updated 12/19/2005 11:10:34 AM ET 2005-12-19T16:10:34

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First glance
If President Bush's primetime Oval Office address last night was intended to convince the public that the United States is winning the war in Iraq and brace them for continued violence there, then his 10:30 am news conference today will probably be aimed at framing the mixed results coming out of Congress as progress on the domestic front, and perhaps more goosing of the Senate, still grinding away on Capitol Hill, on reauthorizing the Patriot Act and other measures the House passed before leaving town early this morning.

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Given the intense focus on Iraq right now, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Bush and the Republican-run Congress are concluding the first year of Bush's second term -- a year which was dominated by an unpopular war rather than by the strong economy, which saw Bush's approval ratings drop about 10 points before recently starting to recover, and which yielded him no signature legislative achievements.  Social Security reform has stalled, Hurricane Katrina recovery is lagging, and tax-code overhaul has been delayed, though a slew of smaller-scale accomplishments have either become law or are about to.

The White House might well have been braced for suggestions right about now that Bush is looking like a lame duck -- though they probably didn't expect to be losing support among Republicans on their approach to protecting the nation from terrorism.  In recent days, Bush has had to back off an earlier threat to veto Sen. John McCain's proposal to ban torture of detainees in the face of veto-proof majorities in the GOP-run Congress, has faced a filibuster on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, and now has prominent Republican lawmakers calling for hearings on his authorization of unwarranted National Security Agency eavesdropping on Americans.

Consequentially, the Administration's big push on the successful elections in Iraq is doubling as a pushback.  Bush's rare live Saturday radio address on the Patriot Act, his address to the nation last night, Vice President Cheney's surprise stop in Iraq yesterday, Cheney's visit to Afghanistan to mark the opening of its newly elected parliament today, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' briefing on the NSA authorization at the White House this morning, and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's address on Iraq at a top foreign-policy think-tank tomorrow -- all are part of an effort to sell progress on the war against terror on the one hand, and dismiss bipartisan criticism with the other.

But then there's the mixed bag for Bush on the domestic front in Congress' 11th-hour rush to knock off pending business and leave town.  The House finished up its votes in the wee hours and left for home, not to return until January 31, but the Senate will likely be in town through Wednesday.  NBC's Ken Strickland and Mike Viqueira report that the hard-fought compromise between Bush and McCain on McCain's proposed ban on detainee abuse was rescued from legislative limbo after House GOP leaders gave up on trying to attach a controversial, unrelated measure to the underlying defense bill.  (The measure would have regulated 527 organizations, the outside groups which raised and spent tens of millions of dollars to influence the 2004 elections, and which allowed Democrats to level the playing field with the GOP on fundraising.)

Tax breaks targeted at Gulf Coast recovery have passed, but the extension of Bush's tax cuts on dividends and capital gains and a temporary fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax have been put off until next year.  The House passed a border security bill that contains part but not all of Bush's proposed immigration reforms; the Senate will take up the issue next year.  The House also passed a $41 billion spending-cut measure which the Senate will take up today.  And the House passed the defense authorization bill, including a provision that would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, which is now causing major headaches in the Senate.

The defense authorization bill has shaped up to be the final must-pass bill of the year.  It includes funding for further Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, efforts to combat the avian flu, and all US military operations for the next year.  It also contains the ANWR measure, whose champion, GOP Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, has added $10 billion in spending on unrelated matters to the bill in a move that some view as blatant vote-buying.  Stevens is probably betting that Democrats won't want to be seen as holding up funding for the Gulf Coast, a flu pandemic, and the military just to keep ANWR intact.  But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is threatening to bring the chamber to a standstill and keep the Senate in session through the holidays if the provision is not removed from the bill, says Strickland.  There will be votes on Wednesday to resolve it.

Among the financial incentives Stevens has thrown in to try to win the measure more support: more money for the federal low-income home heating assistance program, ag programs, and border security.  How does Stevens plan to pay for it all?  From the sale of the broadcast spectrum, Viqueira notes.  The hitch is that in trying to tap the spectrum to pay for these incentives, Stevens will have to race against the budget reconciliation bill, which also promises more money for federal programs from the sale of the spectrum.  The spectrum has become like your old man's wallet when nobody's home, Viq says.  It has achieved almost mythical status as the answer to everything.

In addition to his news conference, President and Mrs. Bush visit a Toys for Tots collection center in Washington today at 3:15 pm.

Iraq politics
In his Oval Office address last night, Bush "held out the possibility of American troop withdrawals in 2006, but he made no promises, and did not mention anticipated Pentagon reductions of troops to 138,000 in the next few months, which would be a return to the military’s 'baseline' level before the election last Thursday.  Currently there are about 160,000 American troops in Iraq, a number that was increased to keep order during the vote," says the Financial Times.

The Boston Globe notes that "Cheney may have upstaged the president by making a surprise appearance in Iraq and speaking more directly about troop strength.  Cheney discussed the possibility of troops withdrawing 'to a few locations' in Iraq, which would 'reduce the total number of personnel we need here.'"

The New York Times says most of the numbers and facts Bush mentioned in the speech were on the mark, but he did leave out some key data, like his assertion that seven in 10 Iraqis say their lives are going well and two-thirds expect things to improve.   In that same poll, 60 percent said “the United States and its allies had done a bad job in Iraq, and almost two-thirds said they opposed the foreign presence.  When asked how things are ‘not for you personally, but for Iraq as a whole,’ more than half said things were ‘quite bad’ or ‘very bad,’ and only 45 percent said ‘very good’ or ‘quite good.’”

"The speech also included his most forthright statement to date about how often Iraq has confounded his own expectations, from weapons of mass destruction that were not found to the problems of reconstructing a civil society in Iraq," says the Washington Post.  "Bush's acknowledgment of the difficulties in Iraq won praise from some Democrats, who still called on him to lay down a more concrete plan for withdrawing troops from the conflict."

"For a president traditionally resistant to acknowledging miscues, such a concession amounts to a stark political change of course," says the Post in its analysis.  "As more of the country abandons him on Iraq, Bush has embarked on a campaign to bring the war back into the fold with a more realistic assessment of mistakes and of challenges ahead...  The fresh approach, as it has played out over the past few weeks, has yielded Bush benefits in some quarters in Washington and may have helped fuel a modest uptick in his sagging poll ratings."

The Houston Chronicle: “Bush's personal appeal to the nation and his admissions of error… are in sharp contrast to the administration's message a year ago.  Then, those who rallied against the war had their patriotism called into question by Bush supporters, and the White House maintained the war was proceeding smoothly.  Bush said Sunday night that there are good critics and bad critics - and the worst are those who revert to what he called defeatism as a partisan tactic against his administration.”

The Los Angeles Times notes that "Democrats in Congress have been stepping up their criticism of the administration's Iraq policy, and some Republicans have become more guarded in expressing their support."  Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) tells the paper in an interview that the speech "'was a restatement of the justification for the war, of how important it is to win, but he didn't really talk about what it's going to take to win'...  But Republican legislators for the most part rallied to Bush's side."

USA Today puts the speech in the larger context of an overall message reframing by the White House: "Amid worries that messages about Iraq and the economy aren't getting through, as well as a weeklong congressional battering over the USA Patriot Act and domestic spying, the administration is re-working the way it talks about these subjects.  The changes include longer and more frequent speeches by the president, more statistics to back up his assertions, a more aggressive push against critics, admission of problems with Iraq and other policies, and acknowledgment by Bush and others that public communication needs to improve."

The Republican governor of Vermont told the Boston Globe late last week that "the Bush administration and Congress should prepare a withdrawal plan to bring troops home from Iraq."  Vermont "has lost more soldiers per capita in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other in the United States."

A new Democratic National Committee web video, titled "America deserves the truth," features clips of Bush and Cheney saying Congress had access the same pre-war intelligence they did, with clips from the release of the Congressional Research Service report indicating that this was not in fact the case.  In the video, the DNC calls for a thorough investigation.

Bob Novak reported on Sunday that senior Defense Department officials “say Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has told them nobody should stay for just another year; he wants them for the rest of President Bush's second term.  That is read as a signal that Rumsfeld intends to serve out the next three years.”

Homeland security politics
The Washington Times covers Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's defense of Bush's authorization of unwarranted NSA eavesdropping on the Sunday shows:

The Boston Globe covers three "prominent Republican senators" calling for hearings.

The Sunday Los Angeles Times looks at some crumbling of the GOP ranks on Bush's homeland security approach and notes, "The unease within his party - and the specter of hearings on Capitol Hill on some of the anti-terrorism tactics used - suggests the national debate is beginning to shift on how much latitude Bush can claim in the name of national security."

The Boston Globe's Canellos yesterday: "In the past, Bush has been able to count on a rock-solid Republican majority in both chambers to support his most important initiatives, along with sizable numbers of moderate Democrats.  But on both the Patriot Act and on a measure sponsored by Senator John McCain to ban abusive interrogations of prisoners, the president called his congressional soldiers into action -- and many of them failed to respond."

The Sunday Los Angeles Times considered the question of whether it was legal for Bush to, "on his own authority and without a court warrant... order federal officials to eavesdrop on people within the United States," and said this question is why this controversy may drag out for awhile.

At the expected hearings, "lawmakers are expected to press for confidential legal memorandums that lay out the claim that warrantless wiretaps are lawful," says the Wall Street Journal.  "Coming at a time when it appeared Mr. Bush had begun to turn around flagging public support for his Iraq war and antiterrorism policies, the controversy is likely to dog the White House well into the coming year."

The Sunday Washington Post noted that Bush's "emphatic defense" in his Saturday radio address "marked the third time in as many months that the White House has been obliged to defend a departure from previous restraints on domestic surveillance.  In each case, the Bush administration concealed the program's dimensions or existence from the public and from most members of Congress."

The New York Times examines whether Patriot Act politics could affect the 2006 midterms.  “Republicans say Democratic candidates will suffer in the 2006 mid-term elections if the act lapses, just as they did in 2002 when Democrats rejected legislation to create a new Department of Homeland Security…  At the same time, strategists of both parties say the Homeland Security debate and the Patriot Act debate are difficult to compare," because "the Homeland Security fight took place one month before the 2002 elections, while the 2006 elections are still a year off.”

The next time we see GOP Rep. Tom DeLay back at work, he may still be awaiting the start of his trial on money-laundering charges in Texas.  Recent decisions by the presiding judge seem likely to delay the trial until late January or even February.  On the one hand, that probably increases the odds that House Republicans will opt to hold an election to permanently replace DeLay as majority leader early next year.  On the other hand, having the ranks scattered to the winds for the holidays probably dilutes the intensity with which they'll be talking and worrying about the matter.

Late last week, BusinessWeek.com reported that conservative commentator Doug Bandow was paid by indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff to write newspaper columns that "aligned with Abramoff's interests."  Copley News Service suspended Bandow's column, and he has resigned from the libertarian Cato Institute, where he had been a senior fellow.

Also last Friday, GOP Sen. Conrad Burns, who is up for re-election in 2006, said in a statement that he will return about $150,000 in donations that he received from Abramoff and Abramoff clients and associates.  Burns was recently dealt a blow when the Senate Ethics Committee told him they could not take up a probe of his ties to Abramoff quickly, as Burns had requested, because of the ongoing federal investigation.

Political contributions linked to Abramoff will obviously be an issue that could impact some races in the midterms, and the New York Times writes that, per the Center for Responsive Politics, “of the top 25 Congressional recipients of political money linked to Mr. Abramoff, 19 are Republicans and 6 are Democrats.”  The biggest beneficiary since 1999 is Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R), who’s followed by Speaker Denny Hastert (R).  The top Democrat on the list is Patrick Kennedy (D).

The AP reported yesterday that "Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's AIDS charity paid about half a million dollars in consulting fees to members of his political inner circle...  The returns for World of Hope Inc. also show that the charity raised most of its $4.4 million from 18 sources...  The tax forms, filed nine months after they were first due, do not identify the 18 major donors by name.  Frist's lawyer... said Friday that he would not give their names because tax law did not require their public disclosure.  Frist's office provided a list of 96 donors, but did not say how much each contributed.  The donors included several corporations with frequent business before Congress."

It's the economy
For the second week in a row, the White House has issued a week-ahead schedule for the economic team.  Today, Treasury Secretary John Snow does some holiday shopping in Washington at 2:00 pm.

USA Today says the cause of investors' frustration with fairly stagnant markets this past year "can be summed up in two three-letter words: Fed and oil.  The market found it hard to overcome $70 oil, $3 gas and interest rate increases engineered by the Federal Reserve."

Bloomberg reports on another vacancy at the Fed and the prospect it raises that incoming chair Ben Bernanke will have trouble pushing one of his favorite policies, inflation targeting.  The Administration says they're working to fill the other two vacancies in "'a timely manner.'"

The Los Angeles Times says the "surprisingly competitive race" for former GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's vacant House seat "will test the strength of Democratic efforts to regain control of Congress.  In a poor political climate for the GOP, analysts say, a suburban coastal district of California - even one that leans as Republican as Cunningham's - is just the kind that could prove the leading edge of a potential national tide against the party.  Yet Democratic candidate Francine Busby faces a steep uphill battle, thanks to a California congressional map drawn to protect incumbents of both major parties."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein says the US Supreme Court's decision to hear the Texas redistricting case "offers the court an opportunity to rein in some of the partisan excesses that are staining the redistricting process and producing races so one-sided that they often deny Americans the opportunity to cast meaningful votes for the House...  However the court rules, reformers should begin encouraging Congress to consider national redistricting standards that would increase electoral competition and reduce partisan finagling.  Political reformers have focused solely on a state-by-state approach.  But the twin defeats of redistricting reform initiatives in California and Ohio this year dramatize the problem with this effort: in any state, the dominant party will always seek to block reform as a threat to its dominance.  And it will usually succeed."


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