“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, April 3, 2006 | 9:40 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, Bill Hatfield and Holly Phillips

  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

First glance
The second act of the immigration debate takes center stage this week with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist calling on the Senate to take a full vote on immigration reform by the end of the week and before the Senate breaks for Easter recess.  The debate within the Republican party over the issue is yet another distraction for an Administration that has been boggled with second-term blunders. While Congress continues to hash out its differences over what to do with nearly 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, the Administration will shift its focus this week to talking about the growing economy, health care and the war on terror.

But first, fresh from his trip to Cancun, Mexico and a weekend stay at the Crawford Ranch, Bush travels to Cincinnati today to mark the start of baseball season by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at today's season opener between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs.  Bush visits both teams' clubhouses at 1:10 pm ET before throwing out the first pitch at 2:04 pm ET.

While that will be Bush's only official business today, he'll spend the rest of the week focusing on health care and the war on terror before closing out the week at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton.  Tomorrow, Bush holds a meeting on health care initiatives at the White House before attending an RNC fundraiser. On Wednesday, he'll continue his focus on health care by discussing health savings accounts in Bridgeport, Connecticut. On Thursday, the president gives a speech on the war on terror in Charlotte, North Carolina just before returning to the White House to meet with the winners of the NCAA tournament.

First Lady Laura Bush appears to start her 2006 fundraising responsibilities in earnest this week, with an event for endangered GOP Rep. Heather Wilson in Albuquerque this morning at 11:35 am ET and another one for equally at-risk GOP Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri in St. Louis tomorrow.

In the meantime, Democrats continue to push ahead their "Real Security" agenda. The DSCC holds a news conference today at 2:30 pm to release polling data which they say shows that "Democrats would defeat the Republicans in November even if the election is focused exclusively on national security issues."

Move On PAC will hold a conference call at 1:00 pm today to announce a $1.3 million ad campaign which will "will target Representatives Chris Chocola (IN-2), Thelma Drake (VA-2), Nancy Johnson (CT-5) and Deborah Pryce (OH-15) for taking money from oil and energy companies and then supporting laws that give away billions to these companies while ordinary Americans pay more at the pump," according to a press release from the group.

In other news, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading to London this morning after stopping in Iraq for a surprise visit there over the weekend.

The immigration debate
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps -- an offshoot of the Minuteman Project -- kicked off a thirty-day round-the-clock patrol of the Mexican and Canadian borders over the weekend.

According to a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll released yesterday, more than half of Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants to obtain temporary legal status to remain in the US, while two-thirds think immigrants take jobs that Americans don't want.  "But the survey found greater ambiguity on whether illegal immigrants are good or bad for American society. Fifty-one% said illegal immigrants mostly make a contribution to society and 42% said they were mostly a drain."

"The debate on yesterday's news shows [over immigration] amounted to a round of public negotiating over the final version of the Senate bill," notes the Boston Globe. "The exchanges foreshadowed the difficulty that Republicans may face in reshaping the bill on the Senate floor in a way that could be supported by the House."

USA Today says the split among Republicans "poses another difficult test for President Bush, who is trying to appeal to both camps with a 'comprehensive' proposal to allow foreign 'guest workers' while also increasing border security and penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants."

"When the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the proposal last week, many were still not clear about its details because it was still largely made up of oral agreements. But once the 471-page bill was produced and distributed late last week, conservatives were alarmed by some of the provisions," notes the Washington Times. "None so much as the proposal to make illegal aliens eligible for in-state tuition costs."

Security politics
Echoes of Dubai? The AP reports that the U.S. government is considering awarding a no-bid contract to the Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchison Wampoa Ltd. to screen cargo arriving in the Bahamas for nuclear threats, as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff toured a conglomerate-operated port in Hong Kong this weekend. Concerns from American lawmakers could prompt the U.S. government to station its own customs agents at the Bahamas port if the deal goes through.

In her first trip to the region since November, Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew to Iraq "in an unannounced visit Sunday and made a dramatic appeal to feuding Iraqi politicians to quickly form a national unity government before the country fractures further along sectarian lines," writes the Washington Post.

"Miss Rice and Mr. Straw said the formation of a government is an Iraqi process and that they have no intention of interfering in it. But they did not hide their impatience with the lack of a political agreement 3 months after Dec. 15 elections," says the Washington Times.

At least 50 more died in Iraq yesterday as a result of sectarian violence, reports the Washington Post. "The killings and attacks, which appeared to target specific religious communities, are the sort that military and political analysts say are being used by sectarian and insurgent groups to foment strife between Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Shiite Muslims and to push the country toward civil war."

Could Passaic jail in New Jersey emerge as the new Abu Ghraib? Per the New York Times, a class action lawsuit begins with its first deposition today of a detainee held there shortly after 9/11 who says he was terrorized by dogs. "There, about 400 of the 762 mainly Muslim detainees rounded up in the United States after 9/11 were held. The lawsuit charges that the detainees' confinement was arbitrary, illegally based on their religion or national origin, and that guards routinely terrorized them with aggressive dogs."

The centrist Democratic group Third Way is hosting a national security policy training session in Washington today for 36 Democratic House candidates, featuring Rep. Jane Harman, former Sen. Bob Graham, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy.  Harman and Kennedy along with 3 House candidates will hold a press availability at 1:15 pm.

Win Without War, a coalition of 40 liberal and anti-war organizations (including MoveOn), is launching a radio and print ad campaign in Ohio and Minnesota today to call on House members to support a measure for bipartisan debate over the Iraq war. The bill, which comes up for debate on Wednesday, was brought forth by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers.

Disaster politics
While many are using grassroots efforts to get Louisiana voters to participate in the upcoming elections, the AP says that the number of voters participating so far is "lagging."

However, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that there's been a flood of absentee ballot requests in recent days. "With ballot requests still flooding in at a rate of 500 to 1,000 a day, some see the data as indicative of intense interest from displaced voters, particularly given that displaced voters also will have a unique opportunity to vote at satellite polling places statewide starting April 10."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The New York Times profiles incoming White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and examining what effect, if any, he will have in helping the Administration regain its footing. "As chief of staff starting in mid-April, he will have to employ that skill on a broader basis as he tries to reunify Republicans behind the administration and keep Mr. Bush's presidency from sinking into lame-duck status... Mr. Bolten's record as budget chief, and before that as deputy White House chief of staff for policy and as policy director of Mr. Bush's 2000 campaign, shows him to possess a necessary deftness and diplomacy. But it also suggests that he is unlikely to lead an effort to redirect the administration in any fundamental way... Mr. Bolten has been an integral part of the team that developed and carried out the policies now at the root of the administration's political problems, especially on domestic concerns... But Mr. Bolten will be a constant presence at Mr. Bush's side during a critical period, and the years he has spent in the president's orbit suggest that he will carry considerable clout, particularly when it comes to managing constituencies inside and outside the administration."

"With Bush's popularity at a low ebb, Joshua Bolten is expected to breathe life into the president's stalled domestic agenda, warm relations with Capitol Hill and put fresh faces in some jobs, according to former White House chiefs of staff and Republicans with close ties to the Bush administration," writes the AP.

The Washington Times reports that former White House insiders predict that Bolten "will step up a strategy to sell the economy's progress to voters, a majority of whom still perceive it as weak" despite some "bullish" economic figures. "Job growth has driven unemployment down in 39 states in the past year, and employment rose in 48 states in the year preceding February 2006. Jobless claims have been declining, dropping by 10,000 in the week ending March 25. The economy grew by 3.5 percent last year, and economists say that it grew by more than 4 percent in the first three months of this year... Still, former White House officials say there is 'a disconnect' between what Americans think about the economy's health and its actual performance, and that the administration needs to correct that perception as the election year begins to heat up."

The Wall Street Journal profiles President Bush's go-to guy on health care, National Economic Council chair Allan Hubbard.  Hubbard's push for a market-oriented approach to health care policy, including health savings accounts and greater pricing transparency, "has managed to push health care to the top of the president's domestic agenda," but not without some criticism from some Democrats and health care providers.

USA Today reports that fiscal spending is increasing at rapid speed. "The federal government is currently spending 20.8 cents of every $1 the economy generates, up from 18.5 cents in 2001, White House budget documents show. That's the most rapid growth during one administration since Franklin Roosevelt."

The New York Times says passage of a budget spending plan is in doubt this week as conservative and moderate House Republicans continue to play tug-of war over fiscal issues. "Leadership aides concede that the spending plan is provoking an intense fight within the party at a time when Republicans hardly need another split, considering the glaring divisions over immigration policy and the effort by some Republicans to move away from Mr. Bush and his declining popularity. The failure to enact a budget could be another fiscal black eye for Republicans who have presided over deficit spending and were forced last month to approve an increase in the federal debt limit to nearly $9 trillion."

Another call for change at the White House, this time from former US Central Command leader Gen. Anthony C. Zinni who told Tim Russert on Meet the Press over the weekend that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign. – New York Times

Ethics
The Wall Street Journal covers former Tom DeLay aide Tony Rudy's guilty plea on charges of fraud and lobbying restriction violations, and says the plea agreement represents "mixed signals" for DeLay: "Mr. Rudy didn't accuse the former House leader of wrongdoing. Still, Mr. Rudy's knowledge of the daily operations of Mr. DeLay's office and the Texan's relationship with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- including a famous 2000 golf trip to Scotland -- could prove important to the inquiry."

Roll Call covers Rudy's guilty plea, noting "one largely overlooked element" of the Rudy and Jack Abramoff plea agreements: the bribery scheme to which both men pleaded guilty ran from 1997 through 2004, signifying that "the bribery of Members of Congress and their staffs began much earlier than has so far been publicly acknowledged."

The Houston Chronicle reports that former DeLay aide Ed Buckham used DeLay's political fundraisers as opportunities to secure clients for Buckham's nascent lobbying firm, reaping $770,000 in four years. "While there was nothing illegal about Buckham soliciting clients through DeLay fundraising activities," the Chronicle notes, "it shows the synergy between DeLay's political operations and the lobbyists closest to him."

Roll Call reports that the House Ethics Committee is once again deadlocked, despite several ongoing corruption investigations on the Hill.

The midterms and oh-eight
The New York Daily News reports that Katherine Harris’ U.S. Senate campaign had another rough day when a top adviser, campaign manager, and communications director all resigned. “’This is a campaign that is spiraling downward by the minute,’ said former campaign manager Jim Dornan, who resigned in November.”

The New York Times looks at the road ahead for Frist as he straddles his presidential ambitions with his last few months of work in the Senate.  "Between now and the end of the year, when he retires and loses his Washington platform, Mr. Frist has to show not just that he can perform the managerial duties of his job - keeping the balky Senate operating smoothly in the service of his party's agenda - but that he is a leader with the vision, clout and personality to command the national stage.

The Houston Chronicle profiles two Democrats competing for a bid against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison this November.

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