From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Six weeks until election day... President Bush's Iraq-is-central-to-the-war-on-terror events today are a meeting with President Karzai of Afghanistan and a joint press availability. Vice President Cheney yesterday touted Afghanistan as a "a rising nation -- with a democratically-elected government, a market economy, and millions of children going to school for the first time." Democrats argue that the Administration has paid too little attention to Afghanistan compared to Iraq -- "one-seventh" the attention, as former President Clinton said -- and that this has made the United States less safe.
Bush also raises money at another closed-press fundraiser at another private home, this time in Washington, for GOP efforts in Arkansas, Iowa and Wisconsin. Bush raised an estimated $1.7 million at his two events on the road yesterday. The White House pool reporter traveling with him yesterday sought a comment from Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine (R), one of the beneficiaries of Bush's events. "'I appreciate the president coming in,' the senator said. 'He raised a lot of money. It's always good to be with the president.' Asked if it does him any good to appear with Mr. Bush, the senator repeated himself: 'It's always good to be with the president.'"
Laura Bush is in Ohio and upstate New York, making remarks for the Republican candidates seeking to replace retiring Rep. Bob Ney and Sherwood Boehlert. Both of her events are open-press. Vice President Cheney's staff marked his 100th fundraiser of the cycle yesterday by inviting the attending press pool to join Cheney for cake.
Also today, Bush signs a bill creating a searchable database for targeted federal spending projects, a/k/a pork. He'll be joined at the bill-signing by co-sponsoring Sen. Barack Obama (D) and, a source tells First Read, by some of the bloggers who helped root out the lawmaker who had placed a hold on the legislation, GOP Sen. Ted Stevens of Bridge to Nowhere fame.
The House gets down to work for this final week. NBC's Mike Viqueira points out that all you need to do is look at the progress of the spending bills to see that this session has been marked by classic election-year gridlock. Exactly none of the 12 must-pass measures has been passed by the Congress. That will likely change this week with passage of the defense and homeland security bills, Viq says, but it still means that that hundreds of billions will be divvied up behind closed doors by a select few during a lame-duck session after the elections. The homeland security spending bill will likely include a downpayment of $1.2 billion for construction of a border fence, as well as money for more border agents.
The House also will take up the compromise detainee bill tomorrow and take up the NSA warrantless surveillance bill on Thursday. Viq advises that the latter bill still must be married up with the pending Senate version, which isn't likely to happen in time for recess as the Senate is still hashing out its version.
On the Senate side, the White House-sponsored bill that would authorize the NSA program made real progress yesterday, NBC's Ken Strickland reports. Three Republicans who had previously withheld their support from the bill have signed on, cutting a deal with the White House for some changes in the legislation -- and potentially setting the stage for a pre-election debate with Democrats on national security, which some GOP operatives have been seeking. While the support of these three Republicans doesn't ensure the bill's passage, it does unify their conference. Most Senate Democrats opposed the NSA bill as originally written, Strickland reminds us. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has yet to announce how he plans to move forward with the NSA and detainee bills.
In his CongressDaily AM column, NBC political analyst Charlie Cook suggests a more anecdotal rule of thumb for viewing the prospects of the House flipping: "If Republicans can replicate the environment of the last six weeks, their chances of holding onto their House majority, keeping Democratic gains under 15, are pretty good, and they will almost certainly retain their Senate majority. But if the spotlight shifts away from the terrorism/declining gasoline prices focus and back onto the war in Iraq, where it was before, the House goes back to very likely Democratic and the Senate gets much more dicey." The new CNN poll has Bush's job approval rating at 42%.