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Politics Today: Obama Tests Political Capital At Fundraiser

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:

**President Obama's approval still high; cracks appear in other areas...

**Health care reform timing slipping?

**Mr. Obama's Iran dilemma...

**Benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees not enough for some...
**Ensign affair latest...

(CBS/AP)
PRESIDENT OBAMA TODAY: The latest CBS News/NY Times poll that shows the president's overall approval rating holding steady at 63 percent. However, cracks have started to appear regarding Mr. Obama's handling of the economy and the auto industry.

Only 41 percent approve of how he's dealt with GM and Chrysler and 60 percent feel the president has no plan to deal with the growing federal deficit. In terms of dealing with the economy, it seems his ambitious proposals may be on the wrong page in one way: 52 percent say he should focus on deficit reduction instead of spending to stimulate the economy.

Meantime, today Mr. Obama holds a series of meetings at the White House, including meetings with his Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Tonight, the president attends a fund-raiser for the Democratic Congressional and Senatorial Committees, which is reportedly expected to raise $3 million. Eyebrows are raised around D.C. after that number was reported, especially since less than two weeks ago, the GOP held a comparable fundraiser, headlined by Newt Gingrich, that pulled in over $14 million.

"Democrats reject comparisons between the two fundraisers, noting that the Republicans count everything that they raised in the two months prior to the event as going toward their dinner — and that the GOP committees sell 'membership' packages that include tickets to the event, among other perks," reports Politico's Jonathan Martin.

"Still, the Democrats are using the Republicans' big haul as a way to encourage contributions to their own dinner. 'Don't believe what you've heard about a GOP in disarray,' DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch wrote in an e-mail to donors Tuesday. 'They're mad, they're organized and they're determined to return to what they see as their rightful place: ruling the halls of Congress. How do I know? $14.4 million. That's how much Newt Gingrich raised during a fundraising dinner last week for Republican House and Senate committees.' And Democrats are suggesting privately that they'd be raising more if the White House had played a more active role. 'They didn't even send out a surrogate e-mail,' said a prominent Democrat involved with the dinner. "

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
HEALTH CARE REFORM: "Wrestling with how to fund a massive overhaul of the nation's healthcare system, congressional Democrats began to acknowledge Wednesday that their ambitious schedule for sending President Obama legislation by October may be slipping," writes the Los Angeles Times' Noam N. Levey. "The Senate Finance Committee, which Democrats had hoped would begin public debate of a healthcare bill this month, appears likely to delay that until July, congressional aides said. Lawmakers are struggling to find ways to control the cost of a bill that one estimate put at $1.6 trillion over the next decade.

"At the same time, Democrats are confronting mounting criticism from Republicans that they are moving too fast. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is working on one of the blueprints for an overhaul, would not say when the panel would get to work marking up a bill, as the process of debating amendments is called. 'We'll be ready when we're ready,' he told reporters. 'We're not there yet.'"

Meantime, "Partisan anger flared Wednesday as senators began the public drafting of legislation to remake the health care system. By day's end, lawmakers had settled in for a long, hard slog that may not fit with President Obama's goal of signing a bill within four months," add the New York Times' Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn. "'This is about as historic as it gets for all of us,' Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said as he opened a day-long session of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions...

"Mr. Dodd presided over the health committee in the absence of its chairman, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who is battling brain cancer. Senator Dodd said he hoped the committee would finish its work and approve a bill by June 26. But he told his colleagues, 'My intent is not to jam anything, force anything on people.' Within 15 minutes after the session started Wednesday, Republicans began to protest… Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, said Democrats had made some grave errors. 'You advance legislation by focusing on areas of compromise, not strife,' Mr. Hatch said. 'Now unfortunately we are beginning a partisan exercise on perhaps the most important legislation of our lives. I am personally somewhat, well, actually, very disappointed, because I wanted a thoughtful bipartisan compromise that could have become a lasting legacy for my dear friend, Ted Kennedy.'"

(AP)
"The Finance Committee was supposed to release draft legislation Wednesday and begin voting on it next week," writes the Associated Press' Erica Werner. "But the committee announced that votes would wait, possibly until after July 4, as senators sought to retool their proposals to cut the cost by more than one-third, from an initial $1.6 trillion to less than $1 trillion. Of the five major panels, including Kennedy's, working on health care, Finance has the best odds of coming up with a bipartisan proposal that could overcome gathering opposition...

With Kennedy absent from the Capitol after a diagnosis of brain cancer, his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee met under the leadership of Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. Senators were considering a bill topping 600 pages, plus 388 amendments, but with the most contentious issues — whether to create a new public plan to compete with the private market, and whether to require employers to cover their workers — still unwritten."

Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown and Alex Isenstadt, "Health reform hits Senate speed bumps"

Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman, "Senate Slate Has Timing Up in the Air"

Washington Post's David S. Hilzenrath, "Health-Care Cuts Could Shift Costs"

5095028IRANIAN ELECTION: "As tens of thousands of Iranian protesters take to the streets in defiance of the government in Tehran, officials in Washington are debating whether President Obama's response to Iran's disputed election has been too muted," report the New York Times' Helene Cooper and Mark Landler. "Mr. Obama is coming under increased pressure from Republicans and other conservatives who say he should take a more visible stance in support of the protesters. Even while supporting the president's approach, senior members of the administration, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, would like to strike a stronger tone in support of the protesters, administration officials said.

"Other White House officials have counseled a more cautious approach, saying harsh criticism of the government or endorsement of the protests could have the paradoxical effect of discrediting the protesters and making them seem as if they were led by Americans. "

"President Obama and his advisers have struggled to strike the right tone, carefully calibrating positive messages about the protests in an effort to avoid giving the government in Tehran an excuse to portray the demonstrators as pro-American," adds the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler. "The administration's stance is practical -- the real power in Iran rests with Khamenei, not with whoever is president -- but pressure for a shift in policy will mount if the protests continue to grow and begin to threaten the government's hold on power. Obama already has been criticized -- notably by his Republican presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- as abandoning 'fundamental principles' of support for human rights...

"One of Obama's signature pledges during last year's campaign was to reach out to the Islamic republic and seek to end three decades of estrangement between the two countries. A central objective is to dissuade Iran from attempts to build a nuclear weapon, a development that Western nations argue would destabilize the Middle East. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is purely for civilian uses. "

Associated Press' Steven R. Hurst, "Iran presents Obama with policy dilemma"

(CBS)
SAME-SEX BENEFITS: "With gay leaders, government officials, and Vice President Joe Biden standing beside him in the White House Oval Office, President Obama Wednesday signed a presidential memorandum granting a limited number of federal employee benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers," writes the Washington Blade's Lou Chibbaro Jr. "Noting that his action provided as many employee related benefits to LGBT federal workers as possible under the constraints of existing laws, the president said the memorandum 'marks a historic step towards the changes we seek' for LGBT federal workers through legislation pending in Congress...

"Among those identified for civil service employees are long-term care insurance and the use of sick leave to care for a domestic partner and non-biological, non-adopted child. According to the White House statement, a separate set of benefits has been identified for same-sex partners of U.S. Foreign Service workers, including use of medical facilities at overseas posts, medical evacuation privileges from such posts, and inclusion of same-sex families in overseas housing allocations. Noticeably absent from the list is health insurance benefits, something that White House officials said the administration is prohibited from providing to same-sex partners of federal workers without a change in both the civil service personnel statute and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA."

5041015"The package of domestic partnership benefits that President Obama established for federal workers on Wednesday drew the loudest protests from some of those it was intended to help, gay men and lesbians who criticized the move as too timid," adds the New York Times' Jim Rutenberg. "Their outcry put the administration on the defensive for an action it had hoped would help address increasing complaints from gay activists who supported Mr. Obama's election but now say he is ignoring the issues he promised to address, like a repeal of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gay men and lesbians in the military...

Fueling the protest, the president's move came just days after the administration filed a legal brief defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act — which defines marriage as between a man and a woman only — in a case challenging the law. 'I think it's insulting,' David Mixner, a prominent gay rights advocate, said of the new benefits plan. 'Without minimizing how it will improve lives to some extent, what they said to us today is we will give you family leave, some things like that, but the most important thing, health care, we're not giving you.'"

For more on this issue, check out CBSNews.com's "Washington Unplugged", now LIVE daily at 12:30pm ET.

ENSIGN AFFAIR: "A former aide to Sen. John Ensign confirmed through her attorney that she had an extramarital affair with Nevada's junior senator, whose once thriving political career took a further tumble Wednesday when he quit his Senate Republican leadership position," writes the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Steven Tetreault. "A day earlier, Ensign admitted during a brief news conference that he had cheated on his wife with the aide, whom he did not name. Daniel Albregts, a Las Vegas attorney, issued a statement Wednesday confirming that Cindy and Doug Hampton 'are the individuals referenced by Senator Ensign during his press conference.' Cindy Hampton, 46, worked for Ensign's two political committees in 2007 and 2008, at the same time her husband, Doug, 47, served as a top aide on Ensign's personal staff...

(CBS)
"According to Ensign's aides, Doug Hampton had approached a television news network about the affair, prompting Ensign to go public. This could not immediately be confirmed. A Washington source said Doug Hampton approached Ensign earlier requesting money, with the implication that it would ensure the couple's continued silence as the senator sought to continue his climb in the ranks of the Republican party."

"Neither the FBI nor Metro Police in Las Vegas is investigating any claim that Sen. John Ensign's former mistress or her husband tried to blackmail the senator for hush money about the affair, spokesmen for the agencies confirmed Wednesday," report the Las Vegas Sun's J. Patrick Coolican, Jeff German and Lisa Mascaro. " Word that neither the FBI nor Metro is investigating was just one in a series of developments Wednesday that raised still more questions about Ensign's relationship with the Hamptons. 'There are a lot of legitimate questions,' said a Nevada Republican operative who was granted anonymity to speak freely.

Chief among them:
-- Has Ensign contacted authorities about the alleged extortion? If not, why not?

-- What other reason could Ensign have for revealing the affair?

-- Were payments to the Hamptons, documented in Senate and federal election records, intended to ensure their silence about the affair?

-- Was the subsequent employment of Doug Hampton at Ensign-connected political consulting firm November Inc. also intended to win his silence?

-- Did Ensign help secure a consulting contract for Hampton from Allegiant Air, which is a significant contributor to Ensign's campaign funds?"

Los Angeles Times' Ashley Powers and Richard Simon, "John Ensign's affair dims his ambitions"

ALSO TODAY: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner testifies to the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee on the administration's plan to restructure the financial regulatory system.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has cleared her schedule after breaking her elbow in a fall yesterday:

FINANCIAL INDUSTRY REGULATIONS

LA Times' Walter Hamilton and Jim Puzzanghera, "Wall Street isn't buying Obama's reform plan"

Wall Street Journal's Sudeep Reddy, "Not Everyone Is Cheering Fed's New Role"

Washington Post's Binyamin Applebaum, "Obama Defends Financial Overhaul"

Associated Press' Anne Flaherty, "Democrats plan to pass financial overhaul quickly"

SOTOMAYOR

Raleigh News & Observer's Kristin Collins, "La Raza leader surprised to be drawn into Sotomayor debate"

WAR FUNDING BILL

Associated Press' Jim Abrams, "War spending bill may face difficulty in Senate"

OBAMA ADMINISTRATION

NY Times' Neil A. Lewis, "White House Defends Inspector General's Firing"

Wall Street Journal's Evan Perez, "U.S. Grapples With Gitmo List"

FUTURE RACES

2010 FL Senate: Washington Times' Donald Lambro, "Crist rival maps out strategy for 2010 Senate race"

2010 IL Senate: Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet, "Lisa Madigan, weighing Senate bid, meets with Obama, Jarrett, and Emanuel at the White House"

2010 MO Senate: Springfield News-Leader's Chad Livengood, "Purgason weighing bid for U.S. Senate seat"

2010 NH Senate: Manchester Union Leader's Kathryn Marchocki, "Ayotte in running for Senate seat?"

2010 PA Senate: Delaware County Daily Times' Alex Rose, "Specter slated to lay out platform for Delco Dems"

ETC.

Washington Post's Alec MacGillis interviews John Edwards, "Hope From A Humbler Patch"

ESPN, "The Power Game - Washington's most influential are suddenly taking up hoops, all in the hopes of getting a run with President Obama"

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