“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.

Monday, December 12, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
Thursday's elections in Iraq will keep the war on the front burner all week, with President Bush giving his third of four pre-balloting speeches today before the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia at 11:15 am.  He will deliver his final such address in Washington on Wednesday.  NBC's Brian Williams travels with the President to Philadelphia today for an interview which will air on NBC Nightly News tonight.

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In addition to being a swing state at the presidential level (51% Kerry, 48% Bush), Pennsylvania will be among the nation's biggest battlegrounds in 2006, with a handful of competitive House races and a US Senate race that currently represents Democrats' best shot at knocking off a Republican incumbent: Rick Santorum.  The last time Bush visited the state, also to make remarks on the war against terror, Santorum did not attend.  But Santorum campaign spokesperson Virginia Davis tells First Read that today, Santorum will travel to and from Washington with Bush as well as appear with him at the event. 

Pennsylvania is, of course, also home to Rep. John Murtha (D). Murtha will be in Philadelphia for a 1:30 pm response to President Bush's speech on Iraq.  The response will be followed by a demonstration at the Ritz Carlton.

While the Administration has its sights set on Iraq for most of the week, the Senate returns to work and, like the House, will check some necessary appropriations boxes before adjourning for the year.  This week also marks the last time the Senate will be in session before Supreme Court Judge Sam Alito's confirmation hearings begin in early January; the full Senate is scheduled to return to work on January 18.  The pro-Alito Progress for America goes up with a new TV ad today timed to this final work week of the year; the $150,000 buy will air on cable in the states of potentially on-the-fence Senators as well as in Washington. 

The House has a long line of legislation teed up, but beyond the must-pass defense authorization and defense and Labor-HHS funding bills, it's not clear what else, if anything will get passed before members head home.  Included in the queue, per NBC's Mike Viqueira:

-- Tax and spending cuts, on which the House and Senate need to reconcile considerably different packages.  A coalition of Democratic groups holds a press conference today to denounce the combination of so-called "Draconian" spending cuts and tax cuts for the "super rich," and roll out a media and grassroots campaign that will include TV ads, prayer vigils, and press conferences "targeting more than 3 dozen moderate Republicans in the House and Senate," per the release.

-- Controversial provisions in the Patriot Act which are due to expire on December 31.  The House seems likely to take these up on Wednesday, Viq says, but the Senate may have problems with a credible filibuster threat.

-- Border security.  The House bill that will likely come to the floor on Thursday doesn't go far enough for proponents of stricter immigration controls, and doesn't include the guest-worker program Bush has touted.

-- Detainee abuse.  Yet another Bush veto threat to fade away, as Sen. John McCain's amendment to the must-pass defense authorization bill is still being negotiated but seems likely to pass.

-- Avian flu funding.  Bush has requested $7.1 billion to help fight bird flu, but despite support from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Democrats on both sides of the aisle, the House seems likely to pass half that amount.

-- And, Hurricane Katrina relief funding.  Somewhere between $17 billion (per the House version) and $35 billion (the Senate's) will be devoted to Katrina relief, but much of it will be reallocated from elsewhere in the government, Viq says. 

Which brings us to the "DeLay delay," as the House's January 31 return to Washington will likely come to be known.  House GOP leaders haven't given a reason for why they've scheduled such a late return, though it's widely acknowledged that the later they do come back, the more time GOP Rep. Tom DeLay has to get acquitted of the money-laundering charges being levied against him in Texas, and to head off an election to replace him as majority leader.  Washington lobbyist and longtime Democratic Hill aide William K. Moore points out to First Read that January 31 would be the latest convening date for a regular session of Congress since 1933 -- and that the only apparent difference between 2006 and the previous 72 years is the DeLay case.  The House's late return, compared to the Senate's return on January 18, already means that Bush will not be rolling out his midterm election year agenda in his State of the Union address until January 31 at the earliest.  It also means that any legislation that doesn't pass before the end of the year -- like the Katrina relief funding measure -- could get hung up until after the House returns.

The CIA leak case continues to simmer, with Time magazine's Viveca Novak outlining in a first-person account her contribution to the pot, her testimony to prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald last Friday.  And Adam Kidan, a business partner of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was indicted along with Abramoff for wire fraud and conspiracy in a Florida casino cruise company deal, may plead guilty this week -- which could result in the further entanglement of members of Congress in the ongoing probes of Abramoff's business dealings.

Stanley "Tookie" Williams is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 12:01 am PT tomorrow unless GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger grants Williams clemency before then.  Schwarzenegger's press office says they will announce his decision once it's in writing.

And lastly, those of you who sleep in on Sundays can stop asking us for Meet the Press transcripts (although transcripts are always available at http://www.mtp.msnbc.com/).  The entire show is now available via webcast.

National security politics
Early voting has begun in Iraq.  The AP notes, "In a development that could impact the general election, 13 prisoners who were apparent victims of abuse were discovered at an overcrowded detention center run by the Interior Ministry, Iraqi and U.S. military officials said."  Starting tomorrow, "the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi voters living outside the country can begin casting their ballots at polling centers in 15 countries."

The AP previews Bush's speech: "Although the President is still upbeat about Iraq's future, he's showing new candor about past mistakes and current difficulties.  The shift in tone is part of a White House effort to shore up Bush's credibility on an issue that threatens to sink his presidency."  Bush is "tempering his characteristic optimism with some blunt talk about the roadblocks to success.  He always has said that turning Iraq into a stable democracy would not be easy; now he is offering specifics." 

Another AP story says some moderates are "imploring" Congress to tone down the rhetoric on Iraq.  Still: "Neither party has much incentive to pull its punches, with Republicans eager to paint Democratic critics of Bush's Iraq policies as soft on defense and Democrats looking to exploit his woes as polls show declining support for the war." 

On Meet the Press yesterday, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said the Republican National Committee should take down its new web ad criticizing DNC chair Howard Dean and other Democrats for seeming to suggest that the war can't be won, and also said Democrats should stop calling the Bush Administration liars. 

The Wall Street Journal editorial page takes up for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), asserting that the "liberal animosity toward him speaks volumes about how far left Democratic foreign policy has shifted since Bill Clinton's Presidency."

On Sunday, Bob Novak reported that last Wednesday’s closed-door meeting of the House Democratic Caucus “included angry disagreements over the party's correct approach to Iraq.  The top two House Democrats, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, typified the disagreement.  Several members, unhappy about Pelosi's advocacy of immediate troop withdrawal, joined Hoyer in taking a more moderate position.” 

The Washington Post notices how low-profile Sen. Hillary Clinton has been on Iraq.  She "has stayed steadfastly on a centrist path, criticizing President Bush but refusing to embrace... early troop withdrawal options...  This careful balance is drawing increasing scorn from liberal activists, frustrated that one of the party's leading lights has shown little appetite to challenge Bush's policy more directly...  But some Democrats say, the left not withstanding, her refusal to advocate a speedy exit from Iraq may reflect a more accurate reading of public anxiety about the choices now facing the country."  Also, "[s]ome analysts call her approach a classic example of the kind of third-way triangulation." 

At a Florida Democratic party gathering this past weekend, nearly all of the featured speakers -- including DNC chair Howard Dean and three potential candidates for president in 2008 -- stressed how unified the Democratic party is on Iraq, despite some evidence to the contrary (i.e., Lieberman).  In his speech on Friday night, Dean declared that Democrats are united on Iraq and the war on terror and, citing a strategy proposed the left-leaning Center for American Progress, also said that a “consensus is emerging” on what to do in Iraq.  That consensus proposal: bring home all 50,000 members of the National Guard within the next six months; keep several thousand anti-terrorism special forces in Iraq; and redeploy 20,000 troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. 

The next day, former Sen. John Edwards also maintained that Democrats are unified on Iraq: "I think we have a coherent message: Bush was wrong," he said.  "The vast majority of us believe the troop level we have now is doing more harm than good."  And when First Read asked House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who was attending the conference, why Democrats were split on Iraq, he replied, “Why is there a split in the Republican Party?” citing Chuck Hagel in particular.  “But somehow our party is expected to speak with one voice on a complicated and critically important issue.”

“I think there is unity in the Democratic Party,” Hoyer continued.  “I think there is absolute consensus whether you're for or against the policy, that the President's execution of the policy has been deeply flawed.”  More: “I think the Democratic Party wants to see success if success is attainable.”

The Bush agenda
The Financial Times reports that the Administration "is drawing up plans to carry out the biggest overhaul of the US foreign aid apparatus in more than 40 years in an attempt to assert more political control over international assistance...  The proposed reorganisation could lead to a takeover by the State Department of the independent US Agency for International Development...  Critics in the aid community fear the reorganisation will lead to a politicisation of foreign assistance, where aid will become subordinated to the Bush administration’s drive to promote democracy."  Supporters "argue that USAID must be brought more in line with policy goals focused on post-conflict reconstruction and democratisation rather than pure development aid where they allege funds are squandered."

Time magazine reports that after the midterm elections, Bush "wants to devote the last two years of his presidency to a grand fix of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  In January, the White House expects a quick victory on Sam Alito to the Supreme Court, and, a State of the Union that nods to big goals."  The story notes that Bush’s proposals for 2006 "sound more like Clinton’s brand of small-bore governance:" computerizing medical records, portability of health benefits, and boosting Catholic and other private schools as an alternative for inner-city children - an idea that captured his imagination in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina." 

The Washington Times says the Bush agenda for 2006 is looking pretty "back to basics:" "The White House, which already is planning next month's State of the Union address, is preparing an agenda that will highlight progress in the Iraq war, economic expansion, immigration reform, tax cuts, tax-code reform and spending restraint." 

Ethics
Time magazine's Viveca Novak testified in the CIA leak case last Friday that in early 2004, she alerted Karl Rove's attorney Robert Luskin that Rove had leaked information to her colleague Matthew Cooper about Valerie Plame, per Novak's own account in Time:

Novak writes in Time that "a conversation she had with [Luskin] in the first half of 2004 may have prompted Mr. Rove to modify his testimony before a federal grand jury that he never discussed Ms. Plame with Time reporter Matt Cooper.  The grand jury... has heard at least four times from Mr. Rove, who has since acknowledged that the conversation with Mr. Cooper took place.  Mr. Luskin, who has said his client forgot the conversation during a busy presidential re-election campaign and did nothing to reveal Ms. Plame's identity, told federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about Ms. Novak's remarks after their conversation.  This disclosure, in October, may bolster Mr. Rove's explanation of absent-mindedness, because he neglected to tell even his own lawyer that the conversation took place."

"Novak's account in this week's issue of Time does little to explain how a conversation over drinks between Rove's lawyer and a reporter chasing the story could help clear the senior Bush adviser.  In addition to raising new questions about the role of journalists in the Plame affair, Novak's testimony provides fresh and significant insight into Rove's campaign to avoid charges in a case that threatens" Bush's top political advisor. – Washington Post

The Houston Chronicle says that Texas judge Pat Priest spelled out last week that Texas prosecutors, in order to convict DeLay and his two associates, will have to prove that they “knowingly raised or converted corporate cash with the intent of getting around the state's ban on using such money in campaigns for elective office.” 

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who "remains under investigation by federal authorities for his sale of stock in his family founded hospital chain this year," said yesterday that "he has not testified in the matter.  'I am cooperating fully, and am anxious to provide all information, which I've been doing throughout.'" – Boston Globe

It's the economy
The Fed meets tomorrow, and some big bond traders tell Bloomberg that the board "may say monetary policy is no longer stimulating the economy after it raises interest rates tomorrow for the 13th time." 

"...[W]ith another rate increase a given, Fed watchers are more eager to see what the policymakers say in their post-meeting statement.  One-and-a-half years into its rate-raising campaign, some economists think it's time the Fed signal through a subtle shift in language that this era of rate rises may soon end," USA Today reports. 

"Gasoline is cheaper now in the U.S. than before Hurricane Katrina disrupted refineries, pipelines and Gulf of Mexico oil production in late August," says one Bloomberg story.

But another notes, "Crude oil rose, approaching $60 a barrel in New York, as freezing weather in the U.S. Northeast increased demand and OPEC indicated it will let expire an earlier offer to sell every barrel it can pump...  U.S. gasoline prices at the pump are rising, reflecting a rebound in wholesale prices.  The national average was at $2.175 a gallon yesterday, up from $2.171 a gallon two days ago.  The average is still down 29 percent from a record $3.057 a gallon on Sept. 2, according to the AAA motorist organization." - Bloomberg

Venezuelan President Huge Chavez, a Bush Administration foe, starts making good on his pledge to provide home heating oil at a 40% discount to US Northeastern residents today.  Bloomberg says, "The program gives Democrats... a platform to criticize Bush for failing to provide more assistance to the poor." 

Speaking of which, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, along with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), hold a forum on energy independence at the NASDAQ market site at 1:45 pm today.  The Democrats will launch the party's "Energy Independence by 2020 agenda."

The Alito nomination
In its wrap of the Sunday shows, the New York Daily News notes that Frist said “he's ready to go nuclear” if the Democrats decide to filibuster Alito.  “‘I think it would be against the intent of the founding fathers of our Constitution to deny Sam Alito an up-or-down vote,’ Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said on ‘Fox News Sunday.'"  Sen. Chuck Schumer "suggested it would be hypocritical to bar Democrats from blocking a nominee after conservatives deep-sixed Miers, denying her an up-or-down vote.” 

Any attempt by the GOP to change Senate rules to prevent Democrats from filibustering Alito's nomination would be a "risk," the AP says, because of Democrats' threat to hold up nonessential business in retaliation. - AP

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein suggests that the Alito memos that have come to light outlining his opposition to Roe v. Wade "identify him as a Roe critic more clearly than any GOP Supreme Court nominee since Bork...  If this ammunition allows opponents to stop Alito - either by a majority vote or a filibuster - it will surely push future presidents back toward stealth nominees with limited public records.  But if opponents can't generate full-scale resistance to Alito - at a time when nearly two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters they don't want Roe overturned - Bush and his successors may conclude they can risk more ideologically aggressive nominees, so long as the public considers them qualified." 

Sunday's Boston Globe examined the Alito family's immigrant background.  Alito has said that his father came to America when he was a young boy; new documents show that Alito's father was merely an infant.

Oh-eight (D)
It's not Friday, but enough went down over the weekend on the Democratic presidential front to merit a Monday section.  On Saturday, the Democratic National Committee panel tasked with recommending ways to make the early weeks of the party's presidential nominating process more demographically and geographically diverse approved, as expected, a proposal to hold one or two more state caucuses between Iowa's caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and one or two more state primaries shortly after New Hampshire's and before the remainder of the contests. 

Overlooked amid all the attention paid to the recommended changes to the early weeks of the calendar is what would happen to the back end of the calendar: the panel is also recommending that bonus delegates be awarded to states who hold their contests late in the process.  Depending on how many states opt to take advantage of this, and how large those states are, the DNC could wind up with several hundred more pledged delegates than usual at its 2008 convention -- a factor which the party may need to take into account as it considers possible convention sites.  Remember that the DNC tends to select its convention site long before its nominating calendar is set in stone.

At the state party gathering in Florida this weekend, all the potential presidential candidates in attendance had comments on the recommendations to add contests between Iowa and New Hampshire -- but most were equivocal.  Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, not surprisingly, took the most forceful position, saying that Iowa deserves to be the first contest, because the state's size is conducive to retail politics and because Iowans actually participate in their caucuses.  Vilsack added, “I respect New Hampshire's position as the first primary.”  What about complaints that both contests lack diversity?  He argued that it's wrong to suggest that Iowa completely lacks diversity, but said that Iowa and New Hampshire serve to narrow the candidate field, while the other -- and more diverse -- states actually choose the nominee.

But the other potential oh-eighters tried to have it both ways.  Said former Sen. John Edwards in his media avail on Saturday: “I haven't seen what happened today.  I think it is important for Iowa and New Hampshire to maintain their status," mainly because he has seen, firsthand, retail politics work in these states.  But: "I always believe that there does need to be diversity added."  And Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said the same thing: that New Hampshire and Iowa have “a special sense of stewardship over the early contests, and they take that responsibility seriously.”  His hope, he said, is to be able to preserve their status, but also have more diversity in the process.

2005 and the midterms
Although no formal swearing-in date has been set for appointed Sen. Bob Menendez (D) of New Jersey, the general presumption is that Governor-elect Jon Corzine will resign from the Senate on the morning of January 17, the day he's inaugurated, and that the swearing-in could happen as soon as the Senate returns on January 18.

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