In the coming two weeks or so leading into Christmas recess, look for Republicans in both the House and the Senate to begin trying to set a course for a White House agenda for the new year.
Chief among the ongoing politics will be keeping things clear for Judge Samuel Alito's confirmation in January. Despite Democratic calls for a filibuster, Republicans in the Senate, particularly on the Judiciary Committee, remained thrilled with Alito's performance in private meetings, as well as the news reports on his previous writings both in public and judicial service.
"What we are hearing the Democrats complaining about are the issues we want to debate. We'll take Judge Alito and his writings on abortion or parental notification and we'll debate those issues anytime anywhere. We asked the President to give us this fight. We can't walk away from it, or give the Democrats any ground," says a senior Judiciary Committee staffer.
Beyond Alito, Republicans continue to look for issues they can run with in either or both houses of Congress. It doesn't appear that a major tax cut package is in the offing, particularly with the economy humming along. The House Ways and Means Committee had been looking at possible options there. Both the House and the Senate have said they will debate immigration policy, but that isn't a clear winner among voters.
What Republicans don't think they can do is sit back and allow two weeks of a session to simply fall by the wayside. "We have to try to do something before Christmas, before we go home again," says a House GOP leadership staffer. "It would be nice to go home on a bit of a roll going into the President's State of the Union address."
PART OF THE FRUSTRATION WITH the White House has been its refusal to move up potential 2006 initiatives into this calendar year, when the GOP might have gotten some good news out of it. The most pressing issue being troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past month, as Democrats have believed their anti-war rhetoric was taking hold, Republicans had been hoping the White House or Pentagon would help them with a troop withdrawal announcement or timetable. That hasn't happened.
What little is known about the White House thinking is that it would like to show a level of stability in Iraq, with a decently trained Iraqi military force in place before any drawdowns are announced. According to White House insiders, the President might be inclined to make a formal declaration during his State of the Union address. The number being floated internally is 35,000 America troops.
"A lot can change with that number and that decision, as we well know," says a Pentagon insider. "A lot depends on what the Iraqi forces are able to show us in the next month. If things continue to go well in some of the areas where Iraqis are taking on a greater amount of their own security, I think we'll feel comfortable pulling some of our troops home."
What no one disputes is that the American forces have done a remarkable job of whipping up an Iraqi security force in record time. While there continue to be challenges, the Iraqi forces have exhibited a level of commitment that has even some American military observers surprised.
Others aren't. "We've been saying all along that this would not be easy, but that the Iraqi forces would rise to the occasion, particularly after the elections, when everyone can see what is at stake over there," says a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer. "While the Democrats have the media focused on the bad news, we're making headway. At some point the American people are going to start seeing some results and they are going to be asking why they hadn't been hearing about it all before."
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