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Monday, November 28, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Ryann Gastwirth

First glance
With Thanksgiving over and the war-roiled Congress still out, President Bush reclaims the spotlight for the first time since he left for Asia two weeks ago.  Which makes his choice of subjects for this latest page-turning opportunity all the more notable.  Immigration reform cleaves the Republican Party in two, between centrist supporters of guest-worker legislation and conservative advocates of stricter border controls, and between the business interests who help bankroll the party and the base which supplies the grassroots muscle on Election Day.  The President's two-day effort to straddle this divide may be characteristically bold, but may also be the political equivalent of eating nails, given its potential to tear up the insides of the GOP.

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Taking a detour en route from Crawford to Washington, Bush stops in Arizona today and in Texas tomorrow.  Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) is co-sponsoring a guest-worker proposal that is similar to the one Bush has long promoted, and White House officials say Bush will talk about his guest-worker plan, but his itinerary suggests a heavier focus on border controls.  Today, he has a briefing with US Customs and "border protection" personnel at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson at 4:25 pm ET, followed by remarks at 4:40 pm ET.  He'll be accompanied by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.  Tomorrow, he visits the US Border Patrol headquarters in El Paso.

Bush's emphasis on immigration reform has indeed shifted over the past several months.  He talks far less than he used to about granting legal status to immigrants currently working in the country illegally -- a proposal opposed by conservative Republican lawmakers and activists, who call it "amnesty" -- and far more about tightening border controls, which does appeal to the GOP base.  The shift reflects the change in Bush's political fortunes as his popularity has slid.  Whereas White House and GOP officials once viewed the guest-worker plan as a means of appealing to Latino voters and thereby broadening the GOP coalition, they are now just as intent on maintaining their base and keeping it energized -- perhaps especially so as Congress prepares to wrap up for the year.  When the House returns from recess on December 6, tops on its agenda will be a border security measure, and Bush's events this week will position him to claim credit for the bill's expected passage.

The focus on the border also allows Bush to cast immigration reform as a homeland security issue, capitalizing on the party's advantage over Democrats on the war against terror, and also helping them skirt the thornier cultural issues involved in the debate.  Opponents of stricter border controls charge that advocates are using the security argument to cover up an anti-immigrant bias.  Bush himself, the Spanish-speaking former governor of Texas, has a centrist track record on immigration and has criticized the Minuteman Project, a volunteer effort to patrol the border.  But the GOP remains concerned about alienating Latinos, to whom Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman has made a particular effort to reach out.

We'll see whether Bush's use of the bully pulpit to press for immigration reform makes it a higher priority for the general public.  When presented with a list of issues and asked which is most important for the federal government to address, those surveyed in the early November NBC/Wall Street Journal poll ranked illegal immigration near the bottom: 16% called it a top issue for the government to address, behind the war (40%), job creation and economic growth (37%), terrorism and Hurricane Katrina recovery (28% apiece), and the deficit and the cost and supply of energy (21% apiece).  The only named issue which ranked lower was bird flu (6%).  Asked which party is better able to handle the issue of immigration, those polled gave Democrats a 6-point edge.  That said, Social Security reform was also pretty low down on the public's radar screen, and viewed as a Democratic issue, before Bush began his sustained use of the bully pulpit to promote his plan.

Also percolating while Congress is out: the broadening federal probe of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's business dealings, which may ensnare more members of Congress than just Republicans Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, per various reports over the long holiday weekend (see below).  Washington lobbyist and former longtime Capitol Hill aide William K. Moore observes in a memo to clients, "The week following Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for Representatives and Senators to travel abroad on fact-finding trips.  Most disclosure of the excursions is after-the-fact, making it impossible to say if recent scandals involving foreign trips have tamped the practice.  Early indications... show the investigations have had little effect.  The Middle East and Asia are popular destinations."

And, now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, remember that New Jersey Governor-elect Jon Corzine (D) could name his replacement in the US Senate any day.

"Tucsonans who want to see President Bush during his visit to town today will have to turn on their televisions," says the Arizona Daily Star, which notes that Bush's speech "will not be open to the public."

The Washington Times reports that Bush "will call for a crackdown on illegal immigration, a move aimed at further rallying conservatives who recently cheered Mr. Bush's tough talk on Iraq and the Supreme Court.  But the president will also renew his call for a program to allow Mexicans who have already entered the U.S. illegally to remain here for up to six years.  That initiative has long angered conservatives who equate it with amnesty."  The story notes that Bush "shifted gears" on immigration reform "last month, placating conservatives who were rebelling against his... nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court."

The Wall Street Journal says that as Bush "stakes out a tougher stance, some industries that rely on low-skilled foreign workers are expressing dismay that his immigration policy is veering away from a comprehensive overhaul...  Mr. Bush's apparent shift has troubled officials in industries that say worker shortages have recently become worse for a variety of reasons" related to current immigration law.  "Consequently, worker shortages have developed in industries that have had trouble getting U.S. citizens to take jobs."

The Minuteman Project has a new chapter in Herndon, VA, where some residents are opposing the taxpayer-funded construction of a center for day laborers.  The Project, "controversial for its border patrols, is trying something new: looking to fight illegal immigration in the nation's interior by targeting employers.  The group is organizing in communities including Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Indianapolis and Charlotte, N.C., monitoring and reporting businesses that hire suspected undocumented workers." – Los Angeles Times

National security politics
A new survey taken by bipartisan polling partnership RT Strategies echoes the arguments lately being made by the White House in countering Democratic criticism of the war in Iraq.  Seventy percent of those surveyed say that Senate Democrats' criticism of the war hurts the morale of US troops; 13% say it helps troop morale.  Fifty-one percent say they think Democrats are criticizing the Administration's approach to the war to "gain a partisan political advantage;" 31% say they think Democrats are being critical because they believe it will help US efforts in Iraq.  Forty-nine percent say US troops should be withdrawn "as the Iraqi government and military meet specific goals and objectives;" 16% say the troops should be withdrawn immediately, "regardless of the impact."  No other Iraq-related questions were asked in the poll.

The New York Times says that eventual withdrawal from Iraq will likely depend on two calendars -- a US one (the 2006 midterms) and an Iraq one (the upcoming December 15 election).  “‘We've moved from “if” to “how fast,”’ said one former aide with close ties to the National Security Council.  He said officials in the Bush White House were already actively reviewing possible plans under which 40,000 to 50,000 troops or more could be recalled next year if ‘a plausible case could be made’ that a significant number of Iraqi battalions could hold their own.”

The Washington Times covers Senate Armed Services chair John Warner's suggestion on Meet the Press yesterday that Bush "could benefit greatly by giving a state of the Iraq war address to the public, outlining progress and problems."

The New York Daily News writes up Sy Hersh's latest article in the New Yorker, which asserts that Bush will hear no evil on the Iraq war, even if it comes from top military generals and government officials.  "'I tried to tell' the President about problems in Iraq, one former senior official told the magazine.  'And he couldn't hear it.'"

The Los Angeles Times focuses on the timing of the October 2002 vote on the war resolution.  Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) tells the paper that he asked the White House to delay the vote until after the midterm elections, and that they refused to.  "White House officials said they could not confirm or deny" Daschle's account.  The vote came "at the height of an election campaign in which Republicans were systematically portraying Democrats as weak on national security," and many Democrats believe that the timing "enormously increased pressure on their party's wavering senators to back the president...  White House counselor Dan Bartlett denied that charge."

Sunday's Boston Globe had a story on the number of Iraq war veterans now running for office.  All these candidates are "running on their wartime experience and against the prevailing political hierarchy in Washington -- both Republican and Democrat...  They are expected to inject a pivotal voice into the debate next year, a midterm election season that is likely to focus heavily on security issues such as US involvement in Iraq and homeland defense."

The AP reports that a former Green Party member "who advocates an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq says that he will challenge" Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Senate nomination in 2006.  "The Clinton camp had no comment."

The AP reports that Time magazine's Viveca Novak "has been asked to testify in the CIA leak case, this time about her discussions with Karl Rove's attorney" Robert Luskin, "a sign that prosecutors are still exploring charges against the White House aide."

"Ms. Novak and Mr. Luskin are acquaintances who knew each other before Ms. Novak began reporting on the CIA-leak case...  The conversation that interests (special prosecutor Patrick) Fitzgerald didn't lead to a story in the pages of Time magazine," says the Wall Street Journal.  "A Time spokesman said Ms. Novak isn't expected to appear before the grand jury, which suggests she'll provide a deposition to Mr. Fitzgerald instead, as have some others in the probe.  Ms. Novak won't speak with the prosecutor until after next week, said a person familiar with the situation."

The Saturday Washington Post reported that the Justice Department's investigation of Jack Abramoff's business dealings "has entered a highly active phase as prosecutors are beginning to move on evidence pointing to possible corruption in Congress and executive branch agencies...  Prosecutors have already told one lawmaker, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), and his former chief of staff that they are preparing a possible bribery case against them."  Beyond that, the feds "are focused on at least half a dozen members of Congress," including Republicans Tom DeLay, Conrad Burns and John Doolittle, "and other members of Congress involved with Indian affairs."

The AP says Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) may get caught up in the Abramoff probe after Grassley "pressed the government to block a Louisiana Indian tribe from opening a casino while the lawmakers collected large donations from rival tribes and their lobbyist," Abramoff.  The Democratic National Committee issued a statement saying "it is deeply troubling that Grassley has dragged Iowa into the same culture of corruption that congressional Republicans brought to Washington."

Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist argued last week that there was nothing wrong with their dealings with the same Native American tribes Norquist's friend Abramoff is charged with defrauding, reported Sunday's Boston Globe.  (In the course of discussing the Abramoff investigation, Norquist also charged Sen. John McCain (R) with discriminating against lobbyists who work for Native American tribes.)  - Boston Globe

Roll Call looks at how DeLay "is positioning himself to immediately reassume the post of House Majority Leader if" Judge Pat Priest dismisses allegations that DeLay violated state campaign finance laws back in 2002.  The story notes that "several" members of Congress, including some vocal moderates, "do not believe that DeLay should return as Majority Leader, no matter what happens in Texas," in part because of his lingering Abramoff troubles.  "However, a number of political and logistical hurdles remain for those who do not want DeLay back as Majority Leader."

Bob Novak on Sunday reported that Vice President Cheney's appearance at a Houston fundraiser for DeLay on December 5 will mean he can't attend the annual White House Christmas party for members of Congress.

It's the economy
"U.S. retailers recorded sales of $27.8 billion over the holiday weekend, putting the industry on track for its second-biggest selling season since 1999, said the National Retail Federation...  Gas prices have retreated from record highs in September, though they are still about 13 percent more per gallon than last year." - Bloomberg

That said, USA Today observes that although "oil prices have dropped from post-hurricane peaks, the threat of higher inflation hasn't passed yet.  Strong economic growth and a tight job market could put upward pressure on prices.  In addition, even though surveys show consumer and business inflation expectations easing, that optimism will face a fresh challenge as consumers start getting higher winter heating bills."

We often note how the Bush Administration rarely focuses on the economy, and when they do so, they tend to use the goal of keeping the economy strong to justify their long-standing legislative priorities like tax cuts and tort reform.  Yesterday, the New York Times made the related point that "much of Washington's expert economic team has disappeared" during this early stage of Bush's second term.  Currently or imminently vacant: the chairmanship of the Council of Economic Advisers, two slots on the Federal Reserve Board, the post of assistant secretary of the Treasury for tax policy, and the top job at the Congressional Budget Office.  "The White House and Congress need as many as five academic economists of high caliber, and it's not obvious where they will come from," the story says.  "Plenty of academics, even some who have supported Republicans in the past, have condemned the White House's current policies.  In particular, the enormous federal deficit has elicited ire from both left and right."

The Alito nomination
Bloomberg says that as tempted as Democrats may be to make hay of Alito's long paper trail, they "may appear overzealous -- and politically impotent -- should Alito perform well at confirmation hearings scheduled to start Jan. 9, presenting himself as an open-minded and careful jurist who forthrightly explains his decisions."

USA Today says Alito "has achieved an unusual political feat:" He "has managed so far to impress conservatives without losing the support of moderates who disagree with them on such issues as abortion, affirmative action, the environment and the role of religion in public life - all of which are likely to come before the Supreme Court."

Taxes and spending
The Washington Times previews a tough reconciliation process for the House and Senate budget-cut packages.  "The most notable difference between the bills is the amount each chamber is willing to cut, but that is just the beginning."

The San Francisco Chronicle also suggests congressional Republicans face the prospect of defeat on taxes and spending restraint when they return in December.  “GOP leaders are pushing a measure to control entitlement spending by shaving Medicaid and food stamps for the poor.  But the combination of investor tax cuts and reductions in poverty programs has already led to a series of embarrassing defeats in committee and on the House floor.  Republicans are headed for a pre-Christmas showdown that could turn into a political disaster.”

Amidst the focus on how House Republicans are split over their $50 billion package, which passed right before Thanksgiving by just two votes, the Washington Post covers a divide among Democrats over the bill's effort to "gain control of Medicaid growth... with lawmakers in Washington united in their opposition while Democratic governors are quietly supporting the provisions and questioning the party's reflexive denunciations...  The split has underscored the differing interests of Democrats in Washington -- out of power and struggling to capitalize on the declining popularity of their adversaries -- and Democratic governors, who take a more pragmatic approach."

2005 and the midterms
Roll Call covers Democrats' concerted efforts to come up with a unified message -- along with "the self-aware mocking of the effort, a puckish attempt to poke fun at what some view as a march toward making the Democratic Caucus a collection of Stepford Senators chanting a canned political mantra...  In addition, many Senators, as well as Democratic lobbyists, have privately questioned the nature of this effort at learning how to deliver the message when in fact House and Senate Democratic leaders have put off decisions on what the actual issue agenda for the 2006 midterms will be.  The Caucus is in essence learning how to talk about issues many, many months before they even know what issues they’ll be talking about."

In the works for California's 2006 elections: "new proposals to raise taxes on cigarettes and the wealthy, keep sex offenders off the streets, increase spending on preschools and healthcare and forever ban same-sex marriage...  Just as it is unclear how many of these proposals will actually make the ballot, it is also murky what kind of reception the electorate will give them.  Supporters, as well as some independent analysts, do not believe that the electorate is tired of voting on propositions, even though every one on the Nov. 8 ballot was rejected."  - Los Angeles Times


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