“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, January 23, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
The Bush Administration's campaign to rally support for their NSA domestic spying program in advance of Senate hearings on February 6 now matches the intensity of their all-out 2005 push to establish private accounts for Social Security.  Unlike that uphill fight on unfamiliar territory, however, they're fighting this battle on familiar turf, employing the same arguments and tactics they used against Democrats in 2002 and 2004.  There's just one little tweak: They are taking care to note that they aren't questioning Democrats' patriotism -- just their approach to fighting terrorism.  Karl Rove said on Friday, "Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview, and Democrats have a pre-9/11 world view...  It does not make them unpatriotic.  It does make them wrong."

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Republicans clearly see an opening to try to tarnish Democrats not only for 2006 but also for 2008, going after any Democrat with national standing or aspirations, judging from the Republican National Committee's release yesterday lumping Sens. John Kerry and Barack Obama together in response to their criticisms of the NSA program.  "When Democrats illustrate that they fail to understand the dynamic and dangers of a post 9/11 world, we’ll work to point that out," RNC communications director Brian Jones tells First Read.

The Administration seems confident of two things: 1) that the public cares more about the war than they do about government corruption and reform, on which Democrats are focusing their efforts, and 2) that when the debate over their anti-terror policies, both the NSA program and the Patriot Act, is framed as a choice between personal safety and personal liberties, a majority of the public will come down in favor of safety.  Democrats argue that this choice is false but have yet to articulate that argument forcefully enough to beat back the now-incessant pounding from all levels of the GOP, whose argument also overlooks opposition to the policies from within the party.

Taken up a notch last Friday in twin speeches by the GOP's top political operatives, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, the argument will be ratcheted up further by President Bush himself today in a speech on the war on terror at Kansas State University at 12:30 pm ET.  Bush also will visit the NSA on Wednesday, while former NSA director General Michael Hayden speaks at the National Press Club today and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gives a speech tomorrow.

And although Republican campaign committee operatives (especially at the House level) have been insisting that the midterm elections will be local races decided on local issues, Rove clearly sought to nationalize the elections in his remarks on Friday.  "Democrats and Republicans have deep differences about our nation, where it is going, and what needs to be done to make it stronger, better, and safer," he said. "Those differences should be debated this year -- openly, publicly, passionately."  We'll see if GOP Senate campaign committee chair Elizabeth Dole echoes this sentiment in her off-camera briefing for reporters on the 2006 Senate playing field at 2:00 pm today.

As tends to happen when the White House goes full-bore on the war on terror, other issues move to the back burner.  Health care, tax cuts and spending cuts have all been identified as areas Bush will focus on in his State of the Union address one week from tomorrow, but after touching on these issues in his Saturday radio address, Bush presently has no economic events on his schedule for this week.  Meanwhile, his efforts to tout signs of a strong US economy are being complicated by the rising price of oil, now approaching record levels with the potential to reach new heights; Friday's stock-market drop, the biggest in nearly three years, which wiped out the gains made earlier in the year; and Ford Motor Co.'s expected announcement today that it will cut up to 30,000 jobs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote out the Alito nomination on a party-line vote (10-8) tomorrow, and the Senate will begin debating the nomination on Wednesday.  The final confirmation vote could come as early as Friday or as late as next Tuesday.  The Senate floor remains closed for business until Wednesday.  Although the Senate returned on January 18, Majority Leader Bill Frist basically shut down the floor for any votes until January 25; pro forma sessions will take place until then.

As a reminder of how new legislative priorities are now crowding those held over from late last year, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over mining issues will hold a hearing on mining safety today at 11:00 am.

Also today, Bush calls participants in the March for Life in Washington from his event site in Kansas at 12:10 pm ET.  Late last Friday, after the start of the evening news broadcasts, the White House announced Bush's proclamation of January 22 (yesterday) as National Sanctity of Human Life day, to "underscore" the Administration's "commitment to building a culture of life where all individuals are welcomed in life and protected in law," per the release.

Security politics
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) will appear with Bush at his speech today.  "'Personally, I'm kind of excited,' she said during a Statehouse news conference.  'I might get to bend his ear on a few topics.'"  Outside, the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice will organize a protest, as announced on the state party's website.

USA Today on the Administration's campaign for its NSA program: "Bush and aides plan to repeat arguments they have made before: This is a limited program that kicks in only when one of the parties is beyond U.S. borders and has some kind of link to the al-Qaeda terrorist organization...  Democrats say they also want to fight terrorism, but some say the once-secret program is unconstitutional because it permits eavesdropping on some U.S. citizens without a court warrant."

“Whether the White House can succeed depends very much, members of both parties say, on its success in framing a complicated debate when the country is torn between its historic aversion to governmental intrusion and its recent fear of terrorist attacks at home," notes the New York Times.  Another complication for the White House, the paper adds, is that some Republicans have been critical of the program.

The Sacramento Bee also notes that some prominent conservative organizations like the American Conservative Union are opposed to the program.

The Los Angeles Times recaps Sen. John McCain (R) saying yesterday that "Congress should play a larger role in determining how the surveillance should be run."

In a lead that harks back to his position on Iraq from 2004, the Washington Times reports that "Kerry yesterday called the National Security Agency's program to eavesdrop on terror suspects illegal, but he said he will continue to support its funding."  He also called for a special counsel to investigate.

USA Today profiles Major Tammy Duckworth, "the only seriously wounded combat veteran running this year for Congress, whose ranks of members with military experience are at their lowest since World War II...  But at least nine other veterans who served in the post-Sept. 11 military have announced House bids.  All but one - Republican Van Taylor in Texas - are Democrats who have criticized the Bush administration's conduct of the war."  Duckworth is seeking retiring GOP Rep. Henry Hyde's seat.  and

And analysts tell Bloomberg that "Iran and its nuclear program today are far more dangerous than Iraq's was, and U.S. options are far more limited" because of what's happened in Iraq.  "With 140,000 troops tied down in Iraq, the U.S. military can't support another invasion and occupation."

Common Cause hosts a panel discussion today at the National Press Club at 9:30 am on "restoring ethics in Washington" and the possible creation of an independent ethics commission.

The Washingtonian magazine was the first to report five known photographs of Bush and Abramoff.  Time magazine says most of the pictures have the formal look of photos taken at presidential receptions.

Bob Novak interviews McCain, who says that both the Democratic and Republican ethics-reform proposals fall short.  McCain believes the reform “must have two salient characteristics...  It must be bipartisan, and it must eviscerate, if not eliminate, earmarks.”

The Washington Post's Birnbaum pans the current lobbying reform proposals: "Unfortunately, superficial alterations are all that most lawmakers will accept.  To go deeper and attack the capital's cash-driven culture would threaten what they care most about: getting reelected...  Hence the recommendations we see.  The plans offered by both parties deal too often with petty issues and sidestep anything life-changing.  And the concerns that are addressed are dealt with ineffectively."

The Washington Post also writes up a good-government group's report on the activities of the GOP-affiliated Ripon Society and its affiliated educational fund, which have acted as a "travel agency to lobbyists" and Hill lawmakers.

Per Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, the liberal Campaign for America’s Future's revised TV ad, which hammers Rep. Tom DeLay (R) for his links to Jack Abramoff, is now running on two Houston stations.

Other people's elections
Canada's Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, may well oust Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Liberal Party from power today despite record-low unemployment across the nation.  Harper campaigned on GOP themes -- and a pledge to clean up government.  "Preliminary results will be aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and CTV as voting ends in each region, starting after 7 p.m. New York time when polls close in Newfoundland...  The leader of the party with the most seats becomes the prime minister." - Bloomberg

A Conservative win would be the first in 13 years.  "Such a shift in attitudes would be striking in a country known for leaning left...  The Conservatives have attracted voters with a platform that echoes priorities of Republicans in the United States: lower taxes, a beefed-up military, tougher sentences for drug crimes, and less federal government interference in local affairs." – Boston Globe

"Canada has near-record-low unemployment and several years of federal budget surpluses," but "Liberals have struggled in the wake of two corruption investigations.  Although Martin has been exonerated by an ongoing inquiry into a kickback scheme in the 1990s involving public funds, the investigation has implicated some other Liberals." – USA Today

The GOP agenda
The AP notes three SOTU themes Bush test-drove in his Saturday radio address: "tax cuts, energy prices and the rising cost of health care."

The Los Angeles Times says Bush's expected proposals "to make the nation's healthcare system more efficient" are likely "to revive a bitter debate - begun last year over Social Security - about how much of life's biggest risks Americans should bear on their own...  Despite the political drubbing that the administration sustained on Social Security and over the flawed rollout of its Medicare prescription drug benefit, Bush appears eager to return to the fray."  Attention bookers: Stanford's John Cogan and Columbia's Glenn Hubbard are the point-men for the Administration on this issue.

We noticed that in listing the Administration's achievements in their remarks to the RNC meeting last Friday, neither Rove nor Mehlman mentioned the Medicare prescription-drug law, which was once billed as Bush's signature domestic achievement.  We also noticed how Mehlman sought to tie the current problems with corruption in Washington to the size of the federal government and set up further tax cuts as a cure: "And what history teaches us is that the best tool to reduce corruption is to reduce the power of the government here in Washington and make sure it rests with the people," he said.  "That's why we cut the taxes."  We feel obliged to note that 1) taxes have indeed been cut, and these instances of corruption have occurred under the Bush Administration's watch, anyway; and 2) Bush has grown the government by a whole new federal agency and a new entitlement program, the prescription-drug law.

BusinessWeek recently reported that Bush may roll the dice and pass on trying to fix the alternative minimum tax this year.  If true, 16 million US households could wind up paying higher taxes.  Business and political strategist Wiliam K. Moore notes to clients, "The strategy would pressure Democrats to agree to extend capital gains and dividends tax cuts in exchange for an AMT solution.  Should the strategy work, it would be a coup for President Bush; if it fails, Republicans risk the wrath of irate taxpayers."

The Washington Post front-pages a look at how "[m]any current and former lawyers in the" Justice Department's voting rights section "charge that senior officials have exerted undue political influence in many of the sensitive voting-rights cases the unit handles," particularly cases involving Georgia and Texas.  "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and his aides dispute such criticism and defend the department's actions in voting cases."

The Democrats
In separate radio addresses on Saturday, Bush and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid previewed what their parties may be focusing on in the coming year.  Reuters notes that Bush "pledged to fight soaring healthcare costs," while Reid "blamed Republicans for problems in a new prescription-drug program and recent corruption scandals."  Both also "made their cases about recent tax cuts.  Bush called for making the cuts permanent, while Reid accused Republicans of promoting the tax breaks as part of a deficit-reduction effort when they would actually increase it." – Boston Globe

The Los Angeles Times profiles House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, how she handles her job of herding the cats of the House Democratic caucus, and what they've accomplished under her leadership.  Pelosi's critics within the party think she's a flawed messenger on national security in particular.

The New York Post reports that Sen. Hillary Clinton voted with Democratic party leaders "at a 96 percent clip last year, according to an analysis of 229 Senate votes conducted by Congressional Quarterly - second among 2008 Dem White House hopefuls only to Sen. John Kerry, who toed the line 97 percent of the time.”

It's the economy
The Wall Street Journal, covering last Friday's market drop, notes that "unless the oil outlook does a smart about-face, the stock market could be facing some rough going."

The New York Times says that while oil and gas profits are soaring, the federal government and American taxpayers haven't reaped the tax windfall you might expect.  “If royalty payments in fiscal 2005 for natural gas had risen in step with market prices, the government would have received about $700 million more than it actually did, a three-month investigation by The New York Times has found.  But an often byzantine set of federal regulations … allowed companies producing natural gas to provide the Interior Department with much lower sale prices… than they reported to their shareholders.”

As Fed chief Alan Greenspan prepares to retire one week from tomorrow, the Washington Post weighs his legacy: "Under Greenspan's watch, the economy thrived despite stock market crashes, international financial crises, terrorist attacks, wars and other shocks...  Still, his legacy will be judged not just by his record at the Fed, but also by the economy he bequeaths...  Greenspan leaves a nation awash in debt -- record household debt and a record trade gap." 

Economists predict that the Fed will raise interest rates yet again when it meets one week from Tuesday.

The values debate
Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean continues to try to change the party's image on abortion by casting it as a privacy issue in his statement marking the Roe v. Wade anniversary: "We can all agree that abortion should be rare, but it should also be safe and legal.  This difficult personal health care decision should be made by a woman, in consultation with her physician, and not by politicians in Washington."

In advance of the March for Life today, the Washington Times says pro-life activists "are buoyed by developments they see as promising for their cause, both at the state and federal levels."  Specifically, they are "excited about broad abortion bans proposed by lawmakers in two states, Ohio and Indiana.  It's their hope that these bills become law and that the statutes are eventually considered and upheld by a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court in a challenge to" Roe.

The Boston Globe examines the dynamics of the abortion debate in Nebraska, where there's a "disconnect between public opinion and public policy," and how it relates to the Alito nomination: "while Alito has pledged to retain an open mind on abortion, Democrats appear to have the ammunition to mount a fight over abortion rights -- but not the conviction that the public will back them... They could find part of the reason why in Nebraska," which "is more conservative than most, but polls indicate that Nebraskans view abortion rights much as the rest of the country does..."

At the same time that Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) -- who won election last year in part by constantly invoking his Catholic faith -- is preparing to give his party's response to Bush’s State of the Union address, the American Prospect examines new Democratic polling research showing that values, not pocketbook issues, matter much more to voters.

The midterms
Democrats selected Kaine to deliver their response to the SOTU to highlight their ability to beat Republicans in red states in advance of the midterm elections.  But Kaine's win came at a cost to the party that will also reverberate into the midterm election year: the Democratic National Committee had $5.5 million in the bank at the end of 2005, compared to the Republican National Committee's $35 million, after the DNC spent heavily to win the Virginia and New Jersey governorships.  The RNC points out to First Read that this is their largest cash-on-hand lead over the DNC in over a decade.

Seventy-eight-year-old former Rep. Paul “Pete” McCloskey (R) will announce today that he's challenging Rep. Richard Pombo for the Republican nomination in Pombo's district.

Per GOP insiders, “billionaire Tom Golisano is poised to jump into the governor's race as a Republican - and could spend $125 million of his own money.”  If he does make the jump, Golisano would face former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld in a competitive GOP primary. – New York Daily News


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