Politics Today is CBSNews.com's inside look at the key stories driving the day in politics, written by CBS News Political Director Steve Chaggaris:
** Obama tries to keep politics out of his economic tour...
** White House gives different stories on Afghanistan withdrawal...
** The Senate finally starts voting on health care amendments...
Allentown Morning Call's Brian Callaway, "Of all the stops President Barack Obama is expected to make as his nascent jobs tour arrives in the Lehigh Valley today, perhaps none will be more sobering than his scheduled visit to the Allentown Metal Works -- it employs some of the region's last remaining steelworkers.
"Manufacturing was once the backbone of the Valley's economy, as it was for the nation's economy. Bethlehem Steel alone had more than 31,000 workers at its flagship plant during its heyday.
"'The Steel' is gone now, of course, and the United Steelworkers of America has only about 1,000 members left in the Valley. A relative handful of those workers are employed by Allentown Metal Works -- fewer than before the recession, and far fewer than possible if manufacturing's fortunes rebound."
Mr. Obama's visit to Allentown comes a day after his "jobs summit" at the White House where he solicited ideas "from scores of business and labor leaders on how to reverse an economic downturn that has sent the unemployment rate to its worst level in a generation," writes the Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas.
"The event at the White House was held on the eve of a new government report expected to show that more than 120,000 jobs were lost in November, with unemployment still hovering above 10 percent.
"Having spent weeks developing a new Afghanistan war strategy and pushing a healthcare bill, Obama wanted to demonstrate that he has not lost sight of the jobs issue...
"Not to be outflanked, the Republicans held a dueling jobs conference with their own economic experts. Republicans blamed the grim jobs picture on Obama's policies. They contend the administration's $787-billion stimulus package has failed and warn that passage of the healthcare overhaul will undermine conditions for economic progress."
"Saying thanks but no thanks to Obama was a matter of scheduling, Dent spokesman Greg Bortz said, not politics. 'It's not a slight,' Bortz said.
"Area Democratic Reps. Paul Kanjorski, Allyson Schwartz and Chris Carney accepted the White House offer and will be at the LCCC address.
"The White House has avoided casting Obama's visit to the Lehigh Valley in a political light. At least electoral politics won't be front and center in the White House to Main Street Tour."
Also, the Wall Street Journal's Neil King Jr. and Naftali Bendavid report, "TARP Cash Targeted in Jobs Push": " Democrats have begun to hash out how to pay for a mix of unemployment benefits, state aid, tax credits and other incentives they hope will turn around the country's surging unemployment rate.
"Funding for the initiatives would come from two sources. For job creation, the principal target would be a pot of more than $150 billion that was set aside last year to bail out the tottering financial system. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she would like to tap the Troubled Asset Relief Program fund to pay for any 'investments that we have in jobs.'"
In an interview with USA Today, the president insisted "the federal government can't be counted on for most of the money this time," write the newspaper's Richard Wolf and Justin Hyde. "The two-year, $787 billion economic stimulus package he signed in February won't be the model for the next round of initiatives, he said.
"'It is not going to be possible for us to have a huge second stimulus, because frankly, we just don't have the money,' Obama said.
"He ruled out an immediate effort to reduce the $1.4 trillion budget deficit until the economy rebounds further and the 10.2 percent unemployment rate begins to decline. Focusing on the deficit too soon, he said, could risk a 'double-dip recession.'"
5869074AFGHANISTAN: "The Obama administration is giving different explanations of its July 2011 deadline for the start of an Afghanistan troop withdrawal, assuring foreign officials that it applies only to the 30,000 to 35,000 additional U.S. troops that President Barack Obama is sending next year, but suggesting to Congress that it covers all U.S. forces," report McClatchy Newspapers' Jonathan S. Landay and Saeed Shah.
"The conflicting versions suggest that the administration is trying to reassure U.S. allies in the region and elsewhere that the U.S. won't cut and run, while telling a concerned American public, Congress and Democratic Party that it has an exit strategy.
"State Department official Vikram Singh said the U.S. would start redeploying its forces in July 2011 'based on conditions on the ground.' He insisted that the administration isn't making a distinction between the forces that are already in Afghanistan and the ones that are coming.
"'Either you're starting to draw down or you're not,' he said.
"However, a senior administration official, who requested anonymity as a matter of policy, said the drawdown date applies 'primarily' to the surge troops.
LA Times' Christie Parsons and Julian E. Barnes, "Obama homed in on an Afghanistan pullout date": "In President Obama's Afghan war sessions, a mantra arose: to make the biggest military impact in the shortest time."
USA Today's Susan Page, "Poll: Narrow majority supports Obama's Afghan strategy"
"President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan over the objections of fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill is straining a relationship already struggling under the weight of an administration agenda that some Democratic lawmakers fear is placing them in a politically vulnerable position," write the New York Times' Carl Hulse and Adam Nagourney.
"The result has been a subtle shift in which Democrats in Congress are becoming less deferential to the White House, making clear that Mr. Obama will not always be able to count on them to fall into line and highlighting how Mr. Obama's expansive ambitions are running up against political realities."
5696255HEALTH CARE: " After days of delay, Senate Democrats pushed ahead Thursday with their drive to pass a healthcare bill by Christmas, approving the first amendment to their giant bill: a measure to expand women's access to preventive services such as mammograms," reports the LA Times' Noam N. Levey.
"The proposal by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), which passed on a largely party-line 61-39 vote, would authorize the federal government to require insurers to cover women's preventive care and screenings without co-payments.
"The amendment is expected to cost about $940 million over 10 years. It had the backing of numerous groups representing patients, doctors and women. ...
"Democrats easily defeated, by a 58-42 vote, a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to send the bill back to committee to restore more than $400 billion in proposed cuts in what the federal Medicare program will pay insurance companies and healthcare providers over the next decade."
"[A]ction on the bill has slowed sharply, with the war in Afghanistan and the struggling economy moving to the forefront of lawmakers' concerns," write the Wall Street Journal's Greg Hitt and Naftali Bendavid. "Also, the Senate must pass an increase to the nation's borrowing authority this month, reducing time for debating the health measure. On health, a divisive fight looms next week on abortion, which could take several days to work through...
"Asked about the year-end crunch, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said, 'We're going to do our very utmost to do health care before the end of the year.' ...
"One sticking point for Democrats is a proposed government-run health-insurance plan. Some Democrats who are cautious about the idea have begun talking with Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) about ways to break the deadlock. 'I'm hopeful that we can get our entire caucus united,' Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) said after meeting with Sen. Carper late Thursday."
Washington Post's Shailagh Murray, "Sen. Reid has recipe for getting health-care deal done": " Despite the prospect of a potentially tough 2010 reelection fight, the combative Democratic leader has assumed full ownership of a 2,074-page bill that would cost $848 billion over 10 years and institute the most far-reaching changes to the system in generations. As the Senate debate unfolds on the chamber floor, Reid has remained burrowed in his office, looking past the daily political drama playing out and, as he said recently, 'getting my deals done.'..
"For Reid, success means emerging from the marathon debate with a bill backed by the 60 senators needed for final passage, something he hopes will come to pass as soon as late next week. Democrats' concerns will be addressed in individual amendments, but many others will be crowded into an omnibus 'manager's amendment,' a package Reid is expected to offer at the end of the process that will include many of the perks and fixes that members of his caucus are requesting. ...
"As of late Thursday, the abortion issue remained the biggest point of contention. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is among a handful of potential defections who could foil Reid in his quest for 60 votes, is expected to offer an amendment as soon as Friday that would ban abortion coverage in the Senate bill's scaled-back public plan. Nelson's measure would also prohibit people who receive tax credits for private health-care coverage from buying policies that include abortion services. Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Nelson declared flatly that if his amendment fails, 'I won't vote to move [the bill] off the floor.'"
5815932WHITE HOUSE CRASHERS: "The head of the Secret Service accepted full responsibility Thursday for last week's security breach at President Barack Obama's first state dinner, but he said that the president and Vice President Joe Biden were never in danger from a party-crashing couple who shook hands and posed for pictures with them," reports McClatchy Newspapers' William Douglas.
"Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told the House Homeland Security Committee that his agents were at fault for allowing uninvited Washington socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi into a lavish state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He said the Salahis had shown their passports when asked for identification, then were allowed in.
"Sullivan told the committee that three uniformed agents had been put on administrative leave in the wake of the incident.
"'In our judgment, a mistake was made,' he told the committee. 'In our line of work, we cannot afford even one mistake. I fully acknowledge that the proper procedures were not followed. ... This flaw has not changed our agency's standard, which is to be right 100 percent of the time.'
"He added: 'This is our fault, and our fault alone.'"
"Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), the committee's ranking Republican and a driving force behind the hearing, harped on the gaping absence at the hearing," adds the Washington Post's Jason Horowitz. "'I asked Desirée Rogers to come here,' King said, not to 'make this a vendetta' but because he wanted to know why the social secretary's staff hadn't worked at gate checks with agents, as they had in past administrations. 'We're getting half the picture,' he said."
Washington Post's Neely Tucker, "Virginia will probe Salahis' Polo Cup": " The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Thursday began a formal investigation into the America's Polo Cup, the business entity run by Michaele and Tareq Salahi that the couple says raises funds for their charitable organization, as a host of other problems became apparent for the couple."
"Palin is scheduled to arrive at Fort Hood at 6 p.m. Friday in her bus, the Daily Herald's Amanda Kim Stairett writes. "She has an appearance scheduled earlier that day at Legacy Books in Plano.
"She is scheduled to sign autographs at the store through 9 p.m. Palin does not plan to address the crowd or conduct interviews, said Chris Haug, Fort Hood spokesman. No other events are planned during her visit to Fort Hood, he added. Palin's book tour takes her to Virginia, Iowa and South Dakota this weekend."
Palin writes on her Facebook page, "Ready and anxious to see America's finest at Ft. Hood tomorrow. My heart is with every military mom, dad, spouse, child, grandparent... every supporter of our proud men and women in uniform."
Meantime, yesterday, "Speaking to the conservative talker Rusty Humphries ... Palin left the door open to speculation about President Obama's birth certificate," writes Politico's Ben Smith.
"'Would you make the birth certificate an issue if you ran?' she was asked (around 9 minutes into the video above).
"'I think the public rightfully is still making it an issue. I don't have a problem with that. I don't know if I would have to bother to make it an issue, because I think that members of the electorate still want answers,' she replied.
"'Do you think it's a fair question to be looking at?' Humphries persisted.
"'I think it's a fair question, just like I think past association and past voting records -- all of that is fair game,' Palin said. 'The McCain-Palin campaign didn't do a good enough job in that area.'"
Associated Press' Justin Juozapavicius and Beth Fouhy, "Sarah Palin's fans push for 2012 presidential run"
Politico's Ben Smith, "Sarah Palin embraces anti-abortion role"
Washington Post's Michael D. Shear and Dan Eggen, "Some Obama donors say they feel left out"
USA Today's Justin Hyde and Richard Wolf, "President Obama says he won't put focus on blacks' troubles"
Associated Press, "Oprah visits White House for Christmas special"
Wall Street Journal's Jon Hilsenrath, "Bernanke Fights for Second Term"
Washington Post's Carrie Johnson, "No. 2 official leaving Justice Department"
Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Eric Stirgus, "Reed lead grows after count"
Politico's Jonathan Martin, "Fight to replace Ted Kennedy fizzles"