updated 11/15/2005 9:21:19 AM ET 2005-11-15T14:21:19

“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.  To bookmark First Read, click here.

First glance
President Bush is now in Asia, but his parting shot that Democrats are playing politics on Iraq hangs in the air as the Senate prepares to vote on a Democratic proposal that would require Bush to offer regular status reports and an exit strategy for the war.  The Senate will also vote on a weaker GOP version that would require reports but no exit strategy, prompting the question of whether this amounts to acknowledgement that they see a need to start talking about getting out of Iraq.

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The Republican National Committee is escalating its defense/offense on Iraq with a web video (i.e., NOT an ad) that features prominent Democrats like former President Clinton and Sens. Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid and John Edwards (but not John Kerry) talking about the threat Iraqi WMD posed to US security.  We'll see if Vice President Cheney echoes Bush's criticism of Democrats in his 10:55 am remarks at the groundbreaking for the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Newly spotlit Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito's courtesy-call list today includes, among others, Judiciary Committee Democrats Kennedy and Feinstein, who no doubt will ask him to explain his position on abortion now that a 1985 Alito job application shows he did not, at that time, believe the Constitution protects abortion rights.  The news has fired up liberal interest groups and lawmakers like Kennedy, though there's some question as to how other party officials will handle the matter given their growing conviction that they need to talk differently about abortion.

NBC's Ken Strickland says the news has Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter talking about judicial evolution.  "The question is whether he has evolved from the thinking at that time.  We know that he now supports the right of privacy in the constitution under Griswold [v. Connecticut]," Specter told Strickland yesterday.  Specter, who is pro-choice, observed that Democratic lawmakers like Dick Durbin and Sam Nunn have changed their views on abortion from being pro-life to pro-choice.  Specter also resisted drawing the conclusion that Alito's papers suggest he'll overturn Roe v. Wade, noting that the legal landscape has changed dramatically in 20 years.  "You've had a total of 38 cases where the Supreme Court has had an opportunity to reverse Roe and hadn't done it, so you have the super precedent," he said, calling stability in the law a "very fundamental point."  Still, Strickland says, Alito will face tough questions from the chairman, who has not yet announced whether he will support him.

On the domestic front, one of Bush's few signature achievements is being debated two years after becoming law.  Enrollment in his $724 billion Medicare prescription-drug benefit program starts today amidst concerns that the complicated process may prevent some seniors from signing up, though automatic enrollment for low-income seniors should help matters.

The drug benefit, tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, and the Department of Homeland Security -- these comprise the President's domestic legacy.  (An overall list would include the Iraq war resolution; Bush loyalists might add class-action reform.)  After Bush spent most of 2005 trying and failing to achieve private accounts for Social Security, now his own poll standing, a conservative-moderate split in his party's ranks on the Hill, increasingly emboldened Democratic opposition, and a looming midterm election year all cast doubt on his ability to pass anything even remotely controversial through at least 2006 and, depending on how his party fares in the midterms, perhaps for the duration of his presidency.

All four measures from Bush's first term have faced a bumpy ride in his second.  The Department of Homeland Security stumbled badly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, its first big test as the new overseer of FEMA.  The tax cuts require extensions which, despite GOP majorities in both chambers, are proving not so easy to achieve.  Senate Republicans weren't able to get the dividend and capital gains tax-cut extensions out of committee yesterday.  No Child Left Behind is being challenged in various ways by at least four states: Utah, Connecticut, Colorado, and Bush's own home state of Texas.

And then there's the prescription-drug benefit.  Beyond the current complications with enrollment, we're also reminded of the circumstances in which the bill passed the House two years ago: how it marked the first time during Bush's presidency that House GOP leaders held the vote open until they were able to twist enough arms, and that the arm-twisting of one GOP member resulted in then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay getting admonished by the House Ethics Committee.

From a broader perspective of what these measures say about Bush's approach to governing, the drug benefit and NCLB grate on GOP conservatives -- especially now, in the wake of the party's hurricane relief spending spree -- because they added billions in federal spending and, along with the Iraq war, have combined to blow open the budget.  Also, one economic analyst notes, the tax cuts and the drug benefit taken together illustrate Bush's views of budgeting -- a big-government spender and small-government taxer.

Another piece of Bush's domestic legacy faces a Senate committee today: Ben Bernanke, Bush's nominee to replace Fed chair Alan Greenspan, has his confirmation hearing before the Banking Committee.  Even though committee Democrats have praised Bernanke and he seems certain to get voted out, they may use the opportunity of his hearing to raise questions about Bush's economic policies, including the size of the deficit.  For example, Democratic presidential candidate and committee member Evan Bayh announced yesterday that he supports Bernanke, but a Bayh aide notes that the Senator has been known to point out that he has vetoed a spending bill (as governor of Indiana), while Bush never has.  The latest NBC/Journal poll shows Bush's job approval rating on the economy at 34%, down from 40% in September.

National security politics
Democrats apparently aren't the only ones talking about an exit strategy.  "Despite President Bush's effort to halt such talk, top Iraqi and American officials continue to suggest that U.S. and British troops in Iraq could begin substantial withdrawals as soon as next year," says the Los Angeles Times.

After the Senate vote on Democrats' proposal today, tomorrow, a bloc of liberal House Democrats "will launch a discharge petition to try to force a House vote on a bill to immediately withdraw troops from the region."

"Republican leaders are resisting Democrats' call for the administration to provide a plan for withdrawal, but in agreeing that the administration must provide more information and a schedule for reaching full Iraqi sovereignty, they are joining Democrats in signaling that the White House and the Iraqi government must produce results in 2006," says the Washington Times.

The New York Times covers Bush’s speech in Alaska last night, in which he argued that Democratic complaints about pre-war intelligence were irresponsible and that only one person manipulated intelligence and misled the world -- Saddam Hussein.  “But what Mr. Bush left unaddressed was the question of how his administration used that intelligence, which was full of caveats, subtleties and contradiction, to make the case for war.”  The article also notes the irony that as this debate over intelligence raged on yesterday, Ahmad Chalabi was meeting with Cheney and Rumsfeld.

The New York Daily News says the White House has created a war room to respond to the Democratic charges on pre-war intelligence.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's six-member task force offered the required progress report yesterday on its "Phase II" investigation of whether the Administration manipulated pre-war intelligence.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that while the bipartisan panel submitted two separate, partisan reports to the leadership, both sides agreed on some fundamental issues: 1) that they've made "significant" progress since the blow-up two week ago; 2) that they still face equally significant hurdles; and 3) that they have no idea when the report will be finished.

Those unfinished and unresolved matters could lead to more drama next year, Strickland says.  The most notable question is whether public statements by the Administration were substantiated by the government intel.  Democrats want to interview current and former officials with the Departments of State, Defense, the CIA, and the Vice President's office.  Committee Republicans say if it's necessary, that "will be determined by the committee" (for which they obviously hold the majority).  Another sticky issue, Strickland says, pertains to pre-war intel work performed by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.  Committee chair Pat Roberts has asked the Defense Department Inspector General to investigate whether the department's intel activities "were unlawful or improper."  But Democrats say the IG report isn't enough, and raise the possibility of "using the Committee's subpoena power."

Bush's Veteran's Day jab at Kerry on his support for the Iraq war has some in the Kerry camp quietly grinning, says the Boston Globe.  "By singling out Kerry as the Democrats' leading Iraq war critic, aides to the Massachusetts Democrat said, the president confirmed Kerry's continuing prominence in national politics."

That said, RNC spokesperson Brian Jones tells First Read that Kerry was left out of their new web video on Democrats and WMD because "Kerry didn't seem particularly relevant to this debate as no one really knew what his position on Iraq was anyway."

The Boston Globe's Canellos points out that it seems voters are the ones who have flip-flopped on Iraq, as evidenced by recent polls on whether they think they were misled or not.  "But Bush's credibility problem isn't with the Democrats.  Recent polls show increasing numbers of Bush's own voters feel they were misled...  It's these people whom Bush must win over if he intends to govern effectively for the next three years.  And they can't be brushed aside as mere flip-floppers."

The Bush agenda
The latest Gallup survey shows about the same as others -- that "Americans' views of President Bush and his trustworthiness have hit new lows," and that Democrats have a big advantage on the generic congressional ballot test.

The Houston Chronicle, examining Bush’s poll numbers and his vigorous defense against Democratic claims his Administration manipulated pre-war intelligence, has experts saying “that regaining the public trust will require more than tougher rhetoric.  They say Bush must show more progress on Iraq as well as receive some breaks on weather-related issues, including a moderate winter that would keep home fuel costs in check. "

The AP outlines details of the prescription-drug benefit and notes that "[s]ome Democratic lawmakers say the voluntary program is too confusing.  Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Bill Nelson of Florida and Reps. Pete Stark of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois will call on Congress Tuesday to pass legislation to give seniors an additional six months to make an informed decision."

Eight organizations representing the elderly and disabled filed suit against HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt yesterday over the drug benefit plan.  USA Today

The Alito nomination
The Los Angeles Times says Alito's 1985 statement, "though two decades old, reenergized liberal activists and gave Senate Democrats a new reason to challenge the nomination, which had been gaining momentum.  It raised questions as to whether Alito still held those beliefs or whether he had perhaps embellished his views to promote himself in Republican circles.  Neither explanation was likely to work in his favor with some moderates or liberals."

"Some senators said Alito's statements hurt his case for the Supreme Court...  Maine's two moderate Republican senators, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins, expressed concern about Alito's views.  Each is potentially a key vote on Alito," notes the Boston Globe.

The Chicago Tribune: “Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats said Monday that in light of the revelations in the newly revealed document, they expect Alito to be more open about his current views than previous nominees.”

The New York Daily News notes, "White House spokeswoman Dana Perino countered that the memo should not be viewed as an indication how Alito would rule on the Supreme Court."

In the same job application, Alito also wrote that he opposed minority quotas.  "As evidence of his commitment to the cause, he highlighted his donations to conservative politicians."  The Wall Street Journal suggests, "Some senators may... take offense at Judge Alito's political giving."

The Washington Times, which first reported Alito's 1985 statement on abortion yesterday morning, says the rest of the documents released yesterday by the White House show that Alito is "a lifelong Republican committed to federalism and other key conservative ideals."

We mentioned earlier that Alito has taught a course on terrorism and the law at Seton Hall University.  The Hill now reports, "Some Republican senators say they will use the" Alito nomination "to stake out the limits of President Bush’s power to conduct the war on terrorism as public concern over the administration’s handling of the war is growing and congressional leaders are being criticized for lack of oversight...  Democrats have said they will grill Alito about his views of executive powers...  And centrist Republican senators say they will do so too, and that Alito’s answers about how much latitude the administration should have in the war will be central to their consideration of his nomination."

Taxes and spending
Roll Call says evidence points to a December 16 or 17 adjournment date for Congress, perhaps after an extended Thanksgiving break.  "That’s how long Senate leaders want the next stopgap spending bill to last."  Also: "GOP leaders in both chambers are saying they’ll be back in December to try to finish up leftover appropriations bills and, potentially, the budget and tax reconciliation bills," though their recent troubles in passing the latter two make "enacting either of those measures by the end of this year... increasingly unrealistic."

The San Francisco Chronicle writes that intra-party debate in the GOP over taxes and spending reflects the long-standing divisions between Northeast Republicans and those from the South and West.  The paper also has analysts saying that GOP moderates are feeling emboldened to challenge House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, who hasn’t been able to (so far) get the budget reconciliation cuts passed.  “Some Republican members are talking about holding new leadership elections in January."

The New York Times, noting that voters in California, Colorado, and Washington State rejected ballot measures that would have rolled back tax increases or restricted state spending, asks: “Has the American voter's ardor for cutting taxes and shrinking government cooled?… It may be, some analysts suggested, that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and this year's Gulf Coast hurricanes, Americans saw the value of government investment in infrastructure, public safety and other services and are now more willing to pay for it.”

Ethics
Executives from top trade groups will host a fundraiser for Rep. Tom DeLay on Thursday, the Dallas Morning News reports. While this could signal that DeLay "still has friends... [c]ritics say the fundraiser reflects the favors Mr. DeLay has dispensed, along with his continued clout."

Roll Call notices that now that DeLay is no longer in the leadership, his "rhetoric has grown sharper and, occasionally, more critical of his own party," including in his recent Heritage Foundation speech about the GOP's recent spending habits.  "The next day, DeLay authored an op-ed piece in The Washington Post criticizing the recommendations of President Bush’s tax reform panel."

Dow Jones is fighting CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's efforts to obtain a protective court order that would bar Lewis "Scooter" Libby and his legal team "from publicly disclosing 'all materials produced by the government.'"  The judge has not yet ruled. – Washington Post

It's the economy
Previewing Fed chair nominee Ben Bernanke's confirmation hearing today, Bloomberg says that history dictates that a short hearing could lead to a long tenure.

"If confirmed, Bernanke will take over the Fed at a moment of rising economic unease," the Washington Post notes.  "The U.S. trade and budget deficits are soaring.  The once-blistering housing market may be cooling.  Rumors continue to rumble through Wall Street of dangerously overextended hedge funds ripe for collapse.  The next Fed chairman could face significant challenges, as Greenspan did, within months of taking office."

USA Today covers problems with the pension system and concern that it could face an S&L-type meltdown.  "Business, Congress and the Bush administration agree that the U.S. system of private pensions is badly in need of fixing.  What they haven't agreed on is how to fix it.  Despite alarming statistics, years of studies and urgent calls for reform from advocates on all sides,... chances of passage by both houses of Congress this year" may be "slim."

The AP says average retail gas prices have fallen below $2.30 a gallon -- the first time since early August.  It also marks the sixth straight week gas prices have dropped.

The New York Times examines the possible wintertime energy shock of higher natural gas prices.  “[W]ith more than half of the nation's homes heated by natural gas, millions of Americans are already bracing for big price increases this winter.  The Energy Information Administration recently predicted that the cost of heating a typical home with natural gas could rise by more than 40 percent in coming months, or an average of $306 a household.”

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Democratic House campaign chairman Rahm Emanuel said it's ironic for Republicans to talk tough about oil company profits -- as they did last week -- when it turns out that the GOP and its candidates have received $220 million from oil and energy interests since 1994.  Emanuel also enumerated specific bills Republicans have written which benefit the industry. "This is all hat and no cattle," he said.  "It is not what they say; it what they do."  (Of course, Democrats also have received millions from the oil and gas industry, although not near the amount Republicans have.

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