“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 18, 2006 | 11:00 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner

  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

Bush on oil prices
It was fitting that President Bush, in the midst of announcing a reshuffling of part of his economic team this morning, took the opportunity to rail in unusually sharp tones against rising gas prices.  Indeed, Bush seemed to equate the issue with the war in Iraq as a "major problem," though he was careful to shoot down the possibility of rationing, telling a reporter "that's your word."

Record gas prices aren't just a major economic problem which threatens to affect consumer spending -- they pose a serious political problem for the President.  As he discovered last summer and fall, high gas prices weigh upon Americans' view of the economy overall and upon his own job approval rating.  At a time when he and his administration are trying to focus on domestic concerns in advance of the looming midterm elections, and to highlight positive employment and other data in an effort to convince people that the economy is performing well, the $70-plus price of a barrel of oil threatens to obscure all of that.

Yet Bush's hands are tied when it comes to providing drivers with immediate relief.  He can express concern and show that he and his team are paying attention.  He can encourage drivers to conserve fuel.  He can put oil companies on notice that the administration is watching for signs of price-gouging, a tactic congressional Republicans used last fall, hauling oil company executives to Capitol Hill to testify about their record profits.  And he can talk up proposals he has sent to Congress, like opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling for oil and natural gas, which continues to languish on the Hill.  Bush reminded reporters today that he "stood up in front of the Congress and said, we've got to have strong and active research and development to get us to diversify away from crude oil."

He also attributed the rising costs to the change of seasons, and to changes in "fuel mixes."  Another cause of the increase in prices: the phasing out of the gas additive MTBE and shift to ethanol-based fuel.
"I'm concerned about higher gasoline price," he said this morning.  "I'm concerned what it means to the working families and small businesses, and I'm also mindful that the government has the responsibility to make sure that we watch very carefully, and to investigate possible price gouging.  And we'll do just that."

• Tuesday, April 18, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
At a Rose Garden ceremony this morning, President Bush announced US Trade Representative Rob Portman as his nominee to be the new OMB director.  This comes on the heels of yesterday’s news that new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten -- who was the old OMB director -- told senior aides that it was time to re-energize Team Bush, and that anyone who was considering departing from the White House after this year should go ahead and do it now.  The president also announced Susan Schwab, the deputy trade representative, would move up to the top job, replacing Portman.

Bush, after making that announcement and then meeting with Lebanon’s prime minister later in the morning, talks up the economy at 1:55 pm, when he makes remarks on the American Competitiveness Initiative (read: investments in research and development, education, and innovation) at the Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology in Rockville, MD.  One matter that will certainly complicate any discussion about competitiveness and the economy: oil prices, which have now hit $70 a barrel.  More on that below.  Vice President Cheney, meanwhile, does his specialty -- national security -- when he addresses troops in Fort Riley, KS at 3:35 pm ET.

Our attention now shifts to the Gulf Coast.  Last night's New Orleans mayoral debate, at first glance, may have seemed like any other: a forum in which the challengers focused most of their attacks on the incumbent, who spent much of his allotted time defending his record and trying to turn the problems that have plagued his administration into a positive in the name of experience.  But the debate also reflected the unprecedented circumstances of this election, first and foremost by being broadcast on national television.  Viewers outside New Orleans may not have recognized any of the seven candidates who took part except for Mayor Ray Nagin (D), but they knew the images shown on the screen of the African-American crowds chanting "Help" outside the city's convention center, the broken levees, and neighborhoods flooded to the rooftops.  Co-moderators Chris Matthews of MSNBC and Norman Robinson of NBC affiliate WDSU grilled the candidates on their plans to rebuild the city and why Americans who don't live there should provide them with financial support, hammering in that New Orleans is a national problem, not just a state or local problem.

Among the seven candidates who took part were the three leading contenders for the job: Nagin (D), Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D), and businessman Ron Forman (D), head of the city's popular zoo and aquarium.  After the primary ballots are counted on Saturday night, two of these three are expected to advance to a runoff scheduled for May 20.

Amidst all the talking, there were some notable omissions: former FEMA administrator Michael Brown's name never came up, and when asked to name a mayor he most admired, Landrieu declined to name his own father, the last white mayor of the city. Landrieu also declined to defend his father when another candidate criticized him.  And no candidate mentioned Nagin as the mayor he or she most admired, which Nagin dismissed by saying his story is not yet finished.  Also, asked whether or not they approve of President Bush's overall performance, the two Republicans in the field and Forman, a former Republican, said they approve; the other four said they disapprove.

But the horse race of this election has always been about, well, race, and the topic came up repeatedly during the hour in discussions about looters, "pimps," and "welfare queen"; about what happened at the convention center; and about Nagin's controversial "chocolate city" remark.  Beyond the campaign discourse, the campaign operatives and political handicappers are focusing on who can put together the winning -- and second-placing -- combination of white and African-American votes.  Complicating efforts to calculate which two candidates will make it into the runoff is the fact that while most of the city's white vote still lives here, the bulk of the African-American vote is scattered around the country and may or may not choose to participate in the election.

Political operatives in Washington, meanwhile, are watching the early and absentee vote totals to see how many evacuees participate in the election, providing the first measure of what the electorate of this new state looks like.  If a good portion of the state's displaced African-American residents doesn’t indicate an interest in continuing to vote in local elections, Republicans may see an opportunity.  One top GOP operative says he's "looking at two things: 1) how many people vote as compared to past mayoral elections, and 2) where all the votes come from."  The operative wants to see where the votes come from, he says, because "large numbers of new voters could change the partisan makeups of both where they left and where they've settled."

As of Monday morning, 16,393 people had voted in the election via in-person early voting or by returning an absentee ballot.  Only one-third of the absentee ballots requested so far have actually been returned.  Approximately 66% percent of those casting ballots have been African-American.

And a day after former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel (D) formally announced he was running for president, two other possible Democratic contenders -- John Edwards and Russ Feingold -- are making stops in Bush's backyard of Texas (albeit on somewhat friendly terrority).  Edwards appears today in Dallas to participate at an urban prayer breakfast and then headline a fundraiser for the Dallas County Democratic Party.  Feingold visits the capital of Austin, where he'll campaign for Texas congressional candidate John Courage (D), who's running to challenge incumbent Rep. Lamar Smith (D).  Smith defeated Courage in 2002, 73%-25%.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
As our own NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters point out, Gallup is showing Congress with its lowest job approval rating -- 23% -- since December 1994.

The New York Times front-pages that new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten’s “decision to address the prospect of personnel changes so directly on his first full weekday at work … appeared to be a signal that he would move quickly to address Republican complaints that senior staff members were burned out and off their stride… Mr. Bolten's message seemed to suggest that Mr. Bush had now come around to the idea that his presidency needed some fresh faces, if not a fresh start.  But it is not yet clear how wide and deep any changes will be, and whether they will portend new policy approaches or be limited to bringing in new voices to sell existing policies.”

The Washington Post was prophetic this morning: "Bolten has concentrated on how the White House forms its economic strategy and interacts with Congress and the public.  He plans to announce a new OMB director within days and some Republicans think a leading contender is U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who served in the House GOP leadership until last year.  Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who appeared with Bush at a roundtable on taxes yesterday, could go soon but administration officials said they have had trouble finding someone of stature to take the job."

The Wall Street Journal focuses on the challenge for Bush and Bolten in filling the budget chief's job.  "So far, the president has been willing to sacrifice a measure of budget discipline to pursue bigger objectives such as the global war on terrorism.  He has sought budget savings primarily by squeezing domestic appropriations and entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.  But the administration's approach has left budget deficits high for much of Mr. Bush's presidency and has taken a toll on his popularity, particularly with conservatives.  That could push him toward picking an outsider with hawkish fiscal credentials, particularly as election season looms."

USA Today focuses on the two groups who have been slowest to sign up for the Medicare prescription-drug plan, "those with low incomes and those with few health problems."  More: "The administration plans to release figures this week showing that nearly 30 million Medicare beneficiaries have drug coverage.  That includes 7 million who signed up voluntarily.  The rest had prior coverage from Medicaid, managed-care plans, private employers, or federal and military retiree plans."

It's the economy...
The Los Angeles Times, front-paging the new $70-plus price for a barrel of oil, writes, "Such high prices so early in the year - before the demand from summer travel kicks in - have some energy experts predicting that records could continue to fall in the coming weeks.  And economists warn that supercharged energy prices could rekindle inflation across the economy and restrain free-spending consumers...  Stocks slipped on rising gold and energy prices, with the Dow Jones industrial average losing 63.87 points to end at 11,073.78."

"Analysts said oil prices were likely to climb further as long as geopolitical risks in Iran and Nigeria posed threats to supply at a time when global demand remains strong and supplies remain tight.  Crude-oil production is only barely keeping up with rising global demand, leaving a slim margin for error if there is a prolonged supply interruption...  Oil at $70 a barrel, if sustained, is likely to damp U.S. consumer spending," though "the effect may not be severe because, while oil prices are still rising, the impact of much of the three-year bull market for crude oil... has been absorbed already."

If Congress weren't away on recess, members might be making a bigger deal of this: "Gasoline prices in the District of Columbia topped the rest of the continental U.S. yesterday as oil prices settled at a record high at more than $70 a barrel.  A gallon of regular gas in the District averaged $2.97 yesterday, soaring 40 cents in one month and surpassing California's average price of $2.94, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic." – Washington Times

The New York Times: “Across the country, regular gasoline now averages $2.78 a gallon, 24 percent more than at this time last year, according to AAA, the national consumer automotive group.  In some regions, service stations are posting prices above $3 a gallon, and most analysts expect further increases in coming months.”

President Bush held a roundtable discussion on the economy and taxes yesterday with business owners at Europa Stone Distributors in Sterling, VA.  In remarks after the meeting, Bush touted the benefits of the Administration's tax cuts and called on Congress to extend them while cautioning Democrats who want to raise taxes that doing so could hurt the economy.  He linked the cuts directly to the country's economic growth and said the meeting reassured him that his tax relief plan has helped small businesses resulting in small businesses that are more "confident" and help create more jobs.

Unwilling to let the White House have the last word on taxes and the economy on this Tax Day (especially with Congress out on Easter recess), Democrats issued a flurry of press releases to counter Bush's claims earlier today that his Administration's tax cuts have benefited small businesses and have helped the economy.  A statement by the Democratic National Committee noted Bush failed to mention that median household incomes have declined; that health-care costs have skyrocketed; and that gas prices are once again going up.  Meanwhile, Senate Leader Harry Reid's communications office sent out a release arguing that most of Bush's tax cuts have actually benefited the rich, not small businesses.

Disaster politics
The second of four New Orleans mayoral debates scheduled for this week takes place tonight at 8:00 pm EST.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune writes up the highlights of last night's debate, but it notes that "[f]or more than 10,000 voters, however, the debate came too late to affect their primary ballots... Other voters likely used Monday's debate to settle on a candidate before mailing absentee ballots or voting by fax this week."

Here is MSNBC.com’s analysis of last night’s New Orleans mayoral debate.

A proposed $700 million reconstruction of a Gulf Coast railroad, which Mississippi's senators say is necessary to add to the emergency war supplemental bill in order to move the railroad away from the path of some future hurricane, will test the Senate's resolve to clamp down on earmarks.  "A $223 million 'Bridge to Nowhere' -- linking Alaska's tiny Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island -- in last year's highway bill turned into a political firestorm that some Republicans still fear has dampened the spirits of conservative voters," says the Washington Post.  "Budget watchdogs are already tagging the Lott-Cochran provision the 'railroad to nowhere.'"

Security politics
Pulitzer prizes were announced yesterday, and the Washington Post notices that "the Pulitzer board honored two reports -- on the secret prisons and domestic surveillance -- that President Bush personally urged the editors not to publish."

The new Saudi envoy to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, tells Bloomberg that the United States should intensify its hunt for Osama bin Laden, increase its troops in Afghanistan and "enlist other countries," and that "Saudi Arabia may be willing to contribute troops to such an effort, he said."  The new envoy "hasn't been in Washington long enough to cultivate the social ties that Prince Bandar did with the Bush family," but "the soft-spoken Turki has a long history of working with the U.S. intelligence community and has begun to reach out to Congress and the media."

The immigration debate
The AP writes that Georgia yesterday passed a sweeping immigration bill yesterday that supporters and critics alike say enacts some of the “nation's toughest measures against illegal immigrants” -- such as verification that adults who receive many social services must be legal US residents, and that employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants face sanctions.

The Boston Globe's Canellos writes that with Republicans worried they could lose control of the House in November, the immigration debate might have been the last nail in the coffin.  "The immigration debate has cast new light on the role of the House itself in the GOP's tripartite government, and has produced increased evidence that the House leadership -- more than either Bush or the Senate -- is out of synch with the political mainstream."

With the RNC now airing radio ads blasting Democrats for voting to treat millions of illegal immigrants as felons, a spokesman to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid fired back: “It's no surprise President Bush's party would try and mislead the nation about immigration reform, but no matter how far they run from the truth, they can't hide it-Republicans tried to turn immigrants into felons.  Democrats have consistently supported comprehensive immigration reform, and Senator Reid has led the fight for tough, smart, and fair solutions to fix our broken immigration system.”

Reid, in an email solicitation his PAC sent to raise money for Democratic Senate candidates, said the same thing: “Democrats fought Bill Frist and House Republican efforts to bow to the extreme rightwing element of their party and treat twelve million hardworking immigrants like felons.  In one week Democrats voted twice to support a bill that reinforces border security and brings millions of undocumented workers out of the shadows.

Ethics
A jury yesterday found former Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) guilty on charges of fraud, corruption, and racketeering.  He will be sentenced on August 4.  The Chicago Tribune: “After a historic, marathon trial, a federal jury in its 11th day of deliberations found Ryan guilty on all 18 counts of steering state business to cronies for bribes, of gutting corruption-fighting efforts to protect political fundraising and of misusing state resources for political gain.  Ryan's co-defendant, lobbyist and longtime friend Lawrence Warner, was also found guilty on all 12 counts against him… In brief remarks after the verdict was announced, Ryan said he was disappointed with the jury's decision but confident that he would be vindicated on appeal.” 

The New York Times: “Mr. Ryan is the latest governor accused of ethical lapses in recent years. Former Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut was found guilty of accepting gifts from state contractors, and Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio pleaded no contest to misdemeanor ethics violations.  Both are Republicans.”

The Washington Times looks at efforts by GOP Sen. Conrad Burns and national Republicans to fend off Democratic attacks on Burns for his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Houston Chronicle reports that in the six weeks before his resignation from Congress, Rep. Tom DeLay raised almost $500,000 -- bringing his cash reserve to $1.4 million - and even raised money after he resigned.  However, that might be because DeLay's website, up until Monday, was still soliciting campaign contributions.  "Some of those who contributed late in March said they had no problem with DeLay using the money however he sees fit."

The midterms
The New York Post reports that Rudy Giuliani will headline a fundraiser for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) on April 30.  Giuliani will then visit Iowa on May 1.

First Read has confirmed that at least four top aides to Rhode Island Senate candidate Matt Brown (D) -- including his communications director, field director, finance director, and media consultant -- have been let go from the campaign.  The reason appears to be a lack of money.  In the first quarter of this year, Brown raised $265,000 and had about $320,000 cash on hand (but only $35,000 of that can be used for the primary).  Primary opponent Sheldon Whitehouse (D), meanwhile, reported raising $530,000 last year quarter, has $1.8 million cash on hand, and has $1.3 million for the primary.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) received a considerable amount of attention last week after he signed legislation that virtually provides universal health-care insurance to all state residents.  However, in ILLINOIS, registration begins today for the state’s “All Kids” program, signed into law by current Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), which guarantees that every child in the state has access to health care.  In November, Blagojevich faces a challenge from Judy Baar Topinka (R).

Speaking of Massachusetts, gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick (D) has raised more money from out-of-state contributors than any other candidate and is being ushered in as part of the new "black political establishment," writes the Boston Globe.  A fundraiser tonight in Washington "will showcase Patrick as part of new wave of political leaders poised to assume leadership from the black political establishment."  Patrick "is among a handful of black candidates generating a national buzz.  They hope to build on the momentum of the 2004 Senate candidacy of Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat who became one of three African-Americans elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction."

And President Bush will be in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on May 8 to fundraise for Rep. Clay Shaw, the Miami Herald says.  "The president's personal involvement shows the White House is pulling out all the stops for the 25-year incumbent, who is facing a fierce challenge from Democratic state Sen. Ron Klein of Boca Raton.  Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at a fundraiser that collected about $300,000 for Shaw last month."

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