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Monday, January 16, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
On this 20th Martin Luther King Day, President Bush is, at this writing, in the midst of a visit to the National Archives to view the Emancipation Proclamation. At 3:30 pm, he makes remarks at Georgetown University's "Let Freedom Ring" celebration honoring Dr. King.

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First Lady Laura Bush is leading a US delegation to Monrovia, Liberia to witness the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman president of the nation established by freed slaves, and indeed the first of any African nation. (Johnson-Sirleaf defeated a millionaire male rival, as did Michelle Bachelet, who yesterday became the first popularly elected woman president of Chile.) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also traveling in the US delegation.

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman joins US Senate candidate Michael Steele, the African-American lieutenant governor of Maryland, at an MLK Day celebration in Lanham, MD. Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean addresses the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's MLK Day commemoration in Kansas City.

Not publicly marking the holiday are the current and former Vice Presidents. Cheney is en route to Cairo, where he'll meet with President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia tomorrow. The trip is a make-up excursion from December, when Cheney cut short a Middle Eastern tour so he could return to Washington in case he was needed to cast some tie-breaking votes. Cheney also will travel to Kuwait tomorrow night to mark the passing of Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah.

And Al Gore outlines his view of the threat posed by unchecked executive power at DAR Constitution Hall today at 12:00 pm. Gore will be introduced by conservative GOP former Rep. Bob Barr in what event organizers say is an illustration of the broad ideological swath of groups and activists concerned about Bush Administration policies on this front.

Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt is claiming to have enough commitments to win the post, but his two opponents insist the contest, which will be conducted by secret ballot on February 2, is still wide-open. One rival, Rep. John Boehner, is calling Blunt's bluff by saying that if Blunt really has the support racked up, he should resign from his majority whip post, the job Blunt still officially holds and is refusing to give up.

Tangled up in the Abramoff probe though not charged with any wrongdoing, House Administration Committee chair Bob Ney announced yesterday that he will temporarily step down from his post, insisting in a written statement that he has "done absolutely nothing wrong" and is convinced he "will be vindicated completely." The House Administration Committee oversees day-to-day operations in the House, including any efforts to enact lobbying reform, and Ney's ties to Abramoff would have muddied the message House Republicans hope to send about cleaning things up.

Tomorrow, interestingly situated between MLK Day and the day the Senate returns to work, Trent Lott will announce his future plans at two events in Mississippi. In the years since he had to relinquish the Senate majority leader post after making racially insensitive comments, Lott has regained some of his previous public stature. But there's been widespread speculation that he will retire rather than seek re-election this fall. In a discussion of the Democratic party's Senate-race prospects with NBC on Friday, Minority Leader Harry Reid singled out Mississippi, declaring that if Lott retires, former Attorney General Mike Moore (D) "is the new Senator."

Also tomorrow, Bush meets with the Prime Minister of Belgium and the National Commander of the American Legion on Tuesday. He makes remarks on the economy at some location TBD in Virginia on Thursday.

On Wednesday, with the Senate back at work, Hill Democrats will formally (as much of it has already leaked) unveil their lobbying and congressional ethics reform package. The event will take place in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress at 2:00 pm. "As they have in times past, Democrats will lead the charge to reform the way Washington works," the release asserts. "Democrats will stand united Wednesday to support the priorities of the American people over the special interests."

And on Thursday, the Republican National Committee will kick off its winter meeting in Washington. As we reported last week, the main events are on Friday, with a general session featuring chairman Ken Mehlman, and Karl Rove addressing a members' luncheon. Apart from remarks to the Federalist Society on November 10, Rove has not given a big public speech in Washington since CIA leak probe special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicted then-Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby and suggested that Rove remains under investigation. Rove's appearance marks the start of the party "getting him back out there," one GOP source tells First Read.

The Alito nomination
What probably isn't happening this week: a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Sam Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court. NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the committee isn't likely to vote until Tuesday, January 24, according to aides from both sides of the aisle. Under that scenario, the Senate GOP leadership hopes to have the full and final vote no later than a week from Friday. Committee Republicans had hoped to vote on Alito's nomination tomorrow, Strickland reminds us. But Democrats say they'll employ an often-used procedure that allows any member to hold over a scheduled vote for one week.

Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein said yesterday that she doesn't see a filibuster attempt in the cards. "She said she will not vote to confirm the appeals court judge, based on his conservative record. But she acknowledged that nothing emerged during last week's hearings to justify any organized action by Democrats to stall the nomination." – USA Today

But, per the AP: “Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) would not rule out a filibuster, saying committee Democrats were still going through the hearing transcripts and awaiting answers to written questions.”

The Wall Street Journal wonders "what happened to the much anticipated struggle over high-court nominees... To be sure, the political environment could shift again. But for now, the ability of the Senate and the president to manage three Supreme Court nominations -- for two associate justice vacancies and for chief justice -- and, in all likelihood, win two Senate confirmations in just six months represents the biggest achievement so far of President Bush's second term... The outcome of the nomination saga also is likely to mute a conflict that played prominently in some 2004 Senate races and threatened to resurface in November's midterm election."

The New York Times notes that a year ago, Senators from both parties said that a Supreme Court nominee who disagreed with the major abortion-rights precedents couldn’t win confirmation. “But partisans on either side now say that last week's confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. cast doubt on such assumptions.”

The Washington Post says Harry Reid's focus on ethics rather than on Alito late last week was "testament to the faith that Democratic leaders place in the ethics-corruption issue as a winner in November's congressional elections... One top Senate Democratic aide... predicted a closed debate Wednesday," when the Senate returns to work, "on whether it makes more sense to focus on the most promising issues, such as GOP ethics woes, and avoid being tarred as 'obstructionists' for trying to derail a confirmation vote."

"Ney will maintain his chairmanship of a housing subcommittee," the AP reports. A "GOP leadership aide who spoke Friday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of private talks between Ney and Hastert, said the speaker himself could not have fired Ney. Unless Ney agreed to step aside it would be at least three weeks until the GOP caucus could consider removing him, the aide said."

The Washington Post points out that Ney in his written statement yesterday did not specify that he will seek re-election this year.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer says Ney recently met with Ohio GOP chair Bob Bennett and assured him that he did nothing wrong.

On Sunday, the Houston Chronicle released a poll showing that voters in Rep. Tom DeLay’s congressional district view him unfavorably by a 60%-28% margin. The poll also notes that if the general election were held today, DeLay would get just 22% of the vote, while Democrat Nick Lampson would get 30% and Independent Steve Stockman would get 11%.

The Washington Post front-pages how the Abramoff scandal may sidetrack the political career of former Christian Coalition and Bush campaign official turned Georgia lieutenant governor candidate Ralph Reed. "The problem vexing the Reed campaign is that even if the federal investigation clears him of wrongdoing, his status is likely to remain uncertain at least through the July 18 primary."

A 1995 law that was meant to help the public track dealings between lobbyists and lawmakers is "filled with loopholes and is rarely enforced," reports the Boston Globe. In a review of lobbying records, the Globe found numerous violations, but points out that the Justice Department has only imposed three fines in two years. "Critics say the Senate and House members don't want their contacts with lobbyists to be publicized, so the lawmakers deliberately set up a system that doesn't provide much scrutiny. As a result, lobbyists know there is little chance of a penalty for failing to file reports or for filing reports inaccurately... A check of the records by the Globe found many misstatements or apparent violations of the law."

The House GOP
The AP covers how all three contenders for the majority leader post, Blunt, Boehner, and John Shadegg, are claiming to be "best positioned to clean up the House," and are discounting their own ties to lobbyists.

USA Today charts the three candidates' profiles.

Bob Novak notes that most recent entrant Shadegg doesn’t have the K Street ties that competitors Blunt and Boehner have. “Discontent with the Blunt-Boehner choice has reached the point where well-placed sources are talking about Rep. Tom Reynolds, only in his fourth term from New York and House Republican campaign chairman for 2006, being ''drafted' for the post. Reynolds is a popular, well-organized politician but does not look like a reformer.” (Nor, we would note, would it be terribly convenient for the party to have to change campaign committee chiefs in the midterm election year.)

The Washington Times covers how conservative activists (despite technically having no votes in this election) are split between Blunt and Shadegg.

Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore calls Shadegg "unquestionably the primary change-agent in this field," noting that Blunt is "an unapologetic supporter of earmarks," and that Boehner, though he's never accepted an earmark, "has never been active in the conservative movement."

The Chicago Tribune weighs Speaker Dennis Hastert’s standing among his colleagues. “At the moment, no challenge to Hastert's continued tenure as speaker has emerged from rank-and-file congressional Republicans, who maintain a considerable reservoir of goodwill for the Illinois lawmaker... And he continues to enjoy the support of President Bush… At the same time, several Republican members of Congress described a general feeling that party leaders had let them down.”

The Bush agenda
The New York Times examines Bush’s “signing statements,” like the one he issued on December 30 after signing Sen. John McCain’s torture ban into law. In that statement, he asserted that he would interpret McCain’s amendment in a manner consistent with his authority to “supervise the unitary executive branch” as commander in chief -- asserting, in short, that the Administration can still do what it wants despite laws passed by Congress. Bush has issued more than 100 signing statements, all in an effort to expand the executive branch’s power.

In response to the problems with its prescription-drug program, the Administration has told insurers that they must provide a 30-day supply of any drug that a beneficiary was previously taking, and that low-income people must not be charged more than $5 for a covered drug, the New York Times front-pages. “The handling of the drug benefit threatens to become a political liability for Republicans, as older voters and people with disabilities complain that they have been denied essential medications.”

The Los Angeles Times looks at how states, after years of deferring to the federal government on immigration issues, are now taking the lead out of frustration over "congressional inaction and... rising anger at home" over illegal immigration. "President Bush last year called for beefing up border security and a guest-worker program... But the proposal stalled in Congress, and states said they were forced to act."

The paper also says the border security bill that passed the House late last year and will be taken up by the Senate next month has some who help illegal immigrants worrying that it "could criminalize the work they do," because it "would expand the definition of smuggling to include anyone who 'assists' or 'directs' an illegal immigrant to reside or remain in the United States... The bill's author disputes that it would make criminals out of aid groups that assist illegal immigrants." – Los Angeles Times

During NBC's interview of Harry Reid last Friday, we asked how Democrats plan to use the opportunity of being in the national spotlight with their response to Bush's State of the Union to communicate a message to the country about what the Democratic party stands for. Reid responded that "the more important question" is how Bush will respond to some of the questions he has raised (on ethics, domestic wiretapping, etc.). He did not provide any details on a Democratic party message. Party officials have been delaying the promised rollout of a national party message since last November. That said, later in the interview, Reid later responded to another question about his own top priorities for the foreseeable future, listing reform, health care, "real security" and energy independence, and a transition in Iraq.

Security politics
USA Today says that per military officials, the 26% drop in the number of US troops wounded in Iraq over the past year is "a sign that insurgent attacks have declined in the face of elections and stronger Iraqi security forces... The number of wounded dropped from 7,990 in 2004 to 5,939, according to the Defense Department. There hasn't been much change in the number of deaths, however. Pentagon figures show 844 U.S. troops were killed in the Iraq war during 2005, compared with 845 in 2004."

Democratic Rep. John Murtha said on 60 Minutes last night that an anti-war turnout in November could cause Bush to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

A new AP/Ipsos poll shows that more Americans are worried about the war in Iraq, while concern over the economy is declining. "When people were asked in an open-ended question to name the nation's top problem, 25 percent named war, close to the level in October, but up from 19 percent in July."

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter "said yesterday that his panel will not give a 'blank check' to President Bush in its planned February hearings on the National Security Agency wiretapping program." - Washington Times

Arriving in Africa yesterday, Laura Bush told the press that she agrees with the President's decision to eavesdrop on Americans. "'I think he was worried that it would undermine our efforts by alerting terrorists to what our efforts are,' she said." - AP

The midterms
In his interview with NBC, Harry Reid said he's bullish about his party's chances in the 2006 Senate races. "We're going to pick up seats," he said. "History is on our side." He explained that Democrats are ahead (per the polls) in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Tennessee, and that they are competitive in Rhode Island, Ohio, Arizona, Montana, and Mississippi. "Eight [GOP-held] states are going to be competitive." Reid singled out Ohio -- "I'm sure that we're going to win Ohio" -- due to the state GOP's ethics problems there.

Reid also praised Democratic Senate campaign committee chair Chuck Schumer, saying, "One of the best things that I did was get Schumer to be head of the DSCC" -- which has out-raised its Republican counterpart every quarter so far. He also noted that all Democratic incumbents but one (Sarbanes in Maryland) are running for re-election, and that they are ahead by at least 10 points in the polls. Reid neglected to mention that incumbent Mark Dayton also isn't running for re-election, and the contest to replace Dayton in Minnesota is a toss-up.

Reid also believes the chances that Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman gets in this year's Nevada Senate race are higher than the 30% Goodman had previously stated. If Goodman runs, "It would be the most newsworthy race in the country." Reid also said that he would do "as much as I can" to help the eventual Democratic nominee against GOP Sen. John Ensign, even though Reid and Ensign are friendly with one another.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) has $4 million banked for his effort to unseat Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R); O'Malley's opponent in the Democratic primary, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, will announce his fundraising tally tomorrow. – Washington Post


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