Morning Briefing: March 13, 2012

Voters are heading to the polls today in Mississippi and Alabama, where Mitt Romney has pulled into a virtual three-way tie with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Romney has yet to win a Bible-belt primary in either of his presidential runs, while the Gingrich campaign is in desperate need of a strong performance. Just last week, Gingrich spokesman R.C Hammond acknowledged that the campaign needs to sweep both contests if Gingrich is to remain a “credible candidate.”

A much-talked about new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds voters souring on President Obama over high gas prices, but “oil experts and economists” say a president has almost no control over prices, which are the product of an enormous global market and years of policy making and economic forces, the Post reports. One expert called the notion that politicians can affect oil prices “preposterous.”

Congress remains deeply unpopular with the American public, but Democrats continue to fare better than Republicans,” according to the Post/ABC poll. The poll found a particularly wide gap among women, 39 percent of whom approve of Democrats, compared to 26 percent for Republicans.

The Senate will debate, and likely pass this week, a massive highway and public transportation funding bill. The bill could help boost the economy by infusing money for construction programs and help shore up failing infrastructure.

Republicans in Congress are losing Democratic support for their plan to repeal Medicare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board. The Republicans want to end the Medicare cost-saving board, and pay for the plan with medical malpractice reform. Democrats support the first part of the plan, but are not in favor of the latter.

A judge in Wisconsin struck down the state’s voter identification law yesterday, saying that it was unconstitutional because it would deny people the right to vote.

Obama administration officials are discussing reducing American forces in Afghanistan faster than previously planned in light of increasingly strained relations, believing that the mission has “reached the point of diminishing returns.” Obama warned against “a rush for the exits” yesterday, but the administration is nonetheless considering a reduction of “at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday that the soldier responsible for this weekend’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians could face the death penalty. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq in 2010, though it’s not clear yet if that is related to the attack.

A truce is now in place between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, according to a senior Egyptian security official. Four days of violent exchanges have resulted in 25 deaths, and both sides say that the Egyptian-mediated truce will help “to begin a comprehensive and mutual calm.”

And finally: Dick Cheney canceled a visit to Canada because the country is too dangerous. Cheney and his daughter, Elizabeth, were slated to speak in Toronto about American politics, but canceled over fear of protests, deciding, “it was better for their personal safety they stay out of Canada,” the event promoter said.