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Jan. 22, 2010 at 12:00 PM
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Some Dems warm to smaller healthcare bill

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Some U.S. House Democrats indicated they may be open to considering a scaled-back version of healthcare reform legislation, aides said.

While House leaders publicly haven't committed to a leaner approach, one leadership aide said the idea is gaining traction with the rank-and-file caucus membership, The Hill reported.

"Today the momentum of support was for sequencing this bill and bringing provisions to the floor individually," the aide said Thursday.

Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts lost Senate Democrats their filibuster-proof majority. Since then, the party has been trying to figure out how to go forward on healthcare legislation.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said he has talked about paring down massive House and Senate bills into smaller bites, the Washington publication said.

"Both of the (House and Senate) bills as they stand now are dead," Pascrell said. "One of the things the caucus was in agreement on was that we can't take up the Senate bill, and that we would be arrogant if we simply took up our own bill again."

Pascrell, saying 25 Democrats back his move, said his plan would include incorporating health insurance reform measures into a patient's bill of rights context, working on creating a competitive market, eliminating the private insurance anti-trust exemption and addressing liability reform in a stepped process, The Hill said.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., one of the architects of the House bill, intimated a scaled-back effort would fail to achieve the goals Democrats established for healthcare reform.

"We have ... (to) keep our eye on the objectives of covering all Americans, holding down healthcare costs, providing reforms in the insurance system so they can't keep people from getting coverage," Waxman said.

Mitchell returns to Middle East

JERUSALEM, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Another round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy was under way Friday as U.S. envoy George Mitchell toured the region to try to jump start peace talks.

Mitchell arrived in Jerusalem Thursday to discuss restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian and Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

"Recognizing the complexities and difficulties outstanding, we will pursue until we achieve that objective," Mitchell said. "That's my purpose here today."

One Middle East expert told the Monitor both sides seemed too fixed in their positions to give much ground.

"I don't think there's any sense of an upcoming breakthrough," said Jonathan Spyer, an Israeli-Palestinian conflict expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. A lack of progress could be traced to disappointment with the level of U.S. involvement, and Palestinian and Israeli political issues, he said.

"There's no urgency on the Palestinian side," Spyer said. "They're not willing to be seen as making concessions that will be criticized by Hamas. It seems the Palestinians don't need or want negotiations with Israel."

Israel positioned itself as ready to negotiate, "but it isn't going to agree to a more extensive settlement freeze that includes East Jerusalem," Spyer told the newspaper. "The parties to the conflict right now have no reason to move further than they have."

Add to the internal political situations remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama in a Time interview published Thursday that his administration "overestimated" its ability to get both sides back to the table, he said.

Gates says Taliban part of Afghan politics

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The Taliban are part of Afghanistan's political scene, but they must shed their violence before reconciliation begins, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

Gates told a group of Pakistani journalists Friday militants must participate in elections, not oppose education and not kill local officials before they can reconcile with the Afghan government, The New York Times reported.

"The question is whether the Taliban at some point in this process are ready to help build a 21st century Afghanistan or whether they still just want to kill people," Gates said at the residence of Ann Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

U.S. officials have offered qualified support to a proposed Afghan initiative to provide jobs, security and social benefits to Taliban followers who defect. While saying many Taliban followers may be willing to mesh with Afghan society, Gates also voiced skepticism about whether the militant leadership was ready to work with the Afghan government.

"The question is, what do the Taliban want to make out of Afghanistan?" the Pentagon chief said. "When they tried before, we saw what they wanted to make, and it was a desert, culturally and in every other way."

Also on Friday, Gates told senior Pakistani military officers the country's army must rethink how it fights insurgencies, much as the U.S. military did after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly 10 years, the Times said.

"Fighting along the Afghan border and in the tribal areas has required dramatically different skill sets and equipment than preparing for a potential conventional conflict with another country's army," Gates said in remarks at Pakistan's National Defense University.

United Nations discusses Kosovo

NEW YORK, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Serbian President Boris Tadic says he wants the United Nations Security Council to do something about the latest threats to the safety of his people.

In advance of his address to the council Friday, Tadic said Serbia would not recognize Kosovo and Metohija as independent, Serbia's B92 reports.

He took issue with Croatia's outgoing president who threatened to use military force to cut the corridor on the Bosnia side of the Sava river valley in the event of a referendum on the independence of Srpska.

"That's a dangerous and provocative statement," Tadic said. "No one should bring up the use of the military and call for a war epilogue in the Balkans."

Tadic said Friday's session would provide a chance to discuss regional security.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reported the security situation in Kosovo was relatively peaceful but potentially fragile from September to December of 2009.

Obama looking anew for TSA chief

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The Obama administration is looking for a new aviation security agency chief amid heightened concern of another possible al-Qaida air attack, officials say.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is reportedly devoting much of her attention to aviation security in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines jet heading to Detroit from Amsterdam, The Wall Street Journal said. She met in Spain Thursday with European justice ministers to discuss increasing air security.

U.S. President Barack Obama had nominated former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Erroll Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration. But Southers withdrew earlier this week in the face of Republican opposition to collective bargaining rights for the agency's workers.

White House officials declined to say what comes next for the TSA post. The agency's day-to-day operations are being run by career staff and it took the White House nearly eight months to nominate Southers.

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