updated 1/17/2006 9:13:09 AM ET 2006-01-17T14:13:09

“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
Rain is forecast today for Pascagoula, MS, Republican Sen. Trent Lott's hometown, where he'll announce at 12 noon ET whether or not he'll seek a fourth term, with a second announcement in Jackson, MS at 3:30 pm ET.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that Lott also has scheduled a news conference on the Hill for Wednesday.  Although Lott's decision remains TBD at this writing, these are not the exercises a Senator typically goes through when announcing he's sticking around.

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Lott has had a long and storied career in Congress, but is most recognized for having had to give up the Senate Republican leader post in December 2002 to quell a public relations firestorm sparked by some racially insensitive remarks he made at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond.  It's generally believed that the Bush White House helped engineer both Lott's resignation and the ascendance of Bill Frist, who replaced Lott as leader.  If so, Lott might now be relishing the White House's entreaties to him to stay in the Senate to keep his seat from falling into Democratic hands.

If Lott decides not to seek re-election, Democrats will have a strong chance to win this seat despite Mississippi being a bright-red state, and they'll also inch closer to a legitimate if still uphill chance to take back control of the Senate.  Analysts expect an open-seat race to be a toss-up between former state Attorney General Mike Moore (D) and Rep. Chip Pickering (R).  Democrats must net six seats in November to take back the Senate -- a steep challenge that could become a tad easier with the addition of an unexpected Republican vacancy and a formidable Democratic candidate.

A wired-in Mississippi Republican source who suspects that Lott plans to retire tells First Read that Lott "has been placed so many times in the 'you have to do it for the party' [squeeze] that this time may just ring hollow."  The source says Lott has been "very, very down on the federal response on the ground" to Hurricane Katrina in general.  The source suggests that Lott, who lost his own home in the disaster, would like to go make some money.  "On the other hand," this source says, "he could be adroitly playing this by extracting commitments from his GOP colleagues in a post-Frist world," should he want to try climbing back up the leadership ladder.

Indeed, Lott's stay-or-go decision is about more than just the fate of his Senate seat: It's a reminder that instability, rather than stability, seems to be the general rule for leadership on the Hill, and a reminder that an unstable GOP leadership could affect the enactment of Bush's second-term agenda.  Not only are House Republicans set to replace Tom DeLay as majority leader on February 2, but Frist is adhering to a self-imposed two-term limit and will give up the Senate leader job along with his seat in early 2007.  As a result, Hill Republicans will elect an almost entirely new leadership (that's presuming that Speaker Dennis Hastert stays put) within the next year.

Longtime Democratic Hill aide turned business and policy strategist William K. Moore tells First Read that only over the past 30 years has the role of majority leader evolved into the job we know today, which bears responsibility for 1) coordinating the activities of the party caucus, 2) managing floor activity, 3) serving as spokesperson for the party, 4) working as an intermediary with the other body and the president, and 5) providing policy leadership.  Leaders who are new to the job, Moore suggests, have to concentrate on the first two priorities:­ coordinating the caucus and running the floor.  Whether they fulfill the role of spokesperson or not is a matter of personal charisma.  But their preoccupation with the first two priorities creates a vacuum on the latter two: coordinating between the House and Senate and providing policy leadership.

The most significant aspect of the 2006-2007 leadership changes will not be instability, per Moore -- it will be that the vacuum of coordination and policy leadership occurs at a time when Republican incumbents and challengers alike could be running against Congress (because of ethics); when Bush's own policy leadership has been undercut by his low poll standing (and, we'd add, a weak congressional liaison office, according to some Hill Republicans); when the ideological divide among House GOP conservatives and moderates has widened; and when members yearn for a more relaxed environment as an antidote to the iron fist of DeLay.

Whatever Lott decides, the Senate loses at least one incumbent today: Democrat Jon Corzine formally resigns his morning, then gets sworn in as New Jersey governor at 12 noon.  Once he's sworn in, Corzine will sign a piece of paper appointing Rep. Bob Menendez (D) to fill out the remainder of his Senate term.  When that piece of paper is delivered to the Secretary of the Senate (Menendez's office will probably have someone in a car zooming down I-95), Menendez and his staff will take over his new Senate offices.  He will be sworn in tomorrow when the Senate returns to work.

Also on Capitol Hill today, Hastert and Rules Committee chair David Dreier are expected to roll out their lobbying reform proposal, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  The event was postponed from last week, in part because some members were balking at the idea of a total ban on outside travel.  The Democratic Party leadership has their big reform rollout tomorrow, split between the Hill and Columbus, OH; Democrats are hoping that scandals plaguing the Ohio GOP will loosen its grip on some key offices there.  Democrats are again delaying their announcement of their agenda for 2006 in order to focus on honesty in government.  But as some close observers of Congress note, lobbying reform has turned into a bidding war, with each side trying to one-up the other on how many longtime practices they propose to ban, and in their zealousness, Congress may wind up passing some restrictions that ultimately prove unworkable or even detrimental in some way that's presently unforeseen.

And, President Bush today meets with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt at 9:10 am, and with the National Commander of the American Legion at 9:55 am.  The White House notes in a release this morning that "Belgium has made significant contributions to missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans."

The Alito nomination
It's official, NBC's Strickland reports: Per the offices of both the Judiciary Committee chair and the committee's ranking member, the committee will vote on Alito's nomination on Tuesday, January 24 (expected to be a party-line vote of 10-8), and the full Senate will begin debating the nomination on the following day.  Strickland says the Senate GOP leadership hopes -- hopes -- to have Alito confirmed by Friday, January 27.  Strickland notes that per this plan, it's possible or even likely that the Senate Republican retreat, also slated for late next week, will get knocked off schedule by the voting.  Since Bush routinely attends this retreat, he may also have to adjust his schedule accordingly.

Conservative judicial activists say the Alito hearings show that "Republicans no longer need to nominate 'stealth' Supreme Court nominees whose views on abortion rights are unknown...  Alito's apparent success in the Judiciary Committee, despite his refusal to disavow his statement on abortion in 1985, has revealed that most senators are likely to accept a nominee with some record of skepticism about Roe v. Wade," reports the Boston Globe.

The Boston Globe's Canellos examines the dynamics of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  While Alito "maintained a placid demeanor, the committee was a perfect illustration of the tensions that have come to define the Senate -- between the more collegial older generation and the more aggressive younger senators, and between razor-sharp partisans of both parties."

Ethics
In an interview with the Washington Times, Laura Bush refuted Democrats' "culture of corruption" charges "and said she'd be 'glad' to campaign for Republican candidates in the fall...  Mrs. Bush made clear that 'there's certainly not a role for any sort of bribery or anything that would be considered corrupt,' but said many lobbyists play vital roles in public policy."

The New York Times profiles Rep. Bob Ney (R) and his links to Abramoff.

The Houston Chronicle notes how a longshot Democratic challenger, David Murff, is invoking DeLay’s name in his bid to unseat another Texas Republican, Rep. John Culberson.  “‘Culberson is tied in with DeLay, as close as he can get,’ said Murff.”

The Washington Times also has political observers suggesting that the Abramoff scandal, along with the Iraq war, might "form the bridge to the presidential promised land in 2008 for Sen. John McCain."  "There is irony in Mr. McCain's image as a champion of reform," the paper notes, "because he was the lone Republican member of" the Keating Five.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page asserts, "The real test of 'reform' will be if the Members are willing to discipline themselves.  That's a good standard for measuring the race for House GOP Majority Leader, too...  Too many Republicans are living in a political fantasy that they can purge the Abramoff taint merely by banishing Tom DeLay and making it harder for lobbyists to pay their links fees.  Voters aren't as dumb as they think."

The House GOP
Majority leader candidate John Boehner has an op-ed in the Journal today in which he lays out his lobbying/ethics reform proposal, highlighting his proposed ban on earmarks.  "The best way to deal with influence peddling in Washington is to move more power out of the Beltway and back to states and communities.  We can start by putting Congress on a lower-pork diet and fixing the broken system we have today."

The Washington Post says Hastert's speaker gig is safe for now, but notes "rumblings among some lawmakers and aides that he waited too long to act" as ethics problems unfolded around some in his ranks, and "watchdog organizations have said Hastert deserves scrutiny.  After all, they note, Hastert signed a letter to the interior secretary in 2003 on behalf of one of Abramoff's Indian tribe clients days after a fundraiser for Hastert at Abramoff's posh Washington restaurant."

The Bush agenda
In its profile of chief White House economic advisor Al Hubbard, Bloomberg points out that Hubbard's "interest in loosening government constraints on insurers, drugmakers and providers now is rising to the top of a constrained 2006 Bush agenda, which will be announced in the" State of the Union address.  As far as the SOTU is concerned, the story notes that "the focus on the conflict in Iraq, a widening of the federal budget deficit because of war and hurricane recovery costs and job-approval ratings hovering around 45 percent will keep [Bush] from pushing sweeping new ideas.  Instead, Bush is likely to seek incremental adjustments to existing programs and laws or items left over from his first term.  Those include giving bigger tax breaks for fuel efficient vehicles, expanding grants to religious-based charitable groups and confronting the rising cost of health care and numbers."

Senate Homeland Security panel chair Susan Collins, who will travel to the Gulf Coast today for a hearing on Katrina relief, says the federal government hasn't done enough to help the region, reports the AP.  "In prepared testimony..., the Bush administration's Gulf Coast rebuilding czar outlined two top priorities for Mississippi: debris removal and temporary housing for evacuees."

Leaders of the labor unions AFSCME and SEIU will host a conference call at 12:30 pm today to announce a new ad campaign that urges moderate House Republicans to oppose the GOP budget-reconciliation bill held over from late last year.  The 11 targets are Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (MO); Sherwood Boehlert (NY); Jim Nussle (IA); Mark Green (WI); Nancy Johnson, Rob Simmons, and Chris Shays (CT); Mike Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach (PA); Fred Upton (MI); and Bob Beauprez (CO).  The ads begin running tomorrow for a week at a buy of about $500,000.  Nussle, Green, and Beauprez are running for governor, while Gerlach, Fitzpatrick, Simmons, and Shays are expected to wind up in very competitive House races this fall.  Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities spokesperson Brad Woodhouse tells First Read that the Abramoff scandal ties into the Democrats' campaign to defeat the GOP's budget and tax cuts.  What the budget cuts are all about, he says, is providing tax cuts for special interests.  "Why are the only people being asked to make sacrifices are those who can't afford lobbyists?"

It's the economy
Bush is scheduled to give remarks on the economy in Virginia on Thursday.  Some economic conditions worth noting in advance of that speech:

"Crude oil rose to its highest in more than three months, topping $65 a barrel in New York, on concern unrest in Nigeria and possible United Nations sanctions against Iran will disrupt supplies from the two countries, which together account for 7.5 percent of global production." - Bloomberg

Bloomberg also observes that "pay is rising at a slower rate than in any similar expansion since the end of World War II," and says that the fact that "American workers have rarely taken home a smaller share of the nation's prosperity... is undermining bipartisan support for free trade and creating friction between [Bush's] administration and the Federal Reserve."  The "administration is struggling to muster support for lower trade barriers even with the jobless rate at a four-year low.  The imbalance has also triggered a debate between Bush's Treasury Department and the Fed about how low unemployment can go without kindling inflation."

"Economic growth slowed late last year, fueling a debate over whether higher interest rates, higher energy costs and a cooling housing market will damp the U.S. expansion this year," says the Wall Street Journal.  "Still, U.S. consumers have repeatedly defied previous predictions of their retreat."

The Democrats
Two of the best-recognized Democrats in the country went after the Bush GOP yesterday for its approach to governing.  Sen. Hillary Clinton compared the Republican-run House of Representatives to a plantation, and said the Senate in which she serves is only marginally better, while Al Gore charged that Congress has become almost entirely subservient to the executive branch.

At an MLK Day event, Clinton "blasted the Bush administration as 'one of the worst' in U.S. history and compared the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to a plantation where dissenting voices are squelched...  RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said: 'On a day when Americans are focused on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Hillary Clinton is focused on the legacy of Hillary Clinton.'" - AP

Republicans criticized her remarks, “but black leaders came to her defense," notes the New York Times.

A New York Daily News analysis notes that Clinton’s speech “at least momentarily complicates her move-to-the-middle blueprint.”

Gore, meanwhile, called the NSA domestic wiretapping program 'part of a "dangerous overreach' of executive power that threatens the Constitution," and called for a special counsel to look into the program.  – USA Today

The Los Angeles Times says Attorney General Al Gonzales "suggested that he did not consider such an investigation necessary because he believes the president has the legal authority to order the NSA surveillance."  Gore "did not specifically call for Bush's impeachment," the paper notes.  "But Gore repeatedly argued that Bush's authorization of the domestic surveillance and other administration assertions of executive authority in the struggle against terrorism threatened 'the rule of law,' the same phrase House Republicans stressed in their impeachment case against President Clinton."

A Democratic communications strategist writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the Alito hearings spotlit "the heart of the problem with our party and its angry activist base...  We think that if we simply call someone conservative, anti-choice and anti-civil rights, that's enough to scare people to our side.  But that tired dogma won't hunt in today's electorate, which is far more independent-thinking and complex in its views on values than our side presumes."

The Democratic National Committee has a new fundraising chief, Carl Chidlow.

The midterms
A lot of states are showing surpluses again, and the Los Angeles Times notices that "governors - and in some cases the candidates vying to replace them - are pushing multibillion-dollar solutions to chronic highway traffic and other big infrastructure problems...  These mega-proposals from state leaders reflect many economic and political currents, including bigger revenue projections from an improving economy in many states, unexpected congressional largesse in last year's $300-billion highway bill, and polling that indicates voters are fed up with traffic.  But they also represent a clear gamble on a sort of fix-the-potholes theory of campaigning, in which many state leaders seem willing to risk the big-spender tag for the big-fixer mantle."

The San Francisco Chronicle says that GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sounded like a true-blue Democrat in his MLK Day remarks yesterday.  “Engaged in his mission to get back to the moderate middle, Schwarzenegger took a Democratic tone, speaking in favor of public service, recalling his relationship with his father-in-law, Sargent Shriver... while extolling equal opportunity in California's public schools.”

A crowded field in Iowa's gubernatorial election is generating a lot of interest and voter participation this year, reports the Des Moines Register.  With Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) retiring, the precinct "caucuses had more practical significance to the large field of Democrats running for governor, each hoping to gain even a slight advantage.  Seven candidates are seeking the nomination, and one must gain at least 35 percent of the vote to be nominated in the June 6 primary."

Rep. Bob Menendez (D) gets sworn in tomorrow to fill the remainder of Jon Corzine’s Senate term, but a new Fairleigh Dickinson poll shows him trailing GOP opponent Tom Kean Jr. (R), 36% to 25%; 37% were undecided. – New York Post

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