“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, April 11, 2006 | 3:05 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi

  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

Cheney muscle flexing
As President Bush was getting ready to tour a senior center and give a speech on Medicare in Missouri this afternoon (where he was greeted by war protestors), Vice President Cheney was flexing his arm muscles in Washington. Cheney threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals' home opener.  His daughter, Mary, and son-in-law, Phil, as well as three granddaughters were all in tow to enjoy the family-friendly day. However, the crowd wasn't as friendly and Cheney was booed after emerging from the dug out to throw the first pitch.   Throwing from a few feet in front of the dirt of the pitcher's mound, Cheney hit catcher Brian Schneider's glove with one bounce in the dirt, a pitch to the left side of the plate.

Just last month, Cheney was flexing his political muscle when he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that Iran would face "meaningful consequences" if it continued with its nuclear weapons program. Today, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the country has successfully enriched uranium but is not moving towards developing a nuclear weapon. Scott McClellan, White House press secretary, responded to the reports saying that Iran's actions show it's moving in the "wrong direction."  While the White House worked overtime yesterday to try and dampen reports that the Administration is considering military options against Iran, McClellan's comments coupled with Cheney's AIPAC speech seems like there could be a potential shift in the wind blowing from the White House.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
President Bush makes two Midwestern stops to promote his Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the registration period for which ends just over one month from today.  As we wrote here yesterday, Republicans believe they've turned a corner on problems with the implementation of the program and that participants are starting to see lower premiums.  The White House last night released a "What They're Saying" compilation of favorable editorials, polling data, and testimonials from seniors who say the "Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit Is Working."

Bush travels to Jefferson City, MO, for a visit at a senior center at 1:10 pm ET and remarks at a nearby concert hall at 1:50 pm ET.  He visits another senior center in Des Moines at 4:45 pm ET, then headlines a fundraiser for GOP gubernatorial candidate and Rep. Jim Nussle.  Nussle chairs the House Budget Committee, so listen for any Bush references to the House GOP's inability to come up with a budget resolution before recess.  Longtime observers also will note that as a member of the reformist Gang of Seven, back in 1994, Nussle walked onto the House floor with a paper bag over his head to protest abuses of power by the then-Democratic majority.

In Jefferson City, Bush will be met by protestors at both events.  Labor- and liberal-funded Americans United and Missouri Pro Vote announced on a press conference call yesterday that they plan to be present near Bush's events with signs calling the Administration's Medicare plan a "disaster."  The group says it's working on similar efforts in 22 states and will greet Bush on any future stops he makes to tout the program.  Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, whose district Bush is visiting today, said in a statement that he wished his schedule allowed him to be present -- and then hammered Bush on how complicated the plan is and charged some Republicans with blocking a proposed extension of the May 15 registration deadline.

Vice President Cheney throws out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals' home opener against the New York Mets at about 12:59 pm, but will anyone see it?  Most fans still can't see the Nats games on TV.  President Bush's wife and parents appear at the dedication and ribbon-cutting at his boyhood home at 1412 West Ohio Avenue in Midland, TX at 3:00 pm ET.

As we noted yesterday, recess is for presidential politicking, and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) gives a big speech on the economy tonight in Chicago -- a speech her team advanced with a Bloomberg interview.  Clinton speaks at the Sheraton Chicago at 7:30 pm ET.  One economic analyst based in Washington suggests that Wall Street expects Clinton to be "like her husband on most issues except for health care," where's she's to his left.  Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is appealing to his hoped-for GOP primary constituency by touting his state's new health care plan on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal: "Every uninsured citizen in Massachusetts will soon have affordable health insurance...  And we will need no new taxes, no employer mandate and no government takeover to make this happen."  And former Sen. John Edwards (D) said yesterday in Iowa, where his supporters believe his momentum going into New Hampshire was stymied by the Dean scream, that he's seriously considering another run.

The New Orleans mayoral election finally got underway yesterday with the first day of early voting -- and with it, the beginning of the answer to the overarching question of this unprecedented election: how many evacuees will vote.  According to Jennifer Marusak, spokesperson for Secretary of State Al Ater's office, a little over 1,600 people turned out to vote yesterday for Mayor Ray Nagin or one of his 22 challengers.  The state set up polling precincts in Orleans and 10 other parishes throughout Louisiana.  However, civil rights groups have complained in recent months that election officials should set up polling places in neighboring states where many evacuees have settled, and also have argued that the state's narrower plan could disenfranchise thousands of voters, specifically minorities who might be unable to travel long distances to vote.  There are four more days of early voting left this week before the April 22 election.  If no candidate receives a majority of the vote after the ballots are tallied, a runoff will be held on May 20.

And voters in the San Diego area head to the polls for the special election to replace jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R).  Eighteen candidates are on the ballot, including 2004 Democratic nominee Francine Busby.  Assuming no one gets more than 50% of the vote, the top vote-getters from each party will advance to a June 6 runoff.  Polls open at 10:00 am ET and close at 11:00 pm ET.  As one of us wrote a few weeks ago, Republicans are still expected to win this GOP-leaning seat, but the race provides Democrats with their first real opportunity to test drive their "culture of corruption" message against the Republicans.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
As Bush undertakes a two-day tour to promote his Medicare prescription-drug plan, the New York Times points out that the White House is refusing the nation's largest employers" in "their request for huge amounts of government data on the cost and quality of health care provided by doctors around the country," even though "Bush has repeatedly urged private insurers to disclose such data, saying it will help consumers choose doctors and hospitals...  Administration officials said they shared the employers' goals, but were constrained by court rulings that limited the disclosure of data showing Medicare payments to individual doctors, identified by name.  Employers disagree, saying those court rulings are no longer relevant."

Congress left town with more undone than done, it seemed.  But while other big bills have fallen victim to Democratic politicking and/or internal GOP divisions and may never again see the light of day this year, the Washington office of economic research firm ISI advises its investor clients that the tax-cut legislation "isn't really subject to the same factors undermining other items on the agenda.  Congressional Republicans aren't running away from Bush on this issue (which is hurting the budget and immigration bills).  And Democrats can't block this bill (which is one of the factors on immigration) since it can't be filibustered in the Senate."  Some sort of tax-cut legislation is likely to pass, they say.

The fiscally conservative Free Enterprise Fund, which recently began what they say will be a $3.7 million ad campaign in select states in favor of repealing the estate or "death" tax, is switching its sights from Rhode Island, where it launched the effort, to Arkansas.  Tomorrow, the group will launch a TV ad called "The Vulture Ad" on local stations.  The ad, which targets Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mary Pryor, features footage of a vulture eating a dead carcass and says, “When the vultures circle it means they’ve come to take their share of your savings.  The death tax can rip away 55% of what you save for your loved ones…  But the vultures want to keep feeding on your savings - that’s wrong.”  Per a FEF spokesperson, the ad also shows the heads of Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid superimposed on the bodies of vultures, and the press release notes that John Kerry's head will appear in future ads.

A Democrat and labor-funded organization plans to release a poll today showing that a majority of Americans favor keeping the death tax.

Bush's sixth year
The new Washington Post/ABC poll shows Bush's job approval rating at a new low for the survey, 38%, and the GOP-run Congress' job approval at 35%.  "The negative judgments about the president and the congressional majority reflect the breadth of the GOP's difficulties and suggest that the problems of each may be mutually reinforcing," even though "the numbers do not represent a precipitous decline over recent surveys" -- it's "the fact that they have stayed at low levels over recent months" that the GOP may find worrisome.  Democrats are preferred over Republicans on most issues, with an even split on "only one:" terrorism.

The Washington Times has unnamed former Bush aides saying "that recent White House missteps with Congress, from last week's immigration bill debate to the furor over Mr. Bush's decision to allow an Arab company to control operations at several U.S. ports, have exposed the administration's flawed and failing system for handling its affairs with lawmakers...  One reason for the poor communication and the growing disconnect is that there are too many 'free agents' in the White House independently pursuing different agendas on the Hill."

The Des Moines Register notes that Bush's trip to Iowa today will be his first there in 13 months.

President Bush's appearance in Missouri today "will be the third high-level visit from the White House to Missouri in a week.  Last week, first lady Laura Bush was in St. Louis to promote her Helping America's Youth Initiative and raise money for" Sen. Jim Talent (R), who faces a tough battle for re-election this year.  Cheney was also in the state just last night raising money for Talent. - AP

The immigration debate
Rally coverage:
Burlington, VT
Chicago
Fort Lauderdale
Houston
Madison, WI
Miami
Philadelphia
Reno, NV
Salt Lake City
Seattle
Washington

The Washington Post has new poll data on immigration: "three-quarters of Americans think the government is not doing enough to prevent illegal immigration.  But three in five said they favor providing illegal immigrants who have lived here for years a way to gain legal status and eventual citizenship.  The idea received majority support from Democrats, independents and Republicans.  One in five Americans embraced the House bill, which includes no guest-worker program and would make felons out of those in this country illegally."

It isn't just that Americans are sharply dividing on immigration, USA Today says -- many "endorse the most controversial proposals of both those who want to penalize illegal immigrants and those who want to let them stay."  A new USA Today/Gallup survey "taken Friday through Sunday found a majority of those surveyed want to make it a crime for foreigners to immigrate illegally to the USA and for Americans to help those illegal immigrants once they arrive."  Still: "There is nearly universal agreement on one point: The system needs fixing...  The feelings about border security are particularly intense."

Bloomberg says the "fate of an overhaul of U.S. immigration law rests on whether [Bush] is willing to spend political capital and the Democrats are willing to let him get political credit for doing so."

The Washington Times considers whether yesterday's rallies will buoy Democrats politically.

As Bush heads to Iowa to raise money for gubernatorial candidate and Rep. Jim Nussle (R) today, a GOP candidate to replace Nussle in the House is airing a TV ad "calling for defending the homeland by deploying 10,000 additional border patrol agents on the Mexican border," per the release.  The candidate, Brian Kennedy, appears in the TV ad from Zapata, TX on the Mexican border.

The Los Angeles Times suggests that "unlike the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, which spotlighted racial injustice and spurred landmark changes in the law, Monday's immigration rallies may not have the" same effect.  "Although the demonstrations provided a rallying point for those who oppose the strict measures advocated by conservatives in Congress, many political analysts believed the protests could also reinforce the position of those demanding a hard-line approach to immigration policy."

The Chicago Tribune says "the marches... appeared to feed a backlash among those Americans who view illegal immigrants as lawbreakers demanding rights to which they are not entitled."

"Meatpacking, construction and retail -- especially in the South and Midwest -- were among industries affected by absenteeism as workers attended protests in more than 100 cities across the country.  The demonstrations, and their effect on businesses, could foreshadow what may be a bigger national boycott planned for May 1."

Security politics
Widespread coverage, of course, of Bush's acknowledgement yesterday, during the Q&A that followed his Iraq speech, that he authorized the declassification of parts of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to counter charges that he and his Administration manipulated intelligence to justify the Iraq war.  "Bush did not directly address the allegation that he had explicitly authorized a leak to a reporter.  But White House officials have not denied it," says the Los Angeles Times.

The New York Times notes how Bush and his Administration, after skirting the CIA leak case for nearly three years, "have been pitched back into the center of the... controversy, this time because of a prosecutor's court filing."

In his CongressDaily column this week, NBC political analyst Charlie Cook writes that the danger for Bush is that he hits the "point for some unfortunate Presidents when the American people begin to hit the mute button; they just stop listening.  Or to put it differently, when the public turns strongly against an elected official on any issue, they begin to turn on that official on everything.  In this case, Iraq has become a ball and chain for President Bush, weighing him down on every issue."

The Wall Street Journal notes "clear signs... that the U.S. is gearing up plans to reduce the number of its troops in" Iraq.  US commanders "have closed or turned over 30 smaller bases to Iraqi forces and are turning to smaller units to support Iraqi police and military forces."

The "Iraq Study Group," a new independent commission studying the current situation in Iraq and potential next steps for the United States, holds its first full day of meetings today, followed by a news conference with co-chairs James Baker (R), former secretary of state, and September 11 commission co-chair and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D).  NBC's Libby Leist reports that Baker and Hamilton are scheduled to announce the team of experts and the panel of retired military officials they have recruited to work for the group.  According to the US Institute of Peace, a sponsor of the commission, the experts come from think tanks, academia and the business world.  They will travel to Iraq as part of their study.  Leist notes that in his remarks yesterday at Johns Hopkins, Bush was asked a question about the group's work and told an audience member that he'd pass along one of her suggestions to Baker.

It's the economy...
Economists tell Bloomberg News that they expect the GDP to rise this year by a median of 3.4% -- and that they also expect the Fed to raise interest rates again.  "While higher energy costs have yet to bite, economic growth will begin to slow later this year, according the survey results."

While the White House tries to convince some skeptical Americans that the economy is going strong, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) is agreeing that the economy is going strong for some people -- but not for others.  She advocated for some government aid for General Motors should it go bankrupt, and "expressed concerns" about US manufacturing's ability to compete.  She also "sidestepped whether she thinks the (Bush) tax cuts should be rolled back." - Bloomberg

Disaster politics
The New Orleans Times-Picayune writes up the first day of early voting, as well, noting that over 500 people have mailed in ballots so far in addition to those who cast early ballots yesterday.  "Preliminary details on voter participation by race show that African-Americans are turning out roughly in proportion to their pre-Katrina presence in New Orleans, or 68 percent...  With four days of early voting left, and the actual election day set for April 22, it's impossible to use Monday's voting as a gauge for overall turnout.  But those who showed up at the satellite polls were highly motivated."

Some groups are transporting displaced voters from as far as Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, and Mississippi back to Louisiana to vote. - AP

Ethics
Close observers of New Hampshire politics know that state Democrats have long sought to make an issue for national Republicans of a phone-jamming scheme from 2002 that was intended to suppress the state Democratic vote.  Former Bush campaign operative Jim Tobin was recently convicted in the case, and the RNC has been paying his legal bills.  Today, the AP reports that "key figures" in the scheme "had regular contact with the White House and Republican Party as the plan was unfolding, phone records introduced in criminal court show...  Democrats plan to ask a federal judge Tuesday to order GOP and White House officials to answer questions about the phone jamming in a civil lawsuit alleging voter fraud...  The phone records show that most calls to the White House were from Tobin...  Other calls from New Hampshire senatorial campaign offices to the White House could have been made by a number of people."

"A state office that monitors lawyers' behavior recommended that" Ohio Gov. Robert Taft (R) "be sanctioned by the state Supreme Court for failing to report golf outings and other gifts.  Taft pleaded no contest in August to ethics violations and was fined $4,000.  He is the first Ohio governor to be charged with a crime while in office." – Los Angeles Times

The midterms
Continuing his move toward the middle as he seeks re-election in his blue state of California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) today will declare "his support for a strategy to combat global warming that has drawn criticism from Republicans and business leaders."  A new Schwarzenegger campaign ad focuses on the environment and his support for lowering greenhouse gases. – Los Angeles Times

In an editorial published yesterday, the conservative National Review called for Rep. Katherine Harris (R) to drop out of the Florida Senate race for the "good" of the party and to give another candidate time to jump in and have a chance of defeating incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D). – Miami Herald

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