updated 1/10/2006 9:21:39 AM ET 2006-01-10T14:21:39

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First glance
That was a bit anti-climatic, wasn’t it? As with the Roberts hearings four months ago, the first day of the Senate hearings into Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination consisted of Republicans predictably praising him and desiring a dignified process; of Democrats predictability questioning him and demanding more answers; and of Alito predictably promising to be an impartial judge -- minus Roberts’ baseball analogies. “A judge can’t have any agenda,” Alito said yesterday. “The judge’s only obligation … is to the rule of law.”

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But Democrats will have this question for Alito: How can someone who’s had an agenda in the past -- evidenced by his 1985 job application memo -- say he no longer has one because he wears a robe?

Indeed, whether or not Alito’s nomination turns into the epic battle some have been predicting could be decided in the Senate Q&A that begins today at 9:30 am. Expect plenty of questions from Democrats on his views on government power, abortion, and his membership in the conservative Concerned Alumni of Princeton. But as we said yesterday: With Republicans holding a 55-45 majority in the Senate, the political reality is that Alito’s nomination will be defeated only if enough Republicans cross the line to vote against him, or if Democrats decide to filibuster him.

NBC’s Ken Strickland says that each of the 18 senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee will get 30 minutes today to quiz Alito. The questioning goes in order of seniority, alternating sides, with Republicans going first.

President Bush, meanwhile, turns his attention away from the Supreme Court to give a speech in DC on Iraq and terrorism to the Veterans of Foreign Wars at 10:15 am; he’ll make similar remarks tomorrow in Kentucky. At 1:05 pm, Bush participates in a photo-op with the 2005 Little League Softball World Series Champions, and 30 minutes later, he signs the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 into law.

In other news, it looks like it’s a two-man race between GOP Reps. Roy Blunt and John Boehner to fill Tom DeLay’s old House majority leader post. But NBC’s Mike Viqueira says that there could be some twists and turns in that race (see below). Meanwhile, DeLay received more bad news yesterday when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied his request to dismiss the money-laundering charges against him.

And the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed yesterday at 11,011.90. CNBC’s Patti Domm notes that the Dow has not been above 11,000 mark since June 2001.

The Alito nomination: Day One
USA Today: “The senators' comments indicated that the debate over President Bush's pick to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - a swing vote on abortion, affirmative action and other controversies - is likely to be sharply partisan.”

The New York Times’ analysis: “Republicans and some Democrats expressed little doubt that Judge Alito would survive even a withering interrogation and be confirmed. But they acknowledged that he was not as personable a nominee as Chief Justice Roberts, and that his writing would provide Democrats with grist for two days of grueling questioning.”

The Washington Post’s analysis: “But on this nomination, as with Roberts's, there has been a clear disconnect between the zeal of activists and the detachment of the general public… That could change, depending on how Alito conducts himself when the questioning begins today. But it is also possible that low-voltage confirmation hearings are becoming the norm, not the exception.”

The Houston Chronicle: “In contrast to the easy manner and polished delivery of Chief Justice John Roberts during his confirmation hearings last fall, nervousness showed in the bookish Alito's presentation."

The Washington Times recaps all the baseball references made in yesterday.

And the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire confirms that yesterday's hearing drew 41 TV cameras (with 10 additional cameras behind Alito), while Roberts drew 28. Also, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) slipped and called Alito "'justice.' His partner at the table, former New Jersey governor and EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman, reaches higher, referring to 'President Alito.'"

The Alito nomination: Government power
The New York Times front-pages how a 1952 Supreme Court opinion over whether Harry Truman had the constitutional authority to seize the nation’s steel mills took center stage yesterday, alongside landmark cases like Roe v. Wade. “Whether and how Justice Jackson's [1952] analysis should apply to broadly similar recent assertions by the Bush administration, notably concerning its domestic surveillance program, will plainly be a central theme when questioning of Judge Alito begins Tuesday morning.”

Legal analyst Jonathan Turley writes this stinging op-ed in USA Today: “Despite my agreement with Alito on many issues, I believe that he would be a dangerous addition to the court in already dangerous times for our constitutional system. Alito's cases reveal an almost reflexive vote in favor of government, a preference based not on some overriding principle but an overriding party. In my years as an academic and a litigator, I have rarely seen the equal of Alito's bias in favor of the government. To put it bluntly, when it comes to reviewing government abuse, Samuel Alito is an empty robe.”

The Boston Globe covers the debate over the ''unitary executive theory," which we’ll probably hear a lot about today.

The Alito nomination: Abortion
Sen. Rick Santorum’s Senate campaign issued a statement yesterday, demanding to know where 2006 opponent Bob Casey Jr. (D) -- son of the man who signed the Pennsylvania abortion law that will be discussed at this week’s hearing -- stands on Alito’s nomination. “Judge Samuel Alito is a highly-qualified and well-regarded jurist, and unfortunately, Senator Santorum’s likely opponent, Bobby Casey, Jr. has yet to speak out about his nomination,” the statement said. “Pennsylvanians should be extremely troubled that Casey … is getting a pass on speaking into this important issue.”

GOP leadership race
The Washington Post says it’s (so far) a two-man race between Roy Blunt and John Boehner to fill DeLay’s old majority leader post. “House Republican aides and sources in all the camps said the race to reshape the party leadership is wide open… The race to succeed [DeLay] is likely to shape up as a contest between candidates preaching the need for change [Boehner] in the face of a widening corruption scandal and those calling for unity, continuity and competence [Blunt].”

The Los Angeles Times: “The stakes in this succession struggle are high. The GOP is trying to recover from a rocky 2005, which saw the indictment of DeLay on campaign finance-related charges in Texas and the plea agreement of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff on corruption charges… The winner of the contest to succeed DeLay may also be in line soon to rise to the House's No. 1 leadership post, because House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is expected to retire after 2008.”

The Washington Times: "Yesterday's events indicate that the election to permanently fill the post vacated by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas -- the first real contested leadership election in years -- could become a full-blown re-evaluation of where the party stands."

NBC’s Mike Viqueira reports that Blunt is claiming more solid yeses at this point -- but both men have only a handful of commitments so far. An aide very close to Boehner says the race is "neck and neck." A neutral aide, meanwhile, says that's a bad sign for Blunt, since he’s essentially viewed as the incumbent. "If you're an incumbent and your re-elect is low, that's not good," this aide explains. Viq adds that there appears to be some dissatisfaction with Blunt's decision to hang onto his whip job while he simultaneously runs for leader. He is perfectly within conference rules in doing so, but it could be costing him early commitments at this time.

Viq says the feeling among some former top GOP Hill aides is that another shoe might drop in the race for majority leader, because the longer it goes without Blunt or Boehner capturing enough commitments to get them over the top, the greater the opportunity for some sort of dark horse alternative candidate to emerge. Viqueira asks, What about the need for a breath of fresh air? “Getting rid of DeLay is enough of a breath of fresh air by itself," replies one lobbyist who was a top leadership staffer.

While Blunt is more of a known quantity (since he was DeLay’s deputy), Viq fleshes out Boehner a bit more. He notes that Boehner has never taken earmarks, and also voted against the transportation bill -- which helps him with conservatives. Moreover, Boehner knows something about tough races, Viq says: Back in 1998, he had enough solid commitments to win re-election for House conference chair, but he was a victim of bad timing. There was a mood for change within the GOP ranks, and after then-Majority Leader Dick Armey survived a challenge for his post, Boehner’s post became the last chance to demonstrate a fresh direction in leadership, and he lost -- to former Rep. J.C. Watts.

Ethics
A new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll finds that 53% believe the Abramoff scandal is a serious matter (while only 9% say it isn’t serious); that a plurality (42%) say most members of Congress don’t deserve re-election; and that, by a 44%-32% margin, “those surveyed say congressional Democrats would do a better job of dealing with the issue of corruption.” Bush’s approval rating in the poll was at 43% -- virtually unchanged from last month.

Meanwhile, a Washington Post/ABC poll shows that 58% believe the Abramoff case shows widespread corruption in Washington. “Nearly three in four -- including majorities in both parties -- say there ‘isn't much difference’ between the level of ethics and honesty of Republicans and Democrats… In the current poll, 45 percent said they approved of how President Bush is handling the issue of ethics in government while 52 percent disapproved.”

With allegations of ethical violations swirling around Washington, USA Today examines what seem to be the roots of the problem: one-party rule, dormant ethics committees, and the excessive cost of getting re-elected.

Roll Call reports that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals yesterday denied a request by DeLay for the money-laundering charges against him be dismissed, “ensuring that DeLay’s case could drag on for months, possibly well beyond the November elections.” The paper adds that because DeLay gave up any attempt to reclaim his majority leader post over the weekend, the ruling lacks the political impact it might have had. “However, it now appears that DeLay will have to contend with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who has been pursuing the money-laundering allegations, through much if not all of his 2006 election campaign.”

The Alexander Strategy Group, a Washington lobbying firm owned by a former DeLay aide that has been at the heart of some of the Abramoff-related charges, will shut its doors at the end of the month, the Washington Post reports.

Longtime Hill observer and Democratic lobbyist William K. Moore believes that lobbying reform will consume half of Congress’ agenda for early 2006, while Alito’s nomination and leftovers from last year (including tax and spending reduction, asbestos liability limits, and PATRIOT Act renewal) will make up the other half. Leadership elections, new lobbying restrictions, and enhanced campaign finance disclosure will keystone Representatives’ claim to reform, Moore adds. “Congressional leaders may be tempted to resist the expanded reform agenda, but they are likely to jump in the front of the parade,” he says.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid begins his “Red State” tour today by traveling to Arizona and Colorado, where he’ll discuss lobbying reform and the Democrats’ agenda. Later this week, he heads to Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska.

The Public Campaign Action Fund and the Campaign for America's Future will launch an ad campaign today linking Reps. DeLay and Bob Ney to Jack Abramoff. The campaign -- which consists of a combined $100,000 in TV, radio and billboard ads -- begins airing tomorrow in Texas and Ohio. The two groups hold a conference call with reporters at 11:00 am to release additional details.

It’s the economy
The New York Times covers the Dow passing the 11,000 mark yesterday: “The Dow first broke through 11,000 in May 1999. Now, nearly seven years later, those days may seem like a lifetime ago to investors: then, the Internet was the future of all business and a terrorist attack on American soil seemed unthinkable.”

The Washington Post writes that health-care costs now “consume 16 percent of the nation's economic output -- the highest proportion ever, the government said yesterday in its latest calculation… Even as health care costs continue to escalate, however, many Americans -- especially minorities and the poor -- still do not receive high-quality care, according to two other federal reports yesterday.”

More Bush agenda
It’s official: Speaker Denny Hastert’s office released a statement yesterday announcing that Bush will deliver his State of the Union address at 9:00 pm on Tuesday, January 31.

The Washington Times says Bush's schedule this week reflects the Administration's attempt to highlight the Iraq war -- to regain footing after a "slew" of bad press over the war and Hurricane Katrina. Bush will give two major speeches on the war on terror, including one today, and hold a press conference later this week with the new German chancellor, who supports the Iraq war.

The New York Times reports that the Justice Department yesterday held “an unusual closed-door briefing” for judges who sit on the secret foreign-intelligence court, to discuss Bush Administration’s program to eavesdrop on domestic communications without a court warrant.

A Wall Street Journal editorial defends the Bush Administration's domestic wiretaps. “In short, if there were any real abuses going on here, there were plenty of people in the loop and able to blow the whistle. Instead, we've only heard from people who, for reasons of partisanship or ignorance of the President's Constitutional war-fighting powers, object to warrantless surveillance per se. Dressing up such a separation of powers dispute in the language of scandal, as is happening now, serves no one but our common enemies."

The midterms
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) -- with a fat lip from his motorcycle accident -- unveils his budget proposal today at 4:00 pm ET, which calls for increased funding for education, transportation, and health care. The Los Angeles Times notes that this proposal “comes as California's $115.7-billion budget remains chronically imbalanced and as the state is expected to lose billions of dollars in federal aid over the next several years… Though administration officials say they are paying for all of these election year initiatives with an unanticipated tax windfall that has come to the state in recent months - with more revenue likely to arrive in the future - analysts question whether California can really afford it.”

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