“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 25, 2006 | 6:38 p.m. ET
From Mark Murray

  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

As Democrats and Republicans continued to trade barbs over gas prices, President Bush finished up a meeting with Senate leaders over an equally heated issue: immigration reform. In a statement after the meeting, he echoed his comments from yesterday that he wants a comprehensive bill that establishes a guest-worker plan and provides a path to citizenship. And he suggested that the senators in attendance agreed with him: "It's important that we uphold the values of the United States of America," Bush said. "It's important that we treat people with dignity. And I strongly believe that we have a chance to get an immigration bill that is comprehensive in nature to my desk before the end of this year." (No opponents of Bush's approach to immigration were invited to the meeting.)

But several things must happen before that bill gets on his desk -- including the Senate passing its own bill (which won't be easy); Senate and House leaders forging a conference bill (that straddles the fine line between enforcement-only conservatives and liberals who insist on a path to citizenship); and a president who's going to have to muster the political capital he has left to twist enough arms to get that conference bill passed. Hardly impossible, but hardly easier, either.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006 | 4:25 p.m. ET
From Ken Strickland, Elizabeth Wilner and Huma Zaidi

The battle for gas blame and credit
The partisan battle over high gas prices isn't just a fight for blame -- it's a fight for credit, as well. Senate Democrats are accusing President Bush today of misleading Americans by announcing that he would call for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate gas-price gouging . Democrats say the FTC is already in the midst of such an inquiry -- at their behest. The probe is scheduled to be completed next month. At a press conference this afternoon, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) said that if Bush had picked up a phone and called the FTC, he would have found out that an investigation is already in the works.

But the White House did know it. In briefing reporters last night, spokesperson Scott McClellan confirmed that the FTC inquiry "dates from the time of Hurricane Katrina." What would be new in Bush's speech today, he said, is the order to the Energy and Justice Departments to also undertake inquiries. Other White House documents released today reference the FTC probe as ongoing.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, on the other hand, called Bush's announcement today "an important first step." Frist co-signed a letter to Bush yesterday asking him to undertake an FTC probe, and issued a (self-)congratulatory statement today.

The escalation of the e-mail war has Republicans and Democrats trying clever mudslinging tricks. The Republicans have released "Five questions for Nancy Pelosi," which suggest that Democrats have voted against legislation that they say would help ease the situation. Democrats have released a "Top 10" list of reasons why Republicans are to blame for the crisis, including accusing the GOP of being in cahoots with oil and gas companies and blaming the price spike on poor war planning in Iraq, which they say has blocked the supply of oil to the United States.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006 | 10:50 a.m. ET
From Patti Domm (CNBC), Elizabeth Wilner and Kelly O'Donnell

Bush oil offers to what effect?
About one hour after we published this morning that President Bush "could -- though he has yet to broach the subject -- open up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to temporarily boost the gas supply," the White House announced that Bush is in fact ordering that deposits to the SPR be suspended during the summer and resume in the fall in an effort to boost supply and, hopefully, ease gas prices.  The news broke shortly before Bush's scheduled speech on energy and gas prices to a renewable-fuels conference in Washington.  In his speech, he asserted that it "will leave a little more oil on the market," and that "every little bit helps." 

The announcement is the headline of the speech, which also contained words of assurance for consumers, words of praise for the renewable energy industry, words of warning to oil companies about price-gouging and about investing in new refineries, and words of encouragement to Congress that more policy-making can be done.  Based on conversations with oil traders, however, it's not clear right now what effect, if any, the temporary halt in SPR deposits will have on current gas prices since unstable relations with Iran and political instability in Nigeria seem to be the primary drivers of the price of oil.

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

First glance
President Bush is addressing the latest surge in gas prices with the same frequency and sense of urgency he has used before in efforts to rally public support for the war in Iraq, to which he likened gas prices as a "major problem" one week ago.  Since he made those comments to the White House press corps, oil has climbed even further above the $70/barrel mark.  Today, as oil companies begin to report their first-quarter profits, Bush will call for a federal probe into possible price-gouging in a speech at a renewable-fuels conference in Washington at 10:05 am.

Per White House spokesperson Scott McClellan, Bush will announce that he has directed the Energy and Justice Departments and the Federal Trade Commission to look into possible price manipulation, as his party's congressional leadership basically requested yesterday.  He will also talk about what can be done about gas prices in both the short and long term, offering a four-part plan that would 1) ensure fair treatment of consumers, 2) promote greater fuel efficiency, 3) boost the nation's gas supply, and 4) promote alternative fuels.  And he'll call on energy companies to reinvest profits in boosting their refining capacity.

Bush gives this speech amidst a partisan din about who's to blame, as the two parties blast away at each other about how so-and-so voted for or against such-and-such energy bill in this or that year.  As Democrats encourage voters to blame the majority party, Republicans are trying to deflect those efforts by both taking up the cause of alleged price-gouging themselves and accusing Democrats of obstructing energy policy.  GOP campaign committees seem to be taking the lead on the latter task, leaving GOP lawmakers to sound more solutions-oriented.  House Energy and Commerce chair Joe Barton has asked for a study of how oil companies invest their profits -- "It troubles me that a CEO receives a $400 million retirement package while refinery capacity continues to lag behind demand," he said in a written statement -- and plans a hearing on supply.

But the public may not make such distinctions as they continue to wonder, per dozens of readers' e-mails to us yesterday, why they are paying so much, why oil companies and their CEO's are making so much, and what the government -- including an unpopular Congress -- is going to do about it.  One economic analyst based in Washington suggests it remains unclear what, if anything, Congress could get done before the midterm elections.  And in outlining the steps he plans to take today, Bush will illustrate the parameters he's operating within.

As he told the crowd at a fundraiser in Las Vegas yesterday, "[t]here's no magic wand to wave."  He can put oil companies on notice that the Administration is probing for signs of price-gouging.  He can call high gas prices an additional tax on families trying to live within a budget, and show that he and his team are paying attention.  He can explain contributing factors such as increasing consumption by other countries like China, an industry switch to a more expensive gas additive, and political unrest in oil-producing nations.  He can talk up conservation, alternative fuels, and proposals like opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling for oil and natural gas, which continues to languish in Congress.  And he could -- though he has yet to broach the subject -- open up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to temporarily boost the gas supply.

As we wrote last week, in the absence of deeds, Bush's best counter to soaring gas prices is words.  With Americans feeling frustrated and angry, he and Republicans must feel similarly as they watch growing concerns about gas prices blot out more positive indications that the economy is doing well, and see the prices start taking a pernicious effect on consumer spending.

Bush also holds two meetings today with bipartisan groups of lawmakers, sitting down with House members to talk about the war in Iraq, per NBC's Mike Viqueira, and meeting with senators to talk about immigration reform at 3:25 pm.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that Bush impressed some Senate supporters of a guest-worker bill with his remarks yesterday in Irvine, CA -- and that it appears that those opposed to such legislation were not invited to attend today's meeting (see below for more).  In between, Bush takes part in the presentation of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to Navy's football team in the Rose Garden.

And, debate begins today on the $106 billion war/Katrina emergency supplemental spending bill, which is getting loaded up with non-emergency earmarks.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that the White House doesn't expect to announce its new press secretary today.

It's the economy...
USA Today previews the oil companies' earnings reports, which are expected to be big but "are unlikely to be records, because refiners use more oil than their parent companies produce, forcing them to buy oil at today's high prices."

The New York Daily News says the same CNN poll showing Bush's approval at 32% also notes that 69% "said gas prices were causing them severe financial hardship."

Channeling First Read, the Washington Post reports that Bush and Republicans "have few if any policy choices that would cut [prices] over the next few months...  Aides expect the president to say in a speech today that last year he pushed through an energy bill that was designed to increase domestic oil and gasoline production, and that this year he recommended a slew of incentives for alternative-energy production...  Oil analysts concur that the primary causes of the escalating prices cannot be mitigated by federal intervention."

The Wall Street Journal reports that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the "FTC chairman will send a joint letter to all 50 state attorneys general calling on them to use their broader investigative powers to pursue illegal gouging...  They also will offer assistance to states that need it."  But, the story says, "calling for investigations doesn't promise much in the way of enforcement action, according to industry officials," and "Congress isn't likely to do much, if anything, on energy this year."

The Dallas Morning News also says lawmakers have "done little of substance" to respond to angry voters who are upset with gas prices.  But the "government's ability to influence prices in the short term is limited."

House Democrats hold a 1:30 pm press conference to "highlight Democratic energy efforts."

The immigration debate
Senate Republicans and Democrats who support a temporary guest-worker program for illegal immigrants say Bush took a key step toward their goal with his speech in Irvine, CA yesterday, NBC's Strickland reports.  Several Senate aides say Bush went further than he has previously in setting out what he considers to be a sensible a path for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship, including getting specific about what he thought "makes sense:" paying a penalty, learning English, and getting in the back of the line for legal status through the green-card process.  These happen to be the core elements of the original McCain-Kennedy bill and the subsequent compromise bill referred to as Hagel-Martinez.  Some Senate supporters were given a heads-up from the White House before Bush spoke, Strickland reports.

Minority Leader Harry Reid wasn't impressed by Bush's speech, though.  Reid spokesperson Jim Manley said Bush's remarks were "far short of what's needed.  [Bush] has to step up to the plate and stand up to the right wing" of his party that consider such proposals as amnesty.  Still, Strickland says, some Democrats were encouraged by Bush's remarks, especially making them in conservative Orange County.  He took his stand "in the heart of right-wing political land," said one Democratic aide.  "That's brave."

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing today looking at the economic impacts of the various immigration proposals, per Strickland, who says that testimony will come from experts and academics.

Despite the scheduled meeting today, the Washington Post reports, "aides emphasized that Bush has no intention for now of staking clear legislative positions on the immigration bill.  He does not want to embrace a proposal, only to see it lose once House and Senate negotiators try to reach a final agreement...  White House advisers see the debate playing out like previous ones over Medicare and tax cuts, in which Bush allows Congress a lot of leeway and then comes in at the end to help secure a deal -- and claim credit."

The Washington Times has pro-immigration controls GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo's spokesperson calling the prospect of "massive deportations," raised by Bush yesterday, a "straw man."  "'No one is talking about mass deportations,' he said.  'Our approach is one of attrition where you make it difficult for an illegal alien to get a job in this country or to access our social services, so that over time, illegal aliens stop coming to this country and the ones already here go home.'"

The Sacramento Bee on the anti-illegal immigrant protestors who demonstrated outside of Bush’s speech: “Orange County has been the hotbed for the anti-illegal-immigration movement in the state, becoming the birthplace for the Minutemen Project...  Its members used a bullhorn Monday to sing ‘God Bless America’ and call on Bush to secure the nation's borders.”

Bloomberg says a guest-worker plan "is splitting unions."  The Service Employees International Union supports a guest-worker plan while the AFL-CIO opposes it.  "The split is a part of the broader debate within the labor movement about whether globalization is an opportunity for unions or threatens to accelerate their decline."

More Bush/GOP agenda
The Hill reports that "Senate conservatives are considering sending a letter to President Bush urging him to issue a veto threat against a $106 billion emergency supplemental spending bill...  Supporters would be unlikely to send a letter without 34 signatures, the number of votes needed to sustain a veto."

The New York Times says the earmarks "have focused new attention on what many fiscal conservatives and watchdog groups consider a growing problem: the use of emergency spending bills for initiatives that critics say should be considered through the regular budget process.”

Roll Call writes up the growing likelihood of a lame-duck congressional session after the elections.  "Republicans and Democrats alike know the next stretch on the calendar is the last, best chance to progress on serious policymaking...  Most everyone acknowledges, however, that the next five weeks of work is critical because once Members break for Memorial Day, any hopes for bipartisanship will be on life support."

The Hill covers the House GOP's struggle to maintain unity to get big bills passed.

The Chicago Tribune reports on the increasingly frequent Q&As Bush has been doing with audience members, some of whom have tough questions for him.  “The White House's tactic of allowing the president to personally confront his critics has not averted a slide in public support that may reach beyond the war to include forces beyond Bush's direct control, such as the spiraling price of gasoline.”

Disaster politics
Civic leader and businessman Ron Forman, who placed third in the New Orleans mayoral primary with 17%, has endorsed second-place finisher and runoff candidate Mitch Landrieu, who took 22%.  Mayor Ray Nagin got 28%.  All are Democrats.  The AP says, "Much of Forman's support came from Nagin's 2002 base, white conservative voters.”

The Times-Picayune looks at how Forman's endorsement may help or hurt Landrieu in terms of fundraising and voter support.

Civil rights leaders have not forgotten their vow to challenge Saturday's results.  The Times-Picayune reports that Rev. Jesse Jackson "said his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition may file complaints with Attorney General Charles Foti, Secretary of State Al Ater or U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who ruled on balloting procedures before the election.  Jackson pledged to demand out-of-state polling places for the May 20 runoff and that the state drop its requirement that first-time voters cast ballots in person."

An analysis of voting data from Saturday's elections shows that Democrats running in the midterm elections might face some trouble.  According to pollster Ed Renwick, director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics, "the lower number of traditionally Democratic-voting African-Americans participating in Saturday's election could jeopardize candidates who depend on that block of support in upcoming elections."- Times-Picayune

Security politics
Senate Democrats hold a port security event today at 11:00 am.  Rep. Ed Markey (D) plans to introduce an amendment tomorrow in the House Homeland Security Committee that would require US ports to inspect 100% of incoming containers, including scanning for radioactive materials and using x-rays to search for explosives.  Markey made the remarks to reporters in a conference call hosted by the liberal group Americans United.  Timed to his move, Americans United launched a TV ad campaign on national cable over the weekend calling for tighter port security.  The group is pairing that effort with a grassroots campaign targeting nine lawmakers who sit on the homeland security panel.

The New York Daily News reports that Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) has asked Sen. John Warner (R), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to let the retired generals who've been critical of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speak before the committee.

Ethics
The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of the federal probe of Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan's finances, prompting Mollohan to temporarily relinquish his seat on the Ethics Committee, now reports that last year, he "bought a 300-acre farm with the head of a small defense contractor that had won a $2.1 million contract from funds that the congressman added to a 2005 spending bill.  The joint purchase of the farm... is the most direct tie yet disclosed between Rep. Mollohan and a beneficiary of the federal spending he has steered toward his home state."  The story also notes that FBI agents "have begun asking questions in Washington and West Virginia about the lawmaker's holdings and whether they were properly disclosed," though those such "investigations often end with no charges filed" and "Mollohan has not been formally accused of misconduct."

USA Today, continuing its scrutiny of Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter's office, reports that "Specter obtained a $200,000 grant last year for a Philadelphia foundation represented by the son of one of Specter's top aides."  The story notes, "In February, USA TODAY reported that Specter helped get almost $50 million in funding for clients of a lobbying firm run by the husband of Specter's top appropriations aide...  After that, Specter called for a Senate ethics investigation of his office and asked his chief of staff to determine whether there were other potential conflicts of interest."

The midterms
Perhaps because their midterm election picture looks bleak right now, Republican operatives are being forthcoming (sort of) about their organizing efforts.  The Washington Times looks at their revival of micro-targeting: "a well-trained ground force of political volunteers -- that eventually will number in the millions... have been sending in weekly reports on the number of new Republican voters identified and registered in key races through a vast e-mail network linking Republican Party organizations...  Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee are among the states that the Republican Party's volunteer operation will target."

In the Democratic primary for governor of California, both candidates are now on TV for the remainder of the race.  The Los Angeles Times calls the race "a test of money" (state Controller Steve Westly) "versus institutional muscle" (Treasurer Phil Angelides).  "Even though Angelides is a millionaire and may benefit from outside groups airing advertisements on his behalf, strategists for the campaign acknowledge he will probably be outspent by Westly.  They expect to make up the difference, in part, through high-profile endorsements and the kind of union backing that powered Gray Davis to the Democratic nomination in 1998."

The AP examines the predicament Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is in with his Democratic primary challenger, Ned Lamont, calling him "Republican-lite."  But "[w]hile Lamont's arguments have struck a chord with many Democrats, Lieberman holds a considerable advantage in money, name recognition and party backing."

The New York Times profiles freshman Rep. Mike Sodrel (R) of Indiana, who won office in 2004 largely due to Bush’s coattails and his support for the Iraq war.  Sodrel faces a rematch this fall against the Democratic ex-congressman he defeated two years ago, “but like Republican incumbents around the country, Mr. Sodrel is running at a time when disillusionment with the war has turned association with Mr. Bush from a credential to a question mark in the eyes of many voters.”

In Ohio, "a group of 56 clergy members contends that two churches" in the Columbus area "have gone too far in supporting" GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, allegedly violating their tax-exempt status.  "The role of the clergy, churches and affiliated institutions in elective politics is a sensitive issue in religious and political circles alike," says the Washington Post.  "The Republican Party and the Bush White House have courted them."

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