderates want a public option trigger, others want a system allowing states to opt in, rather than opt out. Politico writes that Tom Carper's compromise plan -- "a national insurance program that is neither run nor financed by the government" -- could be popular among moderates "because it wouldn’t be a direct government expansion, but it would also satisfy liberals because it would be a national health insurance program designed to compete with private insurers from Day One."
The merits of the bill remain the subject of vocal debate. "Experts remain deeply divided over whether the legislation would rein in soaring health-care costs or simply add millions of people to a system that is already driving the nation toward bankruptcy," the Washington Post reports. Touching on another hot-button issue, the Washington Times writes that "hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants could receive health care coverage from their employers" in both the House and Senate bills. Politico plays up a new study from MIT's Jonathan Gruber, everyone's favorite health-care wonk, finding that "under the Senate’s health-reform bill, Americans buying individual coverage will pay less than they do for today's typical individual market coverage, and would be protected from high out-of-pocket costs."
On Afghanistan, the outlines of what Obama will propose Tuesday have already been made public: He will call for the deployment of 30,000-35,000 additional troops. Obama "plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war," the New York Times writes, though officials cautioned that the time frame "would not be tied to particular conditions on the ground nor would it be as firm as the current schedule for withdrawing troops in Iraq." Republicans believe that talking now about an exit strategy is a bad idea, with Jon Kyl saying Sunday it was "exactly the wrong way to go." At the same time, the Washington Post reports that Obama "has offered Pakistan an expanded strategic partnership, including additional military and economic cooperation, while warning with unusual bluntness that its use of insurgent groups to pursue policy goals 'cannot continue.'"
And the surge in military personnel will also include a surge in public White House optimism on the ability of the Afghan government to help. "Obama administration officials are starting to replace their grim public assessments of the battered country with praise for the skills and idealism of its officials and its progress in important areas," the Los Angeles Times reports. On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal says "the Obama administration has soured on a call from its top commander to double the size of the Afghan police and army, reflecting the White House's continued skepticism about the Afghan government even as the U.S. prepares a surge of troops into the country, people familiar with the matter say."
Obama's Afpak plan is getting a mixed reception on Capitol Hill. Carl Levin and Jack Reed both said on the Sunday shows that Obama needed to explain how he planned to shift most responsibility for combat to the Afghan military. And the cost of the conflict has also become a key sticking point, with Lindsey Graham and Richard Lugar both suggesting that health-care reform either be postponed or scaled back to keep attention and funding flowing to Afghanistan.
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