Today's Power Play: House Dems Seek Slim Solace; Omnibusted; No Surprises in Afghan Plan; Assange Charged as Accessory?

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House Dems Try to Save Face on Tax Deal

"If they change the estate-tax language, the deal is off."

-- Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) talking to reporters about the tax compromise vote in the House today.

If "moral victory" is another term for defeat, then House Democrats are getting ready for brutal moral victory today.

The Senate passed, word for word, a compromise deal cut between the White House and Republicans to extend the current tax rates at all levels for two years and to provide 99-week unemployment benefits for another year. The compromise drew an impressive 81 votes in the Senate on Wednesday.

In the House, Democrats have gone from screaming bloody murder about the plan and vowing to blockade it until the Senate agreed to hike rates for top earners to quibbling over the level at which the estate tax would kick in -- $3.5 million or $5 million. Hardly "give me liberty, or give me death" territory.

That rapid retrenchment is the best sign of the weakness of the liberals' bargaining position. If House Democrats really were willing to end the year in a standoff that meant an across-the-board tax hike, there would not be such importance placed on an amendment by lame-duck Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) to alter the estate tax threshold.

Now that the concession being sought is so relatively small, similarly diminished are the chances that Democrats will be willing to scuttle President Obama's position as head of his party and Democratic negotiator in chief. It was one thing to talk about kneecapping Obama over abandoning the central tenant of his tax policy, but quite another to do so over marginal changes to a tax that affects fewer than 20,000 people a year.

This has been a very shrewd piece of expectations management by outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenant Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). By slowly downshifting to the inheritance tax debate, they lowered the stakes and preserved the president's deal.

Today's House session will be given over to legislative arcana.

Will the House add Pomeroy's amendment to the Senate-passed bill, setting up the Senate to do an overhead smash and send the original bill right back to the House? Will the House pass the Senate bill but also pass the Pomeroy measure as a separate bill to go die in the Senate? Will the House defeat the Pomeroy plan in any form and just pass the Obama-GOP plan, accepting defeat but making it home for Christmas?

It's certainly important to the egos of the House members involved, but not likely very important to you because the end result is the same. With Republicans standing firm behind the deal as negotiated with Obama, changes mean the plan would die, taxes would skyrocket and Republicans would get to write their own plan after the first of the year.

Whatever path Democrats take to get there, all roads lead to either accepting or rejecting the plan as written. It is doubtful that the Democratic caucus, especially with the defeated and retiring moderates still in its ranks, is willing to torch everything over raising taxes on the top bracket.

How they travel, though, will help determine what else happens in the Senate this year. The more time the upper chamber takes pummeling the House for making changes, the less time is available to pass other Obama priorities like a missile treaty with Russia and a bill to allow gay members of the military to express their sexualities.

Also in the balance - a Saturday deadline to fund the government or face a shutdown.

Outrage Grows Over Democratic Spending Plan

"The president could rehabilitate himself with the American people, if he told the Congress... ‘You send me this bill and I will veto it.' He should stand up to Congress."-- Sen. Lindsey Graham "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" discussing a $1.1 trillion Democratic spending proposal in the Senate.

Every time it seems that Republicans are headed for serious trouble with their base, Democrats go and do something so over the top that it would make even the steamiest Tea Partier stay on the red side of the spectrum.

A $1.1 trillion, year-long spending package built behind closed doors and put forward by the Senate Democratic leadership has so appalled Republicans (and some Democrats) that lawmakers are scrambling to find a replacement.

The package, packed with earmarks culled from moribund spending bills, seems doomed after some Democrats, including those like Missouri's Claire McCaskill, who are facing tough reelection bids in 2012, nixed the idea.

Some folks on the right may not like the deficit additions in the Obama-GOP tax plan, but they viscerally hate the Democratic spending proposal.

Damage to the Democrats' reputation for rolling out the huge, secretly assembled, porky bill with only three days before the government runs out of (borrowed) money will likely depend on how swiftly the measure can be dispatched.

If Harry Reid can quickly move on to the idea of approving a continuing resolution that funds the government on a temporary basis at current levels until a new Congress gets to work, the omnibus plan will quickly be forgotten as a muffled scream by the vanishing species of appropriatorsauruses.

If, however, Reid sets up a battle and a potential temporary government shutdown by sticking with the bill, Democrats could find themselves in the unenviable position of defending a bill that offends the new American political ethic of transparency, simplicity and austerity.

Letting Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) pummel Democrats for waste and secrecy in a dramatic filibuster as government functions shut down hardly sounds like a winning way to close the 111th Congress.

Remember what's different now from the 1995 Gingrich-Clinton shutdown - voters have come to understand and hate government waste in a way unimaginable in those days.

President Obama must certainly be hoping that Senate Democrats quickly yield in their quest for the bill because he would not like to have to violate his own policy on earmarks yet again by signing such a behemoth. Neither would he like to have fight go on so long that he is forced to express his opinion on the matter.

With his rented Hawaiian villa sitting empty and a brutal year behind him, Obama must be hoping for a quick resolution.

Obama Completes Pivot to 2014 Timetable For Afghanistan

"Whatever one thinks of the current strategy in this war, Obama is prosecuting it with a vigor that indicates a refusal to allow political calculations to condition national security policy. This presidential virtue could imperil his presidency."

-- Conservative columnist and Afghan war opponent George Will writing on today's White House Afghan policy review.

The White House deliberately diminished the rollout of today's Afghan policy review with months of policy nudges that gradually shifted U.S. strategy in central Asia to a long-term engagement.

In the year since the president announced, with regret, an 18-month surge in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the administration has not only embraced the architect of President George W. Bush's strategy in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, but also steadily watered down the significance of the 2011 date for beginning the U.S. withdrawal.

While the 2011 date is part of the discussion in today's policy rollout, it is discussed as a point of conditional reevaluation, not a hard deadline for Afghan autonomy. That transfer of power has been pushed back well beyond the 2012 reelection to 2014.

That means that Obama is running for president while holding on to the policy least popular among his base voters, especially youngsters and suburban women.

No matter how incremental the shift on Afghanistan, his long-war strategy represents Obama's riskiest position politically.

While conservatives may credit Obama for staying the course on his 100,000 troop strategy in Afghanistan, his 2012 Republican opponent will surely promise an even more fearsome effort to wipe out the Taliban.

And on the left, as Lyndon Johnson could attest, nothing dampens Democratic enthusiasm like a long war. By November of 2012, the Afgahn conflict will be starting its 12th year.

Dems Have Little Support For Sinking Tax Compromise

"59 percent"

-- Approval for the Obama-GOP tax plan in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

There's little appetite among Democrats nationwide for a protracted battle with Republicans over tax rates according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll.

While 47 percent of Republicans said they wanted their party leaders to stick to their guns in Congress, while only 29 percent of Democrats felt the same way.

The desire among independents is also for compromise, with about 65 percent hoping that both parties would compromise to find consensus.Respondents overall gave high marks to the tax plan itself, with 59 percent approving and only 36 percent opposed. Among Republicans, only 20 percent thought it was a bad deal, while 36 percent of Democrats believed President Obama had given up too much.

It's an awkward political spot for Democrats. While their base believes Obama got snookered, the party lacks the kind of broad base support for a showdown over that Republicans enjoy.

Overall, Obama's efforts to reposition himself in the center haven't been widely appreciated.

Just 35 percent said Obama is making adjustments as a result of the midterm election wipeout for his party. Most believe he is staying the course either because he didn't get the message (17 percent) or got the message but isn't changing (29 percent).

Obama's job approval remains low at 45 percent, about the same as it has been since June.

Other highlights:

A majority support Obama's new 2014 timetable for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Fifty three percent approve of the plan, while 45 percent are opposed. Note, though, that strong opposition (29 percent) runs ahead of strong support (19 percent).

Only 41 percent of respondents gave Obama good marks for being commander in chief, his lowest score yet on that measure, down from 49 percent in January. Only 42 percent said gave him good marks for the ability to handle a crisis.

Democrats are viewed positively by 37 percent of respondents, while Republicans were viewed favorably by 38 percent. It's the GOP's best showing since the weeks between the party's 2008 convention and the financial crash of that year. Leaving the Palin boom aside, it's the best showing for the GOP since the spring of 2005.

Seventy two percent like Obama personally, including 35 percent who disagree with him most of the time.

A broad majority of 57 percent believe the results of the midterm elections were positive. That's lower than the 63 percent who felt that way at the same point in 1994, but still one of the strongest points of political agreement.

Mitt Romney trails Obama by 7 points in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, with 6 percent undecided. Sarah Palin trails by 23 points, with only 2 percent undecided. Sen John Thune trails by 20 points, with 17 percent undecided.

There is broad support (67 percent) for Obama's plan to cut the deficit by eliminating tax exemptions in return for lower rates. There is even broader support (80 percent) for the Republican plan to freeze discretionary federal spending and then roll it back to 2008 levels. Eighty three percent support the Obama debt commission's proposal for a three-year freeze in federal salaries.

And, you're in good company. Twenty seven percent of respondents got most of their political and current events news from FOX News, more than the other cable news networks combined (24 percent), and nearly as much as all of the broadcast networks combined (33 percent).

Holder Looking For Backdoor Prosecution of Assange

"I suspect there is a real desire on the part of the government to avoid pursuing the publication aspect if it can pursue the leak aspect. It would be so much neater and raise fewer constitutional issues."

-- Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor, discussing the Wikileaks case with the New York Times.

Justice Department lawyers are reportedly looking for a way to prosecute Wikileaks impresario Julian Assange as an accessory to the Army private who stole secret documents rather than for his publication of them.

With pressure growing among civil libertarians to extend first amendment journalistic privileges to Assange's document dumps and from hawks to prosecute him for compromising U.S. security, Attorney General Eric Holder may have found a way to charge the Aussie leaker without upsetting the New York Times and other outlets that also published the documents.

The Times today says that Holder will use an online chat between Pfc. Bradley Manning, held on espionage charges, and reformed hacker Adrian Lamo as evidence that Manning had Assange's help in pilfering the documents.

If that chat is enough to get an investigation going, prosecutors hope to be able to get extra leverage on Assange and perhaps even cooperation from Manning.

Assange has been freed on bail by a British judge and sentenced to stay in the English country estate of one of his aristocratic patrons while his legal appeal on a Swedish rape investigation is worked out.

It would be a humbling blow to American stature to have Assange nibbling cucumber sandwiches and with the prospect of permanent freedom, but a conspiracy charge might be enough to get him back in manacles.

And Now, A Word From Charles

"No. You would have had a hiccup and an understanding of a change in January. It would be a two-week delay."

-- Charles Krauthammer on "Special Report with Bret Baier" when asked if the economy would "crater" if a tax deal between President Obama and Republicans falls apart.