Washington Week: Home for the Holidays

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Washington is officially on holiday but politically on edge as President Bush returns Monday night from Asia to the White House. Still struggling in the polls, Bush has a full week and a Thanksgiving holiday to lower the political temperature before politicians return to the capital. After last week's tumult and partisan drama on Capitol Hill, Bush might be thankful that the lawmakers' November recess has arrived like the clang of the bell mercifully terminating a middle round in a heavyweight slugfest. Instead of irate, uppercutting critics, awaiting him in Washington are a stack of budget bills primped for his pen and a National Turkey urgently seeking presidential pardon. He leaves Tuesday to celebrate the holiday at his home in Crawford, Tex.

With dissent over the Iraq war accelerating, Bush has started to make room for critics. In Beijing on Sunday, he eased his administration's sharp language of recent days, which included Vice President Dick Cheney's labeling of war critics as "reprehensible" and White House ripostes to the New York Times and Washington Post editorial pages. Cheney's remark prompted response from within the increasingly restive Republican Party. "People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq," Bush told White House reporters in Beijing. "I heard somebody say, 'Well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position. I totally reject that thought. This is not an issue of who's [a] patriot and who's not patriotic. It's an issue of an honest, open debate about the way forward in Iraq."

The way forward might become less murky after Dec. 15, when Iraqis are scheduled to elect their first full parliament. If the vote proceeds honestly and peacefully, the Bush Administration can claim Iraq has taken a giant step toward political self-sufficiency—a precondition, White House officials have said, for battling the increasingly lethal insurrection. The success of elections will have a direct effect on last week's debate: How many U.S. troops should be in Iraq and for how long? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Fox News Sunday that after the elections, the U.S. hopes to drop troop levels from 160,000 to about 138,000, with a target of 100,000 by the end of 2006. Elsewhere, NBC News' Tim Russert grilled Rep. John Murtha—the Pennsylvania Democrat and decorated Vietnam War veteran whose impassioned speech on Iraq sparked Friday's meltdown in the House—on Rumsfeld's future and whether Bush should find a new Pentagon chief.


Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito nearly slid into Thanksgiving week unnoticed. Hearings, set for Jan. 7, will now draw increased Democratic scrutiny—and possibly a confirmation-halting filibuster—after the discovery of a 20-year-old Reagan White House job application documenting his specific political opinions. Colorado Democratic Senator Ken Salazar said Alito's objection to a constitutionally recognized right to abortion could force Democrats to block him. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) lambasted Alito's position on a landmark 1962 Supreme Court case that made states judicially accountable for drawing accurate voting districts.

The Plame Game

Last week Bob Woodward of the Washington Post shook up the investigation into who compromised the identity of former CIA officer Valerie (Plame) Wilson. Woodward drew attention for withholding from his editor a conversation about Plame he had with an administration official in June 2003, and for publicly marginalizing the investigation's importance as recently as late October. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald empanelled a new grand jury to either revisit charges on former Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby or perhaps seek new indictments. Karl Rove remains under investigation.

In other Washington legal news, Michael Scanlon—a partner of former uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and onetime aide to former Republican Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay—was indicted on a conspiracy charge. Scanlon is expected to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors investigating possible corruption among lobbyists, congressmen and staffers. A legal team for DeLay, himself under indictment in Texas, may try to subpoena former grand jury members to show the Texas prosecutor mishandled his case against DeLay.