updated 1/18/2006 9:14:58 AM ET 2006-01-18T14:14:58

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First glance
President Bush meets with victims of Saddam Hussein's regime at 9:55 am. "Just two and a half years ago, Iraq was in the grip of a cruel dictator," says a White House release recounting progress made in Iraq since then.

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

And one chamber of Congress returns to work today; the other returns on January 31. By getting a head start, the Senate will have a 10- or 12-day edge on the House in terms of actual legislative days in 2006. But the difference between roughly 70 days of work and roughly 60 days of work ain't worth quibbling over when the bottom line is that neither chamber will have much time to enact a handful of bills left over from last year and act on whatever priorities, shared and separate, that President Bush and Hill Republicans have for this midterm election year.

Legislative loose ends for both chambers from 2005 include extensions of the Bush tax cuts on dividends and capital gains; the GOP deficit-reduction bill that cuts spending on social programs; a temporary fix for the alternative minimum tax; and reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which is due to expire on February 3. NBC's Ken Strickland suggests that the act may require a second extension since the Senate Judiciary Committee, under whose purview it falls, has been busy with the Alito nomination and the House doesn't even return until January 31. The Senate GOP leadership also counts as top priorities the border security bill which passed the House last year; asbestos litigation reform, a long-languishing piece of Bush's desired tort system overhaul; and confirmation of Sam Alito to the Supreme Court and Ben Bernanke to replace Alan Greenspan at the helm of the Fed. Both confirmations must happen by January 31, or that'll be one awkward State of the Union address that night.

Then there are the recent additions to the priority list: an evaluation of mining safety regulations, inspired by the Sago mine disaster; Bush's expected call in the State of the Union for health care reform that somehow doesn't blow open the deficit he still intends to cut in half by 2009; the Administration's request that Congress raise the debt ceiling by early February so that the government has the money to keep operating; and of course, lobbying reform.

In the war of one-upmanship that lobbying reform has become, Republicans held twin pressers yesterday with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Rules Committee chair David Dreier, followed by Sens. John McCain and Rick Santorum. At 2:00 pm today, the Democratic Hill leadership will announce their proposal, an elaborately staged and ambitious effort to tie the alleged GOP "culture of corruption" to a swath of what they see as bad legislation passed by the Administration and Republican-run Congress at the behest of special interests, including the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the energy bill, and the spending cuts in the budget-reconciliation bill.

After having little luck winning elections by branding the Bush GOP as the party of special interests, Democrats hope the Abramoff scandal will add staying power to what they're now calling "quid pro quo politics." Indeed, they're betting the farm on it, making this issue their main campaign plank heading into the midterm elections despite some uncertainty about how much the public is really paying attention to the unfolding Abramoff scandal.

Among Democrats' various sidebar efforts today: Senate Whip Dick Durbin and Senate campaign committee chair Chuck Schumer will hold an off-camera briefing at 3:30 pm; and Govs. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Joe Manchin of West Virginia will tout new ethics proposals in their states. First Read has also learned that Barack Obama will become Senate Democrats' front man on lobbying reform in the same way that West Pointer Jack Reed has been their point person on the Iraq war. An Obama spokesperson points out that Obama helped lead an effort to rewrite the Illinois ethics code to ban gifts to legislators.

Also today, MoveOn.org will stage a protest outside anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's offices this morning at 9:45 am (it being Wednesday, Norquist will be hosting his weekly meeting of Republican activists and lobbyists). And Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean will hold a presser at the statehouse in Columbus, OH at 10:00 am to highlight the scandals that have plagued Ohio Republicans and discuss how Democrats will try to take advantage of them in November. "Ohio is ground zero for the Republican culture of corruption," DNC spokesperson Josh Earnest tells First Read, citing GOP Rep. Bob Ney's alleged ties to Jack Abramoff and GOP Gov. Bob Taft's no-contest plea last year on ethics charges after being ensnared in the state's "Coingate" scandal.

One of the few states to host competitive House, Senate and gubernatorial races this year, Ohio indeed was already shaping up to be a key battleground in 2006. For Democrats, now, Ohio will test whether their attacks on a GOP "culture of corruption" actually work. "There is no question that a number of scandals in Ohio... do provide the Democrats with a very good opportunity," University of Akron political scientist John C. Green tells First Read. "Howard Dean couldn't have picked a better place to visit."

But can they take advantage of it, especially since many of their targets -- like Sen. Mike DeWine and Reps. Deborah Pryce and Steve Chabot -- don't seem to have direct ties to Coingate or Abramoff? Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report says Democrats must convince voters that these scandals are a product of one-party rule, and that electing Democrats is the only way to create change. Republicans have held Ohio's governorship and most other state offices for nearly 16 years. On the flip side, Walter adds, Ohio Republicans face their own challenge: "How well do Deb Pryce and Steve Chabot isolate themselves from the problems in Columbus and Washington?"

Ethics
At the House GOP reform plan rollout yesterday, Rules Committee chair David Dreier said he's aiming for a vote on the entire package during the first week in March, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports. But as Viq has reported before, not all GOP members are pleased with the prospect of a total ban on outside travel: "I applaud the Speaker and Chairman Dreier's efforts. However, many trips are truly educational, and I believe a complete ban on all private travel would be an overreaction that doesn't get to the root of the problem," said Rep. John Shadegg, who happens to be one of the three candidates for House majority leader.

"Republicans are far from unified on how to proceed," says The Washington Post. "Some lawmakers say GOP leaders are blaming lobbyists rather than examining the legislative processes that have invited corruption, such as the proliferation of home-district pork-barrel projects."

The Post also sees a big gap in the GOP proposals, which "would change two of the three areas of law or regulation that govern lobbyists' behavior: the congressional rules that limit gifts to lawmakers and the laws that dictate the amount of disclosure that lobbyists must give the public. A third major area -- campaign finance laws -- would go untouched, an omission that amounts to a gaping loophole in efforts to distance lobbyists from the people they are paid to influence." McCain "said he was aware of the problem... and vowed to close it before the bill becomes a law."

The Boston Globe lists the GOP proposals being "seriously discussed:"

Roll Call notes that "growing Republican sentiment for using lobbying reform bills to clamp down on free-spending 527 groups" threaten "bipartisan accord" because of how Democrats have come to rely on the groups to help them compensate for their traditional disadvantage on hard money.

At their ethics rollout today, Democrats will introduce a series of suggested reforms named after Republicans caught up in the Abramoff scandal and other ethics flare-ups. Examples: "The Ralph Reed Reform: Toughen Public Disclosure of Lobbyist Activity;" and "The Grover Norquist Reform: Shut Down Pay-to-Play Schemes Like the 'K Street Project.'" One Democratic Hill aide also points out that the event will take place in the Library of Congress' Great Hall, which houses a mural by Elihu Vedder that includes five panels: "Government," "Corrupt Legislation," "Anarchy," "Good Administration," and "Peace and Prosperity."

Noting that many of the two sides' proposals are similar, Knight Ridder says that "[i]f enacted, the new rules could change some of the ways that Washington does business by making it more difficult, but not impossible, for lobbyists and their clients to get privileged access to lawmakers... New rules, if enacted, could have an impact on this year's elections and help shape the national agenda for the next two years."

While Republicans and Democrats circulate their lobbying reform plans, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has instructed his staff to immediately change the way they do business with the lobbying world. NBC's Strickland reports that Reid chief of staff Susan McCue sent a letter to staff advising them that the lobbying reforms their boss will propose today will take effect within the office immediately. McCue told staff, "What distinguishes our reform bill is its scope and our commitment to getting it done. To that end, we will walk the talk." Now banned are any meals, gifts, or travel from lobbyists. Strickland notes that Reid has reportedly received several thousand dollars connected to Abramoff and his clients, but says the donations were legal and has no plans to return them, as other Democrats have, because he believes the Abramoff scandal is "a Republican scandal."

The Chicago Tribune covers Obama being tapped as the Senate Democrats’ point person on reform. “The task is the most visible--and potentially partisan--role Obama has taken as he begins his second year in office… A senior Democratic leadership aide said Obama was chosen because he came to Washington as a freshman senator to ‘make a difference for the country but has seen in one year the cost of the Republican culture of corruption.’”

Abramoff had a "few staff-level meetings” at the White House, spokesperson Scott McClellan said yesterday, but he "refused to disclose who met with Abramoff or what they talked about." – USA Today

Amidst all this churning, Roll Call columnist Karlyn Bowman observes that the Pew news interest index from January showed that "Washington, D.C., stories" like the Abramoff scandal "weren’t generating as much interest as other stories were."

And the New York Times notes that previous uproars “like the House Post Office scandal and sensational revelations about lobbyist paid travel, suspect book deals and speaking fees have sparked previous rounds of reform. But they are often undone by lack of staff members to police them and have been riddled with loopholes.”

The GOP leadership
Viq reports that Hastert yesterday offered to stand for re-election to the speaker post if that's the will of his fellow Republicans, some of whom have called for a full slate of leadership elections rather than just the majority leader balloting set for February 2.

Shadegg takes his turn making his reformist case on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page today: "I did not discover reform as an issue -- like Saul on the road to Damascus -- when I entered the majority leader race. It has been an integral part of my record, not at one time a decade ago, but constantly, year in and year out since 1994."

On MSNBC's Hardball yesterday, when asked whether he'll have a chance to run for the number-two job in the Senate should his colleague Rick Santorum lose his re-election bid in November, Trent Lott said, "Right now, that's in the hands of the Good Lord." (Um, hardly an endorsement of Santorum.)

The Alito nomination
Today is the last day the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for a month, which means it's most likely Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's last day of oral arguments, as Alito is expected to be seated on the bench by the time oral arguments resume on February 21. NBC's Strickland reports that Alito will be back on the Hill today for more meetings with some Senate Democrats: Max Baucus, Ron Wyden, and Bill Nelson. Sen. Ben Nelson of red-state Nebraska, meanwhile, is the first Democrat to announce he'll vote to confirm Alito, and may meet with Alito today as well, Strickland reports.

This morning, the Republican National Committee will unveil a new website that tracks where Senate Democrats -- from Nelson to liberal Chuck Schumer -- stand on Alito's nomination.

With Senate Democrats meeting at 12 noon today to discuss how to handle Alito's nomination, the anti-Alito group Alliance for Justice yesterday sent out an e-mail to supporters urging them to call their Senators to tell them they oppose Alito. "He will join the conservative Scalia/Thomas/Roberts wing of the Court," the e-mail says."This is about more than Alito's confirmation, it's about the future of the country. Don't let your senators get through another day without hearing from you."

It's the economy
"Oil prices surpassed $66 a barrel for the first time in 3½ months Tuesday as separate developments in Nigeria and Iran heightened supply jitters and put prices close to record highs... Prices for heating oil, gasoline and natural gas also gained on markets in New York. Stock prices fell as investors weighed if higher energy prices could dent corporate profits and consumer spending... Retail gasoline prices will likely go up 10 to 15 cents a gallon in the next few weeks to reflect rising oil prices." – USA Today

On the heels of the news yesterday that pay is rising at a slower rate than during any other economic expansion since World War II, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney addresses the National Press Club at 12:30 pm to discuss families' stagnant wages and rising health-care costs, and he will lay out the union federation's plan to restore and protect workers' rights.

The Wall Street Journal: "Ben Bernanke is to deliver his first testimony to Congress as Federal Reserve chairman on Feb. 15," delivering "the Fed's semi-annual monetary policy report to the House Financial Services Committee... The next day, he'll deliver it to the Senate Banking Committee."

Executive power
USA Today writes that the Supreme Court's rejection of the Administration's effort to block Oregon's assisted-suicide law "was, on one hand, a straightforward interpretation of the limits of federal law. However, the language and tone of the court's ruling amounted to a rebuke of a power grab by the executive branch... The decision revealed that most of the court - even without O'Connor, who was in the majority Tuesday - is concerned about moves to expand executive authority."

"The ruling struck down one of the administration's signature policies regarding what President Bush calls the 'culture of life' and lifts the last legal cloud over the state's law," says the Washington Post.

The Los Angeles Times reminds us of how Bush and the GOP-run Congress "moved quickly to intervene" in the Terri Schiavo case in 2005. "The Supreme Court refused to take up the Schiavo case, and polls showed widespread disapproval of Washington's intervention."

Two federal lawsuits were filed yesterday "accusing Bush of exceeding his constitutional powers" and calling for a halt of the Administration's domestic surveillance program, reports the AP. One suit was filed in New York by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the other was filed in Detroit by the ACLU.

The Bush agenda
USA Today covers Administration efforts to smooth out the glitches in the Medicare prescription-drug program on the heels of "widespread reports that many of the 6.2 million low-income patients who were automatically switched from state Medicaid programs into Medicare are not getting their drugs... About 20 states have taken emergency action to cover drug costs for low-income residents until the problems can be resolved. On Thursday, 14 Democratic governors wrote President Bush demanding reimbursement."

The Wall Street Journal reports, "Sign-ups in December for Medicare's new drug benefit exceed expectations, encouraging Medicare officials but confusing many pharmacies."

AFSCME, the SEIU and the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities’ today kick off an advertising and grassroots campaign to urge moderate House Republicans to vote against the budget-reconciliation bill. In a conference call with reporters yesterday outlining the campaign, AFSCME president Gerald McEntee said lawmakers who support the bill are, in essence, casting a vote against the interests of senior citizens, who are their most important constituents. By supporting the bill, McEntee said some of these lawmakers could suffer at the polls in November. McEntee also said that the proposed budget cuts are "immoral," that the country is headed in the wrong direction and that the new Medicare prescription plan is "disastrous." So far, McEntee says they have 203 votes to "derail" the bill, but they need 217.

The Democrats
Pegged to her "plantation" comment from Monday, the New York Times front-pages Sen. Hillary Clinton’s delicate balancing act as she runs for re-election in 2006 and also preps for 2008.

The New York Post notes that White House spokesperson Scott “McClellan rarely raps Clinton, but the 2008 election seemed to be on the horizon when he blasted her remarks and rapped her husband's vice president, Al Gore, for ‘hypocrisy [that] knows no bounds.’" The story also includes this GOP zinger from former RNC chair Rich Bond: "‘She has no standing to offer any moral judgments. You know what the White House was like under her husband - you know what I mean. And if you don't, remember Monica Lewinsky.’”

The midterms
Interestingly -- or conveniently -- on the same day that Lott announced he will seek a fourth Senate term, the Republican Senate campaign committee announced that it will hold a pen-and-pad session on the 2006 races on Monday.

The New York Post says a conservative website is cashing in on New York gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer’s penchant for aggressively taking on critics. T-shirts, mugs, and buttons "carry such slogans as, ‘I was threatened by Eliot Spitzer,’ and ‘Eliot Spitzer threatened my little sister.’”

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