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The Situation: Monday, December 19

Editor's Note: The Situation Report is a running log of dispatches, quotes, links and behind-the-scenes notes filed by the correspondents and producers of CNN's Washington Bureau. Watch "The Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer on CNN 4 p.m. ET to 6 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. ET to 8 p.m. ET weekdays.

The Morning Grind

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Bush will hold a news conference in the East Room at 10:30 a.m. ET

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Morning Grind
George W. Bush
Politics

Posted: 9:50 a.m. ET
From Mark Preston, CNN Political Unit

The Senate's turn

The House of Representatives left the lights on this morning for the Senate after working through the night until dawn to pass the Defense spending bill as well as legislation to trim the federal budget by $40 billion.

As Representatives rushed to area airports to catch flights home for the holidays, Senators returned to a gridlocked chamber to address these two measures and face the possibility of working late into the week, possibly adjourning on Thursday.

Meanwhile, President Bush is planning a news conference this morning from the East Room. The White House would not say what Bush planned to speak on, but it comes on the heels of a prime time national address on Iraq Sunday from the Oval Office. Bush described last week's Iraqi elections as "a landmark day in the history of liberty." But he also warned that "There is more testing and sacrifice before us."

Bush also acknowledged the war has been "more difficult than we expected," with reconstruction work and the establishment of a new Iraqi military and police force taking longer than hoped. But he said a quick withdrawal from Iraq, as some of his critics have advocated, would damage U.S. credibility just as insurgents begin to feel "a tightening noose" of U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"Behind the images of chaos that terrorists create for the cameras, we are making steady gains with a clear objective in view," Bush said.

And he held out the prospect that some U.S. troops might be able to come home before long as Iraq's fledgling government and military take on more responsibilities. "As these achievements come, it should require fewer American troops to accomplish our mission," he said.

Republicans praised Bush for his remarks with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Illinois) saying that Bush, "laid out his case for the war in Iraq, and it is a plan that will protect Americans, bring stability to the region and extend freedom to the Iraqi people."

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said Bush's acknowledgement of the difficulty of quashing the insurgency in Iraq does not justify sending troops into the country in the first place.

"Iraq did not present an imminent threat to the security of the United States before he began his choice of war," Pelosi said. "The president's speech ... was further evidence that after almost three years, he still does not understand that crucial fact."

The Democratic National Committee released a web video yesterday calling attention to a Congressional Research Service report that indicates the White House had more pre-war intelligence information than Congress did before invading Iraq.

CNN will carry Bush's speech live at 10:30 a.m. ET.

At issue in the Senate today is a provision in the Defense funding bill that allows for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a priority for Bush and the Republican led Congress that Democrats have successfully blocked in recent years. But with the nation at war, it appears as though Republicans have the votes to pass the defense bill that also includes money to plan for an avian flu pandemic as well as emergency spending for hurricane ravaged states.

Still, Democrats vow to force Republicans to clear a series of parliamentary hurdles before a final vote can occur on the defense bill, a measure that would receive immediate widespread support from Democrats if it did not include the ANWR drilling rider.

"Hopefully, we will have the votes to knock it out of the DoD bill," Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) told the Grind. "But we are still working the votes."

For Reid to successfully have the ANWR provision removed, he must convince at least 41 Senators to support a filibuster against the DoD bill, a tall order given the political consequences of voting against a military funding bill with troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Democrats could delay a vote on the DoD bill by employing a series of parliamentary tactics and privileges to push it back until Wednesday or Thursday.

"While everyone is anxious to wrap up our work and get home for the holidays these are important pieces of legislation," said Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee). "We will stay as long as necessary to get this done."

If Democrats signal they plan to delay a vote on DoD, the Senate will then turn its attention this morning to the budget cutting measure. As of now, it does not appear as though the Senate will seek another vote on renewing the Patriot Act, after failing to overcome a filibuster last week. Several provisions of the act expire on Dec. 31.

While senators, staffers and reporters collectively are griping about having to work so close to the holidays, at least one politician assured the Grind he won't "interfere with anybody's Christmas plans one way or another" as he considers another run for the Senate. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) said he will make an announcement after the holidays, and acknowledged he is "struggling" with his sense of public service against making more money in the private sector.

"From a financial standpoint I need to have a little more income than this job gives, which is a nice income but my family has made certain sacrifices over the years," said Lott, who lost a home in the hurricane.

He added, "The implication is, 'Well I can do more than anybody else.' Well not necessarily. This place in here has got a great heightened impression of itself anyway. Somebody else can do fine."

As for his wife, Lott said he thinks "she is ready to go do something else." But he noted that "within in the last month she said, 'If you decide to stay, we'll go with it.'"

Political Hot Topics

Posted 9:50 a.m. ET
Compiled by Stephen Bach, CNN Washington Bureau

IRAQ WAR "MORE DIFFICULT THAN WE EXPECTED": President Bush last night hailed Thursday's Iraqi elections as a vital step toward stabilizing that nation, but warned that despite the political progress more violence lies ahead as Iraq struggles to establish a democracy amid a raging insurgency. Speaking in a nationally televised prime-time address, Bush made a direct appeal to war opponents, conveying a more humble tone in saying he understands their arguments but asserting that there is no choice but to forge on. "I have heard your disagreement and I know how deeply it is felt," Bush said. "Yet now there are only two options before our country: victory or defeat." Washington Post: President Gives Both Reassurance, Warnings on Iraqexternal link

HE'S CERTAINLY NO JESSICA SIMPSON: Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday staged a surprise visit to Iraq and today will attend the opening of Afghanistan's new parliament as part of a six-nation Middle East tour aimed at promoting democracy. "I'm not Jessica Simpson, but I'm glad to be here," he told 650 Marines who had speculated that their surprise guest might be the popular singer. "It's a privilege to be here, to stand on the ground of the world's newest democracy, to be with so many men and women who helped make this history." The vice president's visit was so secret that it surprised even Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. "I thought only the ambassador would be here," the prime minster said through an interpreter after showing up for what he thought was a meeting with Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "Thank you, Mr. Vice President." Washington Times: Cheney springs visit to 'newest democracy'external link

SHARON OK AFTER MINOR STROKE: In a press conference Monday afternoon, senior members of the Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center staff declared that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be released Tuesday morning, and that while they recommended that he rest, he would be able to reassume his workload. The cause of the stroke, doctors explained, was a small blood clot. After Sharon was treated with blood-thinners, the clot quickly dissolved. Neurologist Professor Tamir Ben-Hur stated unequivocally that, despite media reports, at no time did the prime minister lose consciousness or become disoriented. However, Sharon's speech had been affected slightly, Ben-Hur explained. Both Ben-Hur and Dr. Jacob Naparstek, Director of Internal Medicine at Hadassah, assured the press and the public that Sharon was unharmed, and that there was no reason to fear that any similar event would occur in the future. Jerusalem Post: Doctors: PM will suffer no residual effects from strokeexternal link

EAGER TO INVESTIGATE: Several Senate Democrats and Republicans on Sunday questioned President Bush's authority to order domestic spying without obtaining warrants. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on Fox News Sunday the administration had briefed him on the program "a couple of months ago." But there wasn't enough congressional oversight, he said, and "there's no way the president can pass the buck." Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said on CNN "there is no legal authority under the statutes that I know of" to support the surveillance. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has promised hearings on the surveillance, which was first reported by The New York Times on Friday. The issue has stalled Senate action on the extension of the Patriot Act, which was created to help fight terrorism, and has spurred new questions about the administration's conduct of the war on terrorism. USA Today: Lawmakers seek probe of domestic spyingexternal link

THE STING OF ABRAMOFF: The announcement by two senators last week that they would return $217,000 in contributions linked to the indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff has produced calls for other members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to follow suit or risk being tainted by the money in next year's elections. Mr. Abramoff, a major Republican Party fund-raiser who is the focus of a federal corruption investigation in Washington involving gifts to lawmakers, was long among the most generous lobbyists in the capital in directing political contributions to lawmakers who could help his clients. The money, most of it from Mr. Abramoff's Indian tribe clients and their lucrative casino operations, was eagerly accepted by members of Congress until this year. New York Times: In Congress, a Lobbyist's Legal Troubles Turn His Generosity Into a Burdenexternal link

WHO'LL REPLACE DUKE? The downfall of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in a bribery scandal has cleared the way for a surprisingly competitive race for his San Diego County congressional seat, a contest that will test the strength of Democratic efforts to regain control of Congress. In a poor political climate for the GOP, analysts say, a suburban coastal district of California - even one that leans as Republican as Cunningham's - is just the kind that could prove the leading edge of a potential national tide against the party. Yet Democratic candidate Francine Busby faces a steep uphill battle, thanks to a California congressional map drawn to protect incumbents of both major parties. The district was shaped to strongly favor a Republican, so it would take a major political shift for voters there to put a Democrat in Congress. Los Angeles Times: A Battle Looms to Succeed 'Duke'external link

FEMALE IRAQ VET TO LAUNCH HOUSE BID: Iraq war veteran L. Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter pilot who lost her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade attack, formally announced her candidacy Sunday for the congressional seat of retiring Republican Rep. Henry Hyde. The Army major is one of about a half dozen Iraq war veterans running for office as Democrats, lending their military backgrounds to the party's argument that it can be strong on defense and national security, even as its leaders criticize President Bush's handling of the war. Duckworth says she wants to focus on health care, education and the economy in her campaign, though she knows the war will be a big issue. She privately disagreed with Bush's decision to invade Iraq, but still volunteered to serve. "We should have been fighting the enemies that attacked us at home on 9/11," Duckworth told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "We should have been out there trying to catch Osama bin Laden." AP via Yahoo! News: Iraq War Veteran Launches Bid for Houseexternal link

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