From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Congress remains out for another week while Bush engages in some high-stakes negotiations abroad, first at the NATO summit in Latvia and then in Jordan at his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The White House calls the meeting part of Bush's effort to consult with a wide array of sources in deciding the best way forward in Iraq. It comes as the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and the Bush Administration near completion of their respective reports.
The White House is objecting this morning to descriptions of the Iraq conflict as a civil war. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "The violence is primarily centered around Baghdad and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi Security Forces is at the top of the agenda when [Bush and Maliki] meet later this week." Why does the terminology matter? Because, among other reasons, the greater the perception among Americans that Iraqis are fighting amongst themselves, the greater the doubts may be about continued US involvement and the greater the sentiment, perhaps, in favor of troop withdrawal. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in mid-October found 40% saying
Iraqis are fighting each other in a civil war, while 31% said Iraqis and foreign terrorists are fighting US troops, and 26% said it's some of both.
After they return to Washington next week, Congress may adjourn faster than expected. The outgoing GOP majority is now expected to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government into early next year, setting up a timetable by which Democrats will be working on spending bills at the same time the White House is working on its budget. The House may
leave town after just a week, while the Senate sticks around longer to vote on Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates.
The incoming Democratic House majority plans to hold tutorials on Iraq and the economy next week. NBC political analyst Charlie Cook says that whether or not Democrats move to establish an independent ethics commission could become a defining issue of the early days of their return to power. Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi's choice of whether to promote
impeached former judge and Rep. Alcee Hastings to Intelligence Committee chair, or pick a chair with less ethical baggage, looms as her next big personnel decision.
The Republican governors will gather in Miami later this week to discuss the midterm election results. Outgoing Republican Governors Association chair and 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney will preside. Retiring Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman will give his first big speech since the election.
Tom Vilsack, the retiring Democratic governor of Iowa, will formally announce his campaign for president in his adopted hometown on Mt. Pleasant on Thursday, followed by a tour that will take him to Concord, NH; his actual hometown of Pittsburgh; Des Moines, where his campaign HQ is located; Las Vegas; and Columbia, SC. The stop in Pittsburgh suggests
that Vilsack plans to highlight his life story as an orphan with an adoptive mother who was an alcoholic. The zig-zagging across the country reflects the new reality of a Democratic presidential nominating calendar that includes a second-in-the-nation caucus in Nevada.
Vilsack's candidacy also raises questions about Iowa's dominance of the Democratic calendar. Although he has yet to top any polls of Iowa caucus-goers, one or a few candidates in the potentially very crowded field may use his candidacy as an excuse to skip the state. Still, recent contenders for president who have skipped Iowa -- Democrats Joe Lieberman and Wes Clark in 2004, and John McCain (R) in 2000 -- ultimately failed
to win their party's nomination. Also, the possibility that one or more big states like California, Florida, and/or Michigan might hold much earlier contests than usual could make Iowa even more important as a springboard because of the size of those states and the cost of advertising there.
Democratic National Committee officials will meet in Washington on Saturday, where they'll discuss the way the calendar is shaping up and possible incentives to keep states from holding their contests too early.