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The Situation: Tuesday, January 24

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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The Judiciary Committee is expected to approve Alito's nomination along a 10-8 party line vote.

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Samuel Alito

Posted: 10:00 a.m. ET
From Mark Preston, CNN Political Unit

Alito's first vote

As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares this morning to vote on Judge Samuel Alito's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans believe he should be confirmed.

The survey, conducted over the weekend, finds that 54 percent of Americans support President Bush's choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Only 30 percent of Americans said the Senate should reject Alito's nomination. The Judiciary panel, meeting at 9:30 a.m. ET, is expected to approve Alito's nomination along a 10-8 party line vote, CNN's Ed Henry reports. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) has said he hopes to have the full chamber vote on Alito's nomination later this week, barring a Democratic filibuster. Nearly half of all Americans, 48 percent, said a filibuster was not justified, while 38 percent said they would support this delaying tactic.

Among other concerns, Alito's critics fear he will vote to annul Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalizes abortion. But only 34 percent of Americans believe Alito would vote to overturn it, while 44 percent said they don't think he would. During his confirmation hearings, Alito told senators he would approach the issue with "an open mind."

A clear majority of the country, 66 percent, supports keeping abortion legal, the poll found.

In the same survey, 51 percent of Americans said they would definitely vote against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) if she decides to run for president. Only 16 percent of Americans pledged to definitely support a Clinton presidential run, while another 32 percent said they would consider it.

Clinton insists she is focused on her 2006 re-election to the Senate, and is not entertaining the idea of running for the White House in 2008. CNN's Phil Hirschkorn reports Clinton made a campaign swing through Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse yesterday to speak on healthcare and criticized the Bush administration's prescription drug plan. She also charged that the White House is not doing enough to help the 45 million Americans who have no health insurance or to try and lower health costs.

"The response in Washington to our healthcare crisis has been to cut Medicaid, erode patient protections and to promote strategies that increase costs and reduce access to care," she said.

So far, Clinton has no serious opposition as she seeks a second term. But the New York senator maintains a stable of "A List" political consultants and continues to aggressively raise money -- signs that she is preparing to launch a national campaign. Recent polls show that Clinton would be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, if she chooses to run.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile tells CNN's Candy Crowley that she thinks there is only one person who could seriously challenge Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"I believe the only candidate that could give Hillary Clinton a serious run for her money in 2008 is Al Gore," said Brazile, who managed Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. To the delight of liberals, Gore recently delivered a scathing speech on Bush's decision to authorize domestic wiretapping.

The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll also shows Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (R) registering Clinton-like numbers, when people are asked if they would support her in a presidential campaign. Rice has repeatedly expressed no interest in running for president in 2008, and 46 percent of Americans said they would not vote for her if she did. But 14 percent of Americans said they would definitely back her, and another 38 percent noted they would consider voting for her.

CNN's Polling Director Keating Holland suggests it is "far too early to tell ... (who) has a chance in 2008."

With the Senate returning to Capitol Hill this week, efforts to enact lobbying reform will remain a top issue of discussion. The latest development is a bipartisan call by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) and Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota) for Congress to establish an independent commission to draft new guidelines "to strengthen the ethics, (and) disclosure and transparency requirements governing the relationship between members of Congress and lobbyists." The 10 member commission -- evenly divided by party affiliation -- would be comprised of "academics, historians, public relations executives and other experts," according to a joint statement released late yesterday by Nelson and Coleman. The two senators have drafted legislation to create the commission, which would issue its findings by July 1. Annual reports would follow.

"In order to adequately address this crisis in confidence we need an independent review of the rules and laws regulating the conduct of members of Congress and lobbyists," Nelson said.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) delivers an 11 a.m. ET speech at the Center for American Progress where he will criticize the Republican Party's leadership on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. "For all the tough talk the president has given us over the past five years, the truth is America has grown less safe on his watch," Reid is expected to say, according to an excerpt of the speech released by his office. A few hours later, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell unveil the Democratic governors plan to make the U.S. more competitive at a 2 p.m. ET National Press Club news conference.

At the White House, President Bush meets with the Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz at 11:10 a.m. ET and then takes photographs with the 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion at 2 p.m. ET.

And veteran Reid press spokeswoman Tessa Hafen has resigned to explore a challenge to Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nevada). "I've thought for sometime now about running for political office," Hafen, 29, tells the Grind. "I am a third generation South Nevadan and this is an opportunity to represent a community I've always called home." Democratic insiders said Reid plans to help Hafen raise the necessary funds to run a credible challenge against Porter.

Political Hot Topics

Posted: 10:00 a.m. ET
From Stephen Bach, CNN Washington Bureau

WH "BLITZ" IN DEFENSE OF NSA PROGRAM: The White House opened a weeklong media blitz Monday in defense of the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program, with President Bush saying he found it "amazing" to be accused of breaking the law by ordering a secret program to intercept international calls and e-mail messages. As Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sat beside him, Mr. Bush asked a friendly audience of students here at Kansas State University and members of the military from Fort Riley, "If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?" New York Times: Administration Starts Weeklong Blitz in Defense of Eavesdropping Programexternal link

CALL IT THE "TERRORIST SURVEILLANCE PROGRAM": President Bush pushed back Monday at critics of his once-secret domestic spying effort, saying it should be termed a "terrorist surveillance program" and contending it has the backing of legal experts, key lawmakers and the Supreme Court. AP via Yahoo! News: Bush Defends "Terrorist Surveillance"external link

APPROVAL RATING HOLDS AT 43: If President Bush were a betting man, he might want to play the number 43. Bush, the 43rd president, has had a job approval rating of 43% in the past four USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Polls. In the three surveys before that, it was 41%, 42% and 43%. Since early December, his standing hasn't moved more than a tick. Bush's rating has reached an "equilibrium point" with support from his "hard-core base," says political scientist Richard Eichenberg of Tufts University in Massachusetts. (A year earlier, Bush's equilibrium point was about 10 percentage points higher, in the low 50s.) Only significant outside events are likely to appreciably change it, Eichenberg says. USA Today: Bush approval rating holds steady at 43%external link

CAUTION ON K ST: Skyboxes are suddenly empty. Trips have been canceled. Members of Congress and their aides are insisting on paying for their own meals -- if they're willing to be seen in public with a lobbyist at all. Even before new ethics rules have been put in place, the political corruption scandal sweeping down Washington's famed K Street corridor is disrupting life for those on both ends of the influence trade. Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Assn., said he offered to take some Capitol Hill staff members to lunch last week, but was told they could not accept lunches from lobbyists anymore. "I told one of them, 'I never bought your boss' vote with a $12 hamburger, did I?'" Los Angeles Times: Distance Grows From K Street to the Capitolexternal link

NEW LEADER FOR CANADA: Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was headed to Parliament Hill as Canada's next prime minister after capturing a fragile minority victory in Monday's election, picking up votes in Quebec and making inroads in Ontario but failing to scale the heights early polls had predicted. "Tonight, friends, Canadians have voted for change," Mr. Harper said, speaking to supporters in Calgary. "And Canadians have asked our party to take the lead in delivering that change. I tell Canadians we will respect your trust and we will stick to our words." Mr. Harper's comments capped a night in which the Liberal's 12-year reign came to an end in a vote that handed the Conservatives a minority mandate but also held that power in check with a solid endorsement of opposition parties as well. The Globe and Mail: Conservatives win minority; Martin to step down as leaderexternal link

$22 BILLION MEDICARE DEAL MADE WITHOUT ANY DEMS IN THE ROOM: House and Senate GOP negotiators, meeting behind closed doors last month to complete a major budget-cutting bill, agreed on a change to Senate-passed Medicare legislation that would save the health insurance industry $22 billion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office... The change in the Medicare provision underscores a practice that growing numbers of lawmakers from both parties want addressed. More than ever, Republican congressional lawmakers and leaders are making vital decisions, involving far-reaching policies and billions of dollars, without the public -- or even congressional Democrats -- present. Washington Post: Closed-Door Deal Makes $22 Billion Differenceexternal link

ALITO VOTES WILL BE KEY ISSUE IN NOVEMBER: The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected today to approve the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court on a straight party-line vote as both sides begin using the vote as a campaign issue in this year's elections. From Rhode Island to New Mexico, operatives in both parties are using the nomination as a referendum on abortion and an indicator of a candidate's independence. Few votes, however, will be watched as closely as that of Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat who was sworn in last week as New Jersey's junior senator and will cast his maiden vote on the nomination of a man he now represents. Judge Alito is a New Jersey resident. As Judge Alito's homestate senator, Mr. Mendendez is under pressure from Democrats to vote against confirmation. A spokesman said Mr. Menendez has "reservations," but hasn't decided how he will vote. Washington Times: Alito vote factors in Senate racesexternal link

SANTORUM MOVES TO THE CENTER: Senator Rick Santorum once openly discussed his efforts to place Republicans in top Washington lobbying jobs. Now, with a federal corruption probe threatening to hurt the party in this year's elections, the Pennsylvania Republican is leading the fight to limit lobbyists' influence... Santorum, 47, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, has been one of President George W. Bush's most consistent supporters -- voting with him 100 percent on key votes in 2004, according to Congressional Quarterly magazine. That increasingly looks like a liability in a state that Bush twice lost to Democrats when his popularity was higher than it is now, said Jennifer Duffy, an editor at the Cook Political Report. Bloomberg News: Santorum, Facing Tough Re-election Battle, Moves Away From Bushexternal link

EARLE SUBPOENAS ANOTHER: Travis County prosecutors Monday zeroed in on another associate of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's, a former campaign manager who was the landlord to a group of DeLay-related operations at a Washington townhouse dubbed the "Safe House" by the Sugar Land Republican's staffers. The prosecutors subpoenaed records from Robert G. Mills, once a central figure in DeLay Inc., the nickname given to the blend of the former House majority leader's political operations with Washington lobbyists and grass-roots organizations. Mills also once led a nonprofit group that received millions of dollars from clients of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's. Austin American-Statesman: DeLay associate subpoenaedexternal link

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