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Monday, October 17, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Ryann Gastwirth

First glance
With another seemingly successful Iraqi election behind President Bush, we're reminded of one of our running themes: how second-term presidents can be forced to build legacies out of foreign policy rather than domestic achievements due to troubles at home.

  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

Stateside, the White House is tied up with fighting fires.  Starting today, they're seeking to reframe the Miers nomination.  Energy prices, inflation, and prospects for credit card debt are rising in the face of the winter/holiday season (and another storm heading toward the Gulf of Mexico won't help energy prices this week).  The Gulf Coast needs rebuilding.  Congress is back, meaning the return of scandal-plagued GOP Hill leaders DeLay and Frist to the spotlight, and the re-engagement of the spending wars.  Bush is expected to discuss spending issues with Hill leaders on Wednesday.

And then there's the Valerie Plame leak investigation which, after a weekend of revelations from the New York Times and other news organizations, we learn may result not only in the possible indictment of one or more top White House aides, but in confirmation that Vice President Cheney himself played some role in the leak.  Bloomberg.com reports this morning that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has questioned a string of Cheney aides and advisers "about the vice president's knowledge of the anti-Wilson campaign and his dealings on it with" chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Of course, as Bush and Administration officials tout the apparent success of the Iraqi constitution, it must be remembered that the Plame leak investigation is really about their WMD-based case for going to war (even if the prospect of White House indictments is getting more coverage today than did the actual absence of WMD).  Democrats are so set on making their "culture of corruption" case against the GOP that they're not making this connection, despite having yet to figure out an overall message on the war.

Bush's week is peppered with foreign policy events: a meeting with the President of Bulgaria this morning, an Iftaar dinner with ambassadors and Muslim leaders tonight, and meetings later this week with the heads of the European Commission and the Palestinian Authority.  NBC's Ken Strickland notes that UN Ambassador John Bolton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations panel on Tuesday about proposals to "overhaul and restructure" the United Nations, and Condoleezza Rice addresses the same committee on Wednesday for a hearing on "Iraq and US Foreign Policy."

Also today, Bush meets with former Texas Supreme Court justices at 11:00 am in what's being billed as an effort to "re-launch" the Miers nomination with a greater focus on her background and less on her religion.  Miers will continue meetings with US senators this week, Strickland says, including sessions with Judiciary Committee Democrats Feinstein and Schumer today.  She is also expected to turn in the committee's 12-page questionnaire this week, possibly as early as today.

Strickland says that Senate Democrats plan to focus on energy this week, with several events planned for Washington and around the country on everything from gas prices to energy independence.  Democratic Leader Harry Reid kicks off the campaign today with an event to push legislation that would provide consumer relief from high gas and home heating prices.

Also this week, as NBC's Mike Viqueira reports, GOP House leaders will revisit the 2006 budget, putting a bill on the floor calling for a further 2% spending cut in non-combat discretionary spending and "at least" $50 billion in "savings" from mandatory spending.  Much of the savings is slated to come out of Medicaid, student loan, and food stamp programs, Viq notes.  If that doesn't sound like a politically appetizing menu, given the rise in home heating costs and gasoline which will disproportionately affect the poor, it may not be to anyone else beyond the most conservative members of the House, either.  Moreover, the wide net cast by an across-the-board cut is likely to snag other programs that are near and dear to members of both parties.  Viq says that for now, the tentative plan is to have this measure on the floor on Thursday.

The Bloomberg story on Cheney also notes that one "lawyer intimately involved in the case... said one reason Fitzgerald was willing to send [the New York Times' Judith] Miller to jail to compel testimony was because he was pursuing evidence the vice president may have been aware of the specifics of the anti-Wilson strategy.  And both U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan and an appellate-court panel... said they ruled in Fitzgerald's favor because of the gravity of the case...  To make a case against Cheney as part of a conspiracy indictment, Fitzgerald would have to show the vice president was an active participant in a decision to smear Wilson."

The Sunday New York Times' lengthy takeout on Miller and the Plame leak investigation notes that Miller appears to have spoken with Libby about Plame as many as three separate times, but says she can't remember whether she learned of Plame's identity from Libby or from another source.  The story does, however, shed a lot of light on what went down at the Times...

...prompting media analysts to "assail" the Times this morning "for what they called a series of missteps and questionable decisions," says the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.

Miller's own Sunday account of her testimony and involvement in the probe:

Time magazine reports that either Rove or Libby, if indicted, would resign or go on unpaid leave.  Rove's defense would be that "whatever he did fell far short of" being part of "a broad conspiracy to discredit" Joe Wilson.

Rove's scheduled appearance at a Saturday fundraiser for Virginia gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore was canceled, RNC chair Ken Mehlman subbed, and the Washington Post says neither the candidate nor the attendees seemed to mind.

Bob Novak says Rove is scheduled to do an RNC fundraiser today in Greenwich, CT.

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz yesterday wrapped up examples of growing tensions between presidential spokesperson Scott McClellan and the White House press corps, noting that the Clinton press office, even during impeachment, "regularly engaged reporters in attempts to leak favorable information and suppress damaging allegations.  In the Bush White House, the press office has been less enmeshed in strategies to influence news coverage..."

The Washington Post on Sunday had its own lengthy front-page story on ethics: a tick-tock on how now-indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff leveraged his connections, including with a DeLay aide and prominent conservative activists, in an effort to influence Congress to defeat an anti-gambling bill that would have hurt one of Abramoff's clients.

After redistricting resulted in new lines for his own district, and after his recent indictment, the Boston Globe looks at DeLay's need to campaign more aggressively.

The New York Times notes that DeLay raised nearly $1 million in the third quarter and has raised $2.3 million for the year.   “Some say fellow lawmakers will want to distance themselves from Mr. DeLay, while others say that his defense will resonate with loyalists and draw more money.  The answer will come in reports later this year.”

USA Today says the Education Department "has acknowledged that it is working with the U.S. attorney's office in Washington to investigate the Bush administration's contract with commentator Armstrong Williams.  That suggests civil or criminal charges could be filed," says Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

The Los Angeles Times writes from Washington that "skittish Republicans are beginning to worry that the issue of ethics could strengthen Democrats' position in the 2006 elections."

And the Sunday Los Angeles Times looked at how local government scandals are "elevating ethics as a campaign issue in nearly a dozen states...  Political observers say the number of statehouse scandals has fostered a climate that makes the news out of Washington - near-daily stories of grand jury appearances, questions of insider stock trading, charges of high-level cronyism - even more resonant with voters."

The Miers nomination
Time reports that Bush's photo op with Texas justices today is an effort to "re-launch" Miers' nomination and reframe the debate over her credentials off of religion and ideology and onto her professional background.  "Bush’s friends contend that it is the conservative élite, not the President, who miscalculated and that self-righteous right-wingers stand to lose their seats at the table of power for the next three years."

Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review writes in a New York Times op-ed that conservatives are upset with the Miers selection not because of elitism or religion, he argues, but because Bush’s vow to install conservative justices on the Supreme Court was one of the only true conservative promises that Bush made -- and he seems to be reneging on that promise.

Rush Limbaugh writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the Miers nomination "shows the strength of the conservative movement...  The purpose of the Miers debate is to ensure that we are doing the very best we can to move the nation in the right direction.  And when all is said and done, we will be even stronger and more focused on our agenda and defeating those who obstruct it, just in time for 2006 and 2008."

The AP covers Condoleezza Rice's comments yesterday praising Miers.  "Referring to Miers' critics, Rice said, 'I think that when they get to know her in the hearings,... that they're going to see a woman of extraordinary talent.'"

Women are more concerned with Miers' judicial philosophy than they are with her gender, writes the Dallas Morning News: "women seem to be focused on her extreme sense of privacy and lack of a legal paper trail as they try to discern her judicial philosophy."

Roll Call, focusing on Miers' background, says that she "led the selection process on only a small number of judicial nominees in her eight months as White House counsel, an area of expertise often touted by her supporters as a key credential in her nomination."  The most prominent was Roberts, whose "selection is touted as a major success for the White House," but "the other nominations on Miers’ watch have all been more or less free from controversy or the need for much heavy lifting."

The AP says Miers' pro bono cases were low-profile cases that didn't involve "sweeping constitutional matters for her, or even terribly contentious ones...  In her pro bono work, as in other aspects of her career, Miers left a light mark on matters of great controversy."

National security politics
Gannett reports that the constitution "doesn't deal with many of the issues key to a U.S. exit plan, experts say.  Notably, it doesn't address concerns that oil money won't be plundered by the fractious ethnic groups that sit atop the nation's vast petroleum reserves.  Nor, experts say, does the 26-page document do enough to back the concerns of the insurgent Sunni Arabs so they will lay down arms and take up ballots."

The AP covers Administration praise and Democratic criticism of the constitution.

The New York Times writes that the intelligence reports flowing over the desks of senior Administration officials “argue that even if democratic institutions take hold [in Iraq], the insurgency may strengthen.  And that possibility has created a quandary for an administration that desperately wants to equate democracy-building with winning the war, but so far has not been able to match the two.”

It's the economy
Here we go again: The price of crude oil has risen due to fears that Tropical Storm Wilma, expected to become Hurricane Wilma by the end of the week, could enter the Gulf of Mexico and disrupt supply.  Bloomberg

USA Today focuses on the increasingly fierce debate over whether the global oil supply is getting tapped out: "Today's gasoline prices are high because Hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted oil production in the Gulf of Mexico...  If the 'peak oil' advocates are correct, however, today's transient shortages and high prices will soon become a permanent way of life."

The Wall Street Journal, in its coverage of the natural gas and home heating industry, notes, "For many families, high bills could result in greater credit-card debt, delinquent payments, utility shutoffs and diminished Christmas spending.  The situation has rattled nerves in Washington."

Economists are predicting a "'cold, dark and expensive' winter," Bloomberg says.  "A growing number of Wall Street forecasters... are pulling back on estimates for consumer spending," citing "a convergence of rising energy prices, falling real wages and new rules requiring bigger credit-card payments that threaten to increase delinquencies at a time when a record number of borrowers are already behind on their bills."

USA Today reports on Wall Street's increasingly bearish outlook, as "obstacles confronting stocks, ranging from rising interest rates to the threat of higher inflation to soaring home-heating costs and debt-choked consumers, keep mounting."

Spending and the GOP agenda
The Wall Street Journal paints the budget picture: "only three cabinet departments have their 2006 budgets in place, and most of the government depends on a stop-gap spending bill due to expire Nov. 18."  Bush "is finalizing new spending requests related to Hurricane Katrina and the threat of an avian-flu outbreak.  To help offset these costs, a planned $35 billion deficit-reduction bill will be expanded.  The White House also is preparing a multibillion-dollar rescission package to cut from past appropriations, possibly including highway funds.  The story notes, "That this budget cycle should end on such an uncertain note is extraordinary given the power Republicans won in the 2004 elections."

The Washington Post says GOP House leaders' "abrupt shift" from opposing spending cuts to supporting them "reflects a changed political dynamic in the House in which a faction of fiscal conservatives... has gained the upper hand because of DeLay's criminal indictment in Texas, widespread criticism of the Republicans' handling of Hurricane Katrina, and uncertainty over the future of the leadership, according to lawmakers and aides."

A month after promising quick help to the Gulf Coast in his primetime address from New Orleans, the Los Angeles Times points out, "President Bush has settled on a cautious, piecemeal approach that even many members of his own party fear will stall reconstruction and sow economic disarray."  Despite Bush's eight trips to the region, "the administration has yet to introduce legislation for two of the three proposals the president highlighted during his September speech."  Administration aides said "officials were working behind the scenes to ensure that all of the proposals unveiled by the president in his New Orleans speech became law," and "budget officials are preparing another emergency spending bill."

The Democrats
Emily's List celebrates its 20th anniversary with an event at the Washington Hilton at 11:30 am.  Slated to speak are Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Pelosi, Rosa DeLauro, Jennifer Granholm, and other women lawmakers.  Communications director Ramona Oliver tells First Read that the event will look back on the "accomplishments of Emily's List and women in various levels of government" whom they've helped elect, and how these women have reshaped the country.  Emily's List president Ellen Malcolm will look forward to 2006 and beyond.  Oliver says there are three times as many female candidates seeking office at this point in the 2006 cycle as at this point in the 2004 cycle.

The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter says EMILY'S List will be "constantly dogged by the shadow of 1992," when women made huge gains in Congress, and that the group is more likely to make "incremental gains" these days because the 1992 cycle was probably a "once-in-a-lifetime political event."  EMILY'S List is a "very sophisticated political operation" that can raise a "shocking" amount of money and boost candidates' chances with even just an endorsement, Walter says -- but she notes that the group may not always support candidates who can win general elections.  She suggests that the group should maybe work on expanding their political playing field by looking at districts and candidates that haven't received much attention from other Democrat-affiliated organizations.  But, ultimately, "you can't not be impressed with what they've done," Walter says.

The San Francisco Chronicle writes how Democrats are still struggling to find an identity.  “They are not the party that led America to war in Iraq. They are not the party trying to privatize Social Security, cut taxes to the rich or add to the deficit. They are not the party responsible for the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina…  It is far more difficult to say what Democrats are for.”

But Roll Call's Stu Rothenberg says "the political environment looks right for generic party advertising...  Democrats don’t need to offer a positive agenda until next year.  For the near future, they can do just fine pointing to the Republicans’ problems."

2005 and 2006
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) accepts endorsements of his redistricting initiative from Common Cause and some former Democratic mayors in San Jose at 1:30 pm ET, then does a town hall in Marina at 5:00 pm ET.

The same FEC ruling that freed up California's Hill delegation to raise money to defeat Schwarzenegger's redistricting initiative has freed up Ohio members to do the same with a similar measure on their state's November ballot.

The New York Times looks at how the issue of corruption is playing in New Jersey’s race for governor: "polls and interviews show that the meaning of corruption is deeply personal and multitextured...  In the end, the very word ‘corruption’ has been bandied about so much that it now seems to mean a thousand different things, some of them perfectly legal.”

The Newark Star-Ledger notes how Doug Forrester (R) often mentions his wife and children on the campaign trail.  “By doing so, he also draws a sharp contrast with Democrat Jon Corzine, a divorcé who hardly mentions his three children on the campaign trail."

A couple dozen Virginia voters tell the Washington Post they feel "inundated by the barrage of ads and unmoved by their messages" in the state's increasingly negative gubernatorial battle.


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