updated 2/14/2006 9:21:59 AM ET 2006-02-14T14:21:59

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First glance
If politics feels like the Star Wars bar scene this week, it's due to a bizarre confluence of scheduled and unscheduled circumstances. Washington is being overtaken by college football heroes, a bizarre shotgun accident, and George Lucas -- all at once.

  1. Other political news of note
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      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

President Bush, the Longhorn Dad who used to lift weights at the UT football complex when he was Texas governor, appears with the national champion Texas Longhorn football team at 1:05 pm. He then meets with the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation at 2:10 pm. And then he attends a Valentine’s Day social dinner (closed to the press) at 7:40 pm.

But the big story at the White House continues to center on what exactly happened in Vice President Cheney’s hunting accident in South Texas -- and why the national press corps wasn’t informed about it until the next day. Indeed, the Administration is tangled up in yet another timeline and struggling to explain its response to another crisis. But even its response to Hurricane Katrina may never have consumed the first 18 pages of a 27-page White House briefing transcript, as Cheney’s hunting accident did yesterday. If the press corps' grilling of spokesman Scott McClellan seems a bit out of proportion to the seriousness of the incident (with Harry Whittington thankfully expected to recover), it's an accurate measure of its mounting frustration with the White House's methods of disclosing -- and not disclosing -- information that's in the public interest.

NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reports that Cheney accidentally shot Austin attorney Harry Whittington at 6:50 pm ET on Saturday, and that chief of staff Andy Card first notified President Bush an accident had occurred at around 7:30 pm. Shortly before 8:00 pm, Karl Rove phoned the President and informed him Cheney had been the one who fired the weapon. Cheney then spoke with White House senior staff, but didn’t speak directly to Bush about the incident until he arrived back at the White House yesterday morning for their regularly scheduled briefing.

(For those hungry to hear new jokes about all of this, read below -- or tune into MSNBC’s Hardball at 5:00 pm ET, featuring comedian Bill Maher.)

Meanwhile, on the Hill, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds an Innovation Generation town hall meeting at 11:00 am with Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas and about 100 college students. (With this Lucas appearance, and with House Republicans entertained last weekend to a video portraying Pelosi as Darth Vader and the Democrats as the “Evil Empire,” Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider tells First Read, "Republicans have reason to worry this year because 'The Force' is with Democrats.")

In other news on Capitol Hill, NBC’s Ken Strickland says Homeland Security Michael Chertoff -- a day after denying that his department doesn’t pay enough attention to natural disasters -- was expected to face tough questioning today while appearing before the Senate committee tasked with investigating the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But Chertoff’s appearance was scratched due to a conflict with the vote schedule (and his appearance will be rescheduled at a date TBD). Yet other Katrina-related events still go on: At 2:45 pm, Democratic Sens. Clinton, Landrieu, and Salazar hold a news conference to call for renewed attention to Katrina, especially in light of recent reports that the White House knew far earlier than it previously admitted that the New Orleans levee system had failed.

Lastly, in advance of Bush’s visit to Ohio tomorrow (where he’ll talk about health care), there’s some big political news to report out of the Buckeye State that affects both parties. On the Democratic side, Iraq war vet Paul Hackett yesterday announced he was pulling out of his Senate bid -- not necessarily by his own choice -- leaving Rep. Sherrod Brown as the sole Democrat to face off against Sen. Mike DeWine (R). And on the Republican side, coin dealer and GOP fundraiser Tom Noe was charged with stealing more than $1 million in a state investment scandal that has rocked his state’s political party.

Cheney’s misfire
Cheney has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting by the Kenedy County Sheriff's Office, but was found to be in violation of one minor requirement: having lacked a $7 stamp to hunt upland game birds. Last night, however, Cheney’s office released a detailed statement explaining how it was handling that violation. (Are we the only ones who find it interesting that Cheney’s office sent out this statement -- but not one about the shooting accident?)

The Washington Post front-pages how "the White House allowed Cheney to decide when and how to disclose details of the shooting to the local sheriff and the public the next morning... Cheney's spokesman said the vice president was more concerned about the health of the accident's victim, Republican lawyer Harry Whittington. But even some White House officials said Cheney mishandled the response and opened the administration to criticism." More: "It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the White House to allow a private citizen serve as its de facto spokesman," which is what happened in this case. "But current and former aides said the White House rarely imposes its practices, especially on press matters, on Cheney."

The New York Times says yesterday’s grilling from the press corps “came in part from questions about whether Mr. Cheney - who is already known for his inclination to keep his business, professional and political dealings behind closed doors - might have been trying to play down the incident, a suggestion rejected by those who were with Mr. Cheney over the weekend.”

The San Francisco Chronicle: “… Monday's kabuki was extraordinary not so much for the belligerence of the reporters and the non-responsiveness of the press secretary, but for the nature of the issue at hand, which this time did not concern the attack on Iraq, surveillance of U.S. citizens or the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.”

The White House and McClellan tried to assign blame to Whittington for not announcing his position to Cheney, Knight Ridder notes. But: “Several hunting experts were skeptical of McClellan's explanation. They said Cheney might have violated a cardinal rule of hunting: Know your surroundings before you pull the trigger."

Cheney's hunting misadventure, Day and Late-Night One:
Los Angeles Times
Bloomberg
Washington Post
New York Times

Security and disaster politics
USA Today reports on the military's expectations that the main fighting in Iraq can be done by Iraqi forces rather than by US troops by year's end.

The new Gallup poll shows that "Americans are deeply worried about the possibility that Iran will develop nuclear weapons and use them against the USA,... but they also fear that the Bush administration will be "too quick" to order military action against Iran... Among those polled, 55% say they lack confidence in the administration's ability to handle the situation in Iran. And Bush's approval rating has dipped to 39%, the first time below 40% since November, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The State of the Union address and a series of speeches in recent weeks have failed to bolster views of the president or his actions."

The New York Daily News puts it this way: “So much for the mythical State of the Union address bounce.”

The American Bar Association is denouncing Bush's warrant-less domestic surveillance program and accusing the president "of exceeding his powers under the Constitution," the AP says.

The AP says the Bush Administration fired back yesterday at critics, saying they are unfairly blaming Bush for the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

Budget and spending politics
"President Bush’s plan to cut the rate of growth in Medicare spending is likely to face significant opposition in the Senate, particularly from a small group of moderate lawmakers and vulnerable incumbents who are loath to reduce funding for the health care entitlement for older Americans," Roll Call reports. "No official coalition of moderates opposed to Medicare curbs has yet emerged, but those moderates who opposed entitlement cuts last year are now "seeing their ranks expanded by a staunch conservative" -- Senate GOP conference chair Rick Santorum -- "who is facing a tough re-election race this year."

"President Bush has requested billions more to prepare for potential disasters such as a biological attack or an influenza epidemic," the Washington Post reports, "but his proposed budget for next year would zero out popular health projects," including "inner-city Indian health clinics, defibrillators in rural areas, an educational campaign about Alzheimer's disease, centers for traumatic brain injuries, and a nationwide registry for Lou Gehrig's disease." It would also "kill the entire budget of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center."

The New York Times reports that the federal government “is on the verge of one of the biggest giveaways of oil and gas in American history, worth an estimated $7 billion over five years. New projections, buried in the Interior Department's just-published budget plan, anticipate that the government will let companies pump about $65 billion worth of oil and natural gas from federal territory over the next five years without paying any royalties to the government… The new projections come at a moment when President Bush and Republican leaders are on the defensive about record-high energy prices, soaring profits at major oil companies and big cuts in domestic spending.”

More on the Bush agenda
The Senate faces a nail-biter, potentially make-or-break vote this afternoon on the asbestos litigation reform bill, a tort-reform measure with qualified backing from the White House that would set up a trust fund to compensate asbestos victims outside the court system. The vote is significant, albeit complicated, because asbestos reform is part of Bush's tort-reform agenda -- and because it's rare to see a Senate vote these days whose outcome isn't predetermined.

The Hill reports "some frustration among Democrats that their steady drumbeat on corruption isn’t connecting with voters as much as they’d like," and notes their effort to connect that argument to issues voters care about like drug and energy prices and tuition costs. "Democratic strategists say the new phrase helps combine two aspects of their message: Republican corruption and the squeeze on the middle class."

The Boston Globe writes about a new Government Accountability Office study, which finds that the Bush Administration has spent more than $1.6 billion on advertising and public relations campaigns to "promote its policies and programs" over the past 30 months. The spending includes "$2.5 million to present the Army's strategy in the global war on terrorism; $86 million to explain the new Medicare prescription drug benefit in a bilingual ad campaign; and $29,900 to warn the public of the 'consequences and potential dangers' of buying prescription drugs from foreign sources.”

Ethics
In the wake of the e-mails reported by the Washingtonian and the photo released by Time magazine, the AP writes about the apparent conflict between what former Abramoff associates say the indicted lobbyist told them about his "strong" ties to Karl Rove, and the White House's statement yesterday that "Rove remembers meeting Abramoff at a 1990s political meeting and considered the lobbyist a 'casual acquaintance' since President Bush took office in 2001... Three former business associates of Abramoff, who worked with the lobbyist in various roles between 2001 and 2004, told The Associated Press that Abramoff routinely mentioned Rove when talking about his influence inside the White House."

The Los Angeles Times front-pages its latest look at how GOP Rep. Richard Pombo's legislative mission, to undo the Endangered Species Act, is being hindered by scrutiny of his efforts on behalf of campaign contributors like "agribusiness, the oil and gas industry, builders, utilities and mining" -- and of his ties to Abramoff clients and associates.

The Wall Street Journal reports, "U.S. corporations and interest groups spent a total of $1.16 billion to lobby Washington in the first half of 2005, setting a record." "Since 1999, the lobbying business in Washington has increased about 10% annually. The 8% increase in the first half of 2005 was driven by lobbying on President Bush's Social Security overhaul plan and a trio of tort-reform issues," including the asbestos bill.

The AP says that Tom Noe, an Ohio Republican coin dealer and prominent GOP fundraiser, was charged yesterday with stealing “at least $1 million from a state investment in rare coins that has embroiled Republicans in scandal during an election year… The investigation led to sweeping changes at the state workers' compensation bureau, an agreement by Gov. Bob Taft and two former aides to plead no contest to ethics charges, and pending charges against two other former Taft aides.”

The Toledo Blade adds that Noe "was charged with 22 counts of forgery, 11 counts of money laundering, eight counts of tampering with records, six counts of aggravated theft, five counts of grand theft, and one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act... The indictment marks the first felony charges leveled as part of the wide-ranging investigation into Mr. Noe and the state’s rare-coin investments that was sparked by reports in The Blade beginning April 3."

According to NBC's Joel Seidman, newly released court transcripts of a February 3 hearing in the case of Lewis "Scooter" Libby indicate that at least six government agencies are reviewing classified documents Libby may want to use at his trial as evidence next January. The outcome of that review will determine how quickly the trial will progress.

It's the economy
The White House Council of Economic Advisers' report to the President was overshadowed by Cheney's hunting accident, but the financial press notes that the team predicts "U.S. economic growth will be robust for several years and inflation will remain tame, fueling an expansion that will keep unemployment low and foreign investment flowing to the world's largest economy... For some economists, a major threat to the U.S. economy is the growing current account deficit... Bush's economic aides said foreign investors likely will continue to contribute to funding the current account deficit, though at lower growth rates than in recent years." - Bloomberg

The Wall Street Journal says the report strikes "a more optimistic tone than many economists," downplaying, for example, the nation's "rock-bottom personal-saving rate and record trade deficit."

The Senate Banking Committee considers Bush's two latest nominees to the Fed in advance of new chair Ben Bernanke's debut testimony before Congress tomorrow and Thursday. - Bloomberg

The midterms and the Olympics
The New York Times on Paul Hackett’s (D) decision to pull out of the Ohio Senate race -- and also not run for the House: “Mr. Hackett said Senators Charles E. Schumer of New York and Harry Reid of Nevada, the same party leaders who he said persuaded him last August to enter the Senate race, had pushed him to step aside so that Representative Sherrod Brown … could take on Senator Mike DeWine, the Republican incumbent…‘This is an extremely disappointing decision that I feel has been forced on me,’ said Mr. Hackett… He said he was outraged to learn that party leaders were calling his donors and asking them to stop giving and said he would not enter the Second District Congressional race.”

Likely Hillary Clinton Senate challenger John Spencer (R) said that Clinton's "criticism of the Bush administration ‘aids and abets our enemies’ in the battle against terrorism" and that the Senator "'puts politics first in our war on terror and our troops second,'" the New York Daily News writes.

The White House announced yesterday that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani will lead the US delegation for the closing ceremonies at the Torino Olympics. But Giuliani won't be the only potential GOP 2008 presidential contender attending the games: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also is there now partaking in the festivities.

The AP: “Mr. Giuliani … will be joined by the United States ambassador to Italy, Ronald P. Spogli, the race car driver Mario Andretti, and Dr. A. Kenneth Ciongoli, chairman of the National Italian American Foundation.”

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