Tuesday’s Headlines: Hearings on Toyota Begin; Senate Advances Jobs Bill

BY Jason M. Breslow  February 23, 2010 at 9:15 AM EDT

As the first of three Congressional hearings on the safety standards at Toyota are set to begin Tuesday, the president of the automaker’s U.S. operations is apologizing for the company’s slow handling of its vehicles’ problems.

“Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith efforts,” James Lentz said in remarks prepared for his appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Lentz, who’s likely to face very stern questioning from lawmakers, pins the sudden acceleration problems experienced by an estimated 2,000 Toyota and Lexus drivers on improperly placed floor mats and “sticky” gas pedals.

He arrives on Capitol Hill one day ahead of the carmaker’s president, Akio Toyoda, who in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Tuesday writes, “It is clear to me that in recent years we didn’t listen as carefully as we should–or respond as quickly as we must–to our customers’ concerns … I recognize that we must do better — much better — in responding to safety issues.”

Lawmakers will also question Toyota officials about the carmaker’s lobbying arm, which employs eight former Congressional and executive branch officials. Toyota has spent nearly $25 million lobbying lawmakers in the last five years, reports the New York Times. As the paper also points out, “A number of lawmakers have personal financial ties to Toyota as well.”

Yet not everyone is so sure Congress is too close to Toyota. The Atlantic’s John Hudson wonders, “Does the U.S. government have it in for Toyota?”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and drivers who experienced problems with their Toyotas will also appear before the committee on Tuesday.

The hearings will be a “worldwide event,” David Sheperdson of the Detroit News told Gwen Ifill on Monday’s NewsHour. Ultimately, he said, “it’s going to come down to, does the public and Congress believe that he and the company are being truthful with the American people, they have done everything they could to prevent this and prevent things from — going forward?”

For the record, Toyota is an underwriter of the NewsHour.

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In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate voted 62-30 Monday to advance a $15 billion jobs bill. Five Republicans, including newly elected Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, joined 57 Democrats to keep the bill alive.

“The result marked a breakthrough for Democrats, who have been frustrated since President Obama came to office by their inability to attract much Republican support for their agenda,” writes Ben Pershing in the Washington Post.

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The U.S.-led offensive in southern Afghanistan entered a tenth day Tuesday and was marked by a grim milestone: the 1,000th U.S. combat death in the country.

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Dick Cheney spent the night in a Washington, D.C., hospital after experiencing chest pains. An aide to the former vice president said in a statement that Cheney, 69, is “resting comfortably” as doctors evaluate him.