“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.

• Thursday, April 20, 2006 | 1:05 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi and Kelly O'Donnell

  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

A White House surprise for Hu Jintao
It's been a bumpy morning at the White House where President George Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao met for the first time.  White House aides say Hu and his team had carefully followed how other international visitors have been received at the White House and made specific requests for how the ceremony would proceed.  Bush granted that request, aides say, as a gesture of hospitality.  It appears to those involved that the grandness of the South Lawn experience was of great important to Hu for how it appeared to his Chinese media.  Among Hu's requests was a 21 gun salute.

But, what Hu didn't expect and probably didn't want the Chinese back home to see was a lone protestor on the South Lawn interrupting the ceremony and his speech. The woman was seen screaming from atop risers set up for the media for Bush to stop the oppression of Falun Gong, a religious group in China. She was dressed in black and in direct view of both Hu and Bush for a few minutes before a photographer nearby tried to quiet her by trying to put his hand over her mouth. A minute later, she was hauled away by security.

After their respective speeches, the two leaders met behind closed doors to discuss various matters. Emerging from the meeting, Hu and Bush fielded a few questions where Bush said the two hadn't made any significant progress on issues. Bush said the two don't agree on everything but were able to discuss their disagreements openly.

• Thursday, April 20, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
Bolten bumps Rove!!!!  (Rummy who?)  All of Washington is abuzz about what the latest personnel changes at the White House appear to signify about a new power structure overseen by a strong chief of staff, Josh Bolten.  After the failure of Social Security reform and the botching of the Administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina, Karl Rove is giving up his oversight of domestic policy to focus more intently on the midterm elections.  Rove's full attention and Bolten's ongoing overhaul of the White House domestic policy team together will assuage worried GOP members of Congress.  The shift in Rove's responsibilities may also reflect recognition that White House policy efforts should be focused more on building a legacy for a President who lacks big second-term accomplishments than on reshaping the Republican Party.

Further personnel changes seem likely to be put on a brief hold, particularly since one expected change at the top of the Treasury Department would be a bit awkward while the valuation of the Chinese yuan is front and center.

Postponed from last September because of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House at 9:25 am.  After Hu's 10:00 am sitdown with Bush in the Oval Office comes a social luncheon, with pool coverage of the bottom of both events.  All told, the nation will probably see a lot more coverage of Hu with Bill Gates this week than of Hu with Bush.  As of this writing, no joint press conference is planned -- possibly a reflection of the disagreement between the two governments over whether this is an "official" visit, per the White House, or a more formal "state" visit, per the Chinese government.  One likely topic for discussion: energy prices, which Bush the other day blamed in part on China's increasing consumption of fuel.

In New Orleans today, two days before the city's controversial and intensely scrutinized mayoral primary, the Democratic National Committee kicks off its spring meeting.  When the DNC announced late last year that their meeting would be held in the city this week, they didn't know they'd be arriving smack in the middle of an intense debate over voting rights featuring the likes of the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and the NAACP.  Should the outcome of Saturday's primary be disputed, it will likely be by civil rights activists and organizations who allege that displaced minority voters were disenfranchised because not enough was done by the state to ensure that they could vote.

The DNC has readily jumped into such frays on behalf of African-American voters before.  Indeed, they're sponsoring a hotline to help evacuees get the information they need to vote.  But things might get a bit awkward if they are asked to take sides on the results of a primary that's expected to send two Democratic candidates into a runoff election.  All three frontrunners for the seat, incumbent Ray Nagin, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, and businessman Ron Forman, are Democrats.  One Democratic party operative acknowledges that having the meeting in New Orleans at the same time as the mayoral election could be awkward if groups or candidates decide to challenge the election outcome.  "But I don't think that's something we expect."

The DNC is trying to turn this scheduling lemon into lemonade from a PR standpoint, saying their decision to hold the meeting in New Orleans speaks to their commitment to rebuild the Gulf Coast region and highlights their sense of community.  Chairman Howard Dean, speaking to reporters yesterday, said the focus of the meeting is about community service, not politics.  He and DNC members will be out volunteering around the city, helping to build houses and staffing soup kitchens.  Dean said he hopes the meeting will show that the party "is deeply committed to the revival of New Orleans."  He also noted that the DNC scheduled the meeting before election officials changed the date of the mayoral primary to this Saturday.

White House names and faces
Bloomberg calls the changes to Rove's portfolio a demonstration of Bolten's clout, saying "Bolten is becoming the Bush administration's top power broker... as he moves to get George W. Bush's presidency on track after a series of setbacks."  Also: "Bolten authorized [press secretary Scott] McClellan to discuss publicly his push for staff changes.  That public discussion was meant to send a signal that the administration will be more forthcoming in the future."

The New York Times interviews Rove, who dismissed the suggestion that his role is being diminished.  “‘I've got a new boss,’ he continued, a boss ‘who says I want you to do more of this and less of that.’”

The AP's analysis says that after "[b]asking in triumph after President Bush’s re-election," Rove "took a promotion and added policymaking to his already jam-packed portfolio.  It was a mistake - one that may have contributed to the president’s slump - and so he’s been told to focus on his old job: politics."  Also, "a growing number of Republicans, including Rove’s allies inside the White House, had concluded that the strategist had stretched himself too thin.  There was talk that Rove had taken his eye off the ball while Democrats crept closer to gaining control of Congress in the fall."

The Washington Post says the moves "demonstrate to the public and the Republican-led Congress that it will no longer be business as usual in a White House afflicted by political defeats, an overseas war and shrinking public support.  At the same time, the changes made public so far mainly have moved around figures who have been inside the Bush orbit for years...  [S]trategists said the main goal was to make public gestures that would restore faith in Bush's ability to lead."  Also: "A Republican close to Rove said the change was unrelated to the CIA leak case."

The Washington Post's analysis notes that the moves represent a "signal of how starkly Bush's second-term ambitions have shifted after a year of persistent problems at home and abroad...  The domestic policy process has been hampered since Bolten went to OMB, and one Republican strategist close to the White House said the new chief of staff appears bent on trying to prevent Rove and others from interfering in every aspect of the governing process."

The Financial Times suggests press secretary Scott McClellan was forced out.  "Insiders said that the resignation was forced by Mr Bolten as part of his push to bring in a new team and re-make the public face of the White House."

Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers does MSNBC's Hardball at 5:00 pm.

"Some Republicans have said that the affable Mr. McClellan wasn't a forceful-enough advocate of White House positions, contending that he relied too much on stock phrases and occasional stonewalling.  His departure gives the White House a chance to find a more effective voice," says the Wall Street Journal.  On Rove, the story says, "Republican allies said privately that Mr. Rove's real function never changed that much" when he became domestic policy advisor "and isn't likely to now."

It's the economy...
The AP says the Bush-Hu meeting is likely to include "frank discussions about America's $202 billion trade deficit with China, the biggest ever recorded with a single country," a US "bid for China's help in dealing with current nuclear standoffs with North Korea and Iran, complaints about China's human rights record and questions over China's growing military strength and whether it poses a threat to Taiwan...  White House officials, however, said in advance of Thursday's meetings that they did not expect any major announcements on currency or other trade issues, noting that China did make several commitments last week."

"Americans have cut back gasoline use in apparent response to increasing prices, separate surveys by the government and a petroleum trade organization showed Wednesday." USA Today

Security politics
In advance of next week's Senate debate over the war supplemental, the Washington Post looks at the unprecedented and unexpected cost of the war.  "The bill is the fifth emergency defense request since the Iraq invasion in March 2003.  Senate Democrats say that, in the end, they will vote for the measure...  But the upcoming debate will offer opponents of the war ample opportunity to question the Bush administration's funding priorities." – Washington Post

Disaster politics
The stacks of ballots waiting to be opened are growing day by day as we head into the final three days of the New Orleans mayoral election. According to Jennifer Marusak, spokeswoman for Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater's office, 19,261 people had voted by both in-person early voting and mail-in absentee ballots as of yesterday.  NBC New Orleans affiliate WDSU reported on voting machines being warehoused and prepped for duty this morning.

An analysis of the top mayoral candidates' campaign finances shows that many of Mayor Ray Nagin's big pre-Katrina donors have donated money to his opponents instead. – New Orleans Times-Picayune

The Times-Picayune looks at how Democratic candidate Ron Forman, a former Republican, is fighting to appeal to a small GOP constituency in the city.  The "Forman camp recently sent out a mailer captioned 'Don't Throw Your Vote Away.'  While it doesn't name [the only two Republican candidates in the race Peggy] Wilson or [Rob] Couhig, the message is clear: If you don't vote for Forman, the result will be a runoff between Democrats Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, a scenario Republicans presumably don't relish."

More Bush/GOP agenda
The Los Angeles Times on Bush's revived focus on his competitiveness initiative: "For Bush, whose public approval ratings are at the lowest levels of his presidency, the issue offers an opportunity to present himself as focused on long-range problems and to tie them to the economic anxieties facing the nation today.  And unlike his ill-fated effort a year ago to overhaul the Social Security system, the proposals to address the nation's ability to compete with India, China and other growing economies have gained bipartisan support."

“[D]efying leaders of both parties,” Bush yesterday reappointed the two public representatives on the board of trustees for Social Security and Medicare, the New York Times writes.  “The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and its senior Democrat, Max Baucus of Montana, had urged Mr. Bush to find other candidates.  They did not criticize Mr. Palmer or Mr. Saving, but said they wanted fresh perspectives on Social Security and Medicare.”

Americans United, the liberal group criticizing the Medicare prescription-drug law and attempting to fix it, says it's launching a campaign to pressure nearly 50 House and Senate members -- most of whom are Republicans facing competitive elections this fall -- to support legislation to extend the law's May 15 enrollment deadline.  Americans United hopes to do this through the same tactics (town halls, rallies, and letter-writing campaigns) it employed in its fight last year against Bush's Social Security plans.

"The Texas Court of Appeals for the Third District upheld an earlier ruling by a state judge that threw out one of the criminal indictments against [Rep. Tom] DeLay...  The appeals court ruled that an indictment of DeLay... for conspiring to make an illegal campaign contribution should be thrown out because the Texas criminal code did not include a conspiracy provision for election-code violations when the alleged illegalities occurred."

Travis County DA Ronald Earle yesterday released a terse statement: "We are studying the opinion of the Third Court of Appeals to determine what course of action we will take."

The Wall Street Journal questions whether former Christian Coalition face and Bush campaign advisor Ralph Reed, a "star of the national Republican Party," will "become the first campaign casualty of the Abramoff scandal... in the July 18 primary" for the GOP nod for lieutenant governor of Georgia.  "Mr. Reed hasn't been charged with wrongdoing and his campaign manager says he is cooperating with Washington investigators.  But he is having trouble squaring his opposition to gambling with his work for Mr. Abramoff's Indian casino clients."

The New York Daily News covers the news that Rudy Giuliani will headline a May 28 fundraiser for Reed.

The Sacramento Bee reports that the 27,000-member Association of Fundraising Professionals wrote a letter to Rep. John Doolittle (R), arguing that his practice of paying a 15% fundraising commission to a company owned by his wife violates its ethics code.  “The Doolittle campaign's insistence that commissions are not only legal under Federal Election Commission rules but common practice in the professional fundraising business is what stunned the professional fundraisers association.”

Speaking with reporters yesterday, DNC chair Howard Dean asserted that there are "some parallels" between the New Hampshire phone-jamming case, in which three GOP operatives have been convicted, and Watergate, since both are "third-rate" political crimes that have roots in the White House.  Dean added that he thinks it's likely that RNC chair Ken Mehlman will have to testify under oath in the matter.

First on the DNC's agenda is a 1:00 pm ET meeting today of the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, whose members will hear from 10 of the 11 states applying to hold early nominating contests in 2008.  For more than a year, DNC members and other party activists have been considering changing the nominating calendar so that states with geographically and demographically diverse electorates, and with a strong labor presence, have greater influence earlier in the process.  At a contentious hearing last month, the rules panel agreed to recommend to the full DNC that one or two states hold caucuses during the week in between Iowa and New Hampshire, and one or two states hold primaries during the week right after New Hampshire.  Many members of the committee feel that this approach would still protect the time-honored "first in the nation" status of Iowa and New Hampshire; Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats disagree.

States that have applied for early status include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Washington, DC, and West Virginia.  Nebraska will not be present today to pitch the committee.  The committee is not expected to deliberate on the applications today, and will make its final recommendations later this year.

When asked by reporters yesterday, DNC chair Howard Dean declined to talk about the 2008 race, saying he's focused on the midterms.  Former Sen. John Edwards is in New Hampshire today.  Sen. Russ Feingold is e-mailing supporters a new video criticizing Bush on the NSA domestic spying program, for which Feingold has proposed censuring him.  "I hope you enjoy the video, and help me to keep this issue alive by passing it along to your friends."  And Sen. John Kerry is planning a big speech on patriotism and the Iraq war for Saturday at Faneuil Hall in Boston, where he conceded the 2004 presidential election.

Bloomberg suggests that Sen. John McCain (R) might have bigger obstacles in his path to the presidency than any tinkering he might be doing to his record.  "The real barrier to his ambitions may be his unswerving, unstinting and unnuanced support for an unpopular war in Iraq...  McCain's advisers are trying to make a virtue of his stance, saying it shows he is genuine, courageous and un-political."  Another potential war-related pitfall for McCain: while he regularly blasts earmarks and talks up fiscal responsibility, "he never mentions the more than $250 billion the Iraq war has cost U.S. taxpayers so far."

The midterms
As the White House was announcing key staff changes yesterday, two key components of the Democratic party, the Democratic National Committee and organized labor, were discussing their plans for the midterm elections.  At a breakfast with reporters, DNC chair Howard Dean said he's optimistic that the party can take back the House and pick up seats in the Senate (possibly even taking back that chamber, too).  Yet because of redistricting and the relatively few number of retirements this year, Dean conceded that Democrats probably aren't going to pick up the huge number of House seats Republicans did in 1994.  He also said that Democrats will need a national wave to take the House back.  "I think people really want change...  But the Democratic party has to be seen as the vehicle for change.  That is my job."  And Dean argued that Democrats simply can't run on a "we are not them" strategy for the upcoming midterms -- that Democrats need a positive message to restore a sense of community that's currently lacking in America.

A few hours later, leaders at the AFL-CIO told another group of reporters that they're launching an unprecedented mobilization campaign for the midterms.  They said they're targeting 21 gubernatorial races, 15 Senate contests, and 42 House races, and would spend $40 million -- more than ever before for a midterm cycle -- on education and voter mobilization.  (That amount doesn't include what the AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions will donate to individual candidates.)  But these leaders also acknowledged that they are trying to improve on their grassroots program.  "Our neighbor-to-neighbor program wasn't as effective as [Republicans']," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees who also chairs the AFL's political committee.  "We had too much of... a stranger-to-stranger program."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) says he intends to press President Bush to help fix the state’s flood-threatened levee system when the two meet on Friday, the Sacramento Bee says. – Sacramento Bee

A new Quinnipiac poll out in Florida shows Sen. Bill Nelson (D) leading Rep. Katherine Harris (R) 56% to 27%. – Miami Herald

In Tennessee, the state Senate yesterday voided the special election that placed Democrat Ophelia Ford -- the aunt of US Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. (D) -- into office, the Nashville Tennessean writes.  “The committee worked for seven months and found that 12 votes were not valid because the voters were either dead, felons or residents of other districts.”


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