“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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006 | 11:15 a.m. ET
From Steve Liesman (CNBC), Huma Zaidi and Elizabeth Wilner

  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
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Bolten Steps in
Surrounded by his Cabinet moments ago, President Bush ended his remarks about the Iraq war with another dash of praise for his outgoing chief of staff for serving with "distinction" and "honor." He left the Rose Garden without taking reporters' questions.

Does Bush's elevation of his budget director to White House chief of staff indicate that he and his team will place more emphasis on fiscal matters? Bush sent his proposed 2007 budget to Capitol Hill in early February and the reception wasn't exactly warm. Some Republican lawmakers are loathe to cut entitlement spending -- in this latest case, Medicare spending -- in a midterm election year. Remember that the deficit-reduction bill which cut almost $40 billion in spending on programs like Medicaid and student loans late last year squeaked through both chambers. Bush also has called for a line-item veto to help him rein in Congress' urge to spend (note that he himself has not yet vetoed a spending bill), and he has pledged to cut the deficit in half by the time he leaves office. Tapping Bolten to run the show may be a way to signal that they intend to focus more on budgetary matters in the last years of Bush's presidency.

Bolten himself is a policy guy in a White House sometimes criticized for spending too much time on politics. While overlooked amidst the focus on Iraq and more pressing economic concerns like gas prices, his budget office has racked up some of the White House's relatively rare policy successes over the past few years. They've managed expectations on the deficit and maintained decent ties to Congress. Two years in a row now, they've had some success at eliminating programs or reducing spending outright.

House Republicans say Bolten is better than most, but don't give him the highest marks either. They say the White House left House Reps holding the bag on deficit reduction in the reconciliation bill... failing to pressure the Senate. But they allow as that that may have been more the White House doing than Bolten himself.

Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives who have grown increasingly restless about the pace of government spending will be watching to see who Bush taps to replace Bolten in the budget office. No word yet on who that'll be...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
In the biggest White House personnel change of Bush's presidency, chief of staff Andy Card is resigning as of April 14 and will be replaced by Bush budget director Josh Bolten.  Bush is bracketing his scheduled 9:10 am Cabinet meeting with announcements of the change; he will appear in the Rose Garden when the Cabinet meeting ends.  At this writing, it's unclear whether or not Bush will take questions.

Prior to taking the budget post, Bolten served as deputy White House chief of staff and as Bush's top economic advisor during the 2000 campaign.  The announcement comes not only at a time when Bush's approval ratings are among the lowest of his tenure and rumors of a possible staff shake-up have run rampant in Washington -- but also as Bush's proposed budget is being considered on Capitol Hill.  So far, the reception has not been warm: Republicans aren't inclined to cut Medicare spending in this midterm election year.

Only one White House chief of staff has served longer than Card: Eisenhower's Sherman Adams.  The inside-the-Beltway crowd has been agitating about a possible staff shake-up for several weeks now, with attention centering on the reportedly weary Card.  But as NBC's Tim Russert advises, the replacement of Card with Bolten isn't expected to result in any dramatic changes in Bush's approach to governing.  (We're reminded of the replacement of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby with Libby's deputy, David Addington.)  Nevertheless, the staff change will consume all the oxygen in Washington today, even as the White House marks a small but symbolic victory for Bush last night with the Senate Judiciary Committee's passage of an immigration reform bill that included his desired guest-worker provision.

After meeting a leadership-imposed deadline, the committee voted out a bill that includes both a guest-worker provision and a means for illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship without first having to leave the country.  But debate on the bill is unlikely to start this morning as previously expected, NBC's Ken Strickland advises, though a procedural vote is scheduled for the afternoon.  Instead, the Senate will return to lobbying reform.

Strickland says the lobbying reform bill, which was on the floor yesterday while the Judiciary Committee was working on immigration, apparently gained some momentum and "renewed focus," according to a aide to Majority Leader Bill Frist.  "We're reflecting the will of our members who want to spend a day on lobbying reform" in the hopes of finishing it quickly, the aide said, adding that the Judiciary Committee would have needed a day to put all the changes to the immigration bill into legislative language.  While it's not clear when the full immigration debate will begin, the Senate leadership plans to have a finished product by the end of next week.

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 last night, he would introduce his today.  At a briefing yesterday morning, Frist remarked that he wants to put forth something that has majority support.

Yesterday's result was a boost for Bush, who has long called for a guest-worker plan.  But as Strickland points out, the bill still faces stiff resistance from law-and-order Republicans in both chambers of Congress who label the program as "amnesty" for those breaking the law.  Judiciary Committee Republican Lindsey Graham, who supported the guest-worker measure,  says Bush's involvement is key to the eventual outcome: "At the end of the day, the President needs to help us."

National polls show that a majority of Americans oppose a guest-worker plan.  How is the debate playing among immigrants?  A survey of legal immigrants commissioned by New America Media and conducted by the pollster Sergio Bendixen (D) finds that 67% of them (from Latin American, Asia, Europe, and Africa) believe that anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in the United States, 55% say that sentiment is affecting their families, and 64% believe that sentiment is fueled by racism.  "They are alarmed by the tone and the content of the debate," Bendixen tells First Read.

Are Democrats poised to capitalize from this?  Not necessarily.  While the poll shows that 22% of these immigrants -- 77% of whom are registered voters -- say the Republican party is doing a good job on immigration issues, 38% believe the Democratic party is.  Bush's approval on immigration issues is 32%.  Indeed, after meeting with the White House to discuss these poll findings, Bendixen says the White House seems to be more concerned about Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) than about the Democrats.

Congress is back today for two whole weeks before they leave again for the two-week Passover/Easter recess.  And Ben Bernanke's Fed is expected to wrap up its meeting with an announcement of yet another interest-rate hike at 2:15 pm, with the real question being how many more hikes there will be in the future before the Fed decides to end its streak.

The immigration debate
The Los Angeles Times notes the differences between the Senate Judiciary Committee bill and the bill passed by the House: "The Senate panel... voted to eliminate a proposal, contained in the House legislation, that would make being an illegal immigrant a felony, rather than a civil immigration offense as it is currently.  In addition, the Senate committee killed a measure that would have made it a felony to offer assistance to illegal immigrants other than in emergencies.  That proposal had been denounced by humanitarian groups and some religious leaders."

The Wall Street Journal: "The bill passed only hours after President Bush made his strongest appeal yet for a law that would provide employers with enough immigrant workers to keep the economy humming."

The San Francisco Chronicle also notes that "the measure marks a major victory -- rare in recent months -- for President Bush.”

The Boston Globe: "The vote surprised many observers who expected the Republican-controlled committee to approve a bill that would focus primarily on enforcing the nation's borders.  Major legislation is always difficult in an election year...  Despite yesterday's vote, Senate majority leader Bill Frist warned that he may substitute his bill, which only enforces borders, and ask the full Senate to vote on it instead of the far broader and more lenient measure approved yesterday by the judiciary committee."

Roll Call on Frist's decision to temporarily delay consideration, including of his own bill: "It remains difficult to gauge how that fight will play out...  Aides close to the Judiciary Committee said some lawmakers may have been more than a little persuaded by the recent string of public demonstrations...  The wild card may end up being Frist, who while playing political footsie with his conservative wing by putting forward a bill without guest worker provisions, has not yet come out against one...  Additionally, by delaying action on the bill, Frist - whom advisers and close associates have described as extremely calculating - could end up buying himself time to take his splintering Conference’s temperature and emerge with a 'winning' compromise."

The Hill reports that House Republicans don't plan to let their Senate colleagues get all the glory: "GOP leaders in the House are hoping to get out in front on the issue by reminding voters that they have already passed a series of tough bills to crack down in illegal immigration.  House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is expected to address immigration reform in a speech later this week before the National Urban League, and the Republican Conference office has distributed talking points lauding border-security legislation that has passed the House...  House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is also expected to address immigration during his weekly press briefing this afternoon."

GOP pollster David Winston reminds us in Roll Call that the huge collective protest of the House's immigration reform bill over the weekend, "though very impressive as a political statement, simply doesn’t represent where the country is as a whole" -- as the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal survey suggests, among others.

The Los Angeles Times focuses on its hometown rally and DJs: "[W]hat was initially expected to draw fewer than 20,000 ballooned into a massive march that police estimated at 500,000 and said was one of the largest demonstrations in Los Angeles' history...  Rally supporters... agreed that the active advocacy of the region's top Spanish-language radio personalities was critical."

Security politics
Tomorrow, House and Senate Democrats gather for a 1:00 pm event at Union Station to roll out "Real Security: The Democratic Plan to Protect America." Defeating the world's most notorious terrorists, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and wiping out WMD is probably the headliner of the plan's expected five objectives, according to a senior Democratic aide.

Roll Call: "The 'Real Security' unveiling is the second in the party’s rolling agenda designed to show what the Democrats intend to do if given the majority this fall."

After the Boston Globe reported last week that Bush had issued a signing statement for the Patriot Act indicating he could withhold information on how the law was used if it would interfere with foreign relations, national security, or executive branch operations," Democratic Reps. Jane Harman and John Conyers have sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking that Bush obey the law.

Yesterday, Bush's nomination of David Sanborn to run the Maritime Administration was quietly withdrawn; Sanborn is a former executive at Dubai Ports World and his nomination became embroiled in the controversy over the United Arab Emirates-owned company's bid to purchase some US port operations.

Disaster politics
A federal judge yesterday rejected civil rights groups' latest effort to force a delay in the scheduled April 22 New Orleans mayoral election.

The Democratic National Committee plans to launch a voter hotline in evacuee hubs on April 1 to help evacuees locate polling places and obtain absentee ballots, a source involved in the project tells First Read.  The source claims that the hotline will represent "the first attempt" in American politics "to trigger an absentee ballot chase program a) through a hotline and b) across state lines."  The DNC has also scheduled its spring meeting to take place in New Orleans in a show of support for the city.  (The meeting will take place the weekend of the mayoral primary -- a scheduling quirk that came about when state election officials postponed the February election.)

Seven of the 23 mayoral hopefuls met for a debate last night in New Orleans.  The Times-Picayune reports that "the candidates spent much of the debate sparring over the best way to foster the rebuilding of flood-ravaged neighborhoods."

It's the economy...
If new Fed chair Ben Bernanke "has his way, central bank officials also will agree today to explore several possible ways to publicly communicate much more in the future about how they view the economy, the inflationary risks and the likely path of interest rates."  ("No TV cameras at Fed policymaking meetings, Bernanke assured lawmakers.  Wouldn't want to get carried away.") – Washington Post

"A sharp rise in gasoline prices in recent weeks could indicate increased volatility at the pump this summer, as the nation's fuel suppliers cope with a change in government requirements," says the Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times explains why GM is trying to persuade as many of its workers to accept its recent buyout plan: because it’s trying to reduce the ranks of its Jobs Bank, which “pays idled workers a full salary and benefits even when there is no work for them to do.”  The article adds that the buyouts are a tough sell.  Said one GM worker, “‘Why would I walk out the door with $2,000 less per month and have to go find a job when I can sit in the bank, get my 30 years and retire?’”

Treasury Secretary John Snow gives a speech on tax cut permanency (i.e., making the Bush tax cuts permanent) and the economy to the Tax Executives Institute's 56th Mid-year Conference in Washington later this morning.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The White House has tried a new approach to working with the press corps lately, inviting members to off-the-record sessions with Bush.  "White House officials said they also hoped the meetings' mere existence would remain under wraps," says the Washington Post, but that "proved impossible when journalists from The Post who were not participants in the session, as well as those at other publications, learned of the meetings from sources outside the paper and began to report on them."  The New York Times also reports on the sessions.

The Boston Globe's Canellos examines how term limits on the presidency affect presidencies.  "Arguably, the 22d Amendment's greatest effect is not in the prevention of third terms but in the weakening of second ones."

Iraq?  Immigration reform?  The Post notes that "Congress is about to embark on some really hot-button issues: flag burning, same-sex marriage and censuring the president."

AARP plans to launch a print and radio ad campaign to help educate seniors about the benefits of the Medicare prescription-drug program, and how to enroll.

Ethics
In advance of Jack Abramoff's scheduled sentencing in the Miami fraud case tomorrow, the Los Angeles Times notes that 250 supporters, including GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, are asking the federal judge to give Abramoff a reduced sentence.  "As part of a deal with prosecutors, he agreed to a sentence of from 70 to 87 months in prison...  The Florida deal is separate from a plea agreement in Washington, where Abramoff has pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and tax evasion related to dealings with members of Congress.  No date has been set for his sentencing in that case."

The pool report for Bush's appearance at a fundraiser for GOP Sen. Conrad Burns last night noted, "There were about 200 people there, and one cowboy hat.  No sign of Abramoff," whose relationship with Burns is endangering Burns' re-election.

The Houston Chronicle writes that Rep. Tom DeLay (R) is seeking to regain his concealed handgun license, “which was suspended because he is accused of a felony.  Under a Texas law passed in 1995, a license may be suspended if the holder is charged with a Class A or Class B misdemeanor or indicted on felony charges.”

The Washington Post front-pages concerns among Washington Nationals execs that "with the start of the new season a week away,... a significant piece of their business could be affected in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff bribery and corruption scandal, which is leading many lobbyists and elected officials to reconsider how and where they do business."

The midterms
USA Today has a potentially pessimistic forecast for the November vote, based on problems with new voting equipment in the Texas and Illinois primaries.  "More than 30 million Americans will be voting on unfamiliar equipment this year, after modernization required by the Help America Vote Act...  The next test: 10 states hold primaries in May, including Pennsylvania, which is scrambling to train voters and poll workers."

The Washington Post explains why regulations curbing the amount of money donors can give to 527 organizations will likely hurt Democrats more than Republicans.  In brief, it's because Democrats have relied on these groups to level the playing field with the traditionally better-funded GOP.

In a discussion of their plans for the midterm elections, officials from the liberal group MoveOn tell NBC they expect to raise $15 to $20 million this year and plan to focus mainly on House races, in part because they believe they can have a greater impact in them than on more expensive Senate races.  "Our big focus this year is winning back the House," MoveOn's Eli Pariser told NBC.  "We think it is in play."  Asked about the perception that the online left often loses when it gets involved in races, as it did in the recent Democratic primary in Texas between Rep. Henry Cuellar and former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, Pariser responded, "We're less concerned with won-loss records than with directing our members where they might make a difference."  Asked about whether the constant GOP attacks on MoveOn have affected the group, Pariser replied that few voters really know what MoveOn is.  "No [Democratic] candidate has ever said, 'You are radioactive.  Stay away.'"  In fact, Pariser said, MoveOn recently had a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Senate campaign committee chair Chuck Schumer, in which the two asked him for MoveOn's fundraising help.

As Christian conservative organizations meet in Washington this week, Bloomberg notes this turnaround: "Republicans, who have profited politically from emphasizing faith and family values, are now finding those same issues dividing the party...  Some of this year's most hotly contested congressional races will be held in states such as Pennsylvania and Connecticut, where some Republicans say a conservative religious agenda may not play well with voters."

The Washington Times, reporting on the conference, reports that they produced a version of a "Contract with America" yesterday which "stipulated 10 aims, ranging from legislation to keep the words 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance to laws guaranteeing greater religious freedoms in the workplace, prohibiting human cloning and embryo research, and guaranteeing a 'right to life' to all children before birth."

More than two months before the California Democratic primary, GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign is launching its first TV ad buy.  In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Schwarzenegger strategist Matthew Dowd announced that a new ad, which highlights how the state's economy has improved since Schwarzenegger was elected, will run in several major media markets around the state starting this week, timed and placed to coincide with a series of speeches on the economy.  Dowd was peppered with questions about whether the unusually early timing of the ad buy is indicative of a problem within the campaign, as Schwarzenegger's poll standing has suffered since last year's costly special election.  Dowd replied that they simply want to lay the groundwork and rationale for why Schwarzenegger should be re-elected and to start a "dialogue" with voters.  He noted that despite the ad buy, the "fundamentals of this race" aren't likely to adjust "until we have an opponent."

Yesterday afternoon, right before Bush headlined a fundraiser for Montana Sen. Conrad Burns (R), Burns' campaign manager sent a letter to the other GOP candidates in the field, including credible opponent Bob Keenan, challenging them all to a debate.  "Montanans have a right to hear every viewpoint before they decide.  It is the Senator’s hope that we can have a great debate about our records and our vision for the future of Montana."  The primary takes place on June 6.

In Rhode Island, where moderate GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee faces a tough primary and a tough general election, the Free Enterprise Fund has launched what they say will become a $3.7 million national advertising campaign encouraging Senators to vote to repeal the estate or "death" tax.  Per the release, the ad uses "footage of a hearse going through a cemetery," and says, "At a time of loss, we take comfort in the thought that this is really not the end.  And, when it comes to taxes, it's not even close to the end.  The federal death tax can haunt you, taking over half of everything you hoped to leave your loved ones…  Call Lincoln Chafee.  Tell him to end taxation without… respiration."

And Harris Miller (D), who's vying to challenge Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia in November, held a conference call yesterday to demand that Allen resign from the Senate after a Sunday New York Times article described Allen as being "bored" with his job.  "I'm here to tell you that's totally unacceptable," Miller said in the call.  "If George Allen is bored with that job, he should get out of the way."  During the Q&A, reporters noted that Allen was never actually quoted as saying he was bored, but rather that he was frustrated by the Senate's slow pace.  Harris replied, "Who causes the slow pace?  If he doesn't like the way the system is operating, he should work to change things."  In a similar effort, the Democratic Senate campaign committee sent a letter to retiring NFL chief Paul Tagliabue, urging him to consider Allen -- who's father was a legendary NFL coach -- as a potential successor: "Senator Allen is bored in his current job, so we presume he will be taking his name off the ballot in Virginia this year and will be looking for work in a new industry."

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