Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Joseph Biden, the new Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in scheduling three weeks of hearings on Iraq threatens to interfere with President Bush's two major speeches in January.

Biden, a critic of Bush's war policy, announced last week that hearings would begin Jan. 9. That conflicts with the president's speech on Iraq tentatively scheduled for Jan. 10. Three weeks of hearings are supposed to end around the time the president goes to the country again with his State of the Union address.

A footnote: The Foreign Relations Committee contains four presidential hopefuls: Democrats Biden, John Kerry and Barack Obama, and Republican Chuck Hagel. All oppose the "surge" in U.S. troops for Iraq expected from Bush.

PAULSON TAX HIKE?

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has quietly entered discreet conversations with members of Congress about a tax increase for upper-income Americans as part of bipartisan Social Security reform.

Since the 2006 Republican election defeats, the White House has not ruled out raising the cap on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax. With or without such a tax increase, Democrats will reject President Bush's proposal to carve private retirement accounts out of Social Security.

Paulson is the first of Bush's three secretaries at the Treasury to participate in Social Security reform negotiations. Paul O'Neill and John Snow were not actively engaged with the issue.

DEMOCRATIC ETHICS

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi takes office this week puzzling over what to do about Rep. Allen Mollohan, the West Virginia Democrat who, probably thanks to earmarks, became a multi-millionaire while serving 11 terms in Congress.

Mollohan is scheduled to head the Appropriations subcommittee covering the FBI, which is currently investigating him. Several Democratic House members feel Mollohan should at least recuse himself from considering FBI appropriations, but some feel Pelosi should keep him from taking the chairmanship until his case is resolved.

Mollohan has been a strong ally of Pelosi and is close to Rep. John Murtha, another new Appropriations subcommittee chairman also accused of misusing earmarks. Pelosi supported Murtha's unsuccessful candidacy for majority leader.

STEM CELL VOTING

The fate of government-financed stem cell research, a top priority of the Democratic-controlled Congress, may depend on two moderate Democrats elected two months ago: second-termer Ben Nelson of Nebraska and freshman Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, is expected to pass both chambers of Congress by comfortable margins. The question is whether opponents will get the 34 senators needed to sustain a veto by President Bush. Nelson and Casey are both likely to be needed to reach that number.

Nelson was the only Democrat to vote against the bill last July, and Casey during his recent campaign went on record against the Castle bill. They will be under heavy Democratic pressure to override Bush.

COCHRAN STAYING?

Close associates of Sen. Thad Cochran, top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, are cautiously optimistic that in 2008 at age 70 he will run for a sixth term in 2008 for a Mississippi seat that otherwise might be in jeopardy for the GOP.

Cochran is less than certain to run because he lost his Appropriations chairmanship in the recent elections. His decision may be based on his evaluation of chances to regain a GOP majority within the next six years. Mississippi Republicans had worried about losing the state's other Senate seat before Sen. Trent Lott decided to seek another term in 2006. Former State Atty. Gen. Mike Moore, the probable Democratic Senate candidate, is better known than Rep. Chip Pickering, the leading Republican prospect if there is an open seat.

A footnote: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, an overwhelming favorite for re-election in 2007, has ruled out a Senate bid even if Cochran retires. Becoming a senator was a youthful ambition of Barbour, who was the Republican Senate nominee in 1982 at age 35.


Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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