updated 12/5/2005 9:21:43 AM ET 2005-12-05T14:21:43

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First Glance
The marquee events of the week are a couple of presidential and vice-presidential speeches on the economy and the war. But don't lose sight of the House of Representatives, which returns to work tomorrow after the Thanksgiving recess (the Senate returns one week from today). National polls are all well and good, but there's no barometer of public opinion, or measure of President Bush's legislative prospects for the rest of the year, quite like 435 members of Congress who have just spent two weeks back home getting an earful from constituents, mainly -- as best we can tell from a quick survey of Hill aides -- about the war.

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While Bush today seeks to use the recent good economic news on the GDP, consumer spending, and jobs to build support for extensions of his tax cuts, the House will actually take up those extensions this week. NBC's Chip Reid points out that 40% of the tax breaks being considered by the House would go to those making $1 million or more in the form of cuts in dividend and capital gains taxes. The Senate version, on the other hand, includes a whack at fixing the alternative minimum tax.

While Bush on Wednesday will continue to press his case for staying the course in Iraq in advance of the December 15 elections, House members will be trading notes from their town halls and discovering that the war was the top concern of constituents around the country. The angst won't be solely the GOP's: the House Democratic caucus this week faces the prospect of a vote on whether or not to take a unified position on the war. Vice President Cheney also makes yet another visit to a military base tomorrow -- this time, Fort Drum, NY -- to make yet another speech before a military (read: friendly) audience.

After Cheney headlines a fundraiser for Rep. Tom DeLay in Houston today, the House's return means renewed speculation about a possible leadership election early next year to permanently replace DeLay as majority leader. Presiding Judge Pat Priest is expected to decide as early as tomorrow whether or not to dismiss the money-laundering charges against DeLay. But the long shadow of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff still looms over DeLay and a bipartisan handful of other Hill lawmakers, while former GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's case may extend further into the government's defense/intelligence sector.

After Bush pushed his two-pronged immigration reform plan in his radio address on Saturday, the House is expected to take up half of that proposal, increased border security, shortly after they return. A special congressional election in California tomorrow is being set up as a measure of support among GOP voters for increased border security; more on this below.

And, we already know from previous reports that some members of Congress got an earful from seniors who find the new Medicare prescription-drug program confusing, prompting speculation that the House may consider an extension of the program's registration period despite the White House's objections.

Today, escalating the White House's effort to break through the din over Iraq with the recent good economic news, Bush travels to Kernersville, NC to tour a John Deere-Hitachi manufacturing plant and make 1:15 pm remarks on the economy and tax relief.

Forming the backdrop for Bush's remarks: outgoing Fed chief Alan Greenspan's caution last Friday that increasing health care and retirement costs threaten the strong economy, and the news that Bush is likely to put off his expected push for major tax reform until after the midterm elections -- which, we'd note, no doubt will disappoint the GOP base.

As we wrote last Friday, Bush faces a knotty problem in selling the strong economy. Not only are many Americans not feeling the positive developments shown by the data, due to health care costs, a hangover from high energy prices despite the recent drop, wages not keeping up with inflation, etc. But now we're seeing that, when presented with positive economic news, the White House first has to dig out from under Iraq in order to take advantage of it; the press corps may be too preoccupied with Iraq to pay much attention; and the public's sour mood about the war may be casting a pall on their view of just about everything else. Bush finds himself in the rare if not unique position of facing the lowest approval ratings of his presidency at a time when the economy is going strong.

Before leaving for North Carolina today, the Bushes take part in the Children's Holiday Reception and Performance at the White House at 10:30 am.

The Bush agenda
Time magazine on Bush delaying his press for major tax reform: "Tax reform tested poorly with a Republican-financed focus group, showing more groundwork needs to be laid. The official White House stance is that Bush has not decided whether to pursue the idea next year, but aides say they doubt they could attract Democratic support in a midterm-election year. And the G.O.P. is gun-shy after the Social Security debacle." The story also notes, "Surprisingly enough, the biggest crowd pleaser is turning out to be the President himself, despite low ratings in the polls."

"The administration is wary of seeing its push to overhaul the tax system fall prey to the same factors that derailed Bush's attempt to restructure the Social Security system this year to include private investment accounts: negative public reaction and a Congress focused on the Iraq war and rebuilding the U.S. Gulf Coast from two hurricanes," Bloomberg says. "Postponing the tax changes would leave Bush without a focal point for next year's domestic agenda at the same time his Republican Party is attempting to maintain its majorities in the House and Senate."

Speaking of Social Security, last Friday, the liberal organization Campaign for America's Future held a press conference recapping the Social Security debate which was part victory lap, part campaign playbook for 2006 and beyond. CAF co-director Roger Hickey said the Democratic campaign against private accounts was "an epic exercise in grassroots democracy... I want to take credit for what we did." In particular, he cited the work of Americans United to Protect Social Security, created by CAF, organized labor, and other liberal groups. As Hickey noted, AUPSS has since pivoted to oppose GOP spending and tax cuts, and will serve as a grassroots model for Democrats in the future. But will Democrats' unwillingness to put out their own Social Security solvency plan eventually hurt them? Hickey replied, "To be on the side of the American people is a good thing for Democrats."

The Los Angeles Times sets up Congress' final few weeks of 2005: "At stake are signature issues for the GOP: keeping alive key elements of President Bush's tax cuts, finishing the first effort in years to control fast-growing benefit programs such as Medicaid and student loans, and cracking down on illegal immigration. The agenda provides Republicans the opportunity to show that their control of Congress and the White House is paying off with action on important national problems. But they also face the risk of bearing the responsibility for a stalemate."

The Dallas Morning News predicts a "showdown" between "conservative House Republicans and their more moderate Senate counterparts as congressional negotiators try to resolve differences in cost-cutting measures that GOP leaders argue are necessary to reduce the deficit." Medicaid and food stamps are just some of the issues on the table. "Once House and Senate negotiators sit down to resolve differences in their proposals, an extension of a break on capital gains and dividends is expected to be a key issue."

Amid growing complaints and confusion about the new Medicare prescription-drug plan, the New York Times front-pages the political risks the plan might bring for Republicans. “Nobody knows how popular the drug benefit will ultimately be with the nation's retirees, who are a critical voting bloc. But Congressional Republicans, who pushed through the Medicare drug law in 2003, have clear political ownership of it, and whatever credit or blame it brings, strategists say.”

The Chicago Tribune looks at Bush’s push for immigration reform -- and the political risk that reform carries. “Reforming the nation's immigration laws--a goal that has eluded presidents for decades--would be a major accomplishment… But the weakened president's renewed focus on securing the nation's borders, while also accommodating millions of undocumented immigrants, could backfire dramatically.”

The Bush administration
USA Today covers the White House's increasing reliance on campaign-style slogans to help sell Bush's position on Iraq and his domestic agenda.

USA Today also considers the potentially waning influence of Vice President Cheney, whose "defenders dispute the suggestion that he is besieged, or that his relationship with Bush or clout with Congress has eroded... Still, the vice president was rebuffed by the Senate in October when it approved a measure he took the lead in fighting that would ban torture of terror suspects. The White House now says it wants to compromise as the House and Senate work out a final version... And Cheney has been publicly reproached in recent weeks by two former colleagues:" Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. "The vice president's standing with the public has suffered, too."

The New York Times speculates on possible White House staff changes at the end of the year -- especially on whether chief of staff Andy Card will leave his job to take over the Treasury Department.

Ethics
The Washington Post points out that amidst all the scandals simmering and boiling up on Capitol Hill, the House Ethics Committee "has been virtually moribund for the past year," and its Senate counterpart hasn't done much. The House panel's "last formal action of note was its recommendation to admonish former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for the second and third times in 2004. Since then, the committee has been crippled."

The liberal Center for American Progress holds a 12 noon panel discussion today with Democratic current and former members of Congress and the American Enterprise Institute's Norm Ornstein about proposed changes to House rules and procedures.

Sen. John Kerry e-mails his Texas supporters today asking them to help Democratic challenger Nick Lampson oust DeLay.

The Los Angeles Times front-pages a lengthy look at former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), whose case "stands apart, both for the brashness of his actions and for the dizzying nature of his fall. When it comes to using power in Congress and dealing with private companies and individuals, members of the House and the Senate have ways of achieving their ends while staying safely inside none-too-confining laws and ethics rules. But Cunningham... operated like an old-fashioned ward boss with his hand out."

Roll Call reports that Cunningham's wife Nancy "faces a legal struggle to retain property forfeited to the government in the wake of her husband’s guilty plea in a corruption case - and possibly even criminal charges." Apparently, Cunningham's plea agreement does not cover his wife. "Because the Cunninghams filed joint tax returns, Nancy Cunningham, an administrator in the Encinitas Union School District, is now open to potential criminal prosecution on tax-evasion charges."

On the Abramoff front, the Washington Post reminds us that it reported earlier this year that "some prominent Democrats, including former senator Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), Sens. Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), were among beneficiaries of the largest campaign contributions from Abramoff's associates and clients." Today's story notes the heightened attention now being paid to Dorgan and his own brushes with Abramoff clients and associates.

On Sunday, Bob Novak wrote that GOP congressmen, at their retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore last week, “discussed how many of their colleagues might find themselves linked to [Jack] Abramoff, as has Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, the 'mayor' of Capitol Hill as chairman of the House Administration Committee.”

In the wake of the Friday Post report that political appointees at the Justice Department overruled career DOJ lawyers' determination that the DeLay-engineered Texas redistricting plan would violate the Voting Rights Act, Roll Call assesses the status of Democrats' languishing appeal of the plan to the US Supreme Court. "The Democrats’ appeal has been on the Supreme Court conference calendar every Friday since Oct. 28, meaning the justices have put off taking action on it every week since then."

Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle noted that, in 1994, Republicans captured control of Congress “by portraying Democrats as too corrupt to lead after a series of scandals that led to the resignation of some of the party's top leaders. More than a decade later, the roles are reversed.” Republicans continue to insist that fewer districts are in play this cycle than in 1994.

It's the economy
Perhaps unintentionally setting up today's presidential address on the economy, Roll Call reports that Speaker Hastert last week told top White House aides that "the White House needed to do a better job communicating good news about the economy, adding that if the president wouldn’t do it, 'then you guys need to find someone who will.'"

The Wall Street Journal reports that White House aides "say hundreds of people have been hired in recent years" at the Kernersville, NC plant which Bush will speak at today.

That said, the AP notes that Bush's visit with plant workers is closed to the public.

Bloomberg reports on the increasingly hot job market and concerns about labor shortages.

Despite the recent good economic news, the New York Times says that most economic signs -- “like still-high energy costs and a cooling housing market -- point to an eventual slowdown.

The Wall Street Journal looks at the psychological impact and practical realities attached to the magic 11,000 mark, with which the Dow Jones Industrial Average has been flirting for days. "Many analysts dismiss the focus on such milestones as numerology that doesn't carry much weight in stock picking or gauging the economy's health... Of course, investors would welcome the gains a move to 11000 represents. But some analysts point out that getting above that level could unleash a new wave of selling from investors who have been waiting to get out for years at a higher price, pushing it right back down again."

National security politics
After their appearance yesterday on Meet the Press, September 11 commission co-chairs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton pen a New York Times op-ed arguing that billions in Patriot Act funds to combat terrorism haven’t been wisely spent. “The result of this disarray is that taxpayers have no guarantee that these billions have increased our overall level of national preparedness. The response to Hurricane Katrina suggests that we have not come far.”

In advance of his speech at Fort Drum tomorrow, USA Today runs a list of past Cheney statements on the war:

The Washington Post reports that "among the Democratic foreign-policy elite, dominated by people who previously served in the top ranks of government, there are stark differences -- and significant vagueness -- about a viable alternative" to Bush's Iraq policy. "Several accept Bush's premise that a rapid withdrawal anytime soon would leave Iraq unstable and risk a strategic disaster in the broader Middle East... The biggest common denominator was the anguish of trying to define a Democratic alternative."

"House Democratic leaders this week will try to block any effort by members to adopt an official Democratic Caucus position on the Iraq war, recognizing such a move would highlight internal party differences and invite new political troubles... House Democrats are in general agreement that the war has been mishandled and the president lacks a strategy for how to end the conflict. But Caucus members remain at odds over whether to continue U.S. involvement in Iraq and for how long."

The Sunday Boston Globe reported that while the Democratic leaders had announced that Sen. Jack Reed would deliver the party's official response to Bush's Iraq speech last Wednesday, "Senate aides told the Globe's Rick Klein that Reed's staff had learned from TV producers that Kerry... had already booked a competing time slot to deliver his own remarks from the Senate's radio and TV gallery... A last-minute scramble to organize a joint press conference ensued."

The AP covers the White House's announcement that it wants to achieve a compromise on detainee policy, and GOP Sen. John McCain's assertion on Meet the Press yesterday that he won't compromise.

2005 and the midterms
Sometime this week, New Jersey Governor-elect Jon Corzine (D) is expected to name his replacement in the US Senate.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) has agreed to postpone New Orleans’ mayoral election, which had been scheduled for early February. “Blanco's decision came hours after Louisiana's top elections official recommended the delay, saying polling places have not been rebuilt and hundreds of thousands of voters remain scattered across the country. Secretary of State Al Ater said the election should be held no later than Sept. 30.” - Chicago Tribune

Tomorrow's special election to replace SEC chair Chris Cox in California's Republican-leaning 48th Congressional District is being set up as a measure of GOP support for increased border security because the founder of the Minuteman Project, Jim Gilchrist, is running as a third-party candidate against the more mainstream conservative GOP nominee. – USA Today

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