“First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, by the NBC News’ political unit. Please let us know what you think.  Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.  To bookmark First Read, click here.

Monday, March 27, 2006 | 6:20 p.m. ET
From Ken Strickland and Mark Murray

  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

A Senate deal on immigration?
The Senate Judiciary Committee has met the deadline imposed by Majority Leader Bill Frist, passing a version of President Bush's desired guest-worker proposal, which would provide immigrants in the country illegally with a path to citizenship and allow them to apply without going back to their home country.  "It's a huge win we just had," said Laura Capps, communications director for Sen. Ted Kennedy (D), who has pushed for the guest-worker program and citizenship for illegal immigrants. "It is huge."  Critics say the program amounts to "amnesty."  The committee vote was 11-6.

At this writing, it remains unclear what will now become of Frist's own, narrower immigration reform bill which focuses on border security and skirts the guest-worker issue.  Frist had warned the Judiciary Committee that if they didn't produce a bill by tonight, he would introduce his tomorrow.  At a briefing this morning, Frist did not commit to sending the committee's bill to the floor as is, saying he wants to put forth something that has majority support.

Even if the bill makes it to the Senate floor, it would have a long way to go before it becomes law.  It faces stiff opposition in the House, which passed a bill without a guest-worker program, and from some Senate Republicans.

Monday, March 27, 2006 | 11:00 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner

Bush opening immigration salvo
Calling immigration a "sign of a confident and successful nation," President Bush did his best to elevate the complex and highly politicized debate over the issue before the Senate proceeds to pick it apart during an expected two weeks of contentious debate.  Bush's appearance at a naturalization ceremony this morning marked the third time he has formally addressed immigration reform in five days, after a White House event last Thursday and his Saturday radio address.  Bush has long touted a guest-worker program which would provide many of the estimated 11 million immigrants currently in the country illegally to obtain temporary legal status.  The stakes are high for him as he prepares to head to Cancun on Wednesday to meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox.  He'll no doubt be asked about the chances of his guest-worker proposal getting implemented during interviews later today with Mexican media outlets in advance of his trip.

The stakes also are high for those potential presidential candidates who have laid particular claim to this issue: Sen. John McCain (R), who is co-sponsoring a comprehensive bill that includes a guest-worker provision; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is ready to introduce a narrower bill that does not; Rep. Tom Tancredo (R), who is preparing a single-issue campaign for president based on his opposition to a guest-worker program, which he calls "amnesty;" and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), a Latino and a border-state governor who cautiously praised Bush's remarks on MSNBC (and passed on a question about his future plans).

As the Senate prepares to get to it, a GOP leadership aide tells First Read: "There is no unified Senate position on this issue and there is no unified GOP position on this issue.  The House immigration bill," which passed last year and which inspired this past weekend's protests, "and the Senate bill will not look at all alike; reconciliation between them will be the issue at hand.  The McCain-Kennedy approach is farthest from the House version."

Monday, March 27, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
President Bush and his top political operatives have long hoped to expand the GOP by appealing to young people, African-Americans, and Latinos.  While they always knew the gains would be incremental, they probably hoped to have made more progress by now.  Yet younger Americans never mobilized in droves for Bush's proposed private accounts for Social Security, and the Iraq war has obscured his broad goal of an "ownership society" that would provide minorities with new means of building wealth.  Until now, the results of such policy-driven efforts to grow the party seemed likely to be a wash.

But the debate that unfolds in the Senate over the next two weeks on Bush's long-touted guest-worker program for illegal immigrants might actually set Republicans back among Latinos because of vocal opposition from within the party.  While Bush, business interests and moderate lawmakers maintain that illegal immigrants do the jobs Americans don't want to do, and strategists believe the GOP can't afford to alienate members of this key voting bloc, advocates of tighter immigration controls denounce a guest-worker program as "amnesty" and claim the backing of much of the party's base because of homeland security and/or cultural concerns.

Bush is expected to repeat his call for a guest-worker program at a naturalization ceremony in Washington this morning at 10:00 am.  On Wednesday, in the thick of the debate, he flies to Cancun, Mexico for one of his final visits with term-limited Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee meet under the gun today to try to hammer out broad immigration reform legislation that both tightens border security and provides a means of legalizing many of the estimated 11-12 million immigrants currently living in the country illegally.  Sens. John McCain (R) and Ted Kennedy (D) are sponsoring one such proposal.  Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has given the committee until tonight to agree upon a bill, or else he will introduce legislation tomorrow that skirts the guest-worker issue and focuses more narrowly on border security, similar to legislation that passed the House last year.  That legislation inspired hundreds of thousands of protestors to turn out in Los Angeles and elsewhere this past weekend.  At 11:30 am today, immigration advocates and clergy members will hold another protest rally on the West Lawn of the Capitol.

As NBC's Ken Strickland advises, very little is certain about how this debate will proceed and what may become law.  Frist (perhaps trying to straddle the needs of business interests and the desires of the party base as he plots a run for president) points out that a guest-worker provision could still be attached to his narrower bill after he's introduced it.  Other Republican lawmakers who oppose such a provision have no interest in seeing that happen.  Bush, after calling for a guest-worker plan for years, may now lack the political capital to push it through.  Democrats also support such legislation -- but are positioning themselves to blame the majority party if it doesn't pass.  Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to filibuster Frist's bill, preferring a broader one that includes a guest-worker provision, but it's unclear whether he has the votes to follow through.

Even if the Senate passes a broad bill that includes a guest-worker provision, it probably wouldn't survive the reconciliation process with the House and make it to Bush's desk.

As Frist and Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Hill's most vocal opponent of guest-worker legislation, factor their efforts into their fledgling presidential bids, we'd note that campaigning on opposition to illegal immigration isn't always a winner for politicians, despite what the polls show.  For example, Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore ran a TV ad on illegal immigration in the waning days of that close race, which Tim Kaine (D) ended up winning.  In that ad, a narrator stated: "Illegal immigration -- a growing crisis, jeopardizing jobs and security... Kaine favors taxpayer-funded job centers and supports in-state tuition discounts for illegals.  Taxpayer benefits for illegal immigrants.  What part of 'illegal' does Tim Kaine not understand?"  But that ad turned out to be a flop.  "Everyone thought those advertisements were really hurtful to the campaign," especially in the suburbs, says Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.  "A lot of people don't like to hear ads that are anti-immigrant."

Later today, at 6:30 pm, Bush headlines a fundraising reception for GOP Sen. Conrad Burns, one of his party's most vulnerable Senate incumbents on the ballot this year due to his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Just last week, right before the filing deadline, Burns drew a viable Republican challenger.  Abramoff is scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday in the case of his purchase of a Florida casino cruise company.

Bush holds a Cabinet meeting tomorrow and meets with the President of Nigeria on Wednesday before departing for Cancun.

The immigration debate
The Senate "debate is likely to not only color the meeting between Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox... later this week, but also to lay bare the fractures that the issue creates within the GOP on social, economic and security grounds," says the Los Angeles Times.

The Boston Globe has Kennedy's office warning that he will filibuster Frist's bill.  "But lawmakers said yesterday that the Judiciary Committee would produce a bill, although it might not have broad support."

The Washington Post's Milbank casts the stakes for today's Senate Judiciary Committee mark-up this way: "Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)... has one last chance on Monday to prevent immigration legislation from being hijacked by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) as part of his 2008 presidential campaign."

Roll Call looks at how the GOP's bigger divisions over the issue obscure Democrats' own internal disputes over the scope of a guest-worker program.

The Houston Chronicle: “Republican Brian Kennedy is running for the U.S. House in an Iowa district that is thought to have an illegal immigrant population of fewer than 5,000.  So why was he recently in Laredo, 1,300 miles to the south…?  The answer is simple: He sees it as good politics, and national polls seem to back him up as the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up an immigration bill today.”

Security politics
On NBC's Meet the Press yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it "entirely probable" that the United States will see a "significant drawdown" in US troops from Iraq this year as Iraqi troops step up.

The New York Times travels to what are expected to be some of the more competitive congressional districts this November (like GOP Rep. Heather Wilson’s district in New Mexico and GOP Rep. Chris Shays’ in Connecticut), and finds that voters there are growing dissatisfied by the war in Iraq.  “Interviews with voters, elected officials and candidates around the country suggest a deepening and hardening opposition to the war.  Historians and analysts said this might mark a turning point in public perception.”

Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold's proposed resolution to censure Bush for authorizing the NSA domestic wiretapping program is back: The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Feingold's resolution on Friday, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.  Republicans have been looking for a way to get Democrats on the record as being divided on the proposal, hoping that debate will help the GOP get back on the offensive on national security after the Administration's approval of the Dubai Ports World deal knocked them off-track.

"Only two Democrats in the Senate have embraced... Feingold's call for censuring President Bush, but the idea is increasing his standing among many Democratic voters as he ponders a bid for the party's presidential nomination in 2008," writes the AP.

"Building on their win in the Dubai ports deal, U.S. lawmakers are moving to gain leverage over a swath of foreign investments in the U.S., an effort that business leaders and President Bush's aides warn could harm the U.S. economy," says the Wall Street Journal, covering Senate Banking Committee chair Richard Shelby's proposal and others.

Disaster politics
The AP says that civil rights groups will be back in federal court today to attempt to postpone the April 22 New Orleans mayoral election, arguing that many of the city’s African-American residents are still scattered throughout the country.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune examines how the mayoral candidates are tackling the difficult task of reaching out to voters who are scattered across the country.  "As candidates across town have realized, electioneering in the new New Orleans... has become an adventure, a headlong leap into the unknown that is more an exercise in trial and error than a practice of well honed, high-yield, market-tested strategy."

Tonight at 5:00 pm, representatives from various Hill lawmakers' offices are hosting a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser called The Beltway to the Bayou.  The event will raise money to help artists from across Louisiana rebuild their homes.

It's the economy...
In advance of this week's Fed meeting and expected interest rate hike, USA Today says "more economists now predict the Fed will be raising rates well into the summer."

The New York Times looks in-depth at the creation of a program that allows oil and gas companies to avoid paying billions in royalties on oil and gas produced in the Gulf of Mexico -- even in a time when the industry is making record profits.  “How did a supposedly cost-free incentive become a multibillion-dollar break to an industry making record profits?  The answer is a familiar Washington story of special-interest politics at work: the people who pay the closest attention and make the fewest mistakes are those with the most profit at stake.”

The values debate
Roll Call previews a major conference of conservative Christian organizations taking place in Washington this week, noting that their leaders plan "to put GOP Congressional leaders on notice that they will actively look to keep 'values voters' away from the polls if lawmakers don’t make good on commitments to move a 'Christ-centered' legislative agenda."

The Washington Times reports more generally that such groups "have warned Republicans that their voters feel unappreciated and frustrated with Congress and that the party must get more aggressive on such values issues as marriage, human cloning, religious freedom and abortion if they want a decent turnout from the conservative base in November."

Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg focuses in his column on speculation in Washington that the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan man who converted to Christianity and faced execution, might have hurt Bush and the GOP among Christian conservatives: "Even in Washington, not everything is a partisan or ideological issue, and not everything the president does or says involves political or electoral concerns.  Even more to the point, not all presidential decisions are based on the political clout of the Christian right."  (First Read is already on the record suggesting that the Rahman case, had it not been resolved, could have equaled the Harriet Miers nomination as a problem for Bush with conservatives.)

While the issue of embryonic stem-cell research has surfaced most notably in the contest between Sen. Jim Talent (R) of Missouri and challenger Claire McCaskill (D), the Democratic House campaign committee (DCCC) is trying to make it an issue in at least seven competitive House races.  At 12:30 pm today, DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel will hold a press conference in Newark, NJ to draw attention to GOP Rep. Michael Ferguson's opposition to stem-cell research.  Other targets include Republicans Peter Roskam (IL-06), John Gard (WI-08), Rick O'Donnell (CO-07), Rep. Richard Pombo (CA-11), Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08), and Rep. Dave Reichert (WA-08).  The DCCC also is running web videos that highlight these Republicans' opposition to the science.

DCCC spokesperson Sarah Feinberg tells First Read that these Republicans (who all reside in blue-to-purple districts) portray themselves as moderates, but she argues their opposition to embryonic stem-cell research makes them "partisan, extremist Republicans" who are "absolutely on the wrong side" of this debate.  Republicans contend that this Democratic campaign won't work.  "Gimmick press conferences and web videos do not turn voters," says Carl Forti, spokesperson at the Republican House campaign committee.

The Miami Herald reports that Georgia could become the first state to teach religion in its public schools.  "A bill that would sanction state-funded elective courses in Georgia public high schools goes before the state Senate next week for final passage. While a few other states offer similar classes, none does so with a law that specifically authorizes courses on the Bible."

Per the Boston Herald, "Minutes after receiving the Eucharist at a special Mass for lawyers and politicians at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had a special blessing of his own for those who question his impartiality when it comes to matters of church and state...  'You know what I say to those people?' Scalia, 70, replied, making an obscene gesture under his chin when asked by a Herald reporter if he fends off a lot of flak for publicly celebrating his conservative Roman Catholic beliefs."  The moment was caught by a photographer to whom Scalia said, "'Don't publish that.'"

Pegged to the Senate's consideration of earmark reform today, the Washington Post revisits how the process currently works, leading with perfectly legal contributions by a lobbying firm to House GOP campaign committee chief Tom Reynolds not long after Reynolds recommended the firm, among others, to a defense technology start-up in his district.  "Proposals pending before the House and Senate would force lawmakers to reveal their contacts with lobbyists and disclose their involvement in winning federal spending provisions or earmarks for constituents or special interests.  If such disclosures become mandatory, some in Congress hope past practices will shrivel in the light of day.  If not, they hope to win passage of provisions that would allow improperly secured earmarks to be struck from bills on the House or Senate floor."

In his Sunday column, Bob Novak reported that Jack Abramoff has advised friends “that he has no derogatory information about former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and is not implicating him as part of his plea bargain with federal prosecutors… However, Abramoff has not given a clean bill of health to any other congressman -- including Rep. Robert Ney.”

The leadership of the House Ethics Committee is negotiating to get the committee up and running, finally, with one sticking point being whether or not they "can investigate any matter related to Abramoff," says Roll Call, which also reports on the ethics complaints against members of both parties that have queued up during these months when the committee wasn't operational.

The midterms
The New York Times writes that Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) hasn’t lost sight of her re-election bid this year, which could give a presidential bid an even bigger boost.  She “appears to be treating her re-election bid as… a chance to prove her viability in tough parts of the New York, with Democrats and associates saying that she is aiming both to run up a big margin of victory statewide and to exceed expectations in Republican strongholds… The strategy is strikingly similar to the one used by George W. Bush in 1998, when he ran up the score among Hispanics and moderates in Texas during his re-election campaign as governor, allowing him to promote the results as proof of his broad electoral appeal.

But then again...  Although Clinton has not said that she’s running for president in 2008, the New York Post reports that she has already hired 37 staffers and "a legion of pricey consultants" for her PAC...  Clinton's political machine is so massive that it's more than four times as big as 2008 GOP front-runner McCain, who relies on five staffers and a half-dozen consulting firms spread between his campaign and his Straight Talk America PAC."

Per Saturday's Dallas Morning News, gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn (I) filed suit against the Texas secretary of state, charging him with trying to prevent her from running in November's race.  Independent candidate Kinky Friedman says he's thinking of joining the suit.


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