updated 12/13/2005 10:11:34 AM ET 2005-12-13T15:11:34

“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
We interrupt this week of otherwise wall-to-wall Iraq to bring you a blast from the past. President Bush travels to a retirement community in Springfield, VA for a 10:10 am roundtable and remarks to bolster public support for his Medicare prescription-drug law. Bush makes his final pre-election speech on Iraq and the war on terror in Washington tomorrow; Iraqis living abroad start voting in the election today.

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Bush's revisiting of his prescription-drug law is a reminder that his signature domestic achievements have all faced bumpy roads: his tax cuts expire at varying times and require piecemeal extensions like the kind Congress is currently grappling with; the Department of Homeland Security dropped the ball in responding to Hurricane Katrina; No Child Left Behind has been challenged by some states; and the prescription-drug program, for which registration is now underway, is coming under criticism for being too confusing. The Administration opposes the idea of extending the sign-up period and is waging a huge education campaign.

At the same time, the White House continues to come up with efforts to tout the mostly strong economy. Not to be overlooked, the press office issued a new document yesterday: a week-ahead schedule for its economic team, including key announcements like the Fed's on interest rates today and the release of the consumer price index for November and state jobs data later this week. The apparent intent of the document: to send a message that the White House can focus on both the war and the economy simultaneously, as well as to reinforce the latest positive economic news.

The Fed is expected to raise interest rates by a quarter-point when it meets today in Washington. Per CNBC, the rate hike would mark the 13th time in 18 months that the Fed has raised its target for the Federal Funds Rate, the key rate it controls. A quarter-point hike today would bring the rate to 4.25%. But it's not so much the anticipated rate hike that Wall Street is focusing on as the language the Fed uses to announce it. CNBC’s Ron Insana says that Wall Street will be looking at whether the Fed will depart from the language of recent statements, in which it has indicated it will raise interest rates gradually over a period of time. Insana says a change in wording could mean two things: 1) if the economy heats up, the Fed would raise interest rates larger increments, and possibly more quickly, than anticipated; and 2) if the economy slows down, the Fed would stop raising rates and, if necessary, begin to lower them again. The tone of the statement should give an indication of which way the Fed may be leaning.

The Senate is back at work today, setting up a week (or so) of occasionally tough grappling with the House over key spending- and tax-cut legislation Republicans hope to pass before leaving town for the year, while House GOP leaders continue to press for passage of a wish list, much of which may wind up waiting until 2006.

The House (majority) that Tom DeLay built is now facing a legal challenge based on the same Texas redistricting plan that led to DeLay's own legal troubles. In a surprise move yesterday, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear four challenges to the Texas legislature's remapping of the state's congressional district lines in 2003, NBC's Pete Williams reports. Under a plan engineered by Delay and his associates, and passed by the legislature only after Democratic lawmakers twice left the state to deny a quorum, Texas Republicans gained six seats in the House of Representatives last year, padding the GOP's majority.

Several groups challenged the "irregular" redistricting, which took place two years after Texas had already drawn up new lines as usual after the 2001 Census. The challengers argue that a redistricting plan violates the Constitution "when it is enacted solely to skew future election results in favor of one political party, at a time when a perfectly lawful map is already in place and there is no other legitimate justification for changing district lines." Williams notes that the state of Texas did not file briefs defending the map, apparently believing that the case was so clear-cut that the court would decline to hear it. Since the case landed at the Court's doorstep, the Washington Post has reported that political appointees at the Justice Department approved the redistricting plan after DOJ lawyers determined that it violated the Voting Rights Act. The justices will hear the case in March, Williams says.

Republican House campaign spokesperson Carl Forti reminds First Read that the Texas primary occurs on March 7 -- well before the Supreme Court will decide on the Texas redistricting case -- and thus he doubts it will impact the 2006 races. "There are a lot of 'what if's' out there," he says. The high court's agreement to hear the case gives Democrats more fodder for their arguments against DeLay himself and an allegedly corrupted GOP.

Also yesterday, prosecutors in the DeLay money-laundering case asked Judge Pat Priest to halt court proceedings while they appeal Priest's recent dismissal of one of the criminal charges originally brought against DeLay, NBC's Doug Adams reports. The bad news for DeLay? If Priest agrees, it could further hurt DeLay's chances of getting a speedy trial and winning back his majority leader post. Priest had hinted earlier that he likely would not move forward with the case if prosecutors appealed his decision to throw out one of the charges, Adams notes. The next hearing in the case had been set for Tuesday, December 27, but now that could be in jeopardy. DeLay's hope for a trial that starts by mid-January has dimmed.

After Stanley "Tookie" Williams was executed by lethal injection in California earlier this morning, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has no public events planned for today.

And Sen. Hillary Clinton, who could at any moment be without a viable Republican challenger in her 2006 re-election bid, will be introduced by her husband at a fundraiser tonight at the Hilton New York at 7:00 pm.

More on all of the above is below.

The Bush/GOP agenda
The latest Gallup poll shows Bush's approval rating back up to 42%. "The modest rise comes amid strong economic reports and the approach of critical elections in Iraq this week." USA Today notes both that "Bush's standing remains lower than that of any president in his second term since World War II except Richard Nixon," and that "Bush's political situation seems to have stabilized after a perilous autumn." The poll found that "Most Americans continue to disapprove of his handling of the economy, by 58%-40%, and of Iraq, by 59%-39%... The president's series of speeches on Iraq over the past two weeks hasn't convinced Americans that he has a plan for victory: 38% say he has one, 58% say he doesn't. That's a bit worse than when the question was asked on the night of his first speech. Even so, by 63%-34%, those polled say Iraq has made 'real progress' toward establishing a democracy."

The New York Times writes up NBC's Brian Williams’ interview with Bush yesterday, highlighting Bush's saying he's confident he can reach an agreement with Sen. John McCain on detainee abuse. “Mr. Bush's remarks… hinted at what appear to be the White House objectives in the talks that started with Vice President Dick Cheney's demand that intelligence agents be exempted from Mr. McCain's measure.”

Another Times article notes that Bush told Williams “that the failures of the government in responding to Hurricane Katrina had nothing to do with race or class.” But: “Using stronger language than he has in the past to acknowledge shortcomings in the response of government, Mr. Bush said he was ‘appalled that a nation as wealthy as ours was not able to respond as effectively as we should have.’”

Williams' complete interview with the President -- transcript and video -- is now available on MSNBC.com.

In advance of Bush's Medicare prescription-drug speech today, USA Today covers families hunkered down over the arithmetic required to figure out which plan would be best. "Some families have succeeded and become closer in the process. Many have been overwhelmed by the range of options. Others have been sent from agency to agency and given conflicting advice."

USA Today also reports from the White House Conference on Aging, currently taking place in Washington, that "many delegates were upset that President Bush is not going to attend the conference." The AARP's director of policy and strategy says it "would be the 'first time that a president has not addressed his own White House conference.' Officials at the White House could not be reached for comment."

The Boston Globe's Canellos writes that immigration reform will be a "major political focus" of 2006. "Since terrorists might slip in to the United States from Mexico or Canada, the urgency of the rhetoric is justified, if not the simplicity." Canellos also notes that the issue is being framed as a "values test." But the "last time the Republican party aligned itself with a harsh anti-illegal immigrant program -- in California in the early 1990s -- it eventually produced a backlash that contributed to a string of statewide Democratic victories... So the Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, has warned candidates to avoid being seen as anti-immigrant."

National security politics
Bush's first suggestion of an actual number for Iraqi fatalities since the war began -- the unofficial 30,000 figure he mentioned during his post-speech Q&A yesterday -- gets widespread coverage and reality-checking:
USA Today
New York Times
Boston Globe

One of the few papers out there that doesn't lead with the 30,000 figure: the Washington Times, which instead focuses on Bush's cautionary tone.

A Chicago Tribune analysis has experts saying that “no amount of presidential suasion will sway public opposition” to the Iraq war. “Even Republican strategists suggest Bush will have to start charting a course for withdrawal of U.S. forces in the coming year, if he is to overcome public opposition to the war and salvage his agenda for his remaining three years as president.”

Although "Bush insisted yesterday that Iraq was moving steadily toward political unity even amid violence and turmoil," Bloomberg says, his "strategy for transforming Iraq is threatened by the growth of sectarian militias that are undercutting Iraq's nascent national army and fueling ethnic violence, according to analysts and former U.S. officials."

Tomorrow, a day before the Iraqi election, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will give Senators an unclassified briefing on the situation there, NBC's Ken Strickland reports. Majority Leader Bill Frist invited Rice to give the briefing "to ensure that all senators are fully apprised of this major event and its implications," as he wrote to his Democratic counterpart Harry Reid. In the letter, Frist notes "steady progress on the political, economic and security tracks that should give the Senate and the American people confidence that we will be victorious in Iraq... This is a message that should be conveyed to the American people," he writes, "and this Wednesday's update will help us do just that."

Reid is arguing that Frist is providing Rice cover from having to answer tough questions at the briefing by making it unclassified, Strickland says. Frist's unilateral decision to limit the briefing to unclassified matters is "regrettable and a disservice to all members of the Senate, our troops, and the American people," he argues. "I can only conclude it was motivated by another reason, namely to protect the Administration and prevent it from being held accountable for its performance." Frist's office says an unclassified briefing was the only option allowing Senators to receive information they can take home and share with the public, Strickland reports. But they are open to discussing a possible separate, classified meeting.

Vulnerable GOP Sen. Rick Santorum not only attended Bush's speech in Philadelphia yesterday, but traveled to and from the speech on Air Force One -- a switch from the last time Bush gave an address on the war on terror in the state, which Santorum did not attend. Also yesterday, the Santorum campaign issued a statement challenging his Democratic Senate opponent, Bob Casey, Jr., on three questions: 1) Does he agree with DNC chair Howard Dean's statement that the United States can't win in Iraq? 2) Does he agree with past statements that MoveOn.org has made? 3) Is he willing to debate Santorum on Iraq and foreign policy? "Rick Santorum has been strong on his Iraq position, believing that the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime was the right decision for America’s security," the statement said.

However, we recall Santorum not too long ago trying to put some distance between himself and Bush on Iraq. In November, he told reporters the conduct of the Iraq war was "less than optimal" and that the White House was partly to blame. And in August, after saying he had expressed private and public criticisms about the war, he was unable to locate a critical comment -- until his office finally produced one from a September 2004 newser.

Texas redistricting
Roll Call points out that while the Supreme Court's agreement to hear the Texas redistricting challenge was a moral and PR victory, "whether that victory leads to actual changes on the ground is a lot less clear... [W]hen the high court has agreed to hear redistricting challenges since the 2000 Census, the justices have been reluctant to order boundaries to be redrawn. And even if the justices do decide to invalidate the Texas map, it is unlikely to be redrawn in time for the 2006 elections... keeping the GOP’s grip on Lone Star State House seats safe for at least another cycle."

But the Houston Chronicle says the Court’s ultimate decision in fact could impact the 2006 elections: “Texas' primaries will go forward on March 7 as scheduled, but plaintiffs' lawyers said that if they win at the high court, they will seek to have the results thrown out and new primaries scheduled later in the year.”

"Election law experts said the justices' acceptance of the case suggests that they may be prepared to craft clearer guidelines for politicians to follow when redrawing congressional maps," per the Washington Post, which reminds us, "The Texas plan has been at the heart of legal and ethical troubles facing DeLay... DeLay's efforts on behalf of the plan resulted in his being admonished by the House Ethics Committee and indicted on charges of illegally diverting money to the campaigns of state legislators who drew the new map."

The Dallas Morning News examines the case's history and political implications in-depth, noting that "[a]t the very least, the announcement Monday promises to re-energize a bitter three-year struggle between Texas Democrats and [DeLay], who is widely credited with engineering the redistricting strategy... Politicians in two other states, Colorado and Georgia, have already indicated they will consider mid-decade redistricting if the Texas plan survives the Supreme Court challenge."

Congress' last week?
Roll Call says the Hill leadership is setting a low bar for expectations of what will get accomplished this week, and reports mixed views on when Congress might manage to leave town.

"A bipartisan coalition of senators yesterday introduced a bill to extend by three months controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act to allow for efforts in the Senate and House to draft new legislation -- potentially trumping plans to vote this week on a four-year extension," says the Washington Times.

House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on one must-pass bill, the Labor-HHS funding bill. "The last and largest of the annual domestic spending measures, the bill is the most difficult politically, because Republicans are proposing to cut $1.4 billion from the three departments after years of steady growth in their programs. That cut will double if Republicans impose a further 1% across-the-board cut before adjourning for the year," says the Wall Street Journal, which adds, "getting back on track is crucial for Speaker Dennis Hastert if he is to regain the momentum he needs going into more-difficult votes later this week. The biggest of these is a $45 billion five-year deficit-reduction package plagued by divisions over savings in health-care programs and provisions opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration."

MSNBC.com’s Curry looks at why nine House Democrats crossed the aisle last week to support extending the 15% cut in dividend and cap gains taxes. "All but one of the nine Democrats come from districts carried by President Bush in 2004. Eight come from Southern or border states, where Republicans are dominant. And the one non-Southerner, Rep. Melissa Bean, is a first-termer who represents a Republican-leaning district west of Chicago," where "the median household income is 50 percent higher than the national median."

The values debate
The Los Angeles Times says Schwarzenegger's five-page statement denying Williams clemency "was unusual for the length, detail and blunt tone in which it dismissed Williams' claims... Aides to the governor have consistently said that he made his decision without regard to politics. Political analysts from both parties, however, said his final decision was the one with the least chance of hurting his chances for reelection."

The Chicago Tribune wonders if Williams’ execution will impact the national debate over capital punishment. “The most recent Gallup poll, taken in October, shows that support nationally for the death penalty has dropped from as high as 80 percent in 1994 to 64 percent, though it has remained steady for the past three years. According to the poll, that support dips to 56 percent if the alternative is life in prison without parole.”

It's the economy
"The Energy Department released a new projection Monday that forecasts oil prices will remain well above $50 a barrel for years to come, resulting in a greater shift to more fuel-efficient cars and alternative energy sources... The new report projects oil will cost an average $54 a barrel in 2025 and $57 a barrel in 2030 before inflation. Prices have been hovering around $60 a barrel, briefly soaring as high as $70 earlier this year." - USA Today

2005 and the midterms
The most interesting thing about the latest variation of the group formerly known as Americans United to Protect Social Security, now called simply Americans United, is that it's being funded by a coalition that includes not only longtime funders among the labor movement -- but also MoveOn. The "permanent, multimillion-dollar entity" will push "a broader liberal agenda in the 2006 midterms."

The New York Times notes how leaders of the New York GOP yesterday urged Jeanine Pirro (R) to quit her challenge to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), but Pirro released a statement last night saying she would remain in the race. “The shift by the party came just six months after many of the same Republican leaders recruited her for the bid, and it signaled the mounting disarray of a state party that finds itself in danger of losing the governor's mansion and its majority in the State Senate in 2006.”

The New York Daily News: “Republican bosses said openly they may urge Ed Cox, President Nixon's son-in-law, to get back into the race.”

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