JIM LEHRER: In other news today, a Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. commander in Afghanistan will send his formal request for additional forces by the end of the week. General Stanley McChrystal is expected to ask for up to 40,000 more troops; that would boost the U.S. commitment above 100,000.
But spokesman Geoff Morrell said the number involved could be reduced as President Obama and his team reconsider their strategy. And he dismissed reports that McChrystal might quit if he does not get what he wants.
GEOFF MORRELL, Pentagon press secretary: I dealt with yesterday a parade of e-mails and calls from reporters saying, “Oh, I hear General McChrystal is going to resign,” just absurd, absolutely ridiculous. And anybody who knows Stan McChrystal knows as much and they shouldn’t even bother asking the question.
JIM LEHRER: Later, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, said he endorsed the assessment that more troops are needed, but President Obama is now considering alternative strategies on the Afghan war, including one offered by Vice President Biden. A report in today’s New York Times said Mr. Biden proposed cutting U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan. The focus would then shift to hitting al-Qaida cells, mainly in Pakistan.
In Honduras, officials reported the first fatality in continuing clashes between police and supporters of the ousted president. Manuel Zelaya returned from exile on Monday and has been camped inside the Brazilian embassy. Riot police lined the streets outside the embassy today, enforcing a curfew. Violent clashes broke out last night, and police used tear gas to break up the crowd. One man was shot and killed, with more than 100 arrested.
A thick, orange coating fell from the skies over Sydney, Australia, today. It was the country’s worst dust storm in 70 years, and it covered the east coast.
We have a report narrated by David Harrison of Independent Television News.
DAVID HARRISON: A city famous for its stunning views today enveloped in a blanket of orange dust. Sydney woke to find its Harbour Bridge barely visible and across the water, it’s best-known landmark, the Opera House, hidden behind a mask of fine particles, blown in from the outback by 100-kilometer-per-hour winds.
AUSTRALIAN MAN: I’m 72 years old, and I’ve never seen that in my life before. It’s the first time ever. So it’s really a phenomenon.
DAVID HARRISON: But millions of tons of topsoil in the atmosphere caused chaos for air passengers. And in the city, dangerously high levels of pollution created one of the busiest days on record for paramedics, as hundreds complained of breathing difficulties.
AUSTRALIAN WOMAN: We are actually seeing a lot of elderly people and young people getting affected today by this dust.
AUSTRALIAN MAN: If you’re older or very young, it can, in fact, be even fatal.
DAVID HARRISON: Many carried on as normal, as experts put the once-in-a-lifetime storm down to high temperatures and severe winds. Sydney’s skies are clearing, but forecasters fear the orange cloud is now heading towards the Great Barrier Reef.
JIM LEHRER: The dust clouds were expected to reach New Zealand as soon as tomorrow.
The health care battle in the U.S. Senate turned today to Medicare. Republicans on the Finance Committee tried to block $500 billion in cuts to Medicare providers. They said it’s bound to mean cuts in some benefits. Democrats disagreed and blocked efforts to change the bill.
SEN. JON KYL, R-Ariz.: I think, Mr. Chairman, that it’s disingenuous to say that Congress can cut this much spending from Medicare without having an adverse effect on seniors’ access to health care. It’s just absolutely counterintuitive.
SEN. MAX BAUCUS, D-Mont.: Those who support this amendment essentially are harming seniors. They’re hurting the solvency of the trust fund. I don’t think seniors want to do that.
JIM LEHRER: President Obama has insisted that cutting payments to doctors would not affect Medicare benefits. But yesterday the Congressional Budget Office said it would.
Still, Vice President Biden told a group of senior citizens in Maryland today, “Nobody is going to mess with your benefits. Nobody.”
On the economy, the Federal Reserve reported “economic activity has picked up” since August, and it left a key interest rate at a record low, near 0 percent.
But on Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 81 points to close at 9,748. The Nasdaq fell more than 14 points to close at 2,131.