From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
Both halves of the McCain-Feingold team over the weekend clarified their plans for 2008. The former is pretty clearly running for president; the latter has decided against it. Republican Sen. John McCain's bid could be complicated by his continuing support for the war in Iraq, especially after voters rejected it at the polls last Tuesday. But with Sen. Russ Feingold (D) out of the race, the field has lost its anti-war outlier, the only prospective major candidate who could claim to have voted against it.
Feingold's decision not to run means one less headache for incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but the Senate in the 110th Congress still will be teeming with presidential candidates from both parties. For that reason, and because Senate rules make it easier for the minority party to weigh in, the House will be where Democrats stand their best chance to promote an agenda and draw contrasts with Republicans that could build support for their party in the run-up to 2008. (Which makes you wonder why not all of the likely Democratic candidates have put in calls to incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi.) The latest Newsweek poll finds strong support for Democrats' top legislative priorities and a new low in President Bush's job approval rating, 31%.
The return of the 109th Congress for a few final weeks represents Bush's last chance to make progress on his agenda for the foreseeable future. He'll get some of what he wants out of this session, probably including Robert Gates' confirmation as Defense Secretary. But he's unlikely to win either UN Ambassador John Bolton's confirmation or passage of the NSA surveillance bill, two goals that will strain recent commitments to bipartisanship. Then again, key Senate Democrats are now calling for the start of a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in four to six months, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is backing anti-war Rep. John Murtha for House Majority Leader.
White House officials continue to insist that Iraq was secondary in voters' calculations when they ousted Republican lawmakers from every region of the country last Tuesday. They argue that congressional corruption was behind the losses. House Republicans may see it differently. Rep. John Boehner, who's running for Minority Leader, tells his colleagues in a letter seeking their support that their losses weren't because of "a battle of ideas in which Americans embraced the values of Democrats over ours. In part it was a referendum on the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq, but those are factors now beyond our control."
Bush and Vice President Cheney are scheduled to meet with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group today. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that the White House considers the President's first-ever session with the group a private meeting, so no coverage is planned. Tomorrow, Bush meets with representatives of the Big Three automakers.
These are two meetings that arguably could have boosted GOP prospects in the elections had the White House held them sooner. As we wrote last week, some Republicans are livid that Bush didn't cut Rumsfeld loose before the election. White House outreach to the Iraq Study Group before election day also might have been interpreted by voters as a willingness to be flexible on Iraq policy. And the White House has said the meeting with the Detroit automakers was put off until now because it would have looked too political to do it beforehand. But could an earlier meeting with the automakers -- say, back in the summer -- have boosted the GOP challengers for top offices in Michigan?
Per NBC's Ken Strickland, the Senate will convene this week, take two weeks off for Thanksgiving, and return the week of December 4. Their adjournment date is TBD but probably by December 22. The House will adhere to a similar schedule, per NBC's Mike Viqueira. Both chambers will see leadership elections later this week. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has managed to ward off some potentially divisive leadership bids within her caucus, but is jumping head-first into one by supporting Murtha for Majority Leader over that of her current number two, Steny Hoyer. House Republicans could see competitive contests for all top posts, including a three-way (at least) race for Minority Leader.