**President Obama wraps up G-8 meeting; meets with the Pope; heads to Ghana...
**Congress continues wrangling over health care legislation...
**Senate gears up for Sotomayor hearings...
**Burris to retire; another Ensign bombshell; latest on Palin...
Agence France-Press previews the president's first meeting with the Pope: "Barack Obama's meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Friday carries more weight than normal for the new US president, the White House said. ... Obama, a committed Christian, will have his first audience with the pope since becoming president shortly after the end of a three-day Group of Eight summit in the Italian town of L'Aquila. He will be accompanied by his wife Michelle.
"After taking office in January, Obama ended his predecessor George W. Bush's restrictions on government funding for embryonic stem cell research and for family planning groups that carry out or facilitate abortions overseas.
"'The fact however is that, given the influence of the Catholic Church globally as well as in the United States, and frankly given the influence of the Catholic Church and Church social teaching on the President himself, he recognises that this is much more than your typical state visit,' said [Deputy National Security Adviser Denis] McDonough. 'I do believe that it's fair to say that the President very much looks forward to this visit.'"
Bloomberg News' Lorraine Woellert, "Democrats Link Pope's 'Economic Justice' Plea With Obama Agenda"
Politics Daily's David Gibson, "Pope Benedict's Meeting with Obama a Setback for Conservative Catholics"
Earlier today, the president and the members of the G-8 met with the Outreach 5 (Egypt, Algeria, Senegal, Nigeria, Libya, Ethiopia). Mr. Obama then met unilaterally with South African President Jacob Zuma.
"After two days of talks focused on the economic crisis, trade and global warming, the final day of the meeting in Italy looked at problems facing the poorest nations, with a U.S.-led focus on aid for farmers rather than emergency food supplies."
Politico's Josh Gerstein, "Barack Obama on the defensive at G-8"
Los Angeles Times' Jim Tankersley and Christi Parsons, "Despite Obama's pledge, G-8 makes little headway on global warming"
New York Times' Peter Baker and Rachel Donadio, "Group of 8 Is Not Enough, Say Outsiders Wanting In"
"Accra's international airport has received a brisk makeover - shiny new flags adorn lamp posts along major routes and large billboards have been erected depicting Ghanaian President John Atta Mills alongside Mr Obama, with the proclamation 'Partnership for Change' and the Akan phrase 'Akwaaba' meaning welcome home. The presence of Obama merchandise and paraphernalia is nowhere near the volume which accompanied other recent events such as the December 2008 election, or the 50th anniversary celebrations in March 2007. But it has been growing daily."
However, adds Amanor, there are realistic expectations among some Ghanaians too.
"While many people on the streets and callers to local radio programmes have expressed excitement at the coming of the first American leader with African roots, there is also a competing amount of scepticism, even cynicism. As one clothing trader in an Accra market put it: 'What President Bush brought to us last year, we didn't see anything, nothing, even those mosquito nets, that's why people are not making much noise about Obama.'
"He's made a different choice, and he's been quite straight about the reason. Despite Kenya's unspeakable beauty and its recent victories against the anopheles mosquito, the country's still-stinging corruption and political unrest confirms too many of the headlines we in the West read about Africa. Ghana confounds them. ...
"No one's leaked me a copy of the president's speech in Ghana, but it's pretty clear he's going to focus not on the problems that afflict the continent but on the opportunities of an Africa on the rise. If that's what he does, the biggest cheers will come from members of the growing African middle class, who are fed up with being patronized and hearing the song of their majestic continent in a minor key."
Associated Press' Todd Pitman, "Africa still on back burner for Obama"
The Hill's Sam Youngman, "High expectations ahead of historic trip to Africa"
HEALTH CARE: "Conservative House Democrats are demanding significant changes before they can support a sweeping health care overhaul, forcing the House to join the Senate in delaying action on President Barack Obama's top domestic priority," reports the Associated Press' Erica Werner.
"The Blue Dog Democrats' list of demands came on the eve of House Democratic leaders' planned unveiling of their final bill Friday. The bill release was pushed back to Monday at the earliest and Democratic leaders agreed to devote Friday to meetings with the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs to work through their concerns. These include the need for more cost containment measures, protections for small businesses and a focus on rural health care."
5099149"Paying for the roughly $1 trillion, 10-year cost of the health care legislation is arguably the biggest hurdle confronting lawmakers and the White House as they pursue President Obama's top policy goal of extending health coverage to all Americans and curtailing the steep rise in the cost of medical care," adds the New York Times' David M. Herszenhorn.
Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown and David Rogers, "Max Baucus on how to pay for health care"
Today, "At 11:00 AM EDT, Vice President Biden, Secretary Sebelius and Director of the White House Office of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle, along with several small business employers and employees from around the country, will hold a roundtable discussion on the rising costs of health care for people who work in small businesses and small business employers, and the impact those high costs have on middle-class families across America," per the White House.
"David Cone, the former major-league pitcher, presumably will echo President Obama's claim that Judge Sotomayor, then a federal district court judge in Manhattan, saved baseball when she ended the 1995 strike," writes the New York Times' Kate Phillips.
"And the Republicans have lined up Frank Ricci himself, the firefighter from New Haven, Conn., who just won a discrimination case in the Supreme Court, when it overturned a ruling by a panel of judges that included Judge Sotomayor."
As for Sotomayor's chances of being confirmed, Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence says it's basically a slam dunk.
"For Republicans and conservatives, the political facts of life are these: Democrats have 60 votes in the Senate, enough to end a filibuster. Obama won Latino voters last year two-to-one. Sotomayor would be the first Latina on the court. The American Bar Association gives her its top rating of 'well qualified' for the position. Her opinions are painstakingly analytical and relatively non-controversial. She's expected to vote much like the retiring David Souter.
"Bottom line: Barring some bombshell, she's headed for confirmation. There's no point in making it even harder for GOP candidates to win Hispanic votes by going all out against a nominee who won't dramatically change outcomes and probably can't be stopped."
New York Times' Charlie Savage, "Hundreds of Pages Withheld on Sotomayor"
Associated Press' Jesse J. Holland, "Mock exercises prepare Sotomayor for hearings"
New York Times' Michael Powell, Serge F. Kovaleski and Russ Buettner, "To Get to Sotomayor's Core, Start in New York"
CBS News' Andrew Cohen, Sotomayor's Confirmation To-Do List
CBS News has confirmed what the Chicago Sun-Times broke on Thursday: Burris is set to announce today that he won't run for a full term next year. No one should be surprised by this.
His controversial appointment by ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the subsequent ethics questions that surrounded his appointment directly resulted in virtually destroying any viability of a Burris candidacy, and the polls as well as his lackluster fund-raising revealed that. He reportedly is set to disclose only raising $20,000 in the last three months. Added to the anemic $845 he raised in the first three months of the year and you have a campaign that can't compete.
He would have had to raise millions to fight in a tough Democratic primary next year against potential candidates State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and RFK son Chris Kennedy. With Democrats turning their back financially on Burris, the writing was on the wall for him: he just couldn't compete without strong fund-raising.
His move also gives the Democrats a better shot at holding the seat formerly occupied by President Obama. Republicans were salivating at the possibility of running against the damaged Burris. Now, they'll most likely have a much more well-financed and formidable Democratic opponent. Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., is the biggest name to jump in on the GOP side.
On the heels of the Burris news, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hit Kirk with a web ad, saying he opposes "Obama at every turn." The ad says, "Kirk wants you to think he's a moderate. But his record proves otherwise."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent an e-mail in response: "We're not normally in the business of promoting our opponents' attacks ads but thought it was important for you to see this one because it makes clear that the Democrats are already running scared.
"Clearly, in the aftermath of the Blagojevich corruption case, the Democrats recognize they are in trouble in Illinois and what an embarrassing prospect it would be to lose President Obama's Senate seat to a Republican next November - despite the advantage of having the President, his Chief of Staff and the second-most powerful United States Senator all calling the Prairie State home."
The gifts came in the form of $12,000 checks from each parent to each member of the Hampton family, totaling $96,000 -- small enough amounts to make them exempt from IRS reporting requirements and exempt from gift taxes.
"None of the gifts came from campaign or official funds, Coggins said, nor were they related to any campaign or official duties. He said Ensign has complied with all applicable laws and Senate ethics rules."
And Coggins is technically correct. Ensign personally violated no laws or Senate ethics rules, it seems. However, this revelation only add to the growing pile of political issues he's dealing with.
The Las Vegas Sun's J. Patrick Coolican and Lisa Mascaro add: "Hard work may not restore Ensign's political future, Republicans said. For many Republicans, the payments by the parents of the 51-year-old senator were viewed as debilitating fodder for late-night humorists.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said of Ensign's situation: 'It's not good.' Cornyn took over for Ensign after the 2008 elections as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is charged with getting Republicans elected. Cornyn said he has heard no talk of Ensign stepping down. Asked if Ensign can rebound, Cornyn said, 'I just don't know the answer to that.'"
GOV. SARAH PALIN, R-ALASKA: "The former fiance of Gov. Sarah Palin's 18-year-old daughter says he thinks he knows why the Alaska governor is resigning — concerns over money," reports the Associated Press' Mary Pemberton.
"'I think the big deal was the book. That was millions of dollars,' said Johnston, who has had a strained relationship with the family but now says things have improved. Palin has a book deal, but compensation details haven't been disclosed. The governor has said she is facing more than $500,000 in legal fees.
"'It is interesting to learn Levi is working on a piece of fiction while honing his acting skills,' Palin family spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. Johnston made his comments at a news conference Thursday at the office of his attorney, Rex Butler."
As for Palin's future as a draw for GOP candidates around the country, the Hill's Molly K. Hooper reports that "vulnerable" Republicans are running the other way.
5132045"Republicans facing tough elections in 2010 don't want Sarah Palin campaigning with them.
"Though the soon-to-be-former Alaska governor is seen as popular with the conservative grass roots, several Republicans said she'd help them by staying home in Wasilla. Several of these Republicans hail from districts or states carried in 2008 by President Obama, a frequent target of Palin's criticism. Republicans must keep these districts and win others where Obama is popular if they are to gain seats next year.
Meantime, yesterday, New Jersey GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie told a local radio host isn't asking Palin to come help him.
Today at 8 p.m. ET, "Governor Palin will also be a guest on The Michael Dukes radio show," per a press release. "The program ... can be heard ... on the Internet at kfar660.com. Hunting advocate and rock musician Ted Nugent will be a call-in guest on the radio program as well."
RealClearPolitics' Mike Memoli, "Palin Skipping NGA Meeting"
CBSNews.com's Brian Montopoli, "The Dicey Politics of a Second Stimulus"
Cincinnati Enquirer's Jessica Brown, "Biden defends fed stimulus"
Albany Times-Union's Christen Gowan, Jordan Carleo-Evangelist and Leigh Hornbeck, "Biden's visit pitches recovery, confidence"
Washington Post's Brady Dennis and David Cho, "AIG Seeks Federal Blessing for Another Round of Bonuses"
Washington Post's Paul Kane and Ben Pershing, "Secret Program Fuels CIA-Congress Dispute"
Wall Street Journal's Cam Simpson, "Senate Resists Changes on Immigration"
Gallup Poll, "Obama Job Approval Drifts Down to 58% So Far in July"
GOV. MARK SANFORD
Associated Press' Jim Davenport, "E-mails detail Sanford's Argentina trip plans"
2009 NJ Governor: Associated Press, "Christie won't ask Sarah Palin to campaign in N.J."
2009 VA Governor: Roanoke Times' Michael Sluss, "McDonnell rolls out ideas for creating jobs"
2009 VA Governor: Associated Press' Bob Lewis, "McDonnell takes swipe at Kaine over jobs fund"
2010 AL Governor: Politics Daily's Patricia Murphy, "Can Artur Davis Win in Alabama?"
2010 FL Senate: Orlando Sentinel's Aaron Deslatte, "Gov. Crist smashes fundraising record in U.S. Senate race"
2010 NY Senate: The Hill's Aaron Blake, "New York Democrats torn over Senate race"
2010 PA Senate: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's James O'Toole, "Orie eyes run for Specter's Senate seat"
Wall Street Journal's Suzanne Sataline, "Senator's Return to the Fold Ends Albany Gridlock"
LA Times' Richard Simon, "No Michael Jackson resolution in Congress"