From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
The 109th Congress returns for one last week. Its role in the debate that will dominate the week, what course the Bush Administration should pursue in Iraq, will be to confirm new Defense Secretary Robert Gates and react to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommendations coming on Wednesday. Republican lawmakers who are spending their last week in the majority, largely because of the unpopular war, may receive the report more warmly than President Bush. who will consider it among a wide array of options. Per White House aides, that wide array also includes the "informal" options offered by outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in his memo published on Saturday in the New York Times.
Presidential candidates are jostling already. Last week, Sen. John McCain crashed Mitt Romney's confab with his fellow Republican governors. Now Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) hasn't even completed his announcement tour -- he's stopping in South Carolina today -- and another Midwestern Democrat is taking a formal step toward a bid. Sen. Evan Bayh plan to file papers to create an exploratory committee this week (though not today, an aide advises). Bayh's case: He's a former governor of a red state with a record of helping Democrats get elected there, and a two-term member of the Senate with foreign policy experience. Like Romney, he's also the son of an unsuccessful presidential candidate.
Bayh is making his 12th visit to Iowa today, per his office. He'll be in New Hampshire this weekend -- where his appearance may be overshadowed by Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's first-ever stop in the Granite State. And while Obama openly considers a run, Sen. Hillary Clinton is suddenly starting to maneuver more publicly.
Reminding us that the Senate is hardly a proven launchpad for a successful presidential bid, two Senate leaders have quit the 2008 race within days of each other. After retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist got out last week, former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle made it official over the weekend, telling a South Dakota news outlet that he won't run, either.
Speaking of overlapping, the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws panel on Saturday approved a new incentive to try to keep states from holding their nominating contests early, which could lead to a frontloaded calendar by which the nominee is basically selected within just a few weeks. According to the plan, states who opt to move their contests back to April, May or June will receive more delegates. States who move their contests ahead to February or March won't get any bonus delegates. The plan must be approved by the full DNC.
The panel decided not to levy any sort of punishment on states who opt to hold their contests earlier in the process than they're currently scheduled to do. But in another effort to prevent frontloading, the DNC has already passed a regulation which punishes candidates who campaign in states that decide to hold their contests before February 5, 2008 without DNC approval (i.e., states other than Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina). The regulation defines "campaigning" as fundraising, among other activities, so if a big-money state like California moves its primary before February 5, candidates who fundraise there would forfeit any delegates they win in the California primary.
By the end of this final week for the 109th Congress, we will likely have: a continuing resolution to fund the government until early next year, a new Defense Secretary, a nuclear pact with India, and some tax extenders. Business and government strategist Billy Moore, a former longtime Democratic Hill aide, says this Congress will be "the least productive Congress that met the fewest days in half a century."
The week will also mark the end of Dennis Hastert's run as the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House. As NBC's Doug Adams notes, there had been talk that Hastert would resign if Republicans lost their majority, but now he appears ready to stay in his seat for a few months to help ensure that Democrats don't capture it in a special election. Hastert doesn't even have any committee chairmanships to retreat to. He may go to the Energy and Commerce panel, where Rep. Joe Barton (R) would step aside for him, but even then, he'd only be ranking member.