updated 2/28/2006 9:19:20 AM ET 2006-02-28T14:19:20

“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
President Bush leaves his low job approval ratings and security issues behind as he heads to India, a large country that likes the United States and offers an economic counterbalance to China.  Bush also leaves behind a vice president who will pick up the national security banner with a speech -- his first since the ports controversy blew up -- to the American Legion convention in Washington at 11:30 am.  Bush meets with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi this morning before heading out.

  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

The New York Times/CBS poll has Bush's job approval at 34% and shows 70% opposing the Dubai Ports World deal.  The Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll shows Bush's job approval at 40%, and 61% of adults saying that Congress should block the DP World deal, while 27% say to "trust President Bush and his Administration in their decision."  NBC political analyst Charlie Cook and a national Republican pollster we spoke with say the apparent lack of trust in Bush on this issue reflects not so much any one thing that's happened recently as it reflects a combination of everything that's happened, but the pollster notes that the "the ultimate driver is the war."

A Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the DP World deal that was originally scheduled for Thursday has been bumped up to 2:30 pm today to accommodate the schedules of key witnesses, NBC's Ken Strickland says.  On the other side of the Hill, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports, House Republican leaders had set aside their regular Tuesday planning session to figure out how to deal with the deal, and two hearings looking into the matter were slated for this week.  All those events will still go forward, Viq says -- just perhaps not with the same urgency that surrounded them last week, before the new review was announced.

At least one of the two national party committee chairs plans to bring up DP World in remarks this morning before the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Washington.  Ken Mehlman and Howard Dean speak back-to-back between 8:00 and 9:30 am today and each will take questions from the audience.  The DNC tells us that Dean will address the ports deal and Karl Rove's assertion that Republicans will run on national security in the midterm elections.  Per excerpts of Mehlman's speech, he plans to talk about Israel's history as the "strongest" US ally in the Middle East, on UN reform, and on the Sudan.

The Senate also holds a cloture vote on the Patriot Act today.  Spotting an opening to try to turn the national security tables on Democrats in the midst of the ports controversy, Senate Republicans are pointing out that "Democrats are worried about port security," as the Senate GOP Conference e-mail reads, "but they have blocked the Patriot Act for months, even though it includes vital provisions that make our ports safer."  Tomorrow, the House will hold a final vote on the Patriot Act.  House GOP leaders are so confident that the reauthorization will pass that they're bringing up the measure under special rules that require the support of two-thirds of those voting, Viq says.

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds its second public hearing on the NSA program today.  Democrats on House Armed Services will employ procedures to try and force an investigation of the program, per Viq, but it will likely fail for lack of support.

Also today, former President Clinton will deliver the final keynote address at the National Governors Association meeting at 10:00 am.  He will focus on fighting childhood obesity and elaborate on the costs of fighting the problem and what his foundation is doing to help draw attention to it.

Energy is also a hot topic at the governors' meeting today.  Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Sen. Barack Obama will also address the conference; Obama, speaking immediately after Bodman, will talk about what Bush has called America's "addiction to oil" and how energy independence is vital to national security.  "...[T]he Achilles heel of the most powerful country on Earth is the oil we cannot live without," Obama will say, per excerpts of his speech.  The Democratic governors of New Mexico, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Montana do a press breakfast this morning to talk about energy issues.

Also today, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa speaks at the National Press Club's Newsmaker Luncheon at 1:00 pm.  Vilsack, who rarely uses a text and even more rarely uses a speechwriter, says he'll do this one extemporaneously, as well.

House and Senate Democrats hold a press conference at 2:45 pm to talk about the town hall events focusing on problems with the Medicare prescription-drug benefit that Democratic members held over the recess.

The Texas primaries are one week from today, raising the stakes for the US Supreme Court decision on the state's mid-decennial redistricting.  The Court hears arguments tomorrow; more on this below.  And the DNC is scheduled to send its RFP to the 11 cities vying for its presidential convention in 2008, with the proposals due back in mid-May.

Security politics
The New York Times attributes the drop in Bush's job approval mainly to the "port agreement and the pessimism on Iraq."

A Senate panel yesterday revealed that the US Coast Guard "warned" before the DP World deal was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States "that 'intelligence gaps' about the company made it impossible to assess whether the deal posed any threats to national security...  The revelation raises new questions about why the Bush administration did not pursue an intensive, formal investigation before the transaction was approved."  The new "underscores the precarious position [Bush] faces following his staunch defence of the deal last week," since he "will have the final say on whether the... transaction should go forward." – Financial Times

The Coast Guard has said that the document was taken out of context and that the full analysis concluded the deal didn’t pose a threat.  “Still, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the document, which was unearthed by the committee staff, had left her troubled." – New York Times

"...[T]he Democrats' case against the arrangement appears to be thin, according to independent observers," writes the Boston Globe, which points out that "[m]any of the company's top officials are Americans, and its control over US ports would not extend to security.  In addition, the United Arab Emirates government has been among the strongest US allies in the Middle East."

The White House may be test-driving a new markets-based line of defense on the deal.  One of the governors who attended the session with Bush yesterday says Bush "was spirited in his defense of the marketplace" in talking about the deal.  Up until then, in his public comments about the issue, Bush has focused on the importance of not appearing to discriminate against an Arab nation and an ally of the United States in the war on terror.

The Washington Post previews Senate Republicans' meeting later today to try to figure out "how to provide oversight of the" NSA wiretapping program "without impairing the ability to spy on possible terrorists."  Majority Leader Bill Frist "wants to keep his caucus from fracturing over the issue now that Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.) is proposing a bill that many fellow Republicans oppose.  The White House, meanwhile, has signaled that it wants as little congressional meddling as possible."

The bill Specter plans to present today would "require Bush to submit the classified details of the spying program to a special national security court for review.  The court would decide whether the program violates the constitutional prohibitions on unreasonable searches."  According to a draft copy of the bill, "Specter's proposal appears to offer a face-saving solution to both sides, some specialists said.  It avoids declaring whether the program until now has been illegal, but reasserts congressional authority over domestic surveillance going forward." – Boston Globe

The Washington Post covers the governors' growing concerns about how the Administration may be seeking to (under)fund and restructure the National Guard...

...but the Washington Times says Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld "succeeded in pacifying governors" on that issue and other concerns.

Bush to India and Pakistan
"Bush does not typically find relief in travel overseas," notes the Los Angeles Times.  "But after weeks of unpleasant distractions and sagging approval ratings at home, Bush departs today for a rare place where he and the U.S. remain popular: India...  Analysts attribute much of the positive feeling to the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism."  That said, Pakistan, Bush's next stop, isn't crazy about the United States.

However much temporary relief from politics the trip provides Bush, he still faces hurdles in reaching an agreement with India over its nuclear program, as the Wall Street Journal outlines.

Disaster politics
House Speaker Dennis Hastert yesterday announced a bipartisan CODEL to the Gulf Coast for Thursday through Saturday.  Members will be examining progress in clean-up and rebuilding.  NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that about 30 have signed up so far, 15 per side, though the size of the delegation may increase as the week goes on.  They plan to overnight in New Orleans on Thursday and Friday.

A bunch of Democratic Senators will stand with their colleague Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to mark the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and to celebrate Mardi Gras at a 10:00 am press conference.

The New York Daily News writes up ex-FEMA head Michael Brown's interview with NBC's Brian Williams last night.  "...[M]y estimate is that 90% - 90% - of the population of New Orleans has now been displaced,' Brown told 'NBC Nightly News' in his first network news interview.”

A new Gallup poll shows that "three of four of those now in the city say they're optimistic about its future...  Its racial makeup apparently has changed, however.  In the survey of randomly selected residents who have phones, 52% of respondents were white, 37% black.  In the 2000 Census, the city was 67% black, 28% white.  A racial shift could have political repercussions in the mayoral election April 22...  The poll finds blacks are having a significantly harder time than whites.'"

Ethics
Hill Democrats are declaring this week "Orange Jumpsuit Week" to try to highlight the confluence of a whole bunch of GOP ethical issues, including the court appearance today of former Bush official David Safavian, the court appearance tomorrow of former Jack Abramoff business partner Michael Scanlon, the sentencing tomorrow of former Abramoff business partner Adam Kidan, the Supreme Court hearing tomorrow on the constitutionality of the Tom DeLay-organized mid-decennial Texas redistricting plan, and the sentencing on Friday of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R).

All that being said, the latest Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll shows, as others have, that the slew of scandals afflicting mostly Republicans in Washington is seen by the public as a bipartisan problem.  Sixty-one percent say that "politicians of both parties in Washington today are corrupt," with 4% singling out Democrats and 14% singling out "Republicans who control the White House and Congress."

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee is scheduled to mark up a lobbying and ethics reform bill today, proposed by Trent Lott (R), "that would increase transparency on Member trips, gifts and spending earmarks."  Meanwhile, "House GOP leaders are considering endorsing a one-year moratorium on privately funded travel."

Overall, however, the GOP push for lobbying and ethics reform has gotten bogged down "amid haggling and a backlash from lawmakers who argue that the leadership is overstating the political danger the scandal poses...  Mr. Hastert's prestige is on the line, along with that of House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R., Calif.), after promising an aggressive response to the Abramoff scandal."

Roll Call says House Democrats are taking another whack at Republicans on ethics with a "massive" report detailing their alleged offenses; Republicans are countering by alleging that Democrats improperly used House resources to prepare a report that's really a campaign tool.

After making Barack Obama their point man on lobbying and ethics reform, Senate Democrats are now refusing to back his bill, The Hill reports.  They "appear to view the medicine as too strong."

Today at 9:30 am, there will be a motions hearing in Safavian's case.  Per NBC's Joel Seidman, Safavian's attorney is seeking to dismiss the charge against his client.  Safavian, a former Bush Administration procurement official, is charged with lying to a General Services Administration ethics officer by saying that Abramoff was not seeking to do business with GSA at the time that he arranged a golf outing to Scotland for Safavian, Rep. Bob Ney (R), and several others in August 2002.  In recent filings at district court, prosecutors produced e-mails showing that Abramoff engaged in an aggressive campaign to secure for himself and clients the use of GSA-controlled property, including the Old Post Office in downtown Washington and a former Naval facility in Silver Spring, MD.

It's the economy...
In advance of new government data coming out this morning, a Bloomberg survey of economists shows them predicting that the "economy expanded at an annual pace of 1.6 percent in the fourth quarter, faster than the government initially estimated, as consumer spending quickened at the end of the year."

"Schizophrenic crude-oil prices were back at work again Monday, sliding nearly $2 a barrel and helping to rejuvenate a market rally that fizzled last week after oil prices shot higher."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Want to end America’s addiction to oil?  The New York Times/CBS poll shows that although 85% oppose raising the federal gasoline tax, 55% said they would support an increase of it if reduced the country's dependence on oil, while 59% are in favor of it if it meant less oil consumption and less global warming.

The Washington Post looks at Democrats' stepped-up efforts to focus on problems with the Medicare prescription-drug plan.

Two days before the Senate Judiciary Committee marks up its immigration reform bill, the National Immigration Forum, which supports giving illegal immigrants legalized status, holds a conference call at 12:30 pm to discuss the legislation.  The Wall Street Journal says "everyone" hates Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter's overhaul proposal.

Texas redistricting
One of the bigger mysteries in the Texas redistricting story is what remedy the US Supreme Court could order if in fact it decides that the state's 2003 map is unconstitutional.  With primaries in Texas set for next week, would a new map (or the 2002 one) take effect immediately?  Or in the next election cycle?  Or after the next Census?  Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report says that all we can rely on is past experience, and there is precedent for the courts to immediately redraw districts and order new elections, even after a primary has already occurred.  And if that does happen -- and if some of the districts go back to their 2002 shape -- Walter believes that Democrats could theoretically pick up at least two House seats in Texas.  Of course, some of the Democrats who were defeated in 2004 after redistricting (like Reps. Martin Frost and Charlie Stenholm) might choose not to run again, but Walter tells First Read, "In the year when Democrats are trying to expanding the playing field as much as possible... that the Court could put a few more seats in Texas in play becomes very important."

The latest issue of the New Yorker argues, however, that reverting back to the 2002 map may actually enhance DeLay's re-election chances.

The Houston Chronicle: “The Texas congressional redistricting war, which led Democratic lawmakers to flee Austin, infuriated many minority voters and spawned the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, returns to Washington this week as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on whether partisan map-drawing has gone too far.”

The midterms
The AP says that the GOP governors assembled in Washington “are openly worrying that the Bush administration's latest stumbles - from the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina to those of its own making on prescription drugs and ports security - are taking an election-year toll on the party back home.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) told an Albany radio station yesterday that Karl Rove "spends a lot of time obsessing about" her, in part, she thinks to deflect attention away from Republican problems in the upcoming midterm elections. – Boston Herald

The AFL-CIO voted yesterday to spend $40 million on this year’s elections -- the most ever in a midterm year, the New York Times reports.  “Union leaders said they would concentrate their efforts on 15 Senate races, 40 House races and governors races in California, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania."

The Sacramento Bee reports Democrats Steve Westly and Phil Angelides are both running TV ads in the California Democratic gubernatorial primary, and Bush’s approval rating is just 36% in California, per a new Field Poll.

The Des Moines Register reports that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Blouin "is expected to announce he has chosen Des Moines physician Andrea McGuire to be his running mate, should he win the nomination in June.”

And the Chicago Tribune writes about the stem-cell war in Missouri, which is spilling over into the competitive Senate contest between incumbent Jim Talent (R) and challenger Claire McCaskill (D).

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments