Capital Briefs: Feb. 11-15

WHAT’S WRONG AT NRCC? At a time when 28 Republican House members are stepping down and the National Republican Congressional Committee is just coming out of the red from the ‘06 midterm election cycle, things don’t look promising for the House GOP’s campaign arm. The NRCC closed ‘07 with a year-end balance of $5 million—a fraction of the $35 million in the coffers of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Last year, the DCCC raised more than $67 million, or $18 million more than the amount raised by the NRCC. NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (R.-Okla.) last week issued a brief, unusual statement saying that a recent audit showed it had “irregularities” that might include fraud, and that the committee was cooperating with authorities. One source close to the NRCC told Human Events that the irregularities were the result of the committee’s not having conducted an internal audit since 2001 and that at least two committee operatives would be under investigation in the next few months.

RYAN FOR VICE PRESIDENT? If young House conservatives led by Rep. Phil English (R.-Pa.) have their way, John McCain would make a dramatic move and tap Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice presidential running mate. “Imagine a ticket with a 38-year-old conservative Roman Catholic from the Rustbelt who appeals to the supply-side wing of the party and the blue-collar vote,” English said to Human Events Political Editor John Gizzi last week in promoting fellow Ways and Means Committee member Ryan for the national ticket. English said that Ryan, ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee and past co-chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, would give McCain youth and conservative enthusiasm on his ticket.

HUGHES’ BARACK BOOST: Insiders who believe Karen Hughes was the most politically inept member of President Bush’s inner circle got confirmation this week. The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin reported the former under secretary of State for public diplomacy as saying the best thing that could happen for America’s image in the Middle East would be the election of Barack Obama.

AMT UPDATE: Against the wishes of Republican congressional leaders, the Bush Administration included in its recent budget for Fiscal Year 2009 a projected $70 billion in revenue anticipated from the Alternative Minimum Tax. “We asked them [the White House] not to include AMT in the budget,” House GOP Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) told Gizzi last week, adding that factoring in projected revenue from the tax makes it “harder and harder to walk away from the tax.” Blunt proudly recalled how he supported abolishing the AMT outright in 1997 and said he would vote for the present measure proposed by Representatives English and Pete Sessions (R.-Tex.) to scrap the tax. Responding to Blunt’s criticism, White House spokesman Tony Fratto told Gizzi: “We certainly would like to abolish the AMT, but it should be done in the form of more comprehensive tax reform, and that’s something that we’ve said for a very long time. We’ve gone through this period of patching the AMT every year, on a year-by-year basis. It’s not our preferred way of doing it. We would prefer to do it in a comprehensive way that can account for the structure of taxes that impact the American people, going forward for many years.”

BUSH ON GOP RACE: News of Mitt Romney’s surprise suspension of his presidential race reached the White House press room as Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto was conducting his daily briefing for reporters. Asked if the President would now break his silence on the race to succeed him, Fratto replied that “it will be a decision that the President makes on his own when he feels comfortable enough to make that decision.” Later, Fratto’s colleague Scott Stanzel told reporters that the White House did in fact learn of Romney’s exit from the race “from someone who was familiar with Mr. Romney’ plans” and that the President himself was informed of it by staffers Ed Gillespie and Barry Jackson. Stanzel then issued the closest thing yet to a Bush endorsement of McCain, saying: “We clearly see Mitt Romney’s decision today as bringing our party closer to having a nominee, and the President looks forward to supporting the Republican who will carry the party’s banner into the fall.”

AND IT’S NOT JUST JUDGES: In a public forum at the White House last week, President Bush underscored that the Senate is not only sitting 28 nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals and District Court, but also is refusing to move on nominations to 130 key positions in the Executive Branch of government.  Among the nominations languishing in the Senate without a hearing for months are those for solicitor general of the Department of Labor, director of the U.S. Census, under secretary of Commerce for International Trade, and four assistant secretary positions in the U.S. Department of Defense.

DOG DAYS FOR BILL CLINTON:  With Hillary Clinton now locked with Barack Obama in a close and increasingly intense race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the person who seems to be coming out worst in their contest is a third Democrat: Bill Clinton. On the stump for his wife in recent weeks, the 42nd President has come under mounting criticism for referring to Obama’s opposition to U.S. action in Iraq as a “fairy tale” and then dismissing the Illinois senator’s triumph in the South Carolina primary on the grounds that Jesse Jackson won there 20 years ago. The Clinton salvos and resulting media criticism now appear to be taking their toll. A just-completed Gallup Poll shows that 41% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents nationwide believe Bill Clinton has unfairly attacked Obama. This is much higher than the 35% who believe Hillary Clinton has unfairly attacked Obama and significantly higher than the 23% who believe Obama has unfairly attacked his colleague from New York. Bill Clinton’s antics appear to have hurt him both among the public and in his own party. Gallup showed his overall public approval rating nationwide has dropped from 56% in October to 50% this month. Among Democrats alone, the survey showed it dropped from 92% to 80% in the same three-month period. Still, “Team Clinton” shows every sign of working together throughout the nomination battle. One reporter covering the Democratic race deadpanned to Human Events that, if Sen. Clinton is nominated and makes an offer to him, Obama “would almost certainly decline the vice presidential nomination. Who would want to be No. 3 in a Clinton Administration?”