From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
At a press conference in Estonia earlier this morning, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports, President Bush: blamed al Qaeda for fomenting sectarian violence; declined to engage on NBC's use of the term "civil war" to describe the violence; outlined questions he will ask Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in Jordan later this week; said Iraq has been in this current phase of violence for about nine months (contradicting National Security Advisor Steve Hadley's calling it a "new phase"); said Iraq is sovereign and thus can have its own meetings with Iran and Syria; and again said that Iran must stop nuclear enrichment.
Domestic politicking isn't stopping at the water's edge. Preceding Bush today at an NGO-run conference coinciding with the NATO summit will be presidential contender Rudy Giuliani (R), currently the most popular politician in America, per a new poll. Also, Karl Rove is making an unusual appearance on this trip. White House spokesman Tony Snow said Rove is along because "there's still plenty of politics going on back in Washington." He said Rove has been e-mailing and calling Republicans trying to hash out an agenda for the lame duck session, and also monitoring a House runoff in Texas.
Back in Washington, the media is filling the news vacuum by focusing on incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi's next personnel decision: whether to promote impeached former judge and Rep. Alcee Hastings to Intelligence Committee chair, or pick a chair with less ethical baggage. But if Pelosi chooses another member to serve as chair, the Hastings matter will be settled before the 110th Congress begins. Less attention is being paid to a potential issue that could undercut Democrats' message on ethics reform during their first week in the majority: the possible return of Rep. William Jefferson (D).
After the feds found $90,000 in cash in Jefferson's freezer and two of his associates pleaded guilty to a kickback scheme, Republicans tried to use him to muddy the waters on ethics in the midterm elections. Ultimately, the GOP paid a price for their proliferating ethical problems while Democrats as a party did not, but 70% of voters in Jefferson's district chose a candidate other than the incumbent in the open primary on election day. Should Jefferson get re-elected, even if Democrats don't seat him on any committees, his presence -- literally, since he'd be voting on the ethics reform proposals Democrats plan to introduce during their first 100 hours in session -- could pose a problem for Pelosi and the party.
Per Louisiana law, because Jefferson did not win a majority of the vote in his primary, he will participate in a runoff with the second-place finisher on December 9, NBC's Doug Adams notes. His opponent is former state Rep. Karen Carter, a fellow Democrat and also an African-American. The district comprises New Orleans and its western suburbs.
Conventional wisdom holds that an incumbent who is forced into a runoff after getting just 30% of the vote is a dead duck. But conventional wisdom doesn't always hold true in New Orleans politics, and Jefferson could well win re-election. For starters, Adams notes, most New Orleans politicians are backing him, including Mayor Ray Nagin (another local politician who was written off for dead, only to stage a comeback in a runoff). Last week, the candidate who finished third in the primary endorsed Jefferson.
Not everyone is supporting Jefferson, however. State Democratic officials hand-picked Carter to challenge Jefferson and continue to back her. A source of some controversy, a link to her campaign website is prominently posted on the Louisiana Democratic party website -- unaccompanied by any link to Jefferson's. And, this being New Orleans, there is of course a back story, Adams says. Carter appeared briefly in Spike Lee's documentary about Hurricane Katrina, in which she slammed Jefferson Parish police for blocking New Orleans storm victims from crossing the bridge into the suburbs. Her criticism won her the enduring dislike of most of the parish's Establishment.
Earlier this year, Pelosi stripped Jefferson of his coveted Ways and Means committee seat. But no one can force him out of Congress, even if he eventually gets indicted. The Congressional Black Caucus continues to support him.
Also, Adams points out, any indictment of Jefferson probably wouldn't happen until May 2007 at the earliest. Last week, a federal judicial panel extended the deadline for briefs in his case until mid-April, with oral arguments planned after that -- thereby setting up national Democrats for a possible half-year of embarrassment.