updated 3/14/2006 11:16:12 AM ET 2006-03-14T16:16:12

“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
The Bush Administration pivots from Iraq to the nation's health. President Bush travels to Sen. Hillary Clinton's home state to talk about the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. He tours a senior center in Canandaigua, NY at 11:35 am and takes part in a conversation on the benefit at 12:35 pm. Today is the first of the White House's planned two-day focus on the drug benefit that was once considered one of Bush's biggest domestic achievements but now, due to problems with its implementation, threatens to hurt Republicans with senior voters in the midterm elections. The White House says Bush today will "discuss how the Medicare prescription drug benefit is helping seniors receive the drugs they need at reduced costs."

  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

Back in Washington, the Wall Street Journal reports, the Administration is expected to announce "plans to publicize the prices the government's health programs pay hospitals and physicians for common medical procedures." And a bunch of familiar faces from both parties, including Clinton and national party committee chairs Ken Mehlman and Howard Dean, take their turn addressing the American Medical Association conference at the Mayflower Hotel. All can be expected to speak on their parties' respective health-care initiatives and the upcoming elections.

Bush's next speech on Iraq comes Monday in Cleveland. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that he will highlight one Iraqi city as an example of how Iraqi forces have been able to respond to unrest and take control in a lead role.

Right now, it's unclear whether Senate Democrats have succeeded in making their colleague Russ Feingold's censure resolution go away. Republicans appear willing to gamble that by forcing a vote on Feingold's move to censure Bush for authorizing the NSA domestic wiretapping program, they can show divisions within the Democrats' own ranks on the issue, NBC's Ken Strickland points out. Such a vote could also become problematic for red-state Democrats on the ballot in 2006 and for Democrats considering presidential bids in 2008. Sen. Joe Biden (D) demurred when asked about the resolution on TODAY this morning.

After Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist called Feingold's bluff by offering to hold a quick vote on his resolution, other Senate Democrats objected, saying they need more time to debate the issue. Frist then offered to hold a vote on the resolution today, but again Democrats objected. Minority Leader Harry Reid said, "The issue deserves more debate, not less debate." Feingold's colleagues in the House don't appear to be moving forward with a similar resolution, even though senior Rep. John Conyers (D) has long been agitating for Bush's censure or impeachment.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued press releases yesterday challenging Democratic Senate candidates Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio to either support or oppose Feingold's effort. “Will Sherrod Brown join fellow liberal MVP Russ Feingold in his publicity stunt on behalf of the far left?,” that release asked. The White House, meanwhile, dismissed Feingold's effort as a presidential campaign tactic. Spokesperson Scott McClellan: "I think it has more to do with 2008 politics than anything else. I think it does raise the question, how do you fight and win the war on terrorism? If Democrats want to argue that we shouldn't be listening to al Qaeda communications, that's their right and we welcome the debate." As NBC's O'Donnell notes, polls suggest that the public generally accepts the White House's view of the program.

While the White House dismissed Feingold's move as presidential politicking, potential 2008 candidate Frist used the occasion for political gain, taking the opportunity to e-mail his PAC list: "...when I attempted today to bring this censure resolution to the Senate floor for a vote, the Democrats objected. Proving it is just a shameful political stunt... Somewhere in America today, a radical Islamic terrorist could very well be picking up their phone and receiving a call from their overseas counterpart. They will discuss plots to infiltrate U.S. cities and mount devastating attacks."

And, not only are House Republicans grappling this week with the war/Katrina supplemental (which now contains that legislation blocking the DP World deal), but at some point before Friday, Senate Republicans will have to confront the need to hold a vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling by about $780 billion to allow the government to borrow more money and avoid defaulting on its loans. The vote has to happen before Congress leaves for its latest recess. Strickland notes that the vote will be tough for Republicans to swallow as Democrats continue to hit them for increased government spending.

Security politics
In his first of three planned speeches on the war yesterday, Bush committed for the first time to shifting much of Iraq to Iraqi troops' control by the end of this (midterm election) year. The Washington Post: "What constitutes control, however, depends on the definition, since no Iraqi unit is currently rated capable of operating without U.S. assistance. And vast swaths of Iraq have never been contested by insurgents, meaning they could ultimately be turned over to local forces without directly affecting the conflict."

The New York Times: “Mr. Bush was clearly seeking to manage expectations and answer a new group of critics - neoconservatives who have said that because Iraq is now liberated, it is up to the Iraqis themselves to defend the country and piece together a government acceptable to all factions.”

The Chicago Tribune reports that the speech was part of a renewed effort to bolster public support for the war. “Yet Bush… is repeating a formula for success in Iraq that has yet to convince a majority of Americans. Bush's own sober assessment, as he attempted to temper optimism with realism, promised no immediate hope of improvement.”

USA Today looks at how Iraq has dominated Bush's presidency, overshadowing his domestic accomplishments. "Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the Iraq war will be what Bush is most remembered for, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday. Just 18% cite the president's efforts against terrorism, 10% his response to Hurricane Katrina, 5% his Supreme Court appointments. Tax cuts, the hallmark of his first year in office, were chosen by 2%... Bush's top strategist, Karl Rove, talked expansively in 2000 about building a durable GOP majority... The divisions over the Iraq war have made that a more distant prospect."

The Washington Times does the story on Vermont towns calling for Bush's impeachment:

Roll Call reports on Feingold's censure resolution: "As of press time, sources were anticipating that a vote on the resolution would take place before the end of this week."

The New York Daily News says Republicans “were tickled by Feingold's maneuver. ‘If he wants to change the subject to this, we'd be happy to talk about it,’ said a senior Bush official.”

MSNBC.com’s Tom Curry covers the dispute between Frist's office and Senate Democrats over whether or not he informed Democrats before he moved to hold a vote:

Also yesterday, the White House announced Bush is nominating Kenneth Wainstein to be assistant attorney general for national security, a new position created by the reauthorized Patriot Act. Wainstein currently serves as the US Attorney for the District of Columbia and used to be chief of staff at the FBI. The Washington Post profiles Wainstein, "the second U.S. attorney in the region to be tapped recently for a key Justice Department job."

The Wall Street Journal covers a notable March 7 offer by Dubai Ports World, extended to three key Senate Republicans, "to seal off management of its U.S. subsidiary and to pay for screening devices at all 51 ports it operates around the world." The offer "was largely dismissed as a good effort that came too late... It isn't clear whether Mr. Bush was aware of the proposal."

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, one of Bush's lead critics on the DP World deal, gives a speech on port security hosted by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress at 10:30 am. He plans to propose a budget amendment that would increase port security funding.

DNC chair Howard Dean, speaking yesterday at a labor union confab, again challenged the GOP to try to make national security a major issue in the midterm elections. "I hate to quote the President but bring it on, baby." Dean argued that Bush "is weak on security because the very day that he is defending the war in Iraq, the Republicans... are cutting first-responder programs here at home by 23% in 2006."

The Bush/GOP agenda
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle previews Bush's stop in Canandaigua today, where about 800 people are expected to attend the president's town-hall style meeting on the Medicare prescription drug plan. "Canandaigua is home to a large Veterans Affairs Medical Center, one that the city has fought hard to keep. As of Monday, the president's schedule did not include a stop there."

Tickets to the event are "hard to come by" and even "much of the local media" has been shut out. – Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

As Bush and GOP lawmakers quietly knock heads over whether or not to cut entitlement spending in the midterm election year, USA Today reports that its analysis "of 25 major government programs" providing college aid, food stamps and health care "found that enrollment increased an average of 17% in the programs from 2000 to 2005. The nation's population grew 5% during that time. It was the largest five-year expansion of the federal safety net since the Great Society created programs such as Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s." ("Not a factor: Social Security and Medicare," which "will not see their enrollment explode until 79 million baby boomers start to become eligible for Social Security in 2008 and Medicare in 2011.")

A group of women Democratic Senators hold a 12 noon press conference to "to discuss the negative impact of President Bush’s FY 2007 budget on the American middle class."

The Washington Times says of the White House's requested war/Katrina supplemental and debt-ceiling hike, "conservatives privately acknowledge that both requests will ultimately be granted, they are also demanding that cuts be made elsewhere in the budget and that serious reforms be put in place to control future spending... In the Senate, which votes this week on raising the debt limit, conservatives want new rules established to curb spending... In the House, which will vote on the $92 billion in additional spending this week, conservatives are unhappy with how the administration and Republican leadership has handled the 'supplemental' spending bill."

"A number of House and Senate conservatives see this week’s must-pass debt-limit increase as a ticket to long-awaited budget-process reforms, even though joining the issues would put House lawmakers on the spot," says The Hill.

"A bipartisan group of senators says President Bush is ignoring a tool that he already has to cut special-interest pork-barrel spending and should use that even as he fights to win line-item-veto power from Congress. Mr. Bush can legally brush off many earmarks, or pork projects, and five senators said he should start there." – Washington Times

It's the economy...
Treasury Secretary Snow makes remarks on the US economy and tax-cut permanency at an America's Community Bankers conference in Washington at 10:15 am.

The Senate Judiciary Committee brings in the CEOs of the five largest oil companies to talk about the high cost of gas and whether the consolidation of the energy industry is sending pump prices higher. NBC's Chip Reid reports that the CEOs will be sworn in this time.

Dick Cheney is back. After taking a little downtime post-shooting, the Vice President headlined two fundraisers for House candidates yesterday and, in the process, struck back at Feingold for proposing that Bush be censured. Now it looks like the White House may be trying to soften up Cheney's image by having him tell hunting jokes at the Radio & Television Correspondents Association Dinner on March 29. Cheney actually will be filling in for Bush for the second year in a row, after he was called in last year at the last minute to replace Bush, who had to attend the Pope's funeral. At that dinner, Cheney told the crowd, "I don't do funny." Lynne Cheney will accompany her husband to this year's event. (Also, the twin daughters of NBC's David Bloom will present the award named for their father; there will also be a tribute to Peter Jennings. Sources tell First Read that this year's dinner has seen its biggest advance ticket sale ever: 2,300 people, sold out in minutes.)

The Chicago Tribune covers Cheney’s campaign appearance yesterday with Illinois House candidate Peter Roskam, who is running to succeed Rep. Henry Hyde (R). “Cheney's ‘favorable’ rating may have stood at just 23 percent in a CBS-New York Times poll, but his presence was enough to draw quick shots from Roskam's Democratic opponents, Rolling Meadows software engineer Christine Cegelis, Wheaton College professor Lindy Scott and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates.”

Disaster politics
New Orleans mayoral candidate and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu campaigned in Houston yesterday. "Houston is still housing an estimated 150,000 New Orleans residents." – Los Angeles Times

Mayoral candidate and former jailbird Kimberly Williamson Butler is defending herself against accusations that she inflated the number of election-day volunteers available in New Orleans. In a letter printed in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Butler says the accusations made by Secretary of State Al Ater are "untrue."

The NAACP is gearing up to challenge the election results in New Orleans if they don't meet certain expectations, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "The NAACP will pursue a 'two-pronged' approach... doing as much as possible to educate voters and help with transportation on election day, and then, filing a legal case should the electoral demographics prove unacceptable to the group."

The New York Times front-pages the rise and apparent fall of former White House domestic policy adviser Claude Allen, who was charged in a scheme of stealing thousands of dollars from Target and other stores. “People close to him said they were stunned at the charges. Friends described him as the ‘goody-two-shoes’ of his family who never drank at fraternity parties and went out for ice cream instead.”

"Vanity Fair is reporting that former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee says it is reasonable to assume former State Department official Richard L. Armitage is likely the source who revealed CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward. In an article to be published in the magazine today, Bradlee is quoted as saying: 'That Armitage is the likely source is a fair assumption.' Armitage was deputy secretary of state in President Bush's first term." Bradlee tells his former paper that "he does know the identity of Woodward's source and does not recall making that precise statement to a Vanity Fair reporter."

The Houston Chronicle says a Texas appeals court yesterday gave GOP Rep. Tom DeLay “a legal and public relations victory by throwing out more than 30 subpoenas issued by Travis County prosecutors investigating the Sugar Land Republican's political finance activities… Most of the subpoenas concerned political fundraising controversies involving DeLay, some dating back to 1996.”

"The Senate Finance Committee is reviewing new documents it obtained through subpoena from two of Jack Abramoff’s former law firms in conjunction with its ongoing probe of the ex-lobbyist’s use of nonprofit groups to further his criminal bribery scheme," Roll Call reports. "The committee is conducting a broad probe of nonprofits and foundations seeking to determine whether tax-exempt entities have abused their privilege in pursuit of political goals, including an examination of Abramoff-linked charities."

The midterms
The Wall Street Journal looks at state-level efforts to raise the minimum wage and advocates' hopes that it will "become a ballot issue that helps Democrats pick up seats in certain swing states during elections this November... Public opinion surveys indicate that raising the minimum wage is a popular cause across the ideological spectrum."

After dropping his bombshell at the filing deadline last Friday that he will not seek re-election, leaving Republicans without a viable candidate to replace him, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R) has changed his mind and will announce today that he'll seek an 11th term after all.

Sen. Joe Lieberman's wealthy Democratic primary challenger is quickly becoming a favorite of liberal activists and bloggers who are angry with Lieberman for his centrist talk and positions and his support for the Iraq war.

Will she stay or will she go? The New York Times writes about the “major announcement” Rep. Katherine Harris (R) will make this week regarding her Florida Senate bid. “...[A] spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said the committee expected Ms. Harris to stay in the race, and some analysts who have followed her tumultuous political career said they would not bet on her withdrawing… Some Republicans speculated Monday that Ms. Harris would announce not that she was dropping out but that she was resigning from the House to devote all her time to the Senate race.”

The Miami Herald reports that Harris is scheduled to address a conference of Christian conservatives on Saturday in Fort Lauderdale.

New York gubernatorial candidate Tom Suozzi (D) has launched the first ad of the race, “bashing the state government he hopes to run and casting himself as a can-do reformer. Not to be outdone, his rival in the Democratic primary, front-runner Eliot Spitzer, trotted out his own ad, one that markets him as a fighter for jobs and a champion of the ‘ignored.’” – New York Daily News


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