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Tuesday, April 4, 2006 | 6:00 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner and Huma Zaidi

  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

The spin on DeLay
Health care, the budget, immigration reform -- all topics originally scheduled to be at the forefront of the Washington agenda today, and all pushed to the back burner as the two parties spin and spin GOP Rep. Tom DeLay's planned resignation from Congress, and then spin it some more. Democrats and affiliated liberal activists are insisting, through a series of press releases, press conferences, and conference calls with reporters, that the so-called GOP "culture of corruption" is far more widespread than just DeLay and that his resignation won't eliminate the party's image problem. Republicans argue that a clean candidate for DeLay's House seat should be able to keep it in their column -- the Republican House campaign committee emphasizes the district's "solidly Republican constituency" -- and suggest privately that this will go a long way toward alleviating their ethics issues.

An undercurrent to today's debate is which party can claim the mantle of being the party of ideas. Republicans from President Bush on down today are wishing DeLay the best and mentioning that the GOP "will continue to succeed because we're the party of ideas," as Bush said this morning. Bob Ney, who has been fending off allegations of corruption for months now pounced on his opponent Joe Sulzer (D-OH) today by using the same argument that Democrats have "no positive ideas or vision on issues" after Sulzer linked Ney to DeLay. Democrats, in an effort to turn around the longtime Republican charge that they have no agenda, are accusing the GOP of having no ideas at all.

We cringe at clichés but in this case, really, only time will tell what the fallout from DeLay's resignation will be. His House district leans Republican, but Democratic nominee Nick Lampson managed to raise a few million bucks off his campaign against DeLay before DeLay broke the news last night. DeLay is far better recognized around the country than Rep. Bob Ney or any other Republican members or Hill staffers who are on the endangered list due to their ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff; Democrats will have a hard time finding another poster child for this campaign. On the other hand, public disillusionment with Congress may have set in to a degree that they don't need one.

A few minutes ago, DeLay finished talking with Chris Matthews on Hardball about why he won't seek reelection and why he's leaving the House altogether. DeLay reiterated what we've been hearing all day from the former majority leader: He's taking one for the team. But when asked why he doesn't just stay in the House for the remainder of his current term, DeLay told Matthews that he needs work on helping Republicans in the midterm elections -- goals he can't accomplish as a rank-and-file House member. He needs to get on with his life, DeLay said. He'll also work with conservative leaders and possibly advise new members of Congress in the future.

DeLay insisted that he hasn't done anything wrong and that his resignation has nothing to do with rumors that he could be implicated in the Abramoff scandal which has consumed at least of his two former aides. "I'm not stupid," DeLay said before telling Matthews he has lawyers check everything he does to make sure it does not violate any rules and even went as far as having his own lawyers conduct an investigation of his activities as if they were prosecuting him. They didn't find anything, DeLay said.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
Having spent the past decade trying to establish Rep. Tom DeLay as a nationally recognized front man for an ethically compromised Republican majority, and achieving some success over just the past year due to DeLay's indictment on money-laundering charges in Texas and his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Democrats are about to lose the face of their alleged GOP "culture of corruption."   MSNBC's Chris Matthews broke the news last night that DeLay, after more than 20 years in the House, is expected to announce today that he'll resign.  But wait, Democratic party officials and operatives e-mail in a flurry of statements and thoughts -- the GOP "culture of corruption" runs deeper than just DeLay, they say.  Indeed, other Republican members and aides are embroiled in the Abramoff and other scandals, with more shoes to potentially drop.

Still, DeLay's expected resignation may be a step for the GOP toward putting the "culture of corruption" charges behind them in the general public's view.  The special election to replace jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), coincidentally, takes place in California next week.  That contest may provide Democrats with their first real chance to test-drive their message in an election -- but it also represents the replacement of another scandal-plagued House Republican.  The fact that the House GOP ranks have been dragging their feet on lobbying reform also suggests that members aren't feeling as much pressure from constituents to tackle ethics as much as, say, Iraq or problems with the Medicare prescription-drug law.

To be sure, DeLay will go out in a blaze -- and not necessarily of glory.  His announcement comes on the heels of a guilty plea last Friday from one of his former top aides, Tony Rudy, who admitted to accepting illegal gifts and cash in exchange for influencing legislation on Abramoff's behalf.  DeLay was not implicated in the plea agreement, but Rudy is his second former aide to plead guilty in the Washington-based Abramoff probe.  Democrats also will continue to try to squeeze as many PR points and campaign contributions as possible out of DeLay's presence until he leaves.

Having won his party's nomination on March 7 with 62%, DeLay must be disqualified from running in order to get off the November ballot.  He tells Time magazine, which broke the story online, that he plans to trigger that disqualification by changing his legal residence from Texas to Virginia.  Depending on the timing of his resignation, GOP Gov. Rick Perry could call a special election to replace him.  Former Rep. Nick Lampson is the Democratic nominee and has already raised $2 million in his campaign against DeLay, Democratic House operatives note.  The 22nd district still leans Republican, and the GOP hopes they can retain it with a fresh face.

Amidst the frenzy, DeLay's House colleagues will struggle to focus on their budget proposal, which is giving the party a splitting headache.  As NBC's Mike Viqueira notes, GOP conservatives want to keep a lid on pork-barrel spending, while moderate Republicans say that social programs are being underfunded and are threatening a revolt.  Few Democrats, if any, are expected to support whatever measure emerges, so too many GOP defections from either flank could spell doom for the legislation.  Even if a budget makes it out of the House, Viq notes, there's little chance that the House and Senate will agree on a common version in this election year.  Both chambers have already rejected President Bush's call for Medicare spending cuts.

Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet this morning in hopes of bridging the divide within their party on immigration reform.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that in an effort to have a Senate bill completed by Friday, the pace of negotiations has picked up, with key Republicans meeting yesterday with the White House and amongst themselves, and today as a caucus.  The biggest sticking point remains the question of what to do about the 11-12 million immigrants estimated to be living in the country illegally -- allow them to stay in the United States and "earn" citizenship, or require them to go back to their home countries and apply from there?

Sens. Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez have emerged as the brokers of an attempted compromise that would set different standards for those seeking legal residency based on how long an immigrant has been in the country, something Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter termed "the roots concept," Strickland reports.  Simply put, there would be one set of requirements for immigrants living in the country for less than five years and another set for those who've been in the country for longer than five years.  Specter says the group has to find middle ground and appeal to a broader base to ensure the votes for passage.  Most if not all of the key Republicans involved feel that a bill has to be finished before the Easter recess to allow them to gin up support in their home states for specific terms of immigration reform.

President Bush today has the first of a couple of health care events this week: a 9:20 am meeting on health care initiatives -- read: health savings accounts (HSA's) -- at the White House.  At 12 noon, he attends a closed-press Republican National Committee finance luncheon for 90 people which is expected to bring in $1.7 million, per an RNC source.  Laura Bush raises money for vulnerable GOP Sen. Jim Talent in St. Louis at 1:30 pm ET.

A house without DeLay
Per the AP, DeLay will appear on FOX at 9:00 am before making a formal announcement sometime today in Houston.

The Chicago Tribune reports that DeLay, who "informed President Bush on Monday and also told other senior Republican leaders," is also "expected to make an announcement Tuesday on his Web site, tomdelay.house.gov."

DeLay tells Time that "he feels 'liberated' and vowed to pursue an aggressive speaking and organizing campaign aimed at promoting foster care, Republican candidates and a closer connection between religion and government...  The surprise decision was based on the sort of ruthless calculation that had once given him unchallenged dominance of House Republicans and their wealthy friends in Washington's lobbying community: he realized he might lose in this November's election."

DeLay to the Galveston County Daily News: "'It was obvious to me that the 22nd District deserved more than an election that was turning into a referendum on me rather than what was important to the district...  Even though I thought I could win, it was a little too risky.'"

He also told the New York Times "that he decided last week after speaking to the Christian group Vision America that he could be more effective pushing the conservative cause if he left Congress."

In his Time interview, DeLay reviews his points in that speech: "There is a connection between religion and politics, and religion and government.  There has to be for this country to have accomplished all it's accomplished and for its future...  The people that go to church understand that a country has to be based on some sort of religion and fear of God because they understand that."

The Washington Post notes that DeLay is "entitled under federal election rules to convert any or all of the remaining funds from his reelection campaign to his legal expenses...  Election lawyers say one advantage of bowing out of the election now is that the campaign cash can be converted to pay legal bills immediately, instead of being drained in the course of a bid to stay in office."

The Dallas Morning News suspects that something more legally troubling for DeLay could be coming down the pike.

Candidates interested in running to replace him have been calling GOP officials in Texas, reports the Houston Chronicle.  The list includes Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace, "Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, state Rep. Robert Talton,... Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, former state District Judge John Devine and lawyer Tom Campbell, who ran against DeLay in the March Republican Primary...  A special election to fill the remainder of DeLay's term likely will be held on the next uniform election date, which is in May."

The immigration debate
The US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative conference takes place in Washington this week and will feature a bipartisan roster of lawmakers, including a number of presidential contenders, who will address immigration as an economic issue while attempting to "foster insightful discussions between business owners, opinion makers and key governmental and administration officials," according to the group's press release.  Sen. Sam Brownback and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales address the conference today.  At 5:15 pm, attendees will hear from RNC chair Ken Mehlman, among others, on goals for the Hispanic business community.  Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Bob Menendez and GOP Sen. John McCain are expected to address the conference tomorrow.

The Wall Street Journal says of the attempted Senate compromise legislation that "Republican leaders bluntly warned Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) that his bill will get no more than 58 votes to cut off debate."

"Immigration rights organizers today will call for a nationwide boycott of work, school and shopping on May 1 to protest congressional efforts to clamp down on illegal aliens as part of pending immigration-reform legislation." – Washington Times

Security politics
NBC's Strickland reports that US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today -- but that the meeting was canceled yesterday with a simple statement from the committee that "Ambassador Khalilzad's schedule changed."  Khalilzad was supposed to update the committee on the current conditions in Iraq, and was likely to face a barrage of tough questions as a bipartisan group of Senators are calling on Bush to "pursue any and all additional measures necessary" to achieve a unity government, Strickland says.

Tomorrow, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to keep her appointment with the committee to try and convince the panel that the proposed US-India nuclear deal is a good thing, Strickland reports, noting that Senators are likely to quiz Rice on her weekend talks in Iraq.  Rice is scheduled to appear before a House subcommittee to testify about the State Department's budget request.

Also tomorrow, House Republicans who want US troops out of Iraq, including Reps. Walter Jones and Wayne Gilchrist, will hold a presser to call for 17 hours of floor debate on the war, NBC's Viq reports.

More on the Bush agenda
The Washington Post on the House budget measure; "If they can round up the votes, House leaders will bring a $2.8 trillion budget blueprint to the floor, probably on Thursday.  Republicans hope to tout the measure as a testament to the party's commitment to fiscal discipline, at least on one corner of the federal budget -- non-security discretionary spending."

Per the AP, a "Senate panel is poised to approve President Bush's request for more money for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but only after adding billions of dollars in additional hurricane aid and relief for drought-stricken farmers.  The moves by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is meeting Tuesday, are expected to lift the price tag for the legislation to more than $100 billion.”

Timed to coincide with Bush's health care events today and tomorrow, a coalition of Democrat-affiliated groups including Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities (ECAP) and AFSCME will hold a press conference at 10:00 am to criticize the Administration's handling of health care issues, including Bush's proposed HSA's, which the groups charge are a tax credit for the wealthy.

As Bush continues to push Medicare spending cuts and talk about his unsuccessful effort to achieve Social Security reform, the New York Times notes that he and "the Senate are at an impasse over the appointment of trustees for Social Security and Medicare, crippling the panel that supervises the two programs.  This, in turn, has delayed the annual reports on the financial condition of the programs, which together account for more than one-third of all federal spending.  Under federal law, the reports are supposed to be sent to Congress by April 1."

The Boston Globe's Canellos examines the dynamics in the White House between the chief of staff job and Vice President Dick Cheney, arguing that while history has proven that ousting the chief of staff usually ushers in change, this time it might be different.  "...[W]hile it may be logical that the second-most clout in the country should go to the elected vice president rather than a Cabinet secretary or staff mountebank, the disadvantages of such a power structure are becoming apparent.  For while statements and policies crafted by staff members or Cabinet secretaries can be disavowed and the official sent packing, the vice president can't be dismissed."

Race and the vote
More national Democrats are coming to the aid of civil rights activists concerned about the ability of Hurricane Katrina evacuees, who are mostly African-American, to cast votes from outside Louisiana in the April 22 New Orleans mayoral election.  Last week, the DNC announced a hotline to help evacuees obtain and cast ballots.  Now Sen. John Kerry has sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales calling on the Justice Department to reconsider its support for the April 22 date and postpone the election until a suitable plan agreed upon by all interested parties can be adopted.

As we have written here before, whether or not large numbers of evacuees will opt to vote in this election is the subject of hypersensitive debate.  Many have settled around the country into affordable homes, new jobs and new school districts, all of which the battered city still can't offer them.  Civil rights activists who believe most evacuees wish to vote say that they've been forced by unfortunate circumstances to remain in their new locations and that voting is one of the few things they can do to show that they still consider themselves to be residents of New Orleans.  Some political analysts and close observers of the election, on the other hand, think there won't be much of an evacuee vote at all, noting that low-income African-Americans at least traditionally haven't been inclined to vote absentee.  One measure we'll get of evacuee interest in voting: Satellite polling places inside Louisiana will open on April 10.

The New York Times observes that "the April 22 mayoral primary was supposed to be about the critical choices facing this battered city...  Instead, with the city's majority-black status in doubt for the first time in decades, one dominant motif has emerged in the campaign: race."  The story notes that because the rebuild will depend so much on aid from the federal government, the resulting "impotence" among the candidates "has created a vacuum into which has rushed the politics of racial identity," and "[n]o candidate appears to be making a more explicit racial bid than the incumbent mayor, C. Ray Nagin, the one major black candidate."

The Times-Picayune wraps up the latest debate between the mayoral candidates, during which there was in fact some light sparring as they discussed how to rebuild the city.  "For the first time in a televised debate, the top-tier candidates tackled the hot-button issue of evacuation planning...  The candidates also gave quick-hit answers that cut to the heart of the debate about whether as many as 150,000 displaced voters, many of them African-American, will be disenfranchised if the state does not provide polling places in" other states.

USA Today reports on the Justice Department's "landmark lawsuit" against Noxubee County (MS) Democratic Chairman Ike Brown, "the first time the federal government has used the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allege racial discrimination against whites."  Brown, who says he doesn't want to elect moderate white Democrats to office because they would vote with Republicans, "calls the suit... an effort by the Bush administration to end his successes in building black voter turnout and electing black officials...  Some legal analysts say the suit marks a striking change of focus by the Bush administration on voting rights cases, which until now have centered on discrimination against blacks and other minorities."

McKinney
The US Attorney must decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) after her altercation with a Capitol Police officer last week, in which the officer, not recognizing McKinney as a member of Congress, asked her to pass through a magnetometer and she allegedly hit him with her cell phone.  "If the U.S. Attorney’s office moves forward with the case, McKinney could be charged with anything from felony assault on a police officer to misdemeanor simple assault.  Several high-ranking House officials said if an arrest warrant for McKinney is issued, arrangements would likely be made for her to turn herself in voluntarily."  McKinney, who is African-American, has charged that the officer, who is white, touched her inappropriately and engaged in racial profiling.  Two GOP members today "plan to introduce a resolution expressing their support and appreciation for the Capitol Police for their efforts to maintain security on Capitol Hill."

The US Attorney "could clear the way for a warrant.  He also could turn the case over to a grand jury, even without a warrant, or he could decline to go forward with the case." – USA Today

The Hill reports on some Hill Democrats' concerns that McKinney is distracting attention away from their efforts to focus on Republicans.  "McKinney has been aggressively publicizing the incident,... even attracting a mention on the front page of The New York Times, something that the dozens of House and Senate Democrats combined couldn’t match when they unveiled their homeland-security plan last week."

The midterms
Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman addresses the American Dental Association today in Washington at 10:30 am.  Mehlman also attends the RNC fundraiser with Bush at 12 noon before addressing the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's legislative conference.  DNC chair Howard Dean is in Memphis attending an AFSCME rally to commemorate the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr at 12:15 pm ET.

Yesterday, MoveOn.org launched a $1.3 million TV ad campaign in the districts of Reps. Chris Chocola (IN-2), Thelma Drake (VA-2), Nancy Johnson (CT-5), and Deborah Pryce (OH-15), accusing the four Republicans of taking donations from oil and energy companies while voting favorably on legislation in those companies' favor.  In a conference call yesterday, Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org PAC, said the group is targeting these four districts because they're Republican-leaning districts that may favor Democrats in November.  The RNC disputes MoveOn's claims, charging that the group is distorting the lawmakers' records on energy issues, and also arguing that MoveOn has a history of running inaccurate ads.

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