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Monday, January 9, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
Tom DeLay’s decision on Saturday to end his bid to regain his House leadership post is the first congressional casualty from the Abramoff scandal (although the slow pace of his trial in Texas also obviously impacted his decision). But All Things Abramoff take a back seat to today’s Senate hearing at noon on Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination. President Bush already had breakfast with Alito, and the President later heads to suburban Maryland to make remarks on No Child Left Behind at 10:25 am. After their breakfast, Bush said, “The Supreme Court is a dignified body; Sam is a dignified person. And my hope, of course, is that the Senate brings dignity to the process and give this man a fair hearing and an up or down vote on the Senate floor.”

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The other big news today is that Vice President Dick Cheney was taken to a hospital at 3:00 am after experiencing a shortness of breath. A statement from Cheney’s office reads, “Doctors found that his EKG was unchanged. It was determined that he was retaining fluid as a result of medication that he was taking for a foot infection. He was placed on diuretic and is expected to be released later today.” In fact, NBC News reports that Cheney has already left the hospital, and he even waved at our camera.

Back to the Alito hearings, though… Almost 120 days have passed since John Roberts’s own confirmation hearings first began last September, but that’s a lifetime in politics. During that time, Bush’s poll numbers plummeted to the lowest level of his presidency (but now seem to begin to climbing up); Bush picked Harriet Miers to serve on the Supreme Court and then withdrew her nomination (making Alito’s own nomination possible); DeLay and Scooter Libby were indicted, while Abramoff and Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty to criminal charges; Democrats won the gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia; and, most recently, the New York Times reported that the White House instructed the National Security Administration to eavesdrop on communications inside the US without a warrant.

That’s part of the political context to today’s hearing. But the political reality is that, with Republicans holding a 55-45 majority in the Senate, Alito will likely be confirmed -- unless enough Republicans vote against him, or if the Democrats deploy the filibuster. On Friday, a senior Administration official told NBC reporters that the White House doesn’t believe any Republican Senators are “soft” in their support for Alito. Regarding the F-word, meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Schumer warned on Meet the Press yesterday that if Alito ducked enough key questions, that could increase the chances of a Democratic filibuster.

NBC’s Ken Strickland has more details on today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R) opens the hearing and lays out the ground rulesAlito introduces his familySpecter makes his opening statement, followed by a statement by ranking Democrat Pat LeahyThe other 16 Judiciary members make their opening remarksSen. Frank Lautenberg (D) and former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), both of whom hail from Alito’s home state of New Jersey, present the nomineeAlito is then sworn inAnd he delivers his opening statement, the conclusion of which ends the day’s hearing.

Strickland adds that the questioning will likely occur Tuesday through Friday (with Friday devoted to outside witnesses). And he provides us Specter’s opening remarks, in which the Senator says he’ll ask Alito about abortion and executive power. “Last year when President Bush had two vacancies to fill, there was some concern that the ideological complexion of the Court might be changed. The preliminary indications from Chief Justice Roberts' performance … suggest that he will not move the Court in a different direction. If that holds true, Judge Alito, if confirmed, may not be the swing vote regardless of what position he takes on the judicial spectrum.”

Democrats, obviously, won’t agree with that assessment. Per his prepared remarks, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) will focus on Alito's views on executive power. “In an era when the White House is abusing power, has authorized torture, and is spying on American citizens, I find Judge Alito's support for an all-powerful executive branch and almost unlimited power for government agents to be deeply troubling.”

The Alito nomination
The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds that a majority (53%-27%) favors Alito, while an even larger majority believes he will not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. “[T]he results suggest Alito enters today's Senate hearings on his nomination with the support of most Americans and no clear obstacles to confirmation.”

The Boston Globe says Democrats plan to contend that Alito’s confirmation “could shift the Supreme Court to the right on such issues as abortion, affirmative action, the environment, and church-state separation," especially since he’s set to replace the moderate Sandra Day O’Connor.

The Los Angeles Times notes that “with Republicans weakened, most recently by the influence-peddling scandal surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, some Democrats are mulling whether to try to thwart Alito's confirmation through a filibuster, a tactic in which a minority party can block a vote by refusing to end debate. ‘We are more apt to filibuster now than we were two weeks ago,’ said one Democratic leadership aide on Capitol Hill, who requested anonymity when discussing party strategy.”

The New York Times has a primer on the questions that will be discussed -- on abortion, presidential power, and congressional authority -- and how Alito might answer them.

In a briefing with NBC last week, representatives from several anti-Alito groups emphasized that Alito’s biggest vulnerabilities in the hearings include his 1985 job application memo (in which he said that the Constitution doesn’t protect a right to an abortion and that he disagreed with the Warren Court’s decisions on reapportionment) and his membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton (which was founded by conservatives upset that the school had begun to admit women). But on Friday, a senior Administration official countered that Alito’s fate shouldn’t be determined by what he wrote more than 20 years ago -- but rather by his 15 years on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. The official also explained that Alito joined Concerned Alumni of Princeton because he was concerned that Princeton was eliminating its ROTC programs on campus.

Sen. John Cornyn, who appeared yesterday on Meet the Press, writes an op-ed in today's Washington Times, pre-butting some Democratic assertions that might arise in the hearings. "The fact is, Judge Alito's rulings fall nowhere near the category of cases that the American people consider to be controversial... We should never confuse the struggle to interpret the ambiguous expressions of a legislature -- which is what Judge Alito and all good judges have done -- with refusing to obey a legislature's directives altogether.”

The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire reports that Sen. Lindsey Graham participated in a moot-court session for Alito at the White House last Thursday.

The Washington Post covers last night’s Justice Sunday III in Philadelphia, where conservatives rallied to support Alito’s nomination. “By far the most rousing speech -- more sermon than speech -- was given by Greater Baptist's pastor, the Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II… Lusk said he welcomed being called a maverick if it means supporting ‘the original intent of God Almighty’ in opposition to abortion and the ‘redefinition of marriage. . . . Brothers and sisters, we will not go down without a fight.’”

The AP on Justice Sunday III: “Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Senate Republican, told the gathering that liberal judges are ‘destroying traditional morality, creating a new moral code and prohibiting any dissent.’”

The Washington Post examines Alito’s days in the Reagan Administration. Alito “is urging senators to focus on his record as a judge, rather than on the opinions he expressed as a Reagan administration partisan. ‘I don't give heed to my personal views. I interpret the law,’ he has said. But Alito's mentors in the Reagan Justice Department carefully heeded those views when they identified him for advancement.”

Yesterday, the Post looked at Alito and his conservative views when he was at Princeton and Yale Law.

Ethics
The weekend papers all covered DeLay’s decision to abandon his effort to regain his House leadership post:
New York Times
Washington Post
Washington Times
Los Angeles Times

USA Today: “DeLay's decision to step aside may make it more difficult for Republicans to win close votes in the House. DeLay had a proven track record of being able to obtain a victory in a close vote. But the decision also removes a prime target for Democrats, who have made him the symbol of what they describe as a ‘culture of corruption’ in Washington.”

Roll Call writes that DeLay’s decision “set off the biggest weekend of House GOP leadership campaigning in seven years, with Reps. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and John Boehner (Ohio) immediately launching bids to succeed DeLay in the chamber’s No. 2 position… GOP Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.), John Shadegg (Ariz.) and Jerry Lewis (Calif.) all made calls over the weekend to gauge whether they should jump into the Majority Leader contest as well. But as of Sunday evening, none had taken the leap, and several Republican sources expressed doubts that any of the three would actually run.”

The Washington Times points out that Boehner and Blunt are offering the GOP two different approaches on how to move their party forward. Announcing his candidacy yesterday, "Mr. Boehner called for a return to 'smaller, more accountable government and of a society deeply rooted in principles of personal responsibility, faith in the future, and freedom'... Meanwhile, Mr. Blunt, who has been acting leader for three months, is shaping up as the candidate pushing for continuity."

The Hill says that “Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the current chief deputy whip, was on the verge of locking up his bid to become majority whip Sunday night. As of press time, Cantor locked up commitments of support from 105 of his Republican colleagues in the House, a source close to the third-term lawmaker said, well on his way to the 116 votes necessary to assume the title.”

The Washington Post reports that Republicans took another step to distance themselves from the Abramoff corruption scandal, with Speaker Denny Hastert (R) asking Rep. David Dreier (R) to draft new lobbying-reform rules. “The move comes months after House Democrats, led by Reps. Martin T. Meehan (Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), and Republican Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), unveiled proposals to mandate more disclosure of lobbying contacts, ban most lobbyist-sponsored trips and lengthen the time former House members and staff must wait before taking up lobbying.”

First Read obtained a memo that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sent his Democratic colleagues on Friday, which provides a glimpse into the Democrats’ political playbook on the Abramoff matter. “Republicans are desperate to have Americans to believe that Democrats are also implicated in the Abramoff scandal. It’s simply not true and the facts are clear. Jack Abramoff - a Bush pioneer and Tom DeLay’s ‘closest friend’ - showered Republican officials with gifts and entered into ‘quid pro quo’ arrangements on behalf of special interests with Republican members of Congress,” the memo says. “Democrats must stay on the offensive against scandal-ridden, Republican-run Washington.  Together, we must clearly and effectively communicate to the American people that it is the culture of corruption created by Republicans in Washington that is standing in the way of action on their priorities.”

In addition, Reid travels this week to the red states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah to discuss his party’s lobbying reform measures and to try to make the case that Democrats will “restore honest leadership” in Washington. In conjunction with that travel, Reid pens an op-ed today in the Denver Post, arguing that Americans who are "fed up" with the current system can turn the tide in 2006.

Roll Call also reminds us that if indicted in the Abramoff probe, Rep. Bob Ney (R) would lose his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee, per House GOP rules. “But Ney, who repeatedly has defended himself and asserted he is innocent of any illegal activity, intends to serve out his tenure on the panel, according to a spokesman.”

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that two GOP California congressmen -- John Doolittle and Richard Pombo -- used their official positions to stop an investigation of a wealthy Texas businessmen who provided them with political contributions; the investigation was ultimately dropped.

Security politics
The weekend papers all reported that a report by the Congressional Research Service found that many of the Bush Administration's arguments supporting domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency are weak. The report says the government is required to seek warrants first and that a special resolution passed after September 11 doesn't support taps to deter terrorists:
Washington Post
New York Times

Hearings over the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping program will take place early next month, and the AP notes that Senate Judiciary Chairman Specter said he will ask AG Alberto Gonzales to testify. “Asked on CBS's Face the Nation if Gonzales had agreed to appear, Specter said, ‘Well, I didn't ask him if he had agreed. I told him we were holding the hearings and he didn't object. I don't think he has a whole lot of choice on testifying.’”

It’s the economy
The New York Times writes about the death knell for employee pension plans. “Now, with the recent announcements of pension freezes by some of the cream of corporate America - Verizon, Lockheed Martin, Motorola and, just last week, I.B.M. - the bell is tolling even louder.”

More on the Bush agenda
The Boston Globe says the Bush Administration plans to revamp its message and Bush's image in an effort to stave off costly repercussions after last year’s tough year for the GOP. “With his State of the Union address three weeks away, White House policy and speech shops are busily crafting a message that portrays Bush as a bold leader but avoids the kind of far-reaching and divisive reform proposals -- such as turning illegal immigrants into guest workers or overhauling Social Security -- that previously landed him in hot water with key voters."

Bob Novak writes that the new Medicare drug benefit “looks like a political blunder of far-reaching consequences... The hideous complexity of the scheme, which has the effect of discouraging seniors from signing up, is only the beginning of difficulties it entails for the president and his party. It will further swell the budget deficit without commensurate political benefits. On the contrary, the drug plan may prove a severe liability for Republicans facing an increasingly hazardous midterm election in November."

The midterms
An AP-Ipsos poll released late last week shows that voters prefer a Democratic candidate to a Republican one, 49%-36%; meanwhile, Bush’s approval rating in the poll is at 40%.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg writes in Roll Call about all the Democrats running for Congress this cycle who served in the Iraq war. “While they have received plenty of ink, it is far from clear that any of them will win… A military record is a credential that voters may consider, but they often prefer to use other vote cues to pick the candidate for whom they will vote.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and his son were slightly injured yesterday, when their motorcycle collided with a car near their home. “With a security detail from the California Highway Patrol, Schwarzenegger and his son were taken to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. Both were released after being treated for minor cuts and bruises, [the governor’s spokeswoman] said. She added that the governor received 15 stitches in his lip.”

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