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Week of January 24, 2007

January 24, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 2b

Outlook

  1. The "hundred hours" program of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been a success beyond all anticipation. The passage of poll-approved measures came with a unanimous Democratic vote and heavy — in some cases majority — Republican support. This performance shows the error and futility of Republican expectations that Pelosi as speaker would fall on her face, though they still hope that she will fail now that the set pieces of the "hundred hours" have been completed.
  2. The bump on Pelosi’s early road has been her confrontation with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the senior member of Congress and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, by naming a select committee on energy and the environment headed by the ultra-environmentalist Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), far less sympathetic to the automotive industry than Dingell. Pelosi wins this round, but Dingell can be a difficult and tenacious foe.
  3. Meanwhile, Republicans are divided and disorganized. Senior Republicans in Congress refer to President George W. Bush and his staff as irrelevant and out of touch. Younger conservative members are going their own way, feeling that neither the White House nor the party’s congressional leadership shows the way for the GOP. Republican House aides, even in the leadership, complain that they are so completely shut out of the legislative process they have no idea what will be on the House floor next week.
  4. Sen. John McCain‘s (R-Ariz.) dismal performance on NBC’s "Meet the Press" Sunday shook a little of his inevitability as the Republican nominee. Conservatives are increasingly moving to the standard of former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, forgetting his liberal past. McCain’s sudden attacks on Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld while pressing for more troops for Iraq have caused unease among Republicans.
  5. The early unveiling of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s (D-N.Y.) presidential candidacy was clearly forced by the sudden ascension of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but was pulled off effectively anyway. The consensus among Democrats is that Clinton is a heavy favorite to be nominated, but faces barriers in early primaries and caucuses: Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina (though they soon will be joined by two huge states, California and Florida, where Clinton would have a major advantage).

State of the Union

To appreciate just how difficult President Bush’s task would be in delivering a successful State of the Union Address last night, imagine yourself in the unenviable position of Bush’s speechwriter.

  1. Bush was set to go before a hostile Democratic Congress that is poised to pass a resolution condemning his new Iraq strategy. His approval ratings were at rock-bottom. The American people had stopped buying the idea that Iraq is a central front in the War on Terror. Members of his own party doubted his administration’s competence.

  2. To add to the mess, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, joined the ranks of those repudiating the Iraq strategy. Bush’s plan also faces opposition from some senators seeking re-election such as Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), and two others who are running for President, Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). It remains unclear just how many Republicans will buck Bush when the vote takes place and which of the competing anti-troop-surge resolutions they will back. This Republican rout will come right after the State of the Union — the last State of the Union address in which President Bush will be taken seriously, since the focus next January will be on the 2008 presidential primaries.

  3. Given all of this, President Bush was facing the most difficult State of the Union Address of his presidency. But he attempted last night to convince Congress and the American people that he is still relevant. It was a tough sell. The basic idea for his speechwriter would probably be to focus on what’s going well — the economy — and avoid discussions of the Iraq War as much as possible. He could then roll out a series of domestic proposals — a la Bill Clinton — and put up a smokescreen to avoid the issues he did not want to discuss.

  4. That was not exactly what Bush did. He spent nearly half of his speech on the War on Terror and still focused on tying Iraq into that conflict. This was also the thrust of the Democratic response delivered by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who probably struck a chord with most Americans when he complained of the "mismanagement" of the war. The Democrats’ choice of the acerbic Webb for this task suggests once again that there is zero desire for cooperation across party lines on Iraq.

  5. The President faced not only the new majority of Democrats who are feisty and belligerent, but also the new minority of congressional Republicans who are in a state of panic over the political atmosphere. They did not expect much of a lift from their President, and they did not get one.

  6. President Bush’s strategy was to delay any mention of the War on Terror until 23 minutes into a 50-minute speech. That brought him to Iraq, an issue on which he steadily has been losing support. He began the speech with complicated proposals on issues that polls show ordinary citizens care about: energy, health care and education.

  7. These proposals were bureaucratic inventions. They did not stir the lawmakers on either side of the aisle. In the Democratic-controlled Congress, few of the proposals have a practical chance of success, even though the President intended his programs to be "non-confrontational."

  8. When Bush got around to Iraq specifically, it was an anti-climax because of his speech on that crisis a week earlier. This time, he warned of dire consequences of failure and pleaded with Congress for his "new strategy" in Iraq: "I ask you to give it a chance to work." Unsurprisingly, he was able to discuss Iraq without being interrupted by applause.

  9. Bush is not a President capable of reaching oratorical heights, and he did not even try Tuesday night. His speechwriters did not attempt any oratorical stunts, such as his 2002 declaration of war against the "axis of evil."

  10. The President neither made any concessions that might win over a few Democrats nor dwelled upon issues dear to the hearts of his conservative base. The only red-meat conservative issue thrown out by Bush was his very polite scolding of the Senate to conduct up-or-down confirmation votes on his nominees for the federal judiciary. He did pledge a balanced budget and spending control — issues which led to voter defections from the Republicans in the last election. His health-care plan was exciting only for conservatives extremely well versed in policy — not exactly the sort of red meat he has thrown out in the past.

  11. Bush’s State of the Union was notable for what it did not contain. Having made a calculated decision to save his talk about economic issues for a separate speech next week, Bush mentioned only in passing the need to maintain his tax cuts as the bulwark of the economy. Bush completely ignored the social issues dear to much of his conservative base. He did not mention abortion on the day following the annual "March for Life" on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. He did not mention the embryonic research bill that he vetoed last year and is likely to veto again in the new Congress. He made no mention of same-sex marriage.

  12. Although exit polls show corruption was a major issue for voters in the 2006 elections, Bush ignored congressional ethics entirely. The closest he came to this issue was his call to halve the spending created by congressional earmarks — the first time he had raised that problem.

  13. Social Security reform and tax reform, his two major domestic initiatives announced after his 2004 re-election, made only marginal appearances (though they are likely to come up in his coming economic speech).

  14. It was not a stirring or a memorable State of the Union Address. Everybody seemed happy to get it over with. At least it did not cause more trouble for a President sinking in the polls.

Congress

Minimum Wage: Senate Democratic leaders lack votes for the kind of "clean" minimum wage bill that passed the House earlier this month. Republicans have consistently demanded that any increase in the minimum wage must be paired with small-business tax breaks to offset the damage such a provision would do. An increase in the minimum wage could be especially damaging to small businesses in areas of the country with low costs of living.

Senate Republicans appear to have the votes to force their small-business relief provisions in the final bill, resulting in the same compromise bill they proposed in the 109th Congress, or something similar.

The expected outcome from a conference committee would be a gradual minimum wage increase, coupled with a modest ($8.3 billion) small-business tax break. But House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) is reportedly prepared to block such a bill from going to conference. Under the new Pay-Go rules they just imposed, Democrats cannot pass such a tax cut without cutting spending.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) proposed a line-item veto amendment to the minimum wage bill. Other Republican amendments, not really related to the minimum wage issue, could further muddy the waters on the bill, but none of them will likely be included in the final bill. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) brought up an amendment he presents frequently to abolish taxes on Social Security benefits. There are more than 70 amendments pending at this writing, meaning that the minimum wage will be on the Senate floor until next week.

Congressional Pensions: The House passed a bill Monday that would prevent corrupt members of Congress from receiving their congressional pensions. The House had passed a similar bill last year, but this year’s passage became a bit of a circus when Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) accused Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) of being "disingenuous," resulting in her words’ being "taken down" or (at least at first) referred for censure.

Democrats had pulled the pension bill last Friday, but when members returned on Monday, the bill had been changed so that it would not take effect until 2009. Democrats claimed that there was a 27th Amendment Issue — namely, that the bill changes member compensation and therefore cannot apply until the next Congress. That issue had never come up at any point during the debate in the past.

By the time Democrats made it to the floor, they were still making changes to the offenses that could disqualify a member from receiving a pension. Freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.), officially the bill’s sponsor, sat by as Democratic leaders scribbled last-second changes to the bill right in front of her.

McCain-Feingold: Not enough attention is being paid to the fact that key provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill could be overturned within months. The newly composed Supreme Court will hear some of the issues in the form of the Wisconsin Right to Life case. At issue are the restrictions on mentioning a candidate’s name in television and radio advertising 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election.

The provision, one of the more absurd consequences of the campaign finance reform craze of 2002, bars any mention of a candidate’s name or the broadcast of his image except by an FEC-regulated political committee. Groups such as Wisconsin Right to Life are barred from buying ads mentioning them.

In this case, the group wanted to air ads in 2004 urging Wisconsinites to contact their senators — Democrats Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl — to tell them to support judicial confirmations. But Feingold was up for re-election, therefore campaign law shielded him from being mentioned on television by any group that does not follow FEC regulations for gathering contributions and filing disclosure forms. The last time the Supreme Court considered the McCain-Feingold law, they ruled 5-4 upholding the advertising provisions. Now that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been replaced by the conservative Samuel Alito, the landmark legislation may be in danger of reversal. The consequences could be enormous in the 2008 election cycle.

Senate 2008

Virginia: Mutual fear and distrust between conservatives and moderates rules the day as this race approaches. Sen. John Warner has said he will run for re-election, in which case he is safe. But moderates fear that Warner could be squeezed between a conservative candidate and a Democrat — which is unlikely. Conservatives, meanwhile, are not inclined to believe Warner’s re-election intentions. They fear that Warner will wait until the deadline, and then step aside for a fellow moderate, such as Rep. Tom Davis (R). They are considering the possibility of putting a serious conservative into the race who would be ready to drop out if Warner remains in the race beyond the filing deadline.

It is difficult to imagine any of the stronger conservative candidates, such as Rep. Eric Cantor (R) or Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R), agreeing to such a scheme. If former Gov. Jim Gilmore leaves the presidential race in time, he could put himself forth as well. But the situation is such that the Virginia GOP is ruled by distrust, having been stung by repeated election losses in key statewide races.

Sincerely,
Robert D. Novak

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Written By

Mr. Novak was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, a political newsletter he founded in 1967 with Rowland Evans. He passed away August 19, 2009. Read tributes to Robert Novak and his legendary work, as well as memories from Novak alumni and the Human Events family.

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