Washington Week In Preview

Mardi Gras, Washington-Style

What’s really happening in politics this week.


We’re all post-9/11 now: Congressional Democrats and Republicans, after a week’s vacation, resume the important work of trying to make each other look soft on terrorism and weak on national security. In the Senate, debate on the amended Patriot Act begins Monday, followed on Tuesday by a vote to end debate and on Wednesday by final passage. Democratic threats of a filibuster pretty much dissolved after Republican dissidents reached a compromise with the White House and Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, signed on.

Republicans will portray a “no” vote on the Patriot Act as a vote for the terrorists.

Democrats, meanwhile, will seek to unwrap the gift they received last week in the form of the agreement to transfer management of six U.S. ports to a Dubai-owned company. Expect a profusion of press conferences, floor speeches, bill introductions, and perhaps hearings aimed at delaying or killing the deal. Democrats will portray a “yes” vote for the Dubai deal as a vote for the terrorists.

Cheney in our sights: The secretive vice president will be in Norfolk, Va., to lend firepower to GOP Rep. Thelma Drake, who is facing a serious challenge from Democrat Phil Kellam. If you miss Cheney in Norfolk, you’ll have another shot at him Tuesday, at the 46th annual American Legion conference in Washington.


Where in the world is W? President Bush leaves for a four-day trip to India, followed by a day in Pakistan. The visit, once hoped to bring a breakthrough on nuclear diplomacy, is now seen mostly as ceremonial. Much of the speculation is about whether the president, following the success of his surprise Iraq Thanksgiving visit, will attempt a “surprise” visit to another country in the general neighborhood. Baghdad is about 1,500 miles from Islamabad, though this may not be the best time for a presidential visit. Dubai is just over 1,200 miles from Islamabad—and Kabul is only a bit more than 200 miles.

Low-fat Tuesday: It’s Mardi Gras in bedraggled New Orleans, and the party peaks on Tuesday. The city promises it can host and control the crowds, even though its police department and hospitals, like most everything else in the town, are depleted because of Hurricane Katrina. If anything goes wrong, of course, New Orleans can always call in FEMA.

Here in Washington, Former President Bill Clinton (D-McDonalds) will speak to the nation’s governors, assembled here for the National Governors Association’s “Healthy America Forum.” Clinton, who has slimmed down since his heart-bypass surgery, has teamed up with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on a campaign to reduce obesity. Clinton and Huckabee, a Republican, are both former Arkansas porkers.

Those seeking that Mardi Gras spirit here in Washington can instead visit the National Cathedral for its annual “Shrove Tuesday Pancake Races.”


Tom DeLay’s day in court: It isn’t time yet for the former majority leader’s trial on money-laundering charges. But DeLay, now a backbencher, will, in a sense, be in the dock today when the Supreme Court hears arguments on Texas’$2 2003 redistricting plan. The DeLay-inspired plan ended Democrats’ long reign in the state and gave the Republicans a majority of the congressional delegation. The justices will decide whether the plan qualifies as political gerrymandering. At stake: some much-needed padding of the GOP’s narrow majority in the House.

The Texas case is part of a busy week at the high court. On Tuesday, the justices will hear about Vermont’s mandatory limits on political candidates’ spending. Campaign-finance reformers hope to chip away at the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo decision, which has so far thwarted all efforts to slow the flood of money into politics.

As an added bonus, you might catch a glimpse at the court on Tuesday of Vickie Lynn Marshall, aka Anna Nicole Smith, whose lawyers will be telling the justices that the former Playboy playmate and reality-TV star is entitled to a share of her late husband’s $1.6 billion fortune. In the 1990s, the 26-year-old Smith married Texas oilman J. Howard Marshall a year before he died at age 90.

Victory lap: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, still rosy-cheeked from the Turin Winter Olympics, addresses a joint session of Congress.


Be my guest worker: The industrious Senate Judiciary Committee begins action on immigration legislation in hopes of getting a bill to the Senate floor by the end of March. Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., in the first of three such “markup” hearings, will introduce legislation that includes both border-security provisions and a “guest-worker” program. The guest-worker provision, championed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., is poison to House conservatives, who furiously oppose such programs as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. House immigration legislation is likely to focus strictly on border enforcement, setting up a potential showdown with the Senate—and presenting Bush with another intraparty feud.

Specter must enjoy stirring up trouble. The immigration session follows another committee hearing on Tuesday looking into the NSA surveillance program. Among those testifying: Former CIA Director James Woolsey, Yale Law School’s Harold Koh, and constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein.

Other contentious domestic matters on the congressional agenda for the week: backroom negotiations over a tax-cut package, and committee haggling over various lobbying-reform proposals.


Duke-stir, shaken: Former Rep, Randy “Duke” Cunningham is scheduled to be sentenced in San Diego. Cunningham, a California Republican, resigned from Congress last year after he admitted trying to take $2.4 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce, a yacht, and a 19th-century Louis Philippe commode. On Feb. 24, defense contractor Mitchell Wade pleaded guilty for his role in bribing the lawmaker.