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Briefs (left)

Justices Take Up Campaign Finance, Redistricting Cases

By Linda Greenhouse

The most pressing and unsettled questions in election law are those that concern the role of money, the role of race and the role of partisanship. The Supreme Court will take up all three this week.

Hearing arguments in a campaign finance case from Vermont on Tuesday and a congressional redistricting case from Texas on Wednesday, the justices will venture onto a shifting landscape where the controlling legal precedents are either unclear or unstable and the prospect for fundamental change looms on the horizon.

On many of the questions, the new Roberts court will almost certainly be as closely divided as was the Rehnquist court. Two years ago, for example, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was succeeded last month by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., cast the decisive fifth vote to uphold major provisions of a new federal campaign finance law. The justices were unable during that same term to agree on a majority opinion in a case from Pennsylvania on whether the Constitution prohibits a partisan gerrymander.

While decisions in the new cases are not likely until June, the arguments this week could offer a hint of the court’s direction and appetite for forging a new consensus.

U.S. and Colombia Reach Trade Deal After Two Years of Talks

By Juan Forero

After nearly two years of negotiations, the United States and Colombia agreed on Monday to a trade deal that would be the largest Washington has concluded with a Latin American country since signing a free trade pact with Mexico in 1993.

“For the good of the country, we have completed this negotiation,” Colombia’s commerce minister, Jorge Humberto Botero, said in Washington after talks ended with an agreement at 4 a.m. on Monday.

The pact was a rare victory in Latin America for the Bush administration, which in the last two years has had to redirect efforts away from fashioning a 34-country trade bloc to negotiating deals with individual countries. Big players like Brazil have balked at talks because of hurdles like American farm subsidies, while Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, has led the charge against free trade on ideological grounds.

President Bush signed a pact with Central America last summer, and American negotiators concluded a trade deal with Peru in December. The United States is working on a pact with Ecuador, which is under pressure now that its two much larger neighbors have reached agreements. .

New Bill Aims to Cover Half
The Massachusetts Uninsured

By Scott Helman and Scott S. Greenberger

The state Senate, in an 11th-hour bid to keep $385 million in annual federal Medicaid money coming into Massachusetts, will debate a slimmed-down healthcare bill Tuesday that aims to cover roughly half of the state’s uninsured residents through new subsidized insurance plans.

Senate President Robert E. Travaglini released the new plan after talks with the House over a more comprehensive healthcare measure deadlocked. The state, he said, faces an “emergency situation” because it could lose the Medicaid money if the Legislature doesn’t act immediately on a federal mandate: begin moving the 500,000 to 600,000 uninsured people into insurance plans.

Unlike House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and Governor Mitt Romney, Travaglini has long advocated a gradual approach to covering the uninsured, laying out a broader plan last year to cover about half of them.