Capital Briefs: January 28-February 1

WHO FOR APPROPRIATIONS?  It is not often that filling a vacancy on the House Appropriations Committee is a defining moment for the Republican Party, but that was the case late last week as House Republicans began gathering for their annual retreat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The maneuvering was fast and furious over the vacancy created by the recent move of Rep. Roger Wicker (R.-Miss.) to the Senate.  Signs were strong that the seat on the parent panel of earmarks will go to sophomore Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.), a moderate-to-conservative who has barely won his two terms and faces another stiff challenge in ’08.  Reichert’s leading challengers for the spot are Representatives Tom Cole (Okla.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.).  Many members will not back National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Cole because of what they consider a less-than-stellar performance in fund-raising for the NRCC and, as nationally syndicated columnist Robert Novak reports, “sensitive Republicans worry about Cole’s solving the NRCC’s fund-raising woes by dispensing earmarks.”  Flake, formerly head of the conservative Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, is an outspoken opponent of earmarks and backs a controversial reform measure calling for a one-year moratorium on earmarks.  The earmark moratorium is also on the table at the Sulphur Springs conclave, but both it and Flake’s bid for the Appropriations seat are opposed by Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), ranking Republican on the pork-dispensing committee, and by most of the ranking members on its subcommittees.

WHITE HOUSE SAYS TAX CUTS COME AFTER TAX-PAID STIMULUS: The administration last week underscored its commitment to making the Bush tax cuts permanent but only after it worked out with Congress the big-spend economic stimulus package that is now estimated to cost $145 billion. Hours before Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsen briefed reporters on the proposed tax-funded stimulus package, Human Events Political Editor John Gizzi asked White House Press Secretary Dana Perino whether the current nationwide financial crunch in any way affected the administration’s commitment to future tax cuts and to making permanent those cuts already enacted into law. Perino told Gizzi that “we continue to support making tax cuts permanent” and that the President will emphasize that “when the budget comes up” in February. However, Perino quickly added that it was important to keep debate over permanent tax cuts out of what was “most urgent” at this time, namely an economic stimulus created with tax dollars.

POLLS ANYONE? No one was predicting a winner in the Florida Republican primary at press time because different polls were showing different front-runners. A SurveyUSA poll conducted immediately after the victory by John McCain in South Carolina showed McCain leading Rudy Giuliani among likely Republican voters 25% to 20%, Mitt Romney at 19% and Mike Huckabee 14%. However, two other major surveys conducted at the same time showed Romney leading. According to Insider Advantage, Romney has 24%, Giuliani 19%, McCain 18% and Huckabee 12%. The Mason-Dixon poll showed Romney at 30%, McCain 26%, Giuliani 18% and Huckabee 13%. Having come within a percentage point of denying Fred Thompson (who has since withdrawn from the race) third place in South Carolina after a last-minute $300,000 media buy, Romney has reportedly made a $4 million purchase of television time in Florida for the closing week of the primary. An estimated 40% of Florida Republicans have already voted thanks to the state’s mechanisms that make early voting easy. A SurveyUSA survey of those Republicans who say they have already voted showed McCain with 31% statewide, Giuliani 25%, Romney 19% and Huckabee 11%.

WALSH IS ‘21’: The number that increasingly upsets House Republicans—the number from their ranks announcing retirement in ’08—continues to grow. Last week, moderate Rep. James Walsh (R.-N.Y.) became the 21st GOP House member to say he is calling it quits—putting the number of retirees one shy of the 22 who stepped down in ’06. Last election, 10-termer Walsh staved off a stiff challenge from Democrat Dan Maffei, a former TV reporter, by a 51%-to-49% margin in the Syracuse-area 25th District. Walsh’s narrow victory was made possible by his cross-endorsement from the New York Conservative Party. However, after Walsh’s vote last year for the non-binding resolution opposing the surge in Iraq, the Conservatives had signaled they would not give him their ballot line again in ’08, when Maffei is certain to mount another strong campaign.

SCHIP REVISITED: With the House again sustaining the President’s veto of the Democrat-backed $35-billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) last week, the Bush Administration nonetheless disappointed conservatives by sending signals it would still consider expanding the entitlement program—albeit to a lower level than the Democrats’ $35 billion. Commenting to reporters on the morning after the veto was sustained, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the President “is willing to expand SCHIP, but not to do it in the way” Congress did, which prompted the Bush veto. So far, the White House and Congress have agreed to continue the program at its present level for the next 18 months.

MCCAIN COUNSEL SUES OVER VOTER ID LAW: At a time when John McCain is trying to toughen up his stand on illegal immigration, a group headed by his campaign committee’s legal counsel is taking Indiana’s voter ID law to the Supreme Court. The Campaign Legal Center last week filed a “friend of the court” brief in two cases now before the Supreme Court that challenge a 2005 Indiana law requiring a photo ID to vote—a measure designed to discourage illegal immigrants from voting. The Campaign Legal Center was founded to defend the McCain-Feingold campaign finance measure that became law in ’02, and its founder is former Federal Election Commission member Trevor Potter, legal counsel to McCain’s ’08 campaign. According to the center’s newsletter, “our nation has a sad history of disfranchising people of color and poor whites under the banner of ‘reform.’ Voter ID laws are just the latest in a long list of disenfranchising devices that include secret ballot laws, registration acts, ‘eight-box’ laws, literacy tests, and the poll tax.” McCain has yet to comment on the Potter-spawned suit.

FISA FIGHT CONTINUES: As we go to press, the Senate is considering legislation to update and extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) beyond its current February 1 expiration date. The Senate Intelligence Committee passed a bipartisan bill in October, but the Senate leadership has sat on the bill for months. Last Thursday, a liberal counter-proposal, crafted by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) and others, was defeated on a 60-to-34 vote. A new FISA bill is essential to continued collection of electronic intelligence—intercepts of telephone calls, e-mails and radio transmissions—of terrorists and their networks. Sen. Christopher Bond (Mo.), ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, told Human Events Editor Jed Babbin, “Failure to act could leave our country deaf and dumb, handcuffing our intelligence operators who are fighting to protect American families in the war against Islamic extremism.”

House Democrats have a bill that would make radical changes to FISA, crippling the intelligence-gathering effort.Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) filed a cloture motion Thursday that will be voted on this week. Democratic opposition to the bill will probably collapse as it did the last time a FISA deadline was reached.