updated 3/7/2006 9:23:05 AM ET 2006-03-07T14:23:05

“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
With Democrats insisting that the scandals plaguing the GOP-run Congress will hurt Republicans at the polls in 2006, it seems fitting, as well as potentially instructive, that former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) is among the first to face voters this year.   After money-laundering charges against him in Texas and his ties to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff forced him to relinquish his leadership post, DeLay is now absorbed with trying to hang onto his seat.

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There isn't much action at the top of the ticket on this Texas primary day, especially now that Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a/k/a Scott McClellan's mom, is running for governor as an independent instead of challenging incumbent Rick Perry for the Republican nomination.  The real competition is taking place at the House level.

First and foremost is DeLay's primary, in which he faces three challengers, the most prominent of whom is lawyer Tom Campbell.  DeLay is expected to win the most votes but may be forced into a runoff, and regardless, his margin of victory will be used to gauge how his problems are hurting him among his constituents, and how he'll stack up against former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) in November.  "What we're looking for is chinks in the armor," Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report tells First Read.  "If he's losing a good portion of these [GOP] primary voters, it suggests he'll have big, big problems in November."  DeLay won't be in the district tonight -- he'll be in Washington spending the evening with lobbyists at a fundraiser for his re-election campaign after doing his part to reauthorize the Patriot Act.

The second primary to watch is the battle between Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) and the man he narrowly defeated two years ago, former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D).  As one of us wrote a few weeks back, this particular contest involves accusations of betrayal, party disloyalty, and voter fraud, as well as efforts by the conservative Club for Growth and liberal bloggers, who have parachuted into the fight.

Finally, Republicans Van Taylor and TuckerAnderson are competing for the opportunity to face incumbent Rep. Chet Edwards, the lone endangered Democrat who survived the Texas redistricting two years ago.  Taylor has gotten some media attention because he's an Iraq war veteran.  This is the Bushes' home district, and they'll stop at the Crawford Fire Station at 6:10 pm ET to cast their ballots.  Polls in Texas open at 8:00 am ET and close at 8:00 pm ET.

Two more factors worth keeping in mind: First, these House primaries take place as the US Supreme Court considers whether or not the state's congressional district map is constitutional after DeLay and his associates spearheaded the effort to redraw the map in 2003, with the mixed results for DeLay being the money-laundering charges against him and a net gain of five House seats for the GOP.  During oral arguments last week, the justices sent the vibe that they don't see enough problems with the map to declare it unconstitutional.

And second, even though we're just now seeing the first primaries of the year, some House members may already be itching to stop showing up for work in Washington and just stay home.  They've had trouble building momentum because of their late start and all the recesses -- there's yet another one coming up the week after next -- and one Democratic leadership aide tells First Read, "We're probably starting a pool on when members chuck it and decide not to come back anymore."

Today also brings the Pennsylvania candidate filing deadline, teeing up some of the most competitive races anywhere in the nation, including GOP Sen. Rick Santorum's seemingly uphill battle for re-election, former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann's challenge to Gov. Ed Rendell (D), and a handful of potentially tight House races.

Prior to leaving today for Texas and, ultimately, the Gulf Coast, Bush makes remarks commemorating Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day at 10:45 am, then meets with the Foreign Minister of Russia at 12:35 pm.  Vice President Cheney addresses the AIPAC conference at 10:00 am.  MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell reports that per an Administration official, Cheney will offer personal reflections on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his leadership, and will address Bush's vision of Israel and Palestine living peacefully, with all parties opposing terrorism.  Cheney also will talk about where the Administration stands with the international community against Iran's nuclear ambitions.

On the Hill today, the House will start debating the reauthorization of those provisions of the Patriot Act which are set to expire on Friday; Bush is expected to sign the legislation on Thursday.  Today also brings the first of two Senate Appropriations hearings on the Administration's request for emergency funding for Katrina relief.  The panel hears from the governors of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas today, and from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and HUD Secretary Alfonso Jackson tomorrow.  And the Senate Intelligence Committee holds a closed-door meeting in which committee Democrats will again attempt to hold a vote on whether or not to investigate the NSA domestic wiretapping program.

Security politics
The latest Washington Post/ABC poll shows an "overwhelming majority of Americans believe that fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq will lead to civil war, and half say the United States should begin withdrawing its forces...  The survey also found growing doubt that the Bush administration has a strategy in Iraq.  Two-thirds of those interviewed said they do not think the president has a clear plan for handling the Iraq situation, the highest level of doubt recorded" in this poll.  "But an even larger share -- 70 percent -- questions whether Democrats in Congress have a plan for dealing with Iraq."  Bush's overall job approval rating in the survey is 41%.

On the ports deal, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tells the Wall Street Journal that "the unprecedented access that [DHS] and other federal agencies would have to monitor" DP World's "personnel and business records would 'evaporate' if Congress stopped the deal from proceeding."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats who recently traveled to Africa meet with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York today to discuss Darfur.

Disaster politics
The New Orleans Times-Picayune previews Bush's 10th visit to New Orleans since Katrina hit, during which he will discuss his recent $19.8 billion aid request to Congress.

One of the candidates in the New Orleans mayoral race, Kimberly Williamson-Butler, was arrested yesterday on contempt of court charges and ordered to spend 72 hours in jail.  Butler is the current Orleans Parish Criminal Clerk of Court, the official in charge of the New Orleans elections.  She is also a former top official in Ray Nagin's administration until Nagin fired her.  Yesterday's arrest stemmed from Butler's refusal to hand over authority of cleaning and decontaminating court records to another party.

"Just hours later, Secretary of State Al Ater, Louisiana's top election official, called for Butler's resignation and vowed to explore every option to keep her from managing the April 22 election...  The sentence came a little more than a week after Butler began a standoff with the judges, going into hiding to avoid arrest and arguing that their order was an illegal infringement on the authority of her office.  When she reappeared Friday, she announced she would not seek re-election as clerk and run for mayor instead." New Orleans Times-Picayune

More on the Bush agenda
Yesterday marked a two-fer in the Administration's efforts to emphasize fiscal conservatism.  Bush expounded in a written statement upon retiring House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas' service to the country.  And he and his White House troops launched a campaign for line-item veto authority.  Looking to capitalize on the current anti-earmark environment by pushing for a line-item veto in the name of earmark reform, the White House showered the press corps with fact sheets and briefings about their proposed legislation.  Bush officials spent the day parrying with reporters over why, if he cares so much about curbing spending, Bush hasn't vetoed a spending bill during his five years in office.

President Clinton was given line-item veto authority in 1996 but the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.  White House officials said yesterday that their proposed legislation is "within the Constitution."  Budget director Josh Bolten noted, "I don't think serious constitutional questions could be raised about it, because instead of giving the President the authority unilaterally to line out some spending, what the President does is he takes the spending that he wants to take out of a bill, puts it into a separate piece of legislation, sends that forward to the Congress;... that legislation then is entitled to expedited procedures in the Congress, and is entitled to an up or down vote in both houses within 10 days."  Senate Republicans Frist, McCain and McConnell will introduce the bill today.

On the one hand, deficit hawks love the line-item veto and it draws support from various corners of Congress -- including from Sen. John Kerry (D).  Both Kerry himself and Bush officials reminded the press that Kerry supported a similar proposal in 2004.  On the other hand, given the current environment in which the White House and members of Congress on both sides are playing tug-of-war over presidential authority, are enough members likely to want to increase Bush's power?

"The move thrilled conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, but Democratic leaders said Mr. Bush was ducking responsibility for budget deficits," says the Washington Times.

Bloomberg notes that "Bush will hit an historic milestone this month: On March 20, he'll pass James Monroe for second place, behind Thomas Jefferson, among U.S. presidents who went the longest without vetoing legislation."  Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) pans Bush's call for line-item veto authority as politicking.

The Hill on Thomas: "There has been speculation that Thomas could join the Bush administration next year, possibly as treasury secretary.  Thomas did not rule out the possibility of joining the administration down the road, before adding that he is 'taking it one step at a time.'"

Thomas' departure "will leave Bush without a valuable political strategist in his efforts to make tax cuts permanent and enact further changes to Medicare." – Los Angeles Times

The debt ceiling needs to be raised ASAP, Treasury Secretary Snow warned Congress yesterday.  "Mr. Snow said government debt managers are starting to use the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund to stay below the current limit."  That said: "An actual default on the debt, a situation when the government misses making payments to current bondholders, is a doomsday scenario considered highly unlikely given what it would do to the government's credit rating."

A bunch of Democratic lawmakers, students and seniors hold a rally on the Hill today at 11:30 am to call for a "budget that makes education more affordable and health care more available."

Roll Call suggests that House and Senate budget mark-ups this week are "more of a face-saving effort than any real attempt to reduce the deficit this year," and in any case, "the House panel may have to postpone action until after the St. Patrick’s Day recess if opposing House GOP factions can’t be appeased in time" to tackle the matter by Thursday.

House conservatives plan to introduce legislation this week that would reduce spending by more than $650 billion over the next 10 years -- by cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs.  “Conservatives contend that voters are disillusioned with Republicans over spending and that without a bold statement, the party faces potential losses in November.  But some moderate Republicans are anxious about additional spending reductions.”  More: “The budget debate could be the first big challenge for" Majority Leader John Boehner, "who won his position last month with help from House conservatives who will now be looking to him to help hold down spending.” – New York Times

The values debate
Yesterday, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) signed a law making it a crime for physicians to perform abortions except when necessary to save the life of the mother.  Scheduled to take effect on July 1, the ban is likely to be suspended due to court challenges.  The Los Angeles Times looks at how the ban has "turned traditional abortion politics topsy-turvy...  Some foes of abortion - fearful that South Dakota has moved too far, too fast - now find themselves reluctantly opposing efforts to protect all fetal life from the moment of conception.  They are even angling to block another abortion ban that seems likely to pass in Mississippi."  On the other hand, "some abortion-rights activists feel they must acknowledge the sentiment behind the South Dakota ban by assuring America that they, too, regard abortion as a grave moral concern."

Ethics
At a hearing in Miami yesterday, a federal judge refused to accept a long delay in sentencing indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, NBC's Joel Seidman reports.  US District Judge Paul Huck agreed to delay Abramoff's sentencing from March 16 to March 29.  Upon hearing the judge's response to his and prosecutors' motion to delay sentencing for up to 90 days, Abramoff attorney Abbe Lowell threatened, "We will name names.  We will provide the public with evidence of what is going on out there."  Lowell did not appear in court, but attended via phone.  He added that public naming of names "is not a good thing for law enforcement."  Abramoff could be sentenced to up to seven years in jail.

USA Today spotlights the common practice of members of Congress using corporate jets for travel and reimbursing the corporations only for airfare.  Senators McCain (R) and Feingold (D), among others, "have called for requiring lawmakers to reimburse companies for the full cost of a charter flight when they hop aboard their jets.  That would make the practice so costly it would be tantamount to banning it..."   The paper also looks at the top companies supply jets.

The Federal Election Commission's former staff director is the subject of an FBI investigation into whether he "tried to settle a sexual harassment complaint from a female staffer by attempting to misappropriate $100,000 in taxpayer funds last fall," Roll Call reports.  "The investigation has embroiled at least a handful of FEC employees, each of whom has been put on administrative leave or no longer works for the agency, leaving vacancies in critical posts heading into the campaign season."

Campaign-finance reform champion Martin Meehan (D) has more money in his campaign coffers than any of his House colleagues, reports the Boston Globe.  Meehan, who is considering a Senate run and has nearly $5 million on hand, "raised the bulk of his money during the 2003-2004 election cycle, in anticipation of a Senate run had [Kerry] won the presidency."

The midterms
Almost despite themselves, Bloomberg says, Democrats are poised to gain seats and possibly regain a majority in one or both houses of Congress in November.  "Democrats have blown opportunities before," the story notes.  "In 2004, they thought they could take advantage of Republican missteps such as a flu-vaccine shortage and failure to secure weapons and explosives depots in Iraq.  In the end, they fell short."  More: "Democrats are trying to guard against overconfidence and are working so hard in some areas that Republicans say they are jealous."  Their weak spot: "While the Democrats are united in a desire for a strong message on national security, they are divided over what to do about American military involvement in Iraq -- and whether the issue should even be talked about."

Even though the GOP's list of open House seats doesn't appear to offer Democrats the kind of opportunities they need to net the 15 seats necessary to win back the majority, "some analysts believe that [Rep. Bill] Thomas' decision to step down represents a troubling trend of experienced Republicans leaving." – USA Today

The Miami Herald covers Cheney's visit to Florida yesterday, where he raised about $300,000 for Rep. Clay Shaw (R) even though Shaw has been a vocal opponent to the DP World deal.  "Shaw's reelection opponent, Democratic state Sen. Ron Klein, described the 25-year congressman as an 'alter-ego' of Cheney and Bush."

In the highly touted Pennsylvania Senate race between Rick Santorum (R) and Bob Casey Jr. (D), the Santorum campaign yesterday unveiled a website accusing Casey of "hiding" from debates, "smearing" Santorum, and "playing hookie" from his job as state treasurer.  The site also features a "Wanted" poster of Casey, asking: "Have you seen this man?"

MSNBC.com examines abortion-rights activist Kate Michelman's possible entry into the Senate race and what that might do to Casey's campaign against Santorum.  "Although Michelman said in an interview with MSNBC.com Monday she had not yet made up her mind about running, she reported that her colleagues in the abortion rights movement are urging her to get in the race so that she could offer a pro-Roe alternative to the two anti-Roe candidates, Santorum and Casey.  Michelman is conferring with Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman and other strategists and will make her decision in the next two weeks."

The New York Daily News writes up GOP Senate candidate KT McFarland’s appearance on MSNBC's Hardball yesterday, in which she said "she would never have voted with other Republicans to impeach former President Bill Clinton in 1998 if she were in the Senate then.  She also said that efforts to label Hillary Clinton as an ‘angry woman’ were ‘just nonsense.’”

At a fundraiser for her Senate campaign yesterday, Clinton responded to recent GOP statements that she's angry.  "'They may call you names.  They may impugn your patriotism.  You know, they may even say you're angry,’ Clinton [said]...  ‘If they do that, wear it as a badge of honor, because... there are lots of things that we should be angry and outraged about in our country today,’ she said.”  - New York Daily News

The AP on Tom DeLay's whereabouts this evening.

The AP previews the primary contest between Democrats Chris Bell and Bob Gammage for the right to take on Gov. Rick Perry (R).  “The governor's race could get more crowded - and colorful - after today.  Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who calls herself ‘one tough grandma,’ and Kinky Friedman, a cigar-chomping comedian, each are trying to make November's general election ballot as an independent candidate by gathering 45,540 signatures from registered voters.”

And in Richmond, VA at 10:00 am, former Navy Secretary James H. Webb (D) formally announces his bid for the Senate.  Webb will compete against fellow Democrat Harris Miller for the opportunity to challenge incumbent Sen. George Allen (R) in November.

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