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The Situation: Tuesday, December 20

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.

Christmas at the Supreme Court

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Post: 1:02 p.m. ET
From Bill Mears, CNN Washington Bureau

The holidays are usually a quiet time at the Supreme Court, which is officially in a month-long recess until early January. But employees there had no trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, and are not afraid to say so.

President Bush and other federal officials may be criticized for not using the word "Christmas" in their holiday cards and celebrations, but the high court last week held its annual "Christmas Recess Party."

As it has for years, the Court building is "dressed up" for the season. The centerpiece this year is a 35-foot grand fir from Pennsylvania, displayed in the Great Hall, where the party was held.

The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist had previously rejected suggestions from some employees over the Court's celebration of Christmas, the highlight of which is the singing of carols. Rehnquist always urged attendees to bring their "best singing voice" and annually led the caroling with his robust tenor.

New Chief Justice John Roberts has kept up the tradition, though his voice was apparently not as audible as his mentor's.

Just how far government institutions like the Supreme Court go when engaging in such traditional activities has been a source of legal contention.

Now a law librarian has posted a popular Web page, highlighting Court cases with a not so festive theme: whether holiday displays on public property represent an unconstitutional government "endorsement" of religion.

Stephen Young, a reference librarian at Catholic University in Washington, noted that such appeals are a recent development.

"It has only been since the mid 1980s that the Court has addressed the issue of Christmas displays," said Young. "But the justices were drawing upon decades of past cases, where a lot of social diversity issues became more sensitive. These kinds of displays had been accepted for a long time, and the Court was being challenged to answer whether they needed to take a new look at it."

Young says the most important case may have been 1984's Lynch v. Donnelly, "not for what it achieved but rather what it failed to achieve." Pawtucket, Rhode Island officials had erected a seasonal display for years on private property, showing traditional Christmas figures and decorations, and most prominently, a creche. In a sharply divided 5-4 ruling, the display was found to be constitutional since it also included a Santa Claus, candy cane poles, colored lights and a clown.

No more junior justice for Breyer

Post: 1:02 p.m. ET
From Bill Mears, CNN Washington Bureau

Justice Stephen Breyer says he's looking forward to moving. Despite being on the high court for 11 years, Breyer is the junior justice, a label which can be tough to take sometimes for a 67 year-old man. He sits on the far right end of the nine-member bench, and will switch to the far-left side when a replacement is confirmed for the retiring seat of O'Connor. Judge Samuel Alito faces confirmation hearings next month and would take over Breyer's current seat.

Another "perk" for the junior justice happens in the closed door conferences, when the jurist vote on cases and decide whether to accept pending appeals for review. As he told CNN's "Larry King Live" recently, "I'm junior, you see, still. I'm the junior, so we speak in order of seniority. And I'm last, so nobody can speak twice until everyone speaks once. That's a good rule for a small group. I benefited from it, of course."

And since no one else but the justices are allowed in conference, the junior justice also must answer the door when a message is delivered. But he is not required to bring donuts or coffee for the group.

Breyer also offered some gracious words for his friend O'Connor, who plans to leave the bench after nearly a quarter century at the Court.

"I think one of the best things is that she's able and understands the possibility of using this label that we carry around, Supreme Court justice, that can be used sometimes to help advance public good of certain kinds," Breyer told King. "You can't be controversial. It can't be something that's political. But, for example, in India, they're very interested in making their justice system more accessible. They have long delays, and they're trying to improve it. And being there, maybe, as a Supreme Court justice, you can help."

The justice recently wrote a book on his approach to jurisprudence, Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution (Knopf).

Rep. DeLay files for re-election

Posted: 12:49 p.m. ET
From Molly Levinson, CNN Political Unit

Despite facing money laundering and conspiracy charges related to his fund-raising efforts, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay officially filed for re-election in his Sugerland, Texas, district by submitting a petition with over 1,000 signatures, his office said Tuesday.

"Christine [DeLay's wife] and I are so proud of the widespread grassroots support being shown to me in communities across the entire district," said Representative DeLay in a statement.

DeLay may face an tough re-election campaign. Close to half of the registered voters in a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll said they would be likely to vote for an unnamed Democratic opponent next year.

Pentagon To Reduce Troop Levels in Early 2006

Posted: 9:55 a.m. ET
From Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed deployment orders that will reduce US troops levels in Afghanistan early next year by about 2,500 personnel, according to Pentagon officials.

The move which has been long expected, will mean an overall reduction in US force levels in Afghanistan from about 18,000 to about 16,000 though the precise numbers vary depending on the schedules of individual military unit.

Sec. Rumsfeld discussed the upcoming reduction on CNN's Larry King Live on Monday night.

"It looks to me as though we are going to be as a country able to draw down our forces in Afghanistan by, oh I suppose, 2,000 or 3,000 sometime very soon and it's a direct result of the progress that's being made in the country," Rumsfeld said. "The fact that their parliament's now been seated and the fact that NATO is assuming a larger responsibility, so I feel quite good about the situation in Afghanistan and the fact that we are able to draw down our forces somewhat."

The order will impact the Army's 10th Mountain Division which will now send just one battalion to Afghanistan in early 2006 rather than three battalions. the move comes as a result of NATO increasing its force levels in southeastern Afghanistan.

The Morning Grind

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

Gridlock in Gotham and D.C.

New York City and the nation's capital have little in common except on this cold December day when both metropolises are mired in their own respective forms of gridlock.

Travel into Manhattan and throughout the city is moving at a snail's pace as public transit workers went on strike early this morning, CNN's Tom DiDonato reports. More than seven million people are expected to be affected by the strike and officials have imposed passenger quotas for vehicles entering the city. New York Gov. George Pataki (R) criticized the union for calling the strike five days before Christmas and said it has "broken the trust of the people of New York.

"They have not only endangered our city and state's economy, but they are also recklessly endangering the health and safety of each and every New Yorker," Pataki said.

But TWU President Roger Toussaint said the union decided to strike because "transit workers are tired of being under-appreciated and disrespected." And Toussaint chastised Pataki for using the transit strike to give a boost to his next political move that could include a possible run for president in 2008.

"We do not appreciate being threatened on public television nonetheless and in front of our children," Toussaint said. "Even if the governor needs this to appear to be tough to the nation for his own political ambitions, it's in appropriate."

In Washington, D.C., the Senate returns to work at 9:45 a.m. ET to continue its work on the controversial budget cutting measure and equally contentious Defense spending bill. A vote on the deficit reduction bill is expected to be so close that Vice President Cheney has cut his overseas trip short to return to Capitol Hill just in case he needs to cast a tie breaking vote. Several centrist Republicans disagree with some of the cuts and could join Democrats to derail the $40 billion bill. Cheney is expected to be back in Washington late tonight or early tomorrow morning.

Democrats are also considering trying to derail passage of the Defense appropriations measure until a provision to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is stripped from the bill. Democrats yesterday forced Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) to begin a series of parliamentary procedures that will result in a vote occurring on the Defense bill tomorrow.

Meanwhile, President Bush has a relatively light public schedule. He will appear at a State Department swearing in ceremony and sign the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005. A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that Bush needs to focus on building support for his domestic and foreign policy agendas as Congress heads into midterm elections.

"President Bush has a lot of ground to make up next year, not just in Iraq but on hot-button economic issues as well," said Keating Holland, CNN's polling director. "His approval rating on Iraq is only 37%, but on the economy he only gets a positive rating from 41% of the public. That's going to make it difficult to focus on any one issue in 2006."

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley appears before the Center for Strategic and International Studies at 11 a.m. ET to speak on the "Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

Opponents and supporters of Judge Samuel Alito continue to lay the groundwork in anticipation of next month's confirmation hearings as the Senate considers his nomination to the Supreme Court. A group of environmental organizations hold a 9:45 a.m. ET news conference in a room located just steps from the Senate floor to announce their opposition to Alito, while two hours later the National Partnership for Women & Families, AFSCME, and Black Women's Health Imperative will call on the Senate to reject Alito's nomination at another Capitol Hill news conference. Meanwhile, the Committee for Justice, a pro-Alito organization, holds a 10:30 a.m. ET discussion at the National Press Club to discuss Alito's nomination.

And California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has hired a D.C. political strategist to be his new communications director. Adam Mendelsohn, of the DCI public affairs consulting shop, is replacing Rob Stutzman as the head of Schwarzenegger's press operations. Stutzman is moving over to the governor's reelection campaign, according to Capitol Weekly, a newspaper that covers California politics.

Political Hot Topics

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

MEDIA BLITZ WORKING? President Bush's approval rating has surged in recent weeks, reversing what had been an extended period of decline, with Americans now expressing renewed optimism about the future of democracy in Iraq, the campaign against terrorism and the U.S. economy, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll. Bush's overall approval rating rose to 47 percent, from 39 percent in early November, with 52 percent saying they disapprove of how he is handling his job. His approval rating on Iraq jumped 10 percentage points since early November, to 46 percent, while his rating on the economy rose 11 points, to 47 percent. A clear majority, 56 percent, said they approve of the way Bush is handling the fight against terrorism - a traditional strong point in his reputation that nonetheless had flagged to 48 percent in the November poll. Washington Post: Bush's Support Jumps After a Long Declineexternal link

ALTER: WH TRIED TO KILL SNOOP STORY: "On December 6, Bush summoned Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to the Oval Office in a futile attempt to talk them out of running the story. The Times will not comment on the meeting, but one can only imagine the president's desperation. The problem was not that the disclosures would compromise national security, as Bush claimed at his press conference... No, Bush was desperate to keep the Times from running this important story, which the paper had already inexplicably held for a year, because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker. He insists he had "legal authority derived from the Constitution and congressional resolution authorizing force." But the Constitution explicitly requires the president to obey the law." Newsweek: Bush's Snoopgateexternal link

SENATORS SAY THEY WEREN'T FILLED IN: U.S. senators said they weren't fully consulted about a secret program to wiretap terrorist suspects without court approval. President George W. Bush defended the wiretapping program at a news conference yesterday, saying congressional leaders had "been briefed more than two dozen times" since the National Security Agency was first allowed to conduct the surveillance after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said the Constitution gave the president authority to approve eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, who plans hearings on the wiretapping next month, said the administration's briefings weren't thorough enough to ensure adequate oversight of the program by Congress. "It does not constitute a check and a balance," Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters in Washington yesterday. "You can't have the administration and a set number of members alter the law." Bloomberg News: Senators Say They Weren't Adequately Briefed on Wiretappingexternal link

ROCKEFELLER'S '03 ALARM: John D. Rockefeller IV, a wealthy man representing a poor state, had been the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee for six months when he sat down to a secret briefing on July 17, 2003. What he heard alarmed him so much that immediately afterward he wrote two identical letters, by hand, expressing his concerns. He sent one to Vice President Cheney and placed the other -- as he pointedly warned Cheney he would -- in a safe in case anyone in the future might challenge his version of what happened. Rockefeller proved prophetic. Yesterday the 21-year Senate veteran from West Virginia released his copy of the letter -- which when written, was so sensitive he dared not allow a staffer to read it, let alone type it. Washington Post: Senator Sounded Alarm in '03external link

CLICK HEREexternal link to read a pdf of Sen. Rockefeller's handwritten note.

ANWR IS HIS MISSION: If the Senate approves drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this week, it will be largely due to an 82-year-old Alaska lawmaker's obsessive drive - and some say strong-arm tactics - to get the measure through Congress by any means. Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican who has represented Alaska in the Senate since 1968, has tried every strategy. As a top Senate appropriator, he has offered money for the pet projects of lawmakers who support drilling. When the Senate defeated drilling two years ago, he threatened revenge, saying: "People who vote against this today are voting against me, and I'll never forget it." When he recently failed to pass it on a budget bill, Stevens found an even better strategy: Attaching the drilling measure to a must-pass $453 billion military spending bill, which pays for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and offers aid to victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. San Francisco Chronicle: Alaska drilling's Senate crusaderexternal link

ALL NYC TRANSIT WORKERS ON STRIKE: The transit workers' union ordered a strike this morning, shutting down New York City's subway and bus system after contract talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority broke down - a disruption that will prevent people from going to work, cause millions of dollars in economic damage and seriously upend the life of the city in the week before Christmas. Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 33,700 subway and bus workers, announced its first strike in 25 years after feverish last-minute negotiations faltered over the transportation authority's demands for concessions on pension and health benefits for future employees. The state's Taylor Law bars strikes by public employees and carries penalties of two days' pay for each day on strike, but the transit union decided it was worth risking the substantial fines to continue the fight for what it regards as an acceptable contract. New York Times: Millions Are Left to Make It to Work Any Way They Canexternal link

BOXER TOSSING AROUND THE I-WORD: On the seventh anniversary of the House's decision to impeach then-President Bill Clinton, a pair of leading Congressional Democrats raised the specter of impeachment regarding President Bush's authorization of domestic spying by the National Security Agency. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Monday sent a letter to legal scholars asking their opinion of whether Bush's actions, revealed last week, amount to an unconstitutional action that warrants Congress considering impeachment proceedings. Boxer, the Chief Deputy Minority Whip, appeared on a radio program over the weekend with Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, who said that the NSA executive order was an impeachable offense. Boxer said Dean's statement prompted her to consider the matter and issue the letter to other legal scholars, asking their opinion on the matter and vowing to see the issue explored in the Senate. Roll Call: Boxer Raises Impeachmentexternal link

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