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The Situation: Tuesday, January 17

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.

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Posted 2:39 p.m. ET
From Elise Labott, CNN State Department

The federal government announced a new program Tuesday to speed the travel of people and goods across U.S. borders, while beefing up security precautions.

The program, called "Joint Vision: Secure Borders and Open Doors in the Information Age," was described to an audience at the State Department by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Administration officials say they hope in time the world will realize it is getting much easier to travel to the United States than it was in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and that the program will eventually erase the memories of bad experiences foreign nationals have had trying to obtain a visa and travel to the U.S.

A new pilot program for applying for visas via digital videoconferencing to reduce in-person interviews will begin shortly in London and pilot "model airports" intended to be more user-friendly to visitors will begin at Washington Dulles International Airport and one of Houston's airports.

The program is going to consolidate various databases used to screen visitors. Also in the works is a terrorist screening center intended to coordinate watch list information among federal agencies and a human smuggling and trafficking center to cull through databases about smugglers and traffickers.

The new procedures are expected to put a priority on easing travel for students and international business travelers and reduce the time it takes for them to get their visas.

Federal authorities expect to begin issuing a new inexpensive, secure travel card to be used by people who live along the borders and who regularly cross back and forth from one country to the other. One senior administration official said there is a need for a uniform card because there are currently 8,000 different types of identity documents officials are faced with at U.S. borders.

The Morning Grind

Posted: 9:40 a.m. ET
From Mark Preston, CNN Political Unit

Alito delayed

The Senate Judiciary Committee postponed a vote on Judge Samuel Alito's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court until next week -- a delay Alito's opponents will use to try and cast doubt on his judicial philosophy in an attempt to scuttle the nomination.

Originally scheduled for this morning, Republicans agreed to put off the vote after Democrats vowed to invoke their right to formally hold over the nomination for another week if the GOP tried to compel committee action.

In agreeing to do so, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said he "assured" Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) that Democrats will not stand in the way of the panel voting on Alito's nomination next Tuesday. Republicans maintain a two seat majority on the committee, assuring Alito that his nomination will move to the Senate floor for consideration.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) last night criticized Democrats for the delay and vowed to immediately turn the Senate's full attention to Alito once the panel approves him.

"The Democrats' decision to delay Tuesday's Judiciary Committee vote on Judge Alito is unjustified and desperate partisan obstructionism," Frist said in a statement released by his office. "After answering 700 questions for over 18 hours before the Committee last week and enduring relentless personal attacks, Judge Alito deserves better."

Inside the Senate, Democrats will use these extra days to try and convince their colleagues to vote against Alito, while outside interest groups opposing his nomination will seek to wield their influence beyond the Beltway. So far, though, such efforts do not appear to be successful.

In the days leading up to, as well as throughout his nomination hearings, anti-Alito groups outspent a pro-Alito organization more than 4-to-1 in opposition television advertising, according to TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, CNN's consultant on television advertising spending. Independent Court, a coalition of liberal groups opposing Alito, spent more than $840,000, while MoveOn bought another $165,000 in television ads designed to sway public opinion against Alito. Progress for America, meanwhile, spent just about $230,000 during this same time period.

Throughout the Alito debate, TNSMI/CMAG estimates that Progress for America has invested more than $730,000, while opposition groups lead by Independent Court, have pumped about $1.3 million into their anti-Alito television campaigns. While Progress for America evenly distributed its television advertising budget over a longer period of time -- such as it did in John Roberts' nomination to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, a majority of the anti-Alito television money has been spent in the past few weeks.

"As in the Robert nomination, Progress for America tried to lead the debate, while groups on the left tried to trip it up towards the finish line," said Evan Tracey, TNSMI/CMAG's chief operating officer.

In other Supreme Court news, the Court is expected to hear arguments this morning in a case brought by Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission. At issue is whether corporations and unions have a free speech right to use general funds to air "genuine issue ads" not ostensibly designed to influence the outcome of elections, CNN's Bill Mears reports. The anti-abortion group wanted to air an ad urging Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) not to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees, but the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law prevented it. A high court ruling in 2003 upholding key components of the legislation did not address this issue. The Court is expected to issue a ruling in late June.

In the race to claim the title as the party of reform, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) and Rep. David Dreier (R-California) will hold a 2 p.m. ET Capitol Hill news conference to discuss the GOP's efforts to clean up Congress. Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman, said the Speaker and Dreier "will lay out elements, and the implementation process of a comprehensive lobbying reform package."

Congressional Democrats will hold a similar event tomorrow at the Library of Congress. Republican and Democratic leaders will not offer a final bill dealing with lobbying reform until they have the opportunity to discuss the issue at greater length with rank-and-file members.

Still, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has decided to impose restrictions on how his staff may interact with lobbyists. Staffers are no longer allowed to accept "gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists," Susan McCue, Reid's chief of staff," informed her colleagues in a memo. McCue said this restriction is known as the "Jack Abramoff Rule," and will be one of the legislative planks of the Democratic lobbying reform proposal. Abramoff is the disgraced lobbyist, who has spurred a massive corruption probe and prompted Congress to reexamine its lobbying rules.

As for President Bush, he meets with Belgium's prime minister at 9:10 a.m. ET and at 9:55 a.m. ET greets the national commander of the American Legion. First Lady Laura Bush continues her visit to Africa and meets today with Ghana President John Kufuor.

Former President Gerald Ford remains hospitalized in Los Angeles where he is being treated for pneumonia. The 92-year-old former president was admitted to Eisenhower Medical Center on Saturday and has been receiving intravenous antibiotics. Penny Circle, his chief of staff, said he is "doing well and resting comfortably," and could be released as early as tomorrow.

And Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) will put an end to the "will he or won't he Washington, DC parlor game" when he announces whether he will run for reelection at a 12 p.m. ET news conference in Mississippi.

Political Hot Topics

Posted: 9:40 a.m. ET
From Stephen Bach, CNN Washington Bureau

NSA TAPS CONSIDERED "POINTLESS INTRUSIONS" BY SOME IN FBI: In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month. But virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans. F.B.I. officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. The spy agency was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans' international communications and conducting computer searches of phone and Internet traffic. Some F.B.I. officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans' privacy. New York Times: Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Endsexternal link

GORE CALLS FOR SPECIAL COUNSEL INVESTIGATION OF PROGRAM: Former vice president Al Gore on Monday denounced President Bush's wiretapping of al-Qaeda suspects in the United States and abroad, calling it part of a "dangerous overreach" of executive power that threatens the Constitution. "A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government," Gore said during a speech here... Speaking on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Gore said the eavesdropping without warrants harks back to the FBI wiretapping of the civil rights leader. Gore, who lost the election in 2000 to Bush, called for a special counsel investigation of the program. USA Today: Gore: Domestic spying goes beyond Bush's authorityexternal link

GONZALES FIRES BACK: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the administration's actions and said Gore's criticism is inconsistent with Clinton administration policy. On CNN's "Larry King Live," Gonzales said, "It's my understanding that during the Clinton administration there was activity regarding physical searches without warrants." Gonzales also said that it was his understanding that, "the deputy attorney general testified before Congress that the president does have the inherent authority under the Constitution to engage in physical searches without a warrant. And so, those would certainly seem to be inconsistent with what the former vice president was saying today." AP via Yahoo! News: Gonzales Rejects Gore's Criticismexternal link

BUSH'S "ONE OF THE WORST" ADMINS IN HISTORY, SAYS HILLARY: Sen. Hillary Clinton on Monday blasted the Bush administration as "one of the worst" in U.S. history and compared the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to a plantation where dissenting voices are squelched. Speaking during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, Clinton also offered an apology to a group of Hurricane Katrina survivors "on behalf of a government that left you behind, that turned its back on you." Her remarks were met with thunderous applause by a mostly black audience at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. The House "has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about," said Clinton, D-N.Y. "It has been run in a way so that nobody with a contrary view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument, to be heard." "We have a culture of corruption, we have cronyism, we have incompetence," she said. "I predict to you that this administration will go down in history as one of the worst that has ever governed our country." AP via Yahoo! News: Clinton Says House Run Like a "Plantation"external link

LAURA REJECTS "CULTURE OF CORRUPTION" CLAIMS AGAINST GOP: First lady Laura Bush yesterday rejected Democratic claims that Republicans are mired in a "culture of corruption" and said she'd be "glad" to campaign for Republican candidates in the fall. "It isn't true," Mrs. Bush said of the "culture of corruption" charges in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times while here for the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia. Mrs. Bush offered her star power to Republican candidates after saying she did not know how the Democrats' accusations will affect the congressional elections in November. "I'll be glad to campaign for Republicans who ask me to campaign for them or do fundraisers for them," the first lady said at the U.S. ambassador's residence [in Monrovia, Liberia]. Washington Times: Laura defends the GOPexternal link

...AND A LOOK AT HER IPOD: Mrs. Bush also revealed that her IPod listening includes songs by Tina Turner and Dolly Parton. She said her musical tastes are somewhat different from those of her husband. "He likes country music a little bit more than I do, although I actually really am very fond of country music, as well," she said. "One of the songs on my IPod that I love is Dolly Parton singing 'Stairway to Heaven.' So that's sort of a combination, country and pop." Washington Times: Laura defends the GOPexternal link

Listenexternal link to Dolly Parton's "Stairway." Amazon.com: "Halos and Horns"external link

SPEAKER WAITED TO SPEAK: As details emerged about unsavory dealings between lobbyists and lawmakers -- including his top lieutenant, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) -- the House speaker stood on the sidelines... Only now has Hastert publicly moved to address the ethics controversy, leading a push to tighten rules on lobbying and persuading Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) to temporarily relinquish the chairmanship of the House Administration Committee. Although Hastert's job appears safe for now, there are rumblings among some lawmakers and aides that he waited too long to act -- and that his prior conduct has eluded close inspection, even when the speaker himself rubbed elbows with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients. Washington Post: Speaker Largely Silent Amid Scandalexternal link

UNFORTUNATE SPOTLIGHT: Until recently, Representative Bob Ney was little more than an obscure, sometimes eccentric, lawmaker from Ohio. He had made his biggest public splash in 2003, when he ordered the House cafeteria to start calling French fries "freedom fries" because France had opposed the war in Iraq. Fluent in Farsi - an interest that grew out of having an exchange student live with his family - Mr. Ney lived for a time in Iran as a teacher, and later taught in Saudi Arabia. In Congress, where the language of money and power is spoken, he is known as the Mayor of Capitol Hill, a nickname derived from his position as chairman of the House Administration Committee, which controls aspects of daily Congressional life like the allotment of parking spots. New York Times: Spotlight on Lobbying Swings to Little-Known Congressmanexternal link

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