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Politics Today: Obama Makes Critical Decisions on Afghanistan

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:

** A new objective in Afghanistan...

** CBO report boosts Democrats' health reform argument...

** Huckabee in hot water for commutation...

(CBS)
AFGHANISTAN: "President Obama travels to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point tonight to lay out his expected troop buildup in Afghanistan. Before leaving D.C., he will meet with Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and he and Biden will also meet with congressional leaders to talk about the administration's strategy in Afghanistan.

"President Obama plans to send 30,000 to 35,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, U.S. officials said Monday, the largest single U.S. deployment since the 2003 invasion of Iraq," report the Los Angeles Times' Christi Parsons and Paul Richter.

"The additional troops, Obama's second major escalation of the conflict this year, will bring the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 100,000. But even as he dramatically escalates the war, Obama is expected to emphasize that there are limits to the length of U.S. military involvement in the region, White House officials said, though he is not prepared to set concrete deadlines for withdrawal.

"Obama will announce his newest Afghan strategy in a televised speech tonight before cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It represents his second attempt to forge a joint strategy for dealing with Taliban fighters and other insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition to the military buildup, aides say the president's speech will lay out plans for civilian efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and benchmarks for measuring progress."

Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman and Peter Spiegel, "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a preview Monday, told a New York audience that, in addition to defeating terrorist groups, the U.S. was committed to stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying it is 'directly connected to our own national security, to regional security, and to global security.'

"'As long as Afghanistan and Pakistan struggle to control their borders and extend their sovereignty to all their territory, the door is open to bad actors, and the result can be an environment in which terrorist groups thrive,' she said."

"British Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- with whom Obama spoke Monday -- offered a preview of aspects of the strategy when he addressed Parliament," write the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson.

"The military objective, Brown said, is 'to create the space for an effective political strategy to work, weakening the Taliban by strengthening Afghanistan itself.' Over the next year, he said, the Afghan army will be expanded from 90,000 to 134,000 troops, with 10,000 of them going to Helmand province, where U.S. Marines and British forces have focused their fight against the Taliban. Further increases are envisioned for later.

"The number of Afghan policemen in Helmand will increase immediately to 4,100, Brown said, and the size of the police training academy in Helmand is to be doubled. Within six months, the coalition is to finalize a plan for overall police reform with Afghan President Hamid Karzai."

(AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
"The administration was sending its special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, to Brussels on Tuesday to begin briefing NATO and European allies about the policy," reports the New York Times' Eric Schmitt.

"He will be joined at NATO headquarters there on Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who will brief NATO foreign ministers in his capacity as the senior allied commander.

"Before leaving for West Point on Tuesday, Mr. Obama will meet with more than two dozen Congressional leaders at the White House to discuss his plan. Mr. Obama spent much of Monday calling allied leaders.

"He spoke for 40 minutes with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who signaled that France was not in a position to commit more troops. There are currently 3,750 French soldiers and 150 police officers in Afghanistan…

"Mr. Obama also called President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, and he met at the White House with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia."

Meantime, "former Vice President Dick Cheney slammed President Barack Obama for projecting 'weakness' to adversaries and warned that more workaday Afghans will side with the Taliban if they think the United States is heading for the exits," report Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei.

"In a 90-minute interview at his suburban Washington house, Cheney said the president's 'agonizing' about Afghanistan strategy 'has consequences for your forces in the field.'

"'I begin to get nervous when I see the commander in chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small 'p' political reasons, where he's trying to balance off different competing groups in society,' Cheney said...

"During the interview, Cheney laced his concerns with a broader critique of Obama's foreign and national security policy, saying Obama's nuanced and at times cerebral approach projects 'weakness' and that the president is looking 'far more radical than I expected.'"

On the other hand, it's looking like one prominent liberal Democrat is close to getting behind Mr. Obama's Afghanistan plan: Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

"Kerry is poised to endorse the outline of President Obama's plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, a position that would put him at odds with a number of fellow Democrats in Massachusetts and in Congress," report the Boston Globe's Michael Kranish and Joseph Williams.

" Kerry has tentatively decided to back Obama's new strategy, but wants to go over details, including precise troop numbers, with the president at a White House meeting today, said a Kerry aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision is not final. ...

"Kerry's support is considered crucial because of his experience as a Vietnam War veteran and antiwar leader in the 1970s, and his current post as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If Kerry were to turn strongly against Obama after months of trying to shape the president's new policy, it could influence wavering Democrats and undermine Obama's effort."

One hawkish Democrat, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., however, isn't sold on the plan, reports Politico's David Rogers.

"Murtha — just back from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan — said Monday that he never got a clear definition of what constitutes an 'achievable victory' for the United States and fears that American commanders are assuming more time for the war effort than voters at home will allow.

"'I am still very nervous about this whole thing,' Murtha told Politico. 'If you had 10 years, it might work; if you had five, you could make a difference. But you don't have that long.'"

5696255HEALTH CARE: "Long-awaited debate over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul kicked off in the Senate with lawmakers trading bitter partisan words over the measure to remake one-sixth of the U.S. economy," writes the Associated Press' Erica Werner.

"The legislative struggle is expected to last for weeks in a test that pits GOP senators determined not to give ground against Senate Democrats determined to deliver on Obama's signature issue.

"The 10-year, nearly $1 trillion legislation includes a first-time requirement for most Americans to carry insurance, greatly expands the Medicaid federal-state insurance program for the poor, and would require insurers to cover any paying customer regardless of their medical history or condition.

"On Monday each side offered the first of what are likely to be dozens of amendments, with the measures seemingly designed as much to court a skeptical public as to reshape Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's 2,074-page bill."

"The Obama Administration hailed a congressional report that predicted most Americans will pay no more for insurance coverage under health-care legislation being debated in the U.S. Senate," reports Bloomberg News' Alex Nussbaum.

"On average, 134 million Americans insured through large employers will see no rise in premiums and may pay 3 percent less than they would if Congress failed to pass a health-care overhaul plan, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said yesterday. Subsidies also will lower costs as much as 59 percent for 18 million people buying their own insurance.

"The agency released its analysis as the Senate began debating the biggest revamp of U.S. health care in four decades. Senator Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who requested the study, said it proves coverage can be expanded without boosting expenses for those already insured. Republican leaders said premiums will still rise for millions of Americans."

New York Times' Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn, "'The C.B.O. has rendered a fundamental judgment that this will reduce the deficit and reduce people's premium costs,' said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who huddled with Senate Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill on Monday. 'All the Republican leadership will guarantee you is the status quo.'

"But Republican senators like Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said the report validated their concerns. They focused on the prediction that unsubsidized premiums in the individual insurance market, less than a fifth of those with health insurance, would rise an average of 10 percent to 13 percent…

"Administration officials continued to reach out to lawmakers in both parties to try to build support. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said she met Monday for 45 minutes with Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, to discuss her concerns about the legislation."

Washington Post's Lori Montgomery, "Senate health bill gets a boost"

5815932WHITE HOUSE CRASHERS: "E-mails turned over to the Secret Service show that Tareq and Michaele Salahi had sought a top Defense Department official's help to gain access to last week's White House state dinner," report the Washington Post's Michael D. Shear and Jason Horowitz.

"People familiar with the inquiry into how the Salahis were able to attend Tuesday's gala, even though they weren't on the official guest list, said the Salahis exchanged e-mails with Michele S. Jones, special assistant to the secretary of defense and the Pentagon-based liaison to the White House. It was unclear how well the Salahis know Jones, but Jones includes the Salahis' lawyer, Paul W. Gardner, as one of her 50 friends on Facebook…

"'There was e-mail correspondence confirming they were legitimately supposed to be there,' said Casey Margenau, a close friend of the couple. 'They understood they were invited.'

"I did not state at any time, or imply that I had tickets for ANY portion of the evening's events,' Jones said in a statement released by the White House late Monday. 'I specifically stated that they did not have tickets and in fact that I did not have the authority to authorize attendance, admittance or access to any part of the evening's activities. Even though I informed them of this, they still decided to come.'"

Meantime, " Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) asked Michaele and Tareq Salahi to appear before his panel and explain how they slipped passed Secret Service checkpoints without a dinner invitation," writes The Hill's Eric Zimmerman. "Thompson has also asked Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan to testify.

"'The intent of this administration may be openness and transparency, but a security breakdown that allowed anyone who looked the part to walk off the street into a state dinner is a slap in the face to the Secret Service employees who put their lives on the line to protect our form of government and its leaders,' Thompson said.

"The Homeland Security Committee has previously investigated charges of mismanagement and insufficient resources at the Secret Service.

"Thompson hinted that the hearings could lead to changes in Secret Service leadership.

"'My confidence in the management of the Secret Service hangs in the balance,' he said in a statement."

4620389MIKE HUCKABEE: New York Times' Kate Zernike, "When Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister then serving as governor of Arkansas, granted clemency to Maurice Clemmons nine years ago, he cited his age: Mr. Clemmons was 16 when he began the crime spree for which he was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.

"Now, Mr. Clemmons is being sought as the suspect in the killing of four uniformed police officers, execution-style, on Sunday as they sat in a coffee shop near Tacoma, Wash., writing reports.

"Mr. Huckabee, now a Fox News talk-show host, has been leading the pack of possible Republican contenders for president in 2012. But the killings of the police officers is focusing renewed attention on his long-contentious record of pardoning convicts or commuting their sentences…

"The commutation of Mr. Clemmons's sentence was routine enough that it failed to make a list of Mr. Huckabee's 10 'most publicized' prison commutations compiled by an Arkansas newspaper in August 2004. And if it turns out to be a case in which a parole had gone bad, it will be difficult to pin responsibility solely on Mr. Huckabee, because many others made decisions that kept Mr. Clemmons out of prison."

"The conservative blogosphere unleashed a torrent of criticism against Mike Huckabee Monday after a man whose sentence he commuted as Arkansas governor was suspected of gunning down four police officers in Washington state over the weekend," reports Politico's Andy Barr.

"'The man being sought by police was granted clemency by former GOP Arkansas Mike Huckabee despite his violent history and vehement protestations from prosecutors and victims' family members,' wrote conservative Michelle Malkin on her widely read blog. 'This disaster is just one of Huckabee's ill-considered clemency legacies.'

"'This isn't Huckabee's first Horton moment,' Malkin continued, referring to the convicted murderer who raped a woman during a weekend furlough program supported by then-Massachusetts governor and later Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Willie Horton was featured prominently in damaging ads from George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign painting the Massachusetts Democrat as soft on crime."

Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence, "Huckabee White House Chances Look Slim to None After Police Slayings": "The instant Huckabee's name came up in connection with the Clemmons case, the words 'Willie Horton' passed through the mind of every political junkie in the land. Horton, a convicted murderer, raped a woman after failing to return to a Massachusetts prison after a weekend furlough. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democrats' 1988 nominee, never recovered from the picture the GOP painted of a weak, criminal-coddling chief executive. The Washington police slayings are the political equivalent of five Willie Hortons, says Max Brantley, editor of the liberal alternative weekly Arkansas Times."

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