The Note: Politics of Nope

About that hope thing -- can it wait 'til January?

For all the excitement and expectations surrounding the elevation of President-elect Barack Obama, it's a particularly grim week in Washington.

Lawmakers are reassembling for the lamest of lame-duck session, doubtful that they'll get anything done. Automakers and top administration officials trudge up to Capitol Hill Tuesday for their ritualized grillings -- but no one is quite sure what to do next.

Republicans are looking for a new direction -- if not an entirely new reason to exist. It's revenge time Tuesday, too, with Sen. Joe Lieberman's chairmanships and Sen. Ted Stevens' whole job potentially on the line. On the House side, an upstart of a 69-year-old is trying to oust the longest-serving member of the House from his chairmanship.

The politicking and stalled policy amounts to a big reality check for a nation that voted for change two weeks ago. Yes, we can talk about working together (and if Obama and Sen. John McCain can sit together and smile for the cameras, what can't happen?), but when it comes to governance, the same stubborn splits persist -- between the parties, inside the parties, and everywhere in between.

(If you need a smile yourself, Sen. Ted Kennedy is back.)

Obama's transition, meanwhile, is snagged on a very big question involving -- who else? -- the Big Dog himself.

"Mr. Clinton's postpresidential life as a globe-trotting philanthropist, business consultant and speech-giver poses the highest hurdle for Mrs. Clinton to overcome if President-elect Barack Obama chooses to nominate her as secretary of state, according to aides of the Clintons and Mr. Obama," The New York Times' Don Van Natta Jr. and Jo Becker report.

"While aides to the president-elect declined Monday to discuss what sort of requirements would make it possible for Mrs. Clinton to serve as secretary of state, they said Mr. Obama would not formally offer her the job unless he was satisfied that there would be no conflicts posed by Mr. Clinton's activities abroad."

Said Abner J. Mikva, an Obama supporter and a White House counsel during the Clinton administration: "There would have to be full disclosure as to who all were contributors to his library and foundation. I think they'd have to be made public."

(Maybe not everything, Obama aides advise -- but it's all under review.)

Could things be moving along? "Serious progress is being made," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. "Sources say that both President-elect Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton are increasingly optimistic that it will happen, perhaps -- perhaps -- even as early as the next week. . . . There has been an agreement now between the Clinton team and the Obama team in terms of vetting some of those financial documents."

Still: "The issue is both simple and complex: How to make sure that Bill Clinton's international fundraising -- from heads of state and others -- would not conflict with his wife's very public duties as the nation's top diplomat," The New York Daily News' David Saltonstall writes.

"With financial and political interests across the globe, former President Bill Clinton's ties raise a unique set of questions about the potential overlaps and conflicts of interest should his wife be nominated as secretary of state," ABC's Emma Schwartz and Avni Patel report. "Though the Obama team is working to vet Bill Clinton's interests, it may be nearly impossible to fully insulate Hillary from her husband's broad international reach."

There may be no other obstacle: "Officials did not describe Obama as having formally offered Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton the top diplomatic job during their private meeting at his Chicago transition office last week," per The Washington Post's Anne E. Kornblut, "but they said there is an understanding that if she can sort out some of the complications that accompany her husband's global work -- which has made him an international philanthropic powerhouse but also earned him millions in speaking fees from foreign companies, creating a potential conflict of interest -- she would have a strong, if not certain, shot at it."

Says James Carville: "There's a lot of momentum in the direction of this happening." But: "She's not married to Todd Palin."

Not everyone will be happy: "It's not playing quite as well . . . in some precincts of Obamaland. From his supporters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to campaign aides of the soon-to-be commander-in-chief, there's a sense of ambivalence about giving a top political plum to a woman they spent 18 months hammering as the compromised standard-bearer of an era that deserves to be forgotten," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "An overlooked theme in Obama's primary victory was his belief that the Clinton legacy was not, as the Clintons imagined, a pure political positive."

Smith continues: "One person who apparently has shown no ambivalence: Obama. 'It's not like he hedged his bets in conversation with her,' said a person involved in the process. While both sides say the situation remains fluid, this person said Obama was quite direct: 'He offered her the job.' "

How about policy? "If President-elect Barack Obama taps Senator Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state, he would be giving her oversight of an area where the two former rivals diverged sharply during their prolonged primary battle: foreign policy," Scott Helman writes in The Boston Globe. "It is the one arena in which Obama and Clinton articulated significantly different visions. On a host of other issues - taxes, healthcare, jobs, free trade, investments in renewable energy - their positions were often indistinguishable."

At least two prominent Democrats would be particularly disappointed: "His choice for secretary of state is a high-stakes game with the potential to disappoint or anger powerful Democrats," Christina Bellantoni reports in the Washington Times. "Sen. John Kerry ushered the political upstart onto the national stage and early on became an Obama confidant. . . . New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson took a gamble and endorsed Mr. Obama despite drawing wrath from Democratic insiders who felt he was being disloyal to Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton because he served in the Clinton Cabinet."

Another name in the mix: "Former Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke negotiated an end to a Balkan war, helped normalize relations with China and advanced American interests as envoy to the United Nations. But now he faces a diplomatic test like none before: persuading President-elect Barack Obama and his team to give him the prized job of secretary of State," The Los Angeles Times' Paul Richter reports.

"This most recent task is a challenge because of Holbrooke's history of conflict with core members of Obama's foreign policy team. In addition, some liberal Obama supporters, fretting that leading candidates for his Cabinet seem too centrist, believe Holbrooke is too much of a hawk for the job," Richter writes.

What of the tone this sets? "Obama is unafraid to be surrounded not only by the best talent, but by the brightest stars. He does not fear being outshone," Bob Shrum writes in his The Week column. "Obama's preference for colleagues of stature answers another question currently being pondered by analysts and partisans. Does he intend a presidency of big changes or bite-size ones?"

What of the tone this sets? "Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts," Juliet Eilperin and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post. "The personnel moves come as Bush administration officials are scrambling to cement in place policy and regulatory initiatives that touch on issues such as federal drinking-water standards, air quality at national parks, mountaintop mining and fisheries limits."

On tap for the transition Tuesday, another action-packed day, and another classic from the annals of transparency and openness: "Today, President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden will hold private meetings in Chicago. There are no public events scheduled," per the statement from the transition office.

On the Hill Tuesday, the automakers lobby for their bailout -- and not everyone will be happy here, either.

"Detroit's Big Three auto makers are begging Congress for a $25 billion government rescue, while the legislation clings to life support on Capitol Hill and top lawmakers and the White House suffer from bailout fatigue," the AP's Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes. "The executives, along with the head of the United Auto Workers union, were making their case Tuesday at a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee as auto bailout backers hunted the votes necessary to pass the plan in a postelection session. Aides in both parties and lobbyists tracking the plan privately acknowledge they are far short."

"Advocates of a bailout argue that if one of the Big Three fails, it could take down an entire supply chain that cuts a wide swath from Wisconsin to Ontario, Canada, and south from Florida to Texas," USA Today's Sharon Silke Carty and Barbara Hagenbaugh report.

A statement, sure -- but anything more than that? "Though the bill's prospects of passage remain low in the short term, the drive by Democratic leaders to help the Big Three auto makers underscores the party's determination to take a more assertive role in guiding the U.S. economy," The Wall Street Journal's Greg Hitt and Jonathan Weisman report.

Can anything get done? "As the Senate began a postelection session, Democrats remained at odds with Republicans and the White House over whether the last days of the 110th Congress should be used to initiate a national public works program or help ailing auto manufacturers," Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times. "If that plan stalls, as seems virtually certain since the White House and Congressional Republicans have resisted it in the past, Democrats say they will propose a separate program that would divert to the auto industry $25 billion of the $700 billion approved earlier for the financial industry."

Is this the time for high-stakes standoffs? "Failing to pass the bill would then give Democrats a dilemma: They could stick to their guns on tying the cash to fuel efficiency or risk having a bankrupt General Motors on their doorstep just as President-elect Barack Obama takes office," Roll Call's Steven T. Dennis writes.

Notice the lack of give: "Just because they're proving to be good losers doesn't mean Republicans are willing to get rolled in this week's lame duck session of Congress, and that's apparent in the deadlocked talks over helping the auto industry," writes Time's Jay Newton-Small.

"The likely result will be a two-month delay before any major new action is initiated by Congress, a gamble for all sides but one that falls heavily on the shoulders of the Democratic majority," Politico's David Rogers writes. "It may prove shrewd politics, creating more pressure for quick action when Obama takes office. But it is not without risks, sacrificing precious time and adding to the perception of a leadership void in Washington."

Don't forget these guys: "The two top salesmen for a $700 billion financial bailout are in for a grilling by Capitol Hill lawmakers just one week after the administration officially ditched the original strategy behind the rescue," per the AP's Jeannine Aversa. "Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson are expected to provide greater insights into the shift when they testify Tuesday before the House Financial Services Committee."

What would Rove do? A roadmap from the architect: "The party should embrace both tradition and reform; grass-roots Republicans want to apply timeless conservative principles to the new circumstances facing America," Karl Rove writes in his Newsweek column. "In the coming year, we will be defined more by what we oppose than what we are for; the president-elect and the Democrats in Congress will control the agenda. We must pick fights carefully and center them around principle. The goal is to have the sharp differences that emerge make the GOP look like the more reasonable, hopeful and inviting party -- which is easier said than done."

Among the data points: "Suggestions that we abandon social conservatism, including our pro-life agenda, should be ignored. These values are often more popular than the GOP itself," Rove writes.

Idea factory on the other side: "Thanks in part to funding from benefactors such as billionaire George Soros, the Center for American Progress has become in just five years an intellectual wellspring for Democratic policy proposals, including many that are shaping the agenda of the new Obama administration," Bloomberg's Ed Chen writes.

Pressure mounts from new corners: Health Care for America Now launches a new ad Tuesday in the DC area -- in part to remind Obama of his own words. "Congratulations, President-elect Obama," read the words on the screen. "We're ready."

A looming clash for Obama? "President-elect Barack Obama's signature campaign promise to withdraw US troops from Iraq in 16 months appears to be on a collision course with the nation's top military brass if comments today from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are any indication," Bryan Bender reports in The Boston Globe. "In his first press conference since the election, Admiral Mike Mullen this afternoon said he believes the soonest all US forces could be safely withdrawn from Iraq is 'two to three years.' "

"Many senior military officials agree with Mr. Obama's call to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from Iraq next year," Yochi J. Dreazen writes in The Wall Street Journal. "Still, there is a fair amount of skepticism within the Pentagon about Mr. Obama's call to have all U.S. forces out of Iraq by 2010."

If the tone from these guys matters . . .

"Less than two weeks after the presidential election, former rivals Barack Obama and John McCain met today in Chicago for their first extended conversation since one was elevated to the White House and the other returned to the Senate," John McCormick writes for the Chicago Tribune. "The meeting was 'excellent,' a source close to Obama told ABC News, with 'great chemistry and agreement,' " ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "According to aides for both men, the Republican senator and the President-elect discussed earmarks and ethics reforms, climate change, immigration reform, and the possibility of closing down Guantanamo Bay. McCain raised the subject of Pentagon waste; Obama brought up corporate welfare."

"Mr. Obama and Sen. McCain have much to gain by establishing a productive relationship. For Mr. Obama, support from the former Republican presidential candidate would help fulfill his pledge to reach for bipartisan solutions. For Sen. McCain, working with the White House could allow him to wield influence in a Democratic-controlled Congress," The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler writes.

Gerald Seib floats some GOP names for the Obama administration in his Wall Street Journal column: Jim Leach, Chuck Hagel, Christine Todd Whitman, Richard Lugar, Michael Bloomberg, Colin Powell -- and Matthew Dowd.

Speaking of new tones -- Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is set to get off easy.

Per ABC's Jon Karl, a tentative deal is in place to punish Lieberman, but not as severely as many of his colleagues had hoped. "It's peace, love and understanding time," said one Senate Democrat. "There's a general feeling of 'let's get beyond this and reconcile.' "

"Under the arrangement, Lieberman would keep the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, but he would lose his chairmanship of a subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee, known as the Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection. It's a subcommittee with a lot of words in its name, but not a lot of power," Karl reports.

"Sometime between the heat of the presidential campaign and now, the passion for retribution cooled dramatically. Much of that may have been because of the president-elect," James Oliphant and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times.

It's time for a leftward turn on the Hill -- right? Not so much, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer plans to say Tuesday, at a 10 am ET speech at the National Press Club.

"The 33 new Members of Congress coming to Washington to swell our side of the aisle are pragmatic, not dogmatic. They were elected on promises of bipartisanship and fiscal discipline. They were elected, quite simply, to solve problems, not further politicize Washington," Hoyer, D-Md., plans to say, per excerpts provided to The Note. "Democrats won in every region of the country, and our nominee for president won more than 50 percent of the vote. For the first time in decades, we are true national majority party -- and if we want to stay that way, we must govern like one."

On key policy: "Smart spending can help us get back to long-term fiscal health. Spending wisely today can save us money tomorrow. That is why our country needs far-reaching proposals, even in this recession. In the broad sense, fiscal responsibility should be at the core of our entire governing philosophy," Hoyer plans to say.

We can all feel a little better about this: "A beaming Senator Edward M. Kennedy returned to work in Washington yesterday, exactly six months after confronting a grave threat to his health, and declared himself ready to help lead an aggressive push for healthcare reform," Susan Milligan writes in The Boston Globe.

"Kennedy steadied his walk with his father's cane -- the same cane the senator used after surviving a 1964 plane crash, and which he has lent to two of his colleagues, Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and John Warner of Virginia -- and his voice trembled slightly when he spoke," Milligan writes. "But overall, Kennedy looked remarkably spry for a man battling a malignant glioma, a fast-growing brain tumor that was diagnosed after Kennedy had a seizure in May."

"Outside the room, the liberal legend held a photo op to display his vig-ah," Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post. " 'I feel fine,' he told the TV cameras. And he looked fine, too: his white mane neatly trimmed, his complexion in its trademark ruddy hue, and his midsection still ample. He walked with a silver-handled cane but otherwise showed no evidence of illness."

As for that other Ted -- a reprieve, perhaps, for a day: "Republican senators are not expected to vote Tuesday to expel Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), deciding instead to hold off on the vote until his Senate race is decided," The Hill's J. Taylor Rushing and Manu Raju report. "Though Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the sponsor of the motion to expel Stevens, said he still plans to push for a vote, a number of GOP senators and aides said Monday they would prefer to wait and see if Stevens wins reelection."

In Minnesota: "Al Franken asked Monday to have rejected absentee ballots be considered in the U.S. Senate election results that are to be certified today by a state board, a move later blunted by an attorney general's opinion that the issue should be left to the courts," per the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "The eleventh-hour maneuvering occurred as the five-member state Canvassing Board prepared to meet at 1 p.m. today in St. Paul to review results showing Republican Sen. Norm Coleman with a lead of 215 votes out of more than 2.9 million cast."

Franken is in Washington Tuesday, to meet with Senate Democratic leaders.

In Georgia: "Former President Bill Clinton will return to Atlanta on Wednesday to campaign for Martin, who seeks to upset incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss," Aaron Gould Sheinin writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "And Martin's bid will get a further boost from veteran Democratic consultant Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's 2000 bid for the White House and has become a regular on CNN and ABC. Brazile will be advising Martin's campaign."

Can Obama catch Osama? "His promise to send two additional combat brigades, or roughly 7,000 troops, to Afghanistan seems small now when compared to the request by top U.S. military commanders there for as many as 20,000 U.S. forces," ABC's Luis Martinez and Jennifer Parker write. "But finding bin Laden won't be easy, and several former CIA operatives warn that sending more troops could have severe consequences, won't put a dent in finding the al Qaeda leader and could lead the nation to another war without end."

Give it up, counsels Robert Baer, writing in Time: "One day Obama will need to give up the hunt -- declare bin Laden either dead or irrelevant. He has more important enemies to deal with, from Iran to Russia."

The Kicker:

"Is it always this fun?" -- Rep.-elect Michael McMahon, D-N.Y., on his first day of orientation, to the Washington Examiner's Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin.

"All right, we're not -- we're not going to do a long one." -- President-elect Barack Obama, adding to the annals of openness by answering (sort of) one whole question before reporters were ushered out of his meeting with Sen. John McCain.

"Obviously." -- McCain, asked if he plans to work with Obama.

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