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Monday, February 13, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
One of Vice President Cheney's regular unannounced hunting trips has finally come to light, due to his accidentally spraying 78-year-old fellow hunter Harry Whittington with birdshot on a South Texas ranch on Saturday evening.  The incident was not publicly disclosed for about 20 hours, and only then on the Corpus Christi paper's website.  All concerned were wearing the proper orange vests.  Fortunately for Whittington, for Cheney, and for the late-night talk-show hosts salivating over the possibilities (though Imus beat them to the punch this morning), Whittington is expected to be fine.

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    5. Fluke files to run in California

President Bush has a 2006 agenda to push, some of which has bipartisan support.  Congressional Democrats as well as Republicans will offer proposals to boost US competitiveness in the coming days, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi applauds Bush's focus on this issue in today's Wall Street Journal.  But twin fires in need of fighting on Capitol Hill threaten to distract the White House and the GOP leadership from pressing ahead with those priorities: Republican lawmakers' increasing criticisms of the NSA wiretapping program and, now, of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

The latest on the debate over the NSA program is below.  On Katrina, NBC News reports that 90 findings of the forthcoming 600-page House report on the government's response show failures at every level, but single out homeland security chief Michael Chertoff and his department for dropping the ball.  Bush homeland security advisor Fran Townsend will address the National Emergency Management Association today about the government's response and may announce some findings from her own internal review, which had been expected for later this month.  Chertoff will testify before the Senate Homeland Security Committee tomorrow.  A House Democratic leadership aide tells First Read that Democrats plan to revive their "incompetence and cronyism" charges against the Administration over Katrina during the upcoming Presidents' Day recess.

House Republicans aren't the only members of the GOP growing increasingly critical of the response to Katrina.  Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday night, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich argued to an enthusiastic audience that the failures were due to a government that is too big at the federal level and too corrupt at the state and local levels.  Gingrich said he would "overhaul DHS so that it actually works."

Bush today will participate in the presentation of the National Medals of Science and Technology at 10:40 am, then he'll meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the Oval Office at 1:15 pm.  At 2:35 pm, he has a photo op (with remarks) with the World Series-winning Chicago White Sox.  And at 7:05 pm, he headlines a closed-press fundraiser for the Republican Senate campaign committee at the home of -- we're told -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Today's schedule is a good indicator of what Bush plans to focus on for the rest of the week.  Beyond his Annan meeting today, additional security-related events this week include a visit to CENTCOM in Florida and remarks on the war on terror there on Friday.  Also on the fundraising schedule for the week are a Republican National Committee luncheon and a Florida GOP event.  Bush even has a second sports photo op that lies close to his heart: a Valentine's Day appearance with the NCAA champion University of Texas Longhorns (hook'em!).  And, as with the awards presentation today, Bush will have more events over the course of the week where he'll tout parts of his 2006 agenda -- including multiple appearances on health care.

The White House is neither loudly promising any particular number of events nor setting a time limit, as they did with their 60-day campaign to overhaul Social Security (which, as the press frequently pointed out, ran far longer than 60 days).  But signs indicate that they're undertaking a campaign to sell their health-care policies -- from health savings accounts to increased use of information technology to the Medicare prescription-drug law -- almost as aggressively as they tried to sell Social Security reform.  A rare week-ahead schedule for Bush's Cabinet, the kind of schedule they only put together when they're pushing something big, shows several agency heads holding health-care events all week in Washington and around the country.

Also staying just under the radar on health care after being previously burned is Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), who holds a forum called "Taking Action on Health Care" at the University of Buffalo at 10:00 am.  Topics will include affordability, quality and access.

Security politics
On Meet the Press yesterday, the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees said they support Bush's authority to order the NSA wiretapping without additional congressional authorization.  They also suggested that those Democrats who were also briefed on the program could have weighed in earlier with their concerns.  And both questioned the usefulness of the program now that it has been made public.

Both chairs "said they supported the program, and described it as crucial to the nation's efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks in the United States," says the Los Angeles Times.  "But their comments could put new pressure on the White House to defend the operation's usefulness, and on federal investigators to determine who leaked information about what had been among the most closely guarded secrets in the U.S. intelligence community."

Newsweek reports that the Senate Intelligence Committee this week is likely to vote in favor of an investigation into the NSA program, with Republican panel members Olympia Snowe, Chuck Hagel and Mike DeWine voting with Democrats.  The White House has shared more information with the committee lately, but some senators are still miffed that they weren't briefed on the details earlier.

The Hill says "Bush told House Republicans on Friday that administration officials would soon brief members of the House intelligence committee about the" program.

The Sunday New York Times reported on the government's "rapidly expanding criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding" the Times report from December "that disclosed the existence of" the NSA program.  "For the government, the investigation represents an effort to punish those responsible for a serious security breach and enforce legal sanctions against leaks of classified information at a time of heightened terrorist threats.  For news organizations, the inquiry threatens the confidentiality of sources and the ability to report on controversial national security issues free of government interference."

In a forum in Orlando last Friday, USA Today reports GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee said of the war in Iraq, "we're in this for a much longer period of time, I think, than some people are being led to believe."  Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson commented that "whatever you may think about the war in Iraq, we've been obsessed with it to the detriment of other huge foreign policy concerns in the region" -- namely Iran and Hamas.  (Both governors are, of course, potential presidential candidates in 2008.)

The Los Angeles Times says the Hamas victory is "opening cracks in an edifice of American politics: the alliance between the Bush administration and staunch supporters of Israel...  The divisions are one more complication for the White House as it seeks to make political progress in the Middle East.  Though the tension with pro-Israel groups could evaporate, it also could escalate if the administration tries to build a working relationship with a Hamas-dominated government, as America's European and Arab allies may urge it to do...  Pro-Israel groups have been a key part of Bush's political coalition."

The New York Post writes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday "became the latest administration official to fire back at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who last week ridiculed the White House's failure to nab Osama bin Laden despite his being 'the tallest man in Afghanistan.  [Rice] noted... that President Bill Clinton didn't get the 6-foot-5 him in the '90s - which might have prevented 9/11."

Disaster politics
The Sunday Washington Post called the anticipated House report on the government's response to Katrina "an unusual compendium of criticism by the House GOP, which generally has not been aggressive in its oversight of the administration."  "White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Bush had full confidence in his homeland security team," and Duffy "objected to a leaked draft of an unpublished report, and said the White House is completing its own study."

Today's New York Times also writes up the House Republicans' "blistering" report.  "What is most disturbing about the hurricane response, the draft report says, is that the entire catastrophe was so easily foreseen... yet still the response was so flawed."

Senate Homeland Security ranking member Joe Lieberman (D) said yesterday that "new details about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina should outrage President Bush and spur an immediate improvement in disaster response." – USA Today

The AP reports that Chertoff will announce changes today that could lead to the overhaul of FEMA.  The expected changes "range from a full-time response force of 1,500 new employees to establishing a more reliable system to report on disasters as they unfold."

Budget and spending politics
Sunday's Boston Globe said some Republicans worry that Bush's budget could induce an election-year backlash.  "Some fear that the tough choices Bush is forcing on the Republican-controlled House and Senate could feed into Democrats' attempts to make gains in this fall's elections, when all House members and a third of senators are up for reelection...  With Bush insisting on further cuts in next year's budget, some of the party's conservative elder statesmen are warning that Congress may lack the political will for another round of politically unpopular cuts."

The New York Times says former Reagan and Bush 41 official Bruce Bartlett has been ostracized from GOP circles after his criticisms of George W. Bush.  Bartlett's forthcoming book "Imposter" "is flamboyant in its anti-Bush sentiments," the story says, but "its basic message reflects the frustration of many conservatives who say that Mr. Bush has been on a five-year federal spending binge.  Like them, Mr. Bartlett is particularly upset about Mr. Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan, which is expected to cost more than $700 billion over the next decade."

The "House Democratic leadership is adamant that another vote be held to clear the budget-reconciliation bill that is in limbo because of clerical errors," The Hill says of the bill Bush signed into law last Wednesday.  "... [A] discrepancy between the House-passed and Senate-passed version appears to indicate that the $39 billion deficit-reduction measure has not been enacted into law."

More on the Bush agenda
The Sunday Los Angeles Times said Bush's "new American Competitiveness Initiative is triggering a stampede of bipartisan support.  It could be one of the few administration initiatives to be enacted in this congressional election year...  The sour notes have been few and have come largely from critics who wish Bush's initiative had been more ambitious."

When does the House Democratic leader make the Wall Street Journal op-ed page?  When she's applauding Bush's competitiveness agenda.  "This is not a partisan issue," Pelosi writes.  "For more than a year, Democrats have been working with leaders in business and the academic community from across the country and across the ideological spectrum to put together our Innovation Agenda."

But Pelosi is also urging her ranks to hold town halls in their districts to encourage a drumbeat of public criticism of the Medicare prescription-drug program, per a House Democratic leadership source.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told a cheering crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Friday that he intends to push for a repeal of the estate or "death" tax starting in May.  The Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Frist, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, remains short of the 60 votes needed to block a Democratic filibuster against outright repeal.  But by forcing the issue early, he hopes to spur efforts to reach a bipartisan compromise on the issue.  Moderate Democrats are open to some deal...  For Republicans, the estate tax may also be the party's best shot to have a new winning tax-cut initiative going into the midterm elections."

Sen. Mel Martinez (R) said on a local newscast in Florida over the weekend that getting involved in the Terri Schiavo controversy was a mistake and that he thinks decisions of that nature should be left to state courts not federal courts, reports the AP.

After the evening news broadcasts on Friday night, the White House announced it was sending some controversial nominations to the Senate, including nominations of recess appointees Julie Myers, deputy homeland security secretary in charge of customs and immigration enforcement (critics cry cronyism); Ellen Sauerbrey, deputy secretary of state for population and migration (critics charge too conservative on abortion); Dorrance Smith, assistant secretary of defense for communications (critics object to previous comments about al Jazeera); and Hans von Spakovsky, a member of the Federal Election Commission (critics object to his role in Georgia's controversial voter-ID law).  Also announced: Gordon England for deputy defense secretary, replacing Paul Wolfowitz, and C. Boyden Gray as ambassador to the European Union.

Over the weekend, Time magazine online posted a photo of Jack Abramoff at a meeting with Bush and Karl Rove in 2001.  Abramoff is in the background over Bush's left shoulder.  The White House recognized the photo as valid but continues to say Bush doesn't know Abramoff.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's office seems fairly consumed with fighting back against last week's AP report outlining a series of letters Reid wrote that appeared to benefit Abramoff's clients.  "In a series of talking points, memos and interviews, Reid's staff contended that their boss played no role in the ex-lobbyist's criminal scheme," Roll Call says.  "While GOP strategists said the new revelations would hinder Reid's ability to continue to attack Republicans on their ties to Abramoff, aides said that Reid feels no need to lower his profile on the issue."

The Saturday Los Angeles Times front-paged a long look at how Abramoff (mis)used nonprofit organizations to launder money and redirect funds to public officials and to his own pockets.

GOP Sen. George Allen is joining Democrats in calling for a full investigation into whether former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby released classified information, reports the AP.  '''I don't think anybody should be releasing classified information, period, whether in the Congress, executive branch or some underling in some bureaucracy,'" Allen said yesterday.

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean yesterday said Cheney should vacate the vice presidency if he authorized Libby to leak classified material or expose the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson (which is not quite as Libby testified).  A Republican National Committee spokesperson dismissed Dean's comments as "pessimistic" and "wild-eyed." Washington Times

The Houston Chronicle says that embattled Texas Rep. Tom DeLay (R), who faces a primary challenge on March 7, still has support from GOP voters in his district.  "Even as he endures the roughest stretch of his long political career, the 11-term incumbent remains the favorite against three challengers in the Republican primary for the 22nd Congressional District."

The Sacramento Bee reports that Rep. Richard Pombo (R), chair of the House Resources Committee, is under fire for kicking up his committee's travel spending "beyond almost every other congressional committee.  He has authorized several hundred thousand dollars' worth of staff trips funded by special interests.  And now, an extended family outing for which taxpayers picked up the cost of an RV is highlighting both benefits and costs of all this travel."

It's the economy
Two members of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers hold a news conference at 1:30 pm to discuss the 2006 Economic Report of the President.  Fed chief Ben Bernanke makes his Capitol Hill debut on Wednesday and Thursday.

It got little notice last week outside economists' circles, but Bush's budget has revived the debate over dynamic scoring, an accounting of how changes in taxes cause consumers to spend their money differently in ways that affect economic growth.  The Saturday Washington Post focused on Cheney's assertion to a friendly audience of conservatives that Bush's tax cuts have raised federal revenue.  "Some tax-cut proponents contend that tax cuts can essentially pay for themselves by spurring such strong economic growth that the additional tax revenue more than offsets the money lost to the cuts.  Many economists dispute that, arguing that the effects of tax cuts depend on how they are structured, on economic circumstances and on many other variables."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page lauds the idea of a dynamic-scoring division for the Treasury Department.  "Expect to read in the coming days from liberal critics that supply-siders are hijacking Treasury to show that 'tax cuts pay for themselves.'  But the real goal here is accurate score-keeping that takes into account the real impact that taxes have on the economy."

The midterms
The Sunday Los Angeles Times profiled state controller, dot-com millionaire and self-funding gubernatorial candidate Steve Westly (D), looking at the balance Westly is trying to strike between sounding like an outsider and working the party like an insider.

Bob Novak reports how Sen. Jim Talent (R) of Missouri, who's in a tough race for re-election this year, took his name off a bill that would ban human cloning.  "Talent was under political duress.  State Auditor Claire McCaskill, his formidable Democratic opponent for the Senate, on Jan. 24 opened fire on Talent for wanting to 'criminalize' attempted research for 'life-saving cures.'   With Talent a narrow loser for governor in 2000 and narrow winner for senator in 2002, current polls show him running about even with McCaskill."


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