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Monday, March 13, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
President Bush's entire tax-cut agenda is going to pass, along with his desired cuts in entitlement spending; he and his party are not responsible for increases in federal spending over the last several years; and Iraq isn't that big a deal.

  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
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    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

At least according to the remarks by many of the potential Republican presidential candidates assembled in Memphis for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference this past weekend.  Rosy predictions and convenient omissions -- like holding up the Bridge to Nowhere as an example of profligate spending while failing to mention that it was a pet project of GOP Sen. Ted Stevens -- are the luxury of those making stump speeches to crowds of the party faithful.  (We noticed that those Republican lawmakers who addressed the conference who are not seeking the presidency in 2008 tended to be somewhat tougher on the party than those who are.)

Unfortunately for President Bush, he governs not from the Peabody Hotel but from Washington, where recent developments and a look at this coming week belie those crowd-pleasing suggestions: Senate and House Republicans lack an appetite for his requested entitlement spending cuts in this midterm election year; the prospects for his hoped-for additional tax cuts are muddy; spending has ballooned in part because of two wars and the pricey Medicare prescription-drug plan, while he has never vetoed a spending bill; and the Iraq war, now entering its fourth year, continues to loom over his presidency and suppress his support among the public.

The last time Bush and his White House turned their full attention to making a case for the war in Iraq, back in December, his then record-low standing among the public improved somewhat.  With his job approval rating again at or near record lows, and the Dubai Ports World controversy having given Democrats their biggest opening yet to attack the GOP on national security, the White House is once again in campaign mode on Iraq.  Bush delivers the first of three speeches on the war on terror at George Washington University today at 1:15 pm.  Per his own radio address on Saturday, he will focus "on the security element of our strategy: the task of defeating the terrorists and training Iraqi security forces so they can take the lead in the fight and defend their own democracy."

Also on Bush's schedule today: a 9:45 am meeting with the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic and a 10:50 am photo op with the Intel Science Talent Search finalists.

Congress is in for a week, then adjourns for yet another recess.  On their to-do list: the Senate version of the 2007 budget resolution, which doesn't line up with Bush's, and the House's version of the war/Katrina supplemental bill, which doesn't line up with Bush's.  Senate Democrats hold yet another press conference, at 2:00 pm, to criticize Bush's "dangerously incompetent" budget for not adequately funding necessary homeland security operations.

Enjoying all the leg room his potential rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination are giving him on the left, Sen. Russ Feingold plans to introduce a resolution today condemning Bush for authorizing the controversial NSA domestic wiretapping program and calling for him to be censured.  Only one US president has ever been censured: Andrew Jackson in 1834.  The move is sure to help Feingold, the only Senate Democrat to oppose the Patriot Act twice, bolster his popularity on the left, especially among those at the grassroots who are calling for Bush's impeachment (though no Democratic lawmakers in Washington, including Feingold, are jumping on that bandwagon).

In advance of Bush's planned Tuesday-Wednesday focus on the Medicare prescription-drug law, Americans United, the liberal- and labor-funded organization that played a major role in defeating Bush's attempted Social Security reforms in 2005, holds a press conference call today at 11:00 am to announce its next national campaign against "another major and misguided Bush Administration initiative:" Medicare Part D.  Americans United spokesperson Brad Woodhouse tells First Read that the group will call for "a real Medicare RX benefit now," propose a five-part "fix," and wage a grassroots campaign in 22 states.

Also today, Vice President Cheney headlines two fundraisers for House candidates today: a 1:30 pm ET event in DePere, WI for John Gard, who's running in Wisconsin's open 8th district, and a 7:30 pm event in Addison, IL for Peter Roskam -- who may wind up facing seriously injured Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth (D) in the race to replace retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R).

Security politics
A New York Times news analysis previews Bush’s speech today, noting that he will present a new argument in justifying the US presence in Iraq amid the sectarian violence there: that the United States can’t afford to be isolationist: "...the White House plans to have Mr. Bush expand his discussion of the need for the United States to embrace a new role in the world, even if that means explaining the benefits of globalization to a nation that does not appear to be in a mood to hear that message.”

USA Today on the rest of the White House's new Iraq campaign: "Also this month, Bush plans to discuss a specific city or region of Iraq where American reconstruction plans are working.  Another speech is to focus on the insurgent-made bombs known as 'improvised explosive devices,' which Bush called 'the principal threat to our troops and to the future of a free Iraq.'  Bush said another objective of the effort will be to allay American concerns that a civil war in Iraq would catch U.S. troops in the middle."

Potential presidential candidate and Sen. Joe Biden said yesterday on Meet the Press that he wouldn't have voted for the Iraq war had he known how the Bush Administration would pursue it:

"Iran has vaulted to the front of the U.S. national security agenda," says the Washington Post.  "Bush and his team have been huddling in closed-door meetings on Iran, summoning scholars for advice, investing in opposition activities, creating an Iran office in Washington and opening listening posts abroad dedicated to the efforts against Tehran." – Washington Post

Bush knew almost immediately that the DP World deal was going to be a problem, White House officials tell Time magazine.

A new poll being released today by American Society of Newspaper Editors to mark Sunshine Week shows that "any increase in government secrecy flies in the face of what most Americans want, even in the post-9/11 age.  The poll shows that 59% of those surveyed said there's 'too much secrecy' at the federal level."  (That said: "National security concerns aren't the only reason the public is being kept in the dark, media reports suggest.")

Oh-eight
We'll get to Memphis in a minute, but another political event that took place this past weekend may actually wind up having a greater impact on the 2008 race than the Memphis confab.  The Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws panel met in Washington on Saturday to figure out implement a plan to give as many as four yet-to-be-determined states a chance to hold their nominating contests early in the process, giving a more geographically and demographically diverse electorate greater influence on the outcome.  Iowa and New Hampshire both see the effort as a threat to their first-in-the-nation status, but the proposed sandwiching of New Hampshire's primary between not one but two or three caucuses beforehand, and one or two additional primaries shortly afterward, has Granite State Democrats feeling especially threatened.

The likelihood that the plan will be implemented didn't stop the Saturday discussion from bogging down in confusion, but after receiving assurances from the committee co-chairs that the proposal was just a "framework" and that revisions could be made later, and after a plethora of questions were asked and some answered, a vote finally was held.  All members save one, New Hampshire party chair Kathleen Sullivan, voted to pass the proposal in principle.  States hoping to win those additional early slots must apply to the DNC before April 7 and detail their racial, ethnic, regional/demographic and economic diversity to the panel.  The full DNC may vote on the committee's final proposal as early as this fall.

For more on the DNC meeting as well as great Memphis color, see MSNBC.com's Hardblogger .

MSNBC's Hardball wraps up the Memphis confab with a web-exclusive show today at 12 noon.

The Sunday New York Times said several GOP officials in attendance, including "senior Republicans with ties to the White House... said there was a widespread feeling here that Mr. Bush would be well served to" make some staff changes.  "But one Republican with close ties to the White House said the investigation of Mr. Rove's role in leaking the name of a CIA operative was making it nearly impossible to make any changes until it was resolved."

The Memphis Commercial Appeal sums up the candidates' strengths and weaknesses as showcased this weekend:

Three of the six GOP candidates who spoke projected Reagan-like optimism, USA Today notes.

Bloomberg looks at how the typically orderly GOP is grappling with the lack of a frontrunner.  "While nobody is the establishment favorite yet, nobody at this point wants to embrace the mantle of maverick in a party that so favors mainstream candidates."

Much of the print coverage focused on Sen. John McCain.  The Sunday Washington Post pointed out, "McCain found a way to balance embracing a weakened President Bush -- at a time when many Republicans are running away from the president -- while appealing to those in and out of his party who believe Bush and other Washington Republicans have lost their way.  No other candidate could claim to offer continuity and change almost simultaneously."

The Sunday Los Angeles Times covered McCain's efforts to "go mainstream."  "McCain, 69, antagonized" the conservative bloc "in 2000 when he decried its influence in politics.  Despite his efforts to heal the breach, some activists remain implacable; they are urging social conservatives to quickly rally around an alternative candidate."

Salon's Shapiro notes the looming specter of... Sen. Hillary Clinton (D).  "Almost all the doubts that I hear about her political prospects come from downcast Democrats, who are convinced that she will romp to the 2008 nomination and then prove unelectable...  Republicans, in contrast, seem almost fatalistic in their conviction that she would be a formidable foe...  Never in modern political history can I recall a time when both parties were equally petrified that the same person... might win a presidential nomination."

As for the Democratic field, the AP notices that Clinton, a former Wal-Mart board member, has been pretty quiet lately as other Democrats have bashed the company for offering inadequate benefits and some of its other labor practices.  "As Mrs. Clinton sheds her Arkansas past and considers a 2008 presidential run, the Wal-Mart issue presents a dilemma: how to reconcile the political demands she faces today with her history at a company on which many American consumers depend but many Democratic activists revile."

The Sunday Boston Globe says Kerry's visit to New Hampshire over the weekend "marked a public reemergence on the presidential scene for Kerry, who is considering another run in 2008.  The intimate settings and quaint political rituals were a reminder of the difficulties he'll face if he runs again."

Sen. Evan Bayh plans to tell Georgia Democrats at a state party fundraiser tonight about how he has won elections in his red home state.  Bayh will say "'there's a fair number of people who vote against our candidates because of how they perceive the way we express what it is we believe.'" – Atlanta Journal Constitution

The AP writes that former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle is seriously considering a White House bid.  “‘I'm encouraged by the strong support many people have voiced for my candidacy around the country and in South Dakota.  I'll make a decision at some point later on this year,’ he said.”

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The Washington Post considers the possibility that staff burnout is contributing to the White House's problems lately: "This is a White House, according to insiders, that is physically and emotionally exhausted, battered by scandal and drained by political setbacks...  Bush's problems go beyond the fatigue factor...  But at a time when Bush needs his staff to be sharp to help steer past these political shoals and find ways to turn things around, he still has the same core group" who have been with him since the 2000 campaign.

The Chicago Tribune writes that the prescription-drug plan is shaping up to be a potent issue in the midterm elections.

Reporting from Memphis, the New York Times observes that a common theme was slowing the federal spending that has soared under Bush’s (and also their) watch.  “But the issue… is not without risks, particularly for the four United States senators who are thinking of running.  Unlike the two soon-to-be-ex-governors who are considering a run for president, these four senators face real-life tests of their commitment to attacking federal spending, and in the case of Mr. Frist, the ability to deliver a budget resolution that is acceptable to conservatives.”

Bob Novak in his column today criticizes Senate Republicans for failing to follow through on reducing federal spending.

GOP Rep. Jim McCrery, who's expected to take over the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee after Bill Thomas retires, and thus will be tasked with shepherding Bush's tax- and entitlement-cut agenda, will "be operating in a far more difficult environment because of high budget and trade deficits and" Bush's own "political weakness," Bloomberg observes.

Oil industry executives will testify on Capitol Hill tomorrow "about whether industry consolidation is to blame for today's high gasoline prices."  The CEO of Exxon recently said that "U.S. policy makers should be doing more to ease Americans' pain at the pump.  He argued that, if the federal government is serious about wanting to boost the supply of domestically produced energy, it should open additional U.S. areas to oil exploration and drilling."

Disaster politics
Sens. George Allen (R) and Joe Biden (D) both told NBC's Tim Russert on Meet the Press yesterday that they plan on visiting the Gulf Coast region soon. – Times-Picayune

Whether or not New Orleans has enough poll commissioners to staff the April 22 elections continues to be a source of debate between Secretary of State Al Ater and Orleans Parish chief elections officer -- and mayoral candidate -- Kimberly Williamson Butler.  Butler insists she has enough people lined up, while Ater's office accuses her of "inflating the number of commissioners she has secured...  Ater said Butler's failure to recruit election commissioners and consolidate polling places quickly after Katrina almost single-handedly caused the primary election to be delayed from February to April." Times-Picayune

Ethics
The arrest of recently resigned Bush domestic policy adviser Claude Allen on charges of theft "for allegedly receiving phony refunds at department stores" came as a shock to the White House.  We'd note that unlike the Abramoff, CIA leak and other scandals with which Democrats have been hitting Republicans for an alleged "culture of corruption," Democrats have left the Allen scandal largely alone.

Roll Call reports that Justice Department officials "pulled the personal financial records of at least nine Members of Congress and at least seven former staffers last summer and fall, many of whom have been identified publicly as having links to ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff."  The list of members includes names we'd already heard about -- DeLay, Ney, Doolittle and Burns, all Republican -- and names we hadn't: McDermott (D), Pomeroy (D), Ros-Lehtinen (R), Sweeney (R), and Faleomavaega (D).  "Aides to most of those lawmakers denied their bosses had any connection to the Abramoff probe, suggesting Justice must have been pulling their records for some other, unrelated reasons."

The Democrats
DNC chair Howard Dean addresses a Communications Workers of America conference at the Hyatt Regency in Washington at 10:30 am.

As Dean faces criticism at home over his "talk-show gaffes" and the "DNC's near-empty coffers," the Boston Globe says Democrats in states across the country have "been won over."  "The reason is the millions of dollars Dean has spent rebuilding Democratic organizations in places that haven't seen a coordinated Democratic effort in a long time...  But Dean's push to rebuild state parties has been costly, and has left the DNC coffers surprisingly bare.  He has burned through nearly all the $61 million the party has raised since the beginning of 2005," leaving "the party with a nest egg of just $6.9 million... The funding gap has provoked private grumbling from some Democrats, who would rather see the national party save its resources for the presidential campaign and targeted state races."

The midterms
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R) of California announced right at the filing deadline that he will not seek an 11th term, causing consternation in his district, which tilts toward the GOP but might be vulnerable in the absence of a strong Republican candidate.  The filing deadline may be briefly extended in order to allow additional candidates to get in the race.

Sometime this week, Florida GOP “Rep. Katherine Harris will make ‘a major announcement’ about her troubled, and suddenly high-profile, U.S. Senate campaign.  Whether it is to say she will stay in the race or get out, that announcement follows a roller coaster of meetings and phone calls in recent days among concerned party activists around the state and the nation.” – Sacramento Bee

The AP says Kinky Friedman (I), a possible candidate for Texas governor if he obtains enough valid signatures to get on the ballot, “rode in a St. Patrick's Day parade car Saturday with his trademark black hat and burning cigar -- plus a beer in his hand, an apparent violation of the state's open container law…  Dallas police didn't cite Friedman, and Lt. Rick Watson said Friedman can't be ticketed after the fact because it wasn't witnessed by an officer.”

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