updated 1/24/2006 8:53:58 AM ET 2006-01-24T13:53:58

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First glance
It's the Bush Administration's focus on the war on terror versus Democrats' concentration on a GOP "culture of corruption," as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales carries the torch for Bush's more controversial anti-terror policies in 10:30 am remarks at Georgetown Law, while Democrats commence their ethics-based pre-buttal to Bush's State of the Union address. If Republicans are banking on the public caring more about the war than about lobbying reform, Democrats are betting that their efforts on the front end, and the DeLay-driven House GOP leadership election and the start of Lewis "Scooter" Libby's trial on the back end, will pose an awkward set of bookmarks for Bush's State of the Union address one week from tonight.

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Party aides and operatives bill Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's speech today as an assessment of the "real" state of the union in advance of Bush's take next week. Reid will focus on ethics and the alleged GOP "culture of corruption." "In his State of the Union Address, it is not enough for the President to declare the 'state of our union is strong,'" Reid will say, per excerpts provided by his office. "There is a price to pay for this Republican abuse or power... Special interests and the well-connected have grown stronger, while our national security… our economy… our health care… and our government have grown weaker."

Reid gives the address at 11:00 am at the Center for American Progress, the liberal think-tank run by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta that has become a prominent venue for Democrats looking to blast Republicans in policy speeches. In conjunction with Reid's speech, CAP will release a video and a 16-page report on "the state of presidential credibility," addressing what they view as "misrepresentations" in previous State of the Union addresses.

Stage Two of the Democratic leadership's pre-buttal comes on Thursday at the National Press Club, where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin will give their take on the state of the union under Bush at the club's newsmakers' luncheon -- the same forum in which Pelosi and Reid teamed up to deliver their split speech in February 2005. A Reid aide says Reid and Pelosi aren't reprising their duet from last year because of an anticipated scheduling conflict (which actually didn't come to pass, but Reid is giving a separate speech, anyway).

None of this is intended to detract from the party's official response to Bush's speech on Tuesday night, Democratic aides on the Hill tell First Read. The party plans to showcase new red-state Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia in that role. Still, aides say they've found that the media picks up their pre-buttals for use in all the coverage leading up to Bush's annual address. Reid, Pelosi and Durbin will "throw some hard-hitting punches" before Tuesday, one top Democratic aide tells First Read, thereby allowing Kaine to "speak to the same issues but use his own voice to reach middle-class, moderate voters." In the Virginia governor's race, Kaine spoke often about his Catholic faith and refrained from using the typical amount of partisan rhetoric.

Also today, the Democratic governors offer their pre-buttal: Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Jim Doyle of Wisconsin hold a 2:00 pm press conference at the National Press Club to roll out a proposal "to restore America's competitiveness," which by definition suggests they believe America has lost it. Per a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, Rendell and Doyle will call on Bush to work with the states to make the country more competitive, pointing out, among other issues, that the United States is competing against countries who have national health care systems.

Beyond all that, the Senate Judiciary Committee meets at 9:30 am today to vote on the Alito nomination. He's expected to be voted out of committee -- but not before each of the panel's 18 members gets 10 minutes to make a statement. NBC's Ken Strickland reports that per a GOP committee aide, there's a good chance that some of Judiciary Republicans won't make any statements at all, or will make very short ones, so it's unclear what time the vote actually will take place. Strickland also reports that Alito will be on the Hill today to meet with GOP Sens. Craig Thomas and Jim Bunning, so while he won't be present for the committee vote, he would theoretically be available for, say, an impromptu press conference with the Senate GOP leadership. Strickland reminds us that three Judiciary Democrats voted along with their GOP colleagues to approve John Roberts' nomination, but Alito is expected to win approval on a party-line (10-8) vote.

The full Senate will begin debating Alito's nomination tomorrow, and the final confirmation vote could come as early as Friday, as the GOP leadership wants, or as late as next Tuesday.

Tomorrow also brings the first hearing sparked by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, held by the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over most of the issues involved.

And Bush today meets with the Prime Minister of Pakistan at 11:10 am. Bush also has a photo op with 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart at 2:00 pm.

Security politics
USA Today says of yesterday's twin speeches in defense of the Administration's anti-terror policies that Bush "defended... what he called a 'terrorist surveillance program' that targets international communications of suspected al-Qaeda members," while deputy national intelligence director Michael Hayden "acknowledged that not every call monitored proved to have a terrorist link."

The Houston Chronicle notes that “Bush spoke as part of the same Kansas State University lecture series in which President Nixon asked in 1970 for patience about the Vietnam War.”

NBC's Andrea Mitchell covers the Administration's use of "one of its super spies," Hayden, to echo its case for the NSA program. "Hayden's public appearances are usually limited to annual reports to the Senate Intelligence Committee, normally very dry affairs," Mitchell notes.

The Boston Globe: "The president is touting his spying program at the start of a crucial year for his party," because of the midterm elections. "On a legal level, however, Bush's initiative has deeper implications, analysts said. If the public and the Congress accept Bush's assertion of power, they would clear the way for an increase in presidential power that could last long after Bush leaves office."

The Democrats
Roll Call reports that Democrats on the Hill will focus almost entirely on ethics between now and the State of the Union. Tomorrow, when the Senate floor re-opens for business to start debate on the Alito nomination, Democrats have planned a series of floor speeches "that will call for immediate consideration of their ethics reform legislation. That will be followed by the release of a Caucus letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist... asking that floor consideration of asbestos legislation be postponed until after the chamber completes work on lobbying reform legislation."

A separate Roll Call story focuses on the asbestos bill, part of Bush's tort-reform agenda: "Democratic opponents of the measure are seeking to link the bill to the current debate over Congressional ethics and lobbying reform, because the measure is priority of many business interests." The story hints at a possible Democratic filibuster.

Expect Democrats to appropriate as part of their message a Washington Post report today on how House and Senate GOP negotiators, behind closed doors, "agreed on a change to Senate-passed Medicare legislation that would save the health insurance industry $22 billion over the next decade... The change in the Medicare provision underscores a practice that growing numbers of lawmakers from both parties want addressed. More than ever, Republican congressional lawmakers and leaders are making vital decisions, involving far-reaching policies and billions of dollars, without the public -- or even congressional Democrats -- present."

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) is back in the news, this time criticizing the Medicare prescription-drug program, says the New York Times. “Her criticisms... seemed to reflect a growing sense among Democrats that the troubles with the new drug program are becoming a liability for Republicans as they seek to maintain control of both houses of Congress.” The paper adds that Clinton used a question about her controversial “plantation” remark “to further her critique of the Medicare drug program and its Republican authors… ‘The result is that you get bills like this.'”

“The White House didn't seem worried by the broadside," says the New York Daily News. "‘The American people and the Congress rejected her proposal [12 years ago] because it's the wrong prescription for America,’ said spokesman Trent Duffy, who added Americans don't want a ‘Hillary-run health care plan that has led to rationing and the other things we've seen in Canada.’”

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday that the White House sees no need to release photos of Bush with Abramoff because they aren't relevant to the ongoing investigation. (If they were relevant to the investigation, would the White House refuse to release them on the grounds that the investigation is ongoing?) The Washington Post reports that "Abramoff has more than half a dozen photos with Bush, including one of the two men shaking hands, but has no intention of releasing them... No evidence has emerged thus far suggesting Bush had a close relationship with Abramoff or that he or any of his top White House aides did anything to improperly assist his clients."

The Los Angeles Times takes a long look at how relations between lawmakers and lobbyists in Washington have cooled, at least temporarily. "Many analysts remain skeptical that such ties will fundamentally change."

The New York Times front-pages how states so far “have outpaced” Washington in enacting lobbying and ethics reform. “Measures are under consideration in state legislatures from New England to California.”

The Wall Street Journal covers the good-government coalition's rollout yesterday of a reform proposal that focuses on curbing corporate-subsidized travel.

Roll Call notes that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer's message on government reform has been consistently different from Leader Pelosi's and other Democrats': "In his public comments, Hoyer has maintained... that the rules aren’t the problem - corrupt lawmakers are." Why? Perhaps because "Hoyer’s position as the House Democrats’ top liaison to K Street has made him more vulnerable than most to Republican charges of hypocrisy."

The Sacramento Bee reports that Rep. John Doolittle (R) told a Sacramento radio station yesterday that he “wants the Department of Justice to ‘come investigate me’ so he can clear his name in the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal.” Doolittle maintained that he hasn’t been contacted by the Justice Department and that he has no plans to return the contributions Abramoff and his clients gave him

Former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby's trial is set to begin a week from Friday. Libby's lawyers "on Monday made their first request to use classified evidence at his trial, launching a highly secretive court process that could bog down the case," the AP says. "In the filings made under seal in federal court," Libby's lawyers "put the judge and prosecutors on notice that they want a jury to hear evidence the government now says is classified. Their action puts the Libby case on a dual track -- one public, the other secret -- that often can delay criminal cases from going to trial."

Bush's standing
USA Today notes that Bush "has had a job approval rating of 43% in the past four USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Polls. In the three surveys before that, it was 41%, 42% and 43%. Since early December, his standing hasn't moved more than a tick... The good news for Bush is that he has rebounded from his low rating of 37% in mid-November... The bad news is that a concerted White House PR campaign launched in November, including a series of speeches citing progress in Iraq, hasn't improved views of Bush or the war."

Lots of coverage of Bush's unusually wild-and-woolly Q&A session at Kansas State University yesterday. "By the end of the event, White House transcribers recorded 61 instances of audience laughter... The forum was a departure for the control-oriented, gaffe-fearing Bush White House." - Washington Post

On a more serious note, while Bush will continue to tout fiscal discipline and budget cuts in his State of the Union and in his budget proposal, the Wall Street Journal says his spending habits are irking conservatives. "Total spending this year and for fiscal 2007, which starts Oct. 1, is heading in the same direction it has since the start of the Bush administration: up. Conservatives are fuming because this is occurring when Republicans control both the White House and Congress."

The Alito nomination
With Alito expected to pass through the Judiciary Committee on a straight party-line vote, the AP notes that in "recent judicial battles, a 10-8 party line vote would be the first sign of the possibility of a Democratic-led filibuster. But Democrats are not expected to try that with Alito... Democrats are expected, however, to try to persuade as many senators in their party to vote against him as possible on the Senate floor."

"From Rhode Island to New Mexico, operatives in both parties are using the nomination as a referendum on abortion and an indicator of a candidate's independence," says the Washington Times.

The New York Times writes about yesterday’s anti-Roe rally in Washington yesterday, which Bush addressed by telephone. “While Mr. Bush made no explicit mention of his nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court, the expectation that the judge would soon win Senate approval and join a majority in overturning Roe was clearly the overarching message of the rally.”

Other people's elections
"Stephen Harper said he will honor pledges to cut taxes, clean up government and fight crime after leading Canada's Conservative Party to its first national election win in 18 years." That said, "Harper fell short of the 155 seats needed for a majority government, forcing him to seek support from opposition parties to deliver on his campaign pledges." - Bloomberg

"Harper downplayed some of the positions that alarmed progressive voters, hinting that he would not challenge abortion rights and same-sex marriage or radically change healthcare. At the same time, he offered tax cuts, mandatory prison sentences and other reforms that appealed to middle-class voters." – Los Angeles Times

Harper's election is "expected to move Canada rightward on social and economic issues and lead to improved ties with the United States... Relations with the Bush administration will likely improve under Harper as his ideology runs along the same lines of many U.S. Republicans." - USA Today

It's the economy
Ford Motor Co. announced yesterday that it will close 14 plants, a "stunning 26% cut that will eliminate 25,000 to 30,000 hourly jobs, in addition to 4,000 white-collar jobs Ford previously said it would ax... Wall Street analysts considered it no more than a good start... Investors liked it better, though. Ford stock jumped 42 cents, or 5.3%, to $8.32 at the close of New York trading Monday." – USA Today

"Detroit is ditching its business model of the 1990s," the Wall Street Journal surmises, "and the cost now totals more than 60,000 jobs at Ford and rival General Motors Corp.... The overall U.S. auto industry remains relatively robust, with sales close to record levels and employment at about one million people, roughly the same as in 1990, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The difference between then and now: About a fourth of all U.S. auto jobs are now with foreign-owned manufacturers, the report found."

Democratic Senate candidate Matt Brown of Rhode Island is airing a TV ad called "Oil." Brown in the ad: "It is costing us a fortune to heat our homes and drive to work. We pay record prices while the big oil companies make record profits. Then Congress gave the big oil companies $6 billion in tax breaks and giveaways. That's wrong. Congress needs to take that money back and use it to help people pay to heat their homes."

The midterms
In an off-camera briefing with reporters yesterday, Republican Senate campaign committee chair Elizabeth Dole argued that her party is poised to fare well in November despite a political landscape and polling that (so far) suggest otherwise. Dole began by saying that while Republicans dealt with "a lot of challenges" last year -- Iraq, Katrina -- the environment is looking up for the GOP in 2006. She noted that the economy "is moving forward," and that Iraq just completed what was a "great election." "What is the agenda of the Democrats?" she continued. "We have still been looking for the agenda -- it is attack, attack, attack." However, when asked later whether Republicans were looking to nationalize the 2006 elections, she backtracked, replying, "[Elections] are not run from Washington, and they're not won in Washington. It is the local and regional issues that prevail."

On ethics, Dole said, "The Abramoff situation is a bipartisan problem that will require a bipartisan solution." On whether Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana is vulnerable because of his alleged links to Abramoff, she replied, "He has been battered and battered [by Democrats]. It is based on rumor and innuendo."

On the problems associated with the Medicare prescription-drug program: "When something is as massive as that... obviously you are going to have a few hiccups." The AP's Ron Fournier then asked Dole if "hiccup" is the right word to use to describe these problems, to which Dole replied "no" and backtracked, saying that the problems need to be worked out.

And looking at the 2006 Senate map, Dole observed that Republicans have just one incumbent -- Bill Frist -- retiring, while four Democratic incumbents -- in Minnesota, Maryland, Vermont and New Jersey -- aren't seeking re-election. Consequently, she suggested, Democrats will have a difficult time getting close to taking back the Senate.

The New York Daily News reports that New York gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer (D) has chosen David Paterson of Harlem as his running mate. “Paterson, 51, is a legally blind lawmaker credited with putting Democrats in position to threaten GOP dominance of the Senate.”

Bloomberg looks at GOP Sen. Rick Santorum's uphill fight to win re-election this fall, and how Santorum hopes that leading the way for his party on lobbying reform, as well as adjusting his positions on some other issues, will give him a boost. "Santorum's change of course on lobbying is one of several he's made in the past year, on issues including Social Security, Iraq and the theory of intelligent design."


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