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Monday, November 14, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Ryann Gastwirth

First glance
Thanksgiving now looms as a welcome respite but perhaps unwelcome deadline for the currently down-and-out majority party.

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President Bush departs for Asia this morning and, except for a quick stop back in Washington early next week, is basically gone through the holiday.  Bush leaves the White House at 11:15 am, stops tonight at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska to make remarks on the war on terror, and then proceeds to Kyoto, South Korea, Beijing and Mongolia.  After briefly returning to the White House next week to pardon the Thanksgiving turkey, he's onto Crawford.

Back home, his party's leadership on both sides of the Hill will try to regroup this week and pass, on the Senate side, an extension of some of the Bush tax cuts out of the Finance Committee, and in the House, a $54 billion spending-cut package.  Both efforts were temporarily scuttled last Thursday due to insufficient support from Republican moderates.

Although these twin failures got less attention than either the Libby indictment or the Democrats' victories in last Tuesday's elections, they represent the low point of the Bush presidency in terms of his party's capacity to govern and get his agenda through.  As we wrote last Friday, both bills were set up by Hill Republicans as measures of their ability to lead, and instead became measures of the deep discord among moderates and conservatives in the party's ranks -- particularly in the DeLay-less House conference.  Taken together, the bills present Democrats with an opening to charge the GOP with seeking to simultaneously cut taxes for the wealthy and cut spending on the poor.

Also this week, Congress will focus on passing a flurry of spending bills by their Friday deadline, and House and Senate negotiators will try to reach an agreement to extend the Patriot Act, which is set to expire at the end of this year, and which Bush bills as a key component of the war against terror.  Another aspect of the WOT, the Cheney-McCain battle over US detainee policy, also moves to a critical stage this week as House and Senate negotiators try to reconcile their versions of the defense funding bill, NBC's Ken Strickland notes.  Only the Senate version contains McCain's amendment that would ban cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees.  The White House has threatened to veto any final bill that includes that measure.

Meanwhile, a drumbeat has started among rank-and-file Hill Republicans to quit town for the rest of the year when Thanksgiving rolls around.  Many in the GOP ranks "have decided there is no reason for Congress to stay in session once spending decisions are complete.  If appropriations can be finished before Thanksgiving, many members want to adjourn for the year, possibly returning in December to rubber stamp conference reports."  So writes lobbyist and former longtime Hill aide William K. Moore of strategic consulting firm Public Strategies to clients.  Moore sees the chance of of a pre-Thanksgiving adjournment as about 40%.  If it happens, he says, the departure time is more likely next Tuesday than this Friday.

Once Congress adjourns for the year, the next time they're back in session for real business is January 2006, a year in which Republicans won't want to take up much controversial legislation beyond whatever they see as necessary to motivate the party base.  Also remember the every-man-for-himself state of mind Republicans would be in if they leave town soon, close on the heels of the Libby indictment, last Tuesday's beating, and a spate of "new low" national polls showing Bush's approval rating in the 30s.

Due today: The upshot of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's forced closed session from two weeks ago -- the assessment by a bipartisan group of six US senators of how the Intelligence Committee is proceeding with "Phase II" of its investigation into pre-war intelligence.  But, Strickland says, Republicans have long considered this date "arbitrary" and, for now, have no plans to hold any public event or news conference around the delivery of the assessment.  Obviously, Democrats see it differently and may schedule their own event.  However, both sides admit the committee's investigation won't likely be completed until early next year.

Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito continues his courtesy calls on US senators this week.

And one of Bush's two signature accomplishments from his first term is back on the front burner: Enrollment for the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit begins tomorrow amidst a welter of media coverage of seniors commenting on how complicated the enrollment process is.

Bush's Asia tour
Knight Ridder previews Bush's Asia trip, in which he'll be dealing will "with a host of current and future problems - the nuclear threat from North Korea, the possibility of an avian flu pandemic and tensions between China and its neighbors."

The AP notes that "White House aides had looked to a November packed with foreign travel as a way to help divert attention from Bush's domestic troubles and slumping poll numbers."  Bush's first top is in Kyoto tomorrow for what aides "bill as the speech of the week on the power of democracy, not only to better individual lives but contribute to the long-term prosperity of nations...  The remarks will hold up such nations as Japan, Australia and South Korea as models because of their strong democratic traditions and willingness to help establish democracy in places like Afghanistan and Iraq...  But the speech is clearly aimed, at least in part, at communist China."

Bloomberg, on Bush's stop in Japan tomorrow, says "he's likely to find something unusual: a friendly reception from a foreign government."

Bush’s political challenges won’t get any easier with his Asia tour, the Sacramento Bee says.  “Bush is under growing pressure from Congress to confront China over the toll its economic rise has taken on textile, intellectual property and other interests in the United States.  Simultaneously, the Pentagon is sounding increasingly nervous about China's rapid military buildup.  And there's a new round of fresh worries about China's record on human rights.”

The Sunday Washington Post pointed out how the Administration's emphasis on democracy and human rights in dealing with other countries seems to take a back seat to economic concerns when it comes to China.  "Bush is pulled by competing factions within his own political coalition.  A powerful alliance of neoconservatives and Christian conservatives urges him to take on Chinese tyranny, particularly oppression of religion.  Yet the president seems more influenced by his party's business wing, which sees great opportunity and wants to integrate China into the international community."

USA Today presents Bush's one-week, four-nation tour in grid form.

The Bush agenda
The latest Newsweek poll has Bush's approval rating at a new low for that survey: 36%.

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein looks at the hard choices both parties must make in deciding how to proceed into the midterm election year.  "Bush can't ignore his base.  But if he stays this weak in the center, turnout alone probably can't protect the GOP next year.  The appointment of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice showed that Bush could appeal to conservatives and independents.  Now he needs to do it on bread-and-butter issues such as healthcare, energy and poverty."  Democrats, on the other hand, "have proved surprisingly disciplined at resisting many of Bush's plans.  What they haven't done is coalesce behind comprehensive solutions to the problems most concerning the country."

In advance of the start of enrollment tomorrow, USA Today tries to walk readers through the government's Medicare prescription-drug plan website:

The Boston Globe's coverage also focuses on how complicated the process is.

Bloomberg reports on the unusual coalition formed by top business organizations the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, together with the ACLU and "criminal-defense lawyers to oppose portions of the USA Patriot Act."  The Senate version of the act's extension accounts for these groups' desire to limit the FBI's ability "to demand... that companies turn over personal records of customers, suppliers and employees."  The House version does not.

Taxes and spending
Roll Call says the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to mark up the tax-cut extension late today, assuming they can reach agreement by then, whereas the timing of a House vote on the budget package is TBD.

USA Today says of both bills, "While tax-cut packages in both the House and Senate skew toward investors and other middle- and upper-income taxpayers, the spending cuts fall partly on programs aimed at lower-income Americans, such as student loans, food stamps and Medicaid."

Bob Novak writes about how GOP moderates are scuttling Republican priorities like the House budget bill.  “Actually, the Republican Party never has been so united ideologically, but the tiny moderate faction can provide the balance of power in the House and to a lesser extent the Senate.  To frustrated conservatives, moderates look like the tail wagging the Republican dog.  The events last Thursday suggest the folly of seeking ephemeral legislative victories by sacrificing principle.”

The Wall Street Journal says the still-outstanding spending bills, which face a Friday deadline, "reflect a major retrenchment for popular domestic programs after a decade of steady growth.  The appropriations debate has received far less attention amid the focus on Republican five-year tax and deficit-reduction bills.  But whether it is passenger rail service or income tax collections, the effect on government operations is more immediate.  Also, the cuts from health and education programs could make it harder for Republican leaders to win moderate votes for their budget agenda."

National security politics
The AP covers the back and forth on pre-war intelligence on the Sunday shows, including National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's assertion that Bush did not manipulate intelligence, McCain's suggestion that "Democrats have a right to criticize the war but that it was disingenuous to claim that Mr. Bush lied about intelligence to justify it," and DNC chair Howard Dean's charge that Bush did see more intel than Congress did, despite the White House's argument that everyone saw the same information.

The Dallas Morning News writes up Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Joe Biden's speech to the Dallas Democratic Forum, in which he charged that Americans will soon catch on that the Bush Administration "'snookered and tricked'" them into war in Iraq.

Former Senate Intelligence Committee member John Edwards became the latest Democrat to say he regrets his vote for the war with a Sunday Washington Post op-ed.

Now that the House intelligence committee is looking into the leak of word about CIA black sites to the Washington Post, the Post says reporter Dana Priest could wind up facing "the same dilemma that confronted Time's Matt Cooper and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller: whether to reveal confidential sources under threat of imprisonment."

Ethics
The Sunday Washington Post considered the possibility that Lewis "Scooter" Libby was trying to cover up greater than reported, and potentially illegal, involvement by Vice President Cheney in the CIA leak.

The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, reported over the weekend that the more time passes since the Libby indictment, the safer Karl Rove may be.  "Some lawyers believe that Mr. Fitzgerald might be hoping to obtain evidence against Mr. Rove from Mr. Libby.  Mr. Rove's camp believes he is likely to learn the prosecutor's final decision on an indictment within a matter of weeks, not months...  The question is what prosecutors might still be examining in Mr. Rove's conduct.  The most plausible scenario, several lawyers said, is that prosecutors suspect Mr. Rove hasn't been forthcoming in his testimony."

Sunday's Dallas Morning News wrote up White House spokesperson Scott McClellan's battle with the press over the CIA leak investigation.

"Justice Department prosecutors and attorneys for David Safavian, the indicted former Bush administration official, are battling over his request for 'tens of thousands of pages of documents' that he says are needed to prepare his legal defense.  The government argues that turning over those documents could disrupt its investigation into former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff," Roll Call reports.

The Alito nomination
The New York Times front-pages twin articles on the interest-group war over Alito.  One notes how liberal groups are seeking to move beyond abortion rights “and focus instead on subjects like police searches and employment discrimination.”  The other article profiles Bush ally Progress for America, which expects to spend at least $2 million on TV ads as Alito heads into his Senate hearings.

The Washington Times reports on a 1985 document in which Alito wrote that "'the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion'...  The document, which is likely to inflame liberals who oppose Judge Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, is among many that the White House will release today from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library...  A leading Republican involved in the nomination process insisted that this does not prove Judge Alito, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, will overturn Roe v. Wade."

Yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press , DNC chair Howard Dean held out the possibility that Democrats may filibuster Alito's nomination.

It's the economy
The Wall Street Journal previews Fed chair nominee Ben Bernanke's confirmation hearing tomorrow before the Senate Banking Committee, saying Bernanke "is likely to face some tough questions... on his advocacy of an inflation target, his views on the budget deficit and tax cuts and his independence from President Bush."

House Democratic campaign committee chairman Rahm Emanuel holds a conference call this afternoon (most likely at 2:30 pm, a spokesperson says) to discuss the House GOP leadership, oil company profits, and how Emanuel sees the two as being related.

2005 and 2006
Doug Forrester (R), in his first post-election interview, told the Newark Star-Ledger on Saturday that it was Bush's fault he lost to Jon Corzine (D) in New Jersey's gubernatorial contest.  "He said the public's growing disaffection with Bush, especially after Hurricane Katrina, made it impossible for his campaign to overcome the built-in advantage Democrats have in a blue state like New Jersey.  'If Bush's numbers were where they were a year ago, or even six months ago, I think we would have won on Tuesday,' Forrester said.  'Katrina was the tipping point.'"

Roll Call continues its coverage of House Democrats' jockeying for favor with Corzine, who has to choose someone to replace him in the Senate.

Democratic pollster Ruy Teixeira argues in a New York Times op-ed that Tim Kaine’s victory in Virginia’s exurbs smashed the belief that these areas are GOP strongholds.  “Does this mean the Democrats now have the advantage among exurban voters?  Not at all.  But it does mean that these voters are up for grabs, especially now that Mr. Bush's special status as leader of the war on terrorism has been eroded.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) arrives in China today with, the Los Angeles Times points out, "a large delegation that includes nearly two dozen campaign contributors who could get special access to Chinese officials and the governor himself."

His effort to curb state spending having been rejected last week, Schwarzenegger is now promoting "a statewide public works program that may be financed by a bond sale so large it would dwarf previous state borrowings."  In the process, he's "seizing an issue with wide bipartisan support in an effort to restore his image as a moderate, although his plan threatens to cause tension with some conservative allies who have long warned against more government borrowing...  Business groups acknowledge that the state may not be able to sell such a large bond issue unless lawmakers and voters alike go along with a tax increase to back it up."  - Los Angeles Times

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