Capital Briefs: Oct. 29-Nov.2

NO-GOES: Two high-profile prospects for open Senate seats decided last week they are not running after all. In Nebraska, Democrats had high hopes of picking up the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel by getting popular former Sen. Bob Kerrey to become their candidate. But Kerrey announced he would not leave the presidency of the New School in New York, so Republicans are favored to hold Hagel’s seat with either State Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning or former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. In Virginia, moderate Rep. Tom Davis said he would not seek the GOP nod to succeed retiring Sen. John Warner, making conservative former Gov. Jim Gilmore the near-certain Republican nominee. Polls show Democratic former Gov. Mark Warner with a big lead over Gilmore.

DAVIS VS. LEGAL SERVICES: Although Rep. Tom Davis is frequently criticized by conservatives for being too cozy with government employee unions and advocating House representation for the District of Columbia, the former Government Reform chairman did draw cheers from the right last week for dusting off a favorite cause of conservatives in past years: probing political activity by the Legal Services Corp. Joined by Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.), Davis wrote LSC Chairman Frank Strickland, requesting him to determine if the corporation has adequate safeguards to protect against illegal political activity with federal funds. But Davis and Issa also wrote acting LSC Inspector General Ronald Merryman to ask whether the corporation has the resources to investigate allegations against it. Among the charges lodged against LSC are whether the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles violated federal law by using government funding to organize and advocate on behalf of the Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance.

SCHIP II ‘LIPSTICK ON A PIG:’ That was he comparison made by Rep. Joe Barton (R.-Tex.) between the House Democrats’ revised State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and the bill successfully vetoed by the President.. House GOP Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) told Human Events Political Editor John Gizzi that in the revised SCHIP, “It’s not getting a lot better. A family with income of $64,000 a year can still get 100% of its healthcare paid for by the state.”

SOUTHWICK IN—WHO’S NEXT? The Senate’s 59-to-38 vote last week to confirm Mississippi judge and Iraq veteran Leslie Southwick to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ended more than a year of “judicial wars” over the nomination. But the Southwick vote does not signal the end to Senate Democrats’ efforts to stop other Bush nominees to the Appeals Court. In the first six months of ’07, only three appellate court nominees were confirmed by the Senate. Nine Bush nominations still languish in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with that of 4th Circuit Court nominee Steve Matthews, who worked for Atty. Gen. Ed Meese during the Iran-Contra investigation in 1987, likely to engender the most controversy.

THOMPSON TO WRITE OFF NH? With less-than-stellar reviews for his performances in televised debates and the latest CNN poll showing he has dropped from 27% to 19% support for President among likely Republican voters since announcing in September, Fred Thompson may opt to forgo the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary in January. The latest clue came last week, when former State Rep. Dan Hughes, who had been running the Thompson effort in New Hampshire, said he was quitting and looking for another candidate. “I don’t want to be part of a campaign that’s going to say, ‘Let’s write off New Hampshire,’” Hughes told reporters, saying that Thompson’s declaration of candidacy on the “Tonight Show” while a debate among the other GOP hopefuls was being held in his state was “sacrilege.” Hughes also criticized disorganization in the Thompson headquarters and said he is considering getting behind John McCain or Mike Huckabee.

MOTHER OF ALL TAX INCREASES: House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.) is planning legislation to accomplish what some Washington wags are calling the “mother of all tax increases.” Under Rangel’s new plan, several tax increases will be imposed. In one, President Bush’s tax cuts would be allowed to expire. Another imposes a tax surcharge on people with incomes over $150,000. There is a 4% surcharge for individuals and for families with combined incomes over $200,000. For incomes over $500,000, the surcharge increases to 4.6%. That would raise the top individual tax rate from 35% to 44% over the next few years. Rangel’s surcharge would be imposed on adjusted gross income, not net income, depriving taxpayers of part of the benefit of their most important deductions, including the home mortgage interest deduction. Rangel claims that the tax increase will fund tax cuts to 90 million Americans when—or if—Congress fixes the looming Alternative Minimum Tax disaster. Ways and Means Ranking Republican Jim McCrery (R.-La.) called the $90-million figure “pure hokum.”

‘AMNESTY MEL’ EXITS RNC: If there was any surprise over the announcement last week by Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) that he is giving up the helm of the Republican National Committee, it was in the timing. The Florida senator had signaled he would leave the position of “general chairman” by the time of the national convention in Minneapolis next September. But leaving the post 10 months after he was picked was a clear sign that the “shared power” arrangement with Martinez as general chairman and Kentucky Republican National Committeeman Mike Duncan as the full-time operating national chairman was a bigger problem for the GOP the longer it lasted. Martinez’s role as a vigorous supporter of the comprehensive immigration package pushed by the President that died in the Senate last summer was a big problem: Donations to the committee dropped dramatically, the RNC phone bank for fund-raising was shut down and an increasing number of RNC members were publicly saying they were strongly opposed to the amnesty package. At the last RNC meeting in Minneapolis, Arizona State Chairman Randy Pullen finally secured easy passage of a strongly worded resolution opposing any guest-worker program for illegal immigrants—in effect, repudiating the White House and Martinez. Privately, many members balked at Martinez’s defending something they were opposed to and called their chairman “Amnesty Mel.” As much of a problem as Martinez’s amnesty position was the “power-sharing” arrangement with Duncan, which almost every member Political Editor John Gizzi talked to definitely didn’t want as soon as it was announced. Twice before it has been tried, and the players in it both regretted the arrangement. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas shared the RNC leadership from 1971-73, and told Human Events: “It worked pretty well, but it’s better with a full-time chairman.” Former Sen. Paul Laxalt (R.-Nev.), who served as general chairman under Ronald Reagan from 1983-87, was slightly more favorable toward the arrangement, saying: “As long as the person who is the general chairman has a good relationship with the President, then it works.” Duncan is expected to serve until the national convention, and his successor will almost certainly be chosen soon thereafter by the Republican presidential nominee.