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Monday, August 15, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
With a second-termer's eye toward his legacy, President Bush spent the bulk of his January inaugural address declaring the spread of democracy to be his main foreign policy goal. In his State of the Union address in February, he set up Social Security reform as the domestic counterpart. Today, the deadline for the Iraqi constitution and one day after Social Security's 70th anniversary, we're seeing a ratcheting down of Administration hopes on both, developments in the Gaza Strip notwithstanding.

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As we wrote on Friday, Bush's once earnest campaign to add private accounts to Social Security has dissipated, and he's spending more time touting the energy bill, the highway bill, and CAFTA as his big domestic achievements. In a perfunctory written statement yesterday marking the program's anniversary, he said "we renew our commitment to save and strengthen Social Security for our children and grandchildren, and keep the promise of Social Security for future generations." Beyond the reference to solvency, there was no mention of his desired private accounts. Legislatively, the likely scenario is that a bill passes the House this fall, stalls in the busy and more resistant Senate, and isn't brought up again up during the midterm election year.

In September, the White House is expected to turn its attention away from Social Security and onto tax reform, an issue which may inspire greater GOP unity and thus improve odds for passage. Still, some of the same questions that have come up during Bush's Social Security campaign can be raised about that effort, including how to pay for the reforms (especially any effort to eliminate the alternative minimum tax), and how actively Americans want them. Most polls today show health care and other economic issues like wages and gas prices topping the public's priority list.

On Iraq, the Washington Post reported yesterday -- with noteworthy help from an unnamed senior Bush official -- that the "administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq" between now and the planned December elections. Off the Iraq wish list, at least for now: US hopes for "a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges."

At this writing, some form of draft constitution is expected to be completed by the 10:00 am ET deadline. Beyond what the Post report might mean for the constitution's prospects, the paper notes that it pokes a hole in the case for going to war because the "decision to invade Iraq was justified in part by the goal of establishing a secular and modern Iraq that honors human rights and unites disparate ethnic and religious communities."

Blows to one or both halves of Bush's hoped-for legacy won't necessarily translate into election-year successes for Democrats. The party never unified persuasively behind an alternative Social Security proposal of their own. They are also still gingerly, though with increasing confidence in the face of Bush's poll standing, picking their way around the issue of Iraq as Republicans pounce on any criticism as evidence that Democrats are weak on defense. DNC chair Howard Dean declared yesterday that women "will be worse off in Iraq than they were when Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq;" the RNC responded that Dean's "wild assertion... is not only counterproductive to meaningful debate, it demeans the hard work of American servicemen and women...”

The President currently has no public events planned for this week. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq, has changed her approach in her effort to meet with President Bush: she is now inviting him to join her and the others gathered at her campsite for a moment of silence and prayer for the troops at 1:00 pm ET on Friday.

Vice President Cheney headlines a fundraiser for GOP Sen. Conrad Burns in Billings, MT at 2:30 pm ET, then does another fundraiser for Sen. Larry Craig in Boise at 8:30 pm ET. Burns has been under fire from Democrats for his ties to now-indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Also on the ethics front, new details emerged over the weekend about federal law enforcement's focus on senior Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson as part of an ongoing sting operation. Jefferson has not been charged with any wrongdoing. See below for details on all of this.

The Bush agenda
"President Bush's standing with an American public anxious about Iraq and the nation's direction is lower than that of the last two men who won reelection to the White House," Reagan and Clinton, "at this point in their second terms," says the AP. "But solid backing from his base supporters has kept Bush from sinking to the depths reached by former presidents" Truman, Nixon, Carter, and Bush. "Republicans in Congress are said to be worried about the 2006 election. If Bush's approval ratings sink lower, more of them may be unwilling to go along with his major initiatives for fear it could cause backlash for them with voters... Charles Black, a veteran GOP strategist and close Bush ally, said Republicans are sticking with Bush for two reasons: personal affection and loyalty."

Roll Call says that Bush and Republicans, encouraged by recent legislative successes, "seem determined to move legislation on Social Security when Congress returns after Labor Day," but the paper raises doubts about the measure's prospects.

The Wall Street Journal previews the ad war sparked by the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, which kicks in on January 1, "as companies jockey to market drug coverage to older Americans... At the moment, companies' drug plans and advertising are being reviewed by Medicare. Marketing can begin Oct. 1 and enrollment Nov. 15. But some companies, anxious to snag a big chunk of the potentially lucrative seniors' market, already are offering beneficiaries general information -- in part to boost name recognition and the chance that seniors will be receptive to their product-oriented pitches later."

Bob Novak interviews an anonymous GOP Senator who blasts Bill Frist for his new support for stem-cell research and his “tin ear.” “Frist's Republican colleagues cannot understand why he surprised them with his new stem cell position at a time when they wanted him to brag of the sudden burst of Senate productivity with passage of the transportation, energy and gun bills. It could not be presidential politics, because advocacy of new embryonic research alienates social conservatives whose support he needs.”

The new merit-based promotion guidelines set to kick in at the Department of Homeland Security today were blocked by a US District Court judge on Friday. "The workplace rules would have dramatically reduced the clout of unions in the department, which has about 160,000 employees. Bush administration officials see the proposed rules as a key to moving forward -- and sidestepping union objections -- to more ambitious changes that would affect how employees are paid, promoted and disciplined." The Administration hopes to implement the regulations at other agencies beyond DHS. – Washington Post

Despite earlier talk of an early wrap-up, Roll Call say that Bill Frist's announcement "last week that the Senate will be in recess from Oct. 9 to Oct. 17" implies "that Congress will likely be in session until the beginning of November and possibly until Thanksgiving."

National security politics
The Washington Post's Sunday story on Iraq.

The AP writes that 350 anti-war protestors rallied with Cindy Sheehan yesterday, “hours after some 250 Bush supporters waved American flags in a counter rally across the street, holding signs that said Sheehan was unpatriotic and was hurting troop morale.”

The Dallas Morning News says "there's a growing sense that more than a few nerves are being frayed in the community. Some ranch gates that are usually open are closed. And there's a new banner strung between two trees in one yard outside town, with a message: 'My son risks his life every day as a police officer. I support President Bush and our troops.'"

Yesterday's Boston Globe considered the emerging Democratic policy on the war: "Democrats have begun to develop a more aggressive foreign policy that focuses heavily on threats they say are being neglected by the Bush administration, while avoiding taking a contentious stance on Iraq... The emerging message among Democrats reflects a recognition that winning congressional and presidential elections in the post-Sept. 11 era requires candidates to establish a willingness to use America's military might and keep the nation safe, according to party leaders and strategists... The messages have grown out of a series of party caucus meetings among House members and senators, and conferences on national security, as well as research and polling generated by Democratic think tanks."

The Charlotte Observer reports on Lt. Tim Dunn, another Iraq war veteran planning to run Congress as a Democrat against Rep. Robin Hayes (R). "Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, has identified a trio of recent veterans running as Democrats in Virginia, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. Dunn would be number four."

The Roberts nomination
Today at 1:00 pm, Progress for America holds a conference call to lay out what they say will be a 14-state road tour featuring 15 friends, relatives and colleagues of Roberts "to push for fairness during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings."

The Washington Times leads its Justice Sunday II coverage with Tom DeLay's accusing "left-leaning courts of imposing a 'judicial supremacy' over the country to implement liberal policies that cannot win a majority in the legislative process."

The New York Times says the event barely touched on Roberts, and instead dealt more with conservative frustration with the courts. “Mr. DeLay, the highest ranking of six Republican congressmen who participated, questioned the Supreme Court's power to strike down federal laws it deemed unconstitutional… As evidence, he and others cited Supreme Court decisions about abortion, sodomy, obscenity and government support for religion." More: “The broader challenge to the court's authority runs counter to the approach from the Bush administration, which has so far avoided talking about changing any specific precedents, much less recalibrating the separation of powers among the three branches of government.”

The Wall Street Journal covers the environmental community's deliberations over whether or not to join the liberal interest groups opposing Roberts. "For environmental groups, a key issue in the Roberts hearings will be his view on the breadth of the Constitution's Commerce Clause, which gives Congress authority to regulate interstate commerce. Virtually all important environmental laws are rooted in that clause -- as are civil-rights laws -- and conservatives for years have been pressing the federal courts to adopt a narrower reading of it."

USA Today suggests that Ohio, where Gang of 14 member Mike DeWine is up for re-election in 2006, could become "a test case on which issues decide elections: those that average voters care about or those that inflame activists."

The Washington Times reports that GWU law professor and pundit Jonathan Turley has a tape recording proving that he did not misquote Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin in a recent column by Turley about how Durbin asked Roberts "what he would do if the law required a ruling that his church considers immoral." At the time, conservatives charged Durbin with "applying a religious 'litmus test' to the Roberts confirmation, and Mr. Durbin said the column was inaccurate."

NARAL's communications director has resigned, arguing that Democrats should be tougher on Roberts. – Washington Post

Lead Roberts critic Chuck Schumer, Democrat and Judiciary Committee member, gets two profiles today: one from the "overexposed in DC?" perspective in the Washington Post Style section, and one from the "overshadowed in New York?" perspective on Bloomberg.com.

Ethics
NBC's Pete Williams reports that Deputy Attorney General James Comey, on his last day in office on Friday (he's leaving for the private sector), determined who will take his place overseeing the work of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the Valerie Plame leak case. Instead of passing the baton to Robert McCallum, who's now the number three at Justice and a former classmate of President Bush's at Yale, Comey gave the task of overseeing the leak investigation to David Margolis, a 40-year veteran of the Justice Department who, Williams notes, has served both Republicans and Democrats and is widely respected.

Roll Call says that in the wake of Abramoff's indictment, "Republicans close to the once-powerful lobbyist are mostly laying low amid a harsh media spotlight, while a few reiterated their support... So far, no Members appear to have returned recent contributions from the lobbyist."

"Experts on white-collar crime say his feisty attitude, combined with the resources for a protracted fight, could turn Mr. Abramoff's troubles into an epic legal struggle - or turn him quickly against the politicians with whom he's most closely allied," says the Dallas Morning News.

Newsweek reports that not only might law enforcement get Abramoff to shed some light on the ongoing DC probe into charges that he defrauded Native American tribes, but that the feds might make some progress on allegations that Abramoff defrauded Tyco International "with a lobbying campaign against legislation to bar federal contracts to U.S. companies, like Tyco, headquartered in overseas tax havens. Tyco, based in Bermuda, paid $1.7 million to Abramoff's firm in 2003 and 2004 -- plus $1.5 million for a 'grass roots' campaign to gin up opposition to the effort among Tyco's domestic suppliers. The Tyco official who hired Abramoff is the firm's general counsel, Tim Flanigan, a former White House lawyer nominated by President Bush for deputy attorney general."

In advance of the Vice President's fundraising stop today, GOP Sen. Conrad Burns' likely Democratic opponent in 2006, Montana Senate President Jon Tester, e-mailed supporters on Friday about Abramoff's indictment, reminding them that a couple of Burns aides did some travel paid for by SunCruz, the casino company Abramoff was attempting to buy, and that after that travel, Burns' office inserted language into an appropriations bill helping an Abramoff client.

Longtime Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson's attorney says "Jefferson's official business dealings in Africa may be a factor in the" FBI corruption sting that has in part focused on Jefferson for almost a year. The Louisiana congressman's homes have been raided, but he has not been charged with any wrongdoing. "Jefferson, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, is co-chair of the Africa Trade and Investment Caucus and the Congressional Caucuses on Brazil and Nigeria and has traveled overseas... The New Orleans Times-Picayune... said the search warrants mentioned at least two African nations... The paper said the warrants also asked for e-mails between Jefferson and 'named foreign nationals.'" - Washington Post

The Washington Post slogs through the details of the role of lobbyist and RNC treasurer Robert Kjellander in a Justice Department probe of investments in Illinois state pension funds. Kjellander has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Oil and gas politics
USA Today reports on the latest survey showing retail gas prices at record highs. "Demand for gas will remain high through August, but should drop after Labor Day. Prices should soften after that assuming underlying crude oil prices hold stable and refinery activity and shipments aren't interrupted by natural disasters, such as major hurricane."

The paper also reports on the refinery issue -- that US refineries operating at maximum capacity offer "'less room for error,'" as one expert puts it. – USA Today

As gas prices creep ever upward, an old stand-by Democratic argument is missing: their call for Bush to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Bush's energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, told reporters a month ago that the Administration would consider tapping the SPR only in case of a serious supply disruption (Bodman used a hurricane as an example). Lately, a spate of refinery problems, terrorist threats and instability in the Middle East, and weather issues, have driven the price of oil to new records, but don't appear to meet the Administration's bar for a serious disruption. Bodman noted that the amount of oil in the SPR wouldn't cover the nation for a sustained period of time. Maybe Democrats want Bush to experience some of the pain at the pump and get themselves an election-year issue. Or maybe they've decided that such a proposal would be bad policy.

Caulifornia
Proposition 77, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's redistricting proposal, is back on the state's November ballot thanks to a California Supreme Court ruling late Friday. The Los Angeles Times' George Skelton charges that "Sacramento is stiffing the counties by not providing money for" the special, noting that the estimated cost to counties is $45 million.

Back from vacation, has an event promoting his plan to improve the state's school bus fleet in Stockton at 1:30 pm ET.

2005 and 2006
The GOP launches its latest effort to claim a piece of the voter registration pie from Democrats today: the National Black Republican Association, a 527 organization, aims to register African-American voters. "The NBRA will be a resource center for the black community on Republican policy and values. And in tandem with the directives of [RNC chair Ken] Mehlman, the group also aims to increase the number of black Republican voters and, for those already in the party, provide information and networking opportunities. The organization will have an independent political fundraising arm..." - Washington Times

In the Virginia gubernatorial race, the Richmond Times Dispatch covers the remarks yesterday by Jerry Kilgore (R) and Russ Potts (I) to the Virginia Association of Counties; Tim Kaine (D) addresses the group today. “In his best ‘Give'em hell, Harry’ style, Potts heaped scorn on Kilgore and, to a lesser extent… Kaine, for promising taxpayers ‘a free lunch’… Kilgore, whose remarks came first, ignored Potts and said little about Kaine, mainly focusing on his own programs, such as attacking gang activity and offering education tax credits to help parents buy school supplies.”

The New York Post interviews the former mistress of New York GOP Senate candidate Jeanine Pirro’s husband, Albert Pirro, who tells the Post that although Albert Pirro once denied the existence of their 22-year-old “love child,” he began sending their daughter money earlier this year. “And last Wednesday, the very day Jeanine Pirro announced she would seek the Republican nomination to challenge Clinton, Hutchison said Albert Pirro promised to buy their daughter, Jaclyn Marciano, a new Chrysler PT Cruiser. Hutchison called the timing of Albert Pirro's sudden interest in their daughter ‘kind of glaringly obvious.’”

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