“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 27, 2006 | 5:10 p.m. ET
From Mark Murray, Ken Strickland, 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

Gas pump duels
Republicans and Democrats spent yet another day dueling at the pump. At a press conference today, Senate Republicans announced that they were offering a "Gas Price Relief" amendment -- attached to a measure calling for drilling in Alaska's ANWR -- that would give low- and middle-income Americans a $100 rebate to ease the burden of higher gas prices. These Republicans, led by Majority Leader Bill Frist, also used the occasion to blame Democrats for obstructing past efforts to increase domestic oil supply by drilling in ANWR and creating tax incentives for companies to build new refineries.

But at their own press conference, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel took issue with this GOP rebate plan, tied Republicans to Big Oil, and argued that gas prices would be the issue that would doom Republicans in November. Schumer said that offering rebates does nothing to solve the structural problems causing the higher gas prices. "The $100 rebate -- no one's against that. But what's going to happen five months from now ... when the price stays high because they haven't touched Big Oil?" he said.

Schumer also contended that gas prices "are going to be the final nail in the GOP coffin this election year." And on the day that Exxon announced it had earned a quarterly profit of $8.4 billion, he tied the GOP to Exxon: "Unfortunately, George Bush and the Republican Congress think that what is good for Exxon oil is good for America." Reporters asked what kind of cars Schumer and Emanuel took to get to this press conference. Schumer proudly mentioned a Toyota Prius. Emanuel said a Ford Taurus, and he whipped out his wallet showing his DC and Chicago Metro cards.

• Thursday, April 27, 2006 | 4:15 p.m. ET
From Ken Strickland, Joel Seidman and Huma Zaidi

Slamming Brown for Katrina failings
On the same day that Bush is making his 10th visit to Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina hit last summer, the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which investigated the response to Katrina, released its findings today.  The bipartisan committee blasted FEMA, state, and local agencies for failures of planning and decision-making, "and most of all, failures of leadership at all levels of government."

The bipartisan report does not lay blame at the feet of the President.  Committee chair Susan Collins (R-ME) said there was "blatant insubordination" by former FEMA director Michael Brown, who allowed his "personal feelings" about the department to override his leadership obligations. Collins also said the agency is "beyond repair and that Bush was "not well served" by Brown and others. The report also states that there was continued confusion over who was responsible for the levee failures, that federal officials failed to grasp the seriousness of storm, and that state and city officials failed to evacuate the elderly from nursing homes. As has already been reported, the committee recommends abolishing FEMA.

But Joe Lieberman, the committee's ranking Democrat, directly faults the White House and wrote his own "additional views" that are separate from the panel's report. Lieberman said that during September 11 Bush took charge, but with Katrina, he "failed to provide the same leadership" and America suffered as a result. Lieberman is up for re-election this year and is being challenged for the Democratic nomination by a liberal who's accusing him of being too supportive of Bush.

Libby case continues
And one day after Karl Rove made his fifth appearance in front of a grand jury investigating the CIA leak case, a judge has denied Lewis "Scooter" Libby's request to dismiss his case, which is scheduled to go to trial next year. Libby was indicted on perjury and obstruction charges last year. Judge Reggie Walton rejected Libby's attorney's argument that the appointment of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was unconstitutional. Walton also rejected Libby's argument that the attorney general lacked sufficient authority to appoint a special counsel.

• Thursday, April 27, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
President Bush today visits the Gulf Coast for volunteer work.  He may have something to say about the Katrina/war supplemental, which he has threatened to veto if it exceeds the $92 billion he asked for.  The Senate yesterday declined to scale back their pork-laden $106.5 billion bill, even as Majority Leader Bill Frist sent Bush a letter informing him that he has the necessary votes to sustain a veto.

At some point soon -- perhaps around Memorial Day, when Congress next leaves town and the general public tunes out for the summer -- the framework for the 2006 midterm elections will lock in, with only a major external event having the potential to change it.  Bush's job approval rating in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has remained below 40% for six months, held there by opposition to the war in Iraq and, now, by high gas prices, which have shot to the top of the public's priority list and are souring their view of the economy, no matter how much the Administration talks up the latest positive data.  Bush's job approval in our April 21-24 survey is 36%, a new low, and two-thirds of those polled say the nation is off on the wrong track.  The public mood for the midterms is looking "exceptionally negative," says NBC/Journal pollster Peter Hart (D).

Barring some unforeseen external dynamic, Republicans and Democrats will be left to struggle over whether 2006 will be more of an anti-incumbent year resulting in potentially serious losses for both sides, or a partisan year which lopsidedly afflicts Bush's GOP and threatens their majorities.  NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R) likens the situation to a double-barreled shotgun, noting that the dynamics visible in our survey are "heavily weighted" toward a partisan year with greater pressure on Republican rather than Democratic incumbents.  But "to really have a big election, the alternative party has to be an option," he says, and at this point, the public is resisting viewing the Democratic party as an option.

The GOP-run Congress' job approval has plunged 11 points in the six weeks since our March survey, from 33% to 22%.  Yet the Democratic party's lead over Republicans on which party people would prefer to have in control of Congress has been cut in half: Their 13-point advantage from March, 50% to 37%, has shrunk to 6 points, 45% to 39%.  McInturff cautions that among those who express a high interest in the election, the gap remains wide.

As a party, Democrats' standing today is about as low as it was in December 1994, after they were swept from power in both chambers of Congress: 33% feel positively about the party and 39% feel negatively about it, whereas in December 1994, the rating was 33%-40%.  The Republican party is rated positively by 35% and negatively by 43% -- very close to their all-time low in our survey from last November: 32%-43%.

Still, it's the majority party who's trying to fend off the brunt of public unhappiness over high gas prices as the Administration's case for a strong economy falls on largely deaf ears.  Nineteen percent say they feel "confident about the economy because of the number of jobs that are being created, the strong performance of the stock market, and the low rate of inflation" -- basically the case Bush and Republicans make.  Seventy-seven percent say they feel "uneasy about the economy because of the high price of gasoline, higher interest rates, and the large federal deficit."  "In the end," Hart says, "it's what you're shelling out of your wallet."

And on the war, despite being overshadowed in the poll by gas prices as a top concern, McInturff points out that after three years, 68% of those polled still say they think most of the challenges in Iraq lie ahead.

Republican House campaign operatives argue that this year's contests will be a set of local races dominated by local factors, but signs point to this becoming a nationalized election as voters focus on gas prices and the war.  In October 1994, 35% of those surveyed by NBC and the Journal said their respective member's position on national issues was more important to them in deciding whether to vote for that member or not; 51% said the member's performance in the district was more important.  One month later, Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress.  Today, the percentage of people saying their member's position on national issues is more important is 8 points higher, at 43%.  McInturff says people seem to be "thinking about control of Congress in deciding how they're going to vote."

One factor that could work to the embattled Republicans' favor -- if it helps at all -- is preparation.  One longtime GOP House strategist suggests that the party's ranks are far more aware of what could happen to them in November than Democrats were aware of the approaching tsunami at this point in 1994.  Whereas many Democrats arguably could have done more to shore up their positions that year -- raised more money or spent more time in their districts -- Republicans are leaving less to chance.

NBC political analyst Charlie Cook agrees that there's more acute awareness of the results of the 1994 election now than there was in 1994 about the results of the 1980 election, the previous big wave.  Cook also suggests that Republicans have used opportunities to turn Democrats' "culture of corruption" against them so that both parties are tarred with the same brush.

It's the economy...
Fed chief Ben Bernanke will testify about the US economic outlook before Congress' Joint Economic Committee at 10:00 am.  ExxonMobil, who shattered earnings records late last year, is expected to release its latest earnings today.  The San Francisco Chronicle examines gasoline refiners' profits.  “Earlier this week, Valero Energy Corp., the country's largest refiner, reported the highest first-quarter profits in its history, $849 million, up 60 percent from the same period last year.”

After a slew of Democratic proposals to lower energy prices, it's the GOP's turn.  Senate Republicans today will roll out a 10-point plan which includes $100 "gas tax holiday rebate" checks for every taxpayer, per a Senate GOP leadership aide.  Other measures include a bunch of tax incentives, opening up ANWR for oil drilling, and limiting deposits to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  House GOP leaders are pushing for a series of votes as early as next week on opening up ANWR for oil drilling, enforcing price-gouging measures, limiting "boutique" fuels, limiting deposits to the SPR during the summer, and exploring hydrogen initiatives.

Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the respective heads of the Democratic Senate and House campaign committees, hold a press conference at 1:15 pm to discuss the impact of rising gas prices on this year's midterm elections.

Although the economy has been able to absorb shifts caused by rising gas prices in recent years, economists are warning that this time may be different.  "Not helping is the fact that the latest gains are coming as some economic cushions for consumers that have been in place for several years, such as a strong housing market, are slipping." – USA Today

Our polling partner the Wall Street Journal looks at the "striking gap between Americans' mood and the nation's economic performance."  Republicans "want Mr. Bush and Congress to get more credit for the economy," and "congressional Republican leaders... are aiming to take a first step by accelerating House-Senate negotiations on tax-cut legislation that would extend the current 15% rates on capital gains and dividends.  Yet worries about gasoline prices, offshoring of jobs, rising health-care costs and precarious private pension plans are creating anxiety even among workers who do have jobs.  Moreover, the fruits of the economy's recent strength aren't evenly shared: Workers at the bottom and the middle are benefiting less."

"Political analysts say the rising prices could dovetail with growing public concern over the war in Iraq to give Democrats an opening in several key races" at the congressional and gubernatorial level, says the Washington Post.

White House names and faces
A USA Today story suggests that new White House press secretary Tony Snow's experience in the press and in dealing with the press will only mean something if it's combined with access.

The Los Angeles Times says that Snow "sought and was given 'walk-in' privileges in the Oval Office and the chief of staff's office," which "would make Snow one of the few officials with unscheduled access to the president and" chief of staff Josh Bolten.  The story adds that "several Republicans said the White House may hope one benefit of Snow's appointment will be to signal that Bush hears the complaints of conservatives who believe he has not done enough to restrain federal spending - a charge Snow often leveled against the administration."

The Washington Post reports that the choice of Snow "reflects a consensus among the president and his top advisers that his White House operation has been too insular and needs to be more aggressive in engaging with the news media and other Washington constituencies...  White House aides said there is now broad agreement that the first-term strategy of largely ignoring the mainstream Washington media was a mistake."  Also, Snow will "hold his first on-air news conference by the end of next week or the following Monday."

Former Bush spokesperson Ari Fleischer welcomes Snow with a warning in a Washington Post op-ed: "Gone are the days when" the daily briefing "was a serious affair...  Instead, the public is now treated to a spectacle in which the media do their best to pressure the White House, regardless of which party is in power, into admitting that much of what the president is doing is wrong, and the White House pushes back.  The two sides talk past each other, and the viewing public gets to watch a good fight."

The New York Times: “Mr. Snow is something the White House briefing room has not yet had at the lectern: a star of the opinionated cable news era.  But he is also something Mr. Bush has never had: a free-wheeling outsider in a very public position, and one with a history of sharing critical opinions of the president.”

The Dallas Morning News has Bush 41's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, saying that Snow will be able to make a difference, "but undoubtedly only at the margins."

Knight Ridder says the "job will give Snow a chance to put into practice his advice that Bush should be much more aggressive in confronting his critics.  His appointment pleased Republicans who share that view, but skeptics questioned Snow's ability to influence an organization known for buttoned-down discipline and devotion to the president."

The Des Moines Register says that Sen. Charles Grassley (R) has asked Bush to fire drug czar John Walters.  Grassley told reporters "that he wrote Walters calling for more action on meth, and that the response he received was ‘basically, bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.’”

Disaster politics
The New Orleans Times-Picayune previews Bush's 10th visit to south Louisiana since Katrina hit.  He'll present a service award to a local food bank volunteer.

The Times-Picayune also reports on the Senate's call for the abolishment and rebuilding of FEMA.  The report "offers a sobering assessment of the government's ability to prepare for future disasters on the order of Katrina," and the findings "spread blame for the confused response to Hurricane Katrina among local, state and federal officials.  It says that the flaws in FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the agency, 'are too substantial to mend.'"

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
NBC/Wall Street Journal poll results on MSNBC.com.

The Los Angeles Times calls yesterday's Senate vote against scaling back their $106 billion spending bill "a direct rebuff of Bush by a number of GOP senators," which "underscored a growing party rift at a time when the president's popularity has sunk to new lows in public opinion polls."

The AP points out that "in a 49-48 vote that tested lawmakers' loyalties, senators voted with Mississippi's powerful GOP delegation to keep alive a controversial $700 million project to relocate a rail line along the Mississippi coast so the state can build a new east-west highway.”

The Senate did vote to spend $2 billion to beef up border security, but that addition will be offset by cuts in the spending bill.  If the House follows suit, it "would make a comprehensive immigration bill like President Bush wants more difficult to pass through Congress.  Border security unites virtually all lawmakers, while the guest-worker program" doesn't, says the Washington Times.

Another thing Republicans can do to motivate the base, beyond legislative action: revive controversial judicial nominations.  Word that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist plans to bring DC Circuit Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the floor soon "immediately prompted discussions of the potential for both a Democratic filibuster of Kavanaugh and the possibility that Frist might use the opportunity to invoke the long-threatened 'nuclear option' to prevent filibusters of judicial nominees...  Sources said Frist... will seek an up-or-down vote on Kavanaugh" and on appellate court nominee Terrence Boyle "before the Memorial Day recess."

The liberal group Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities hosts a conference call at 11:15 am to launch its campaign to defeat any attempted repeal of the estate tax.

Security politics
The House will, in fact, have a "full and lengthy" debate on Iraq.  – The Hill

Ethics
The House is scheduled to vote on a weak lobbying reform measure today.  The Washington Post says the sense of urgency has dissipated because members aren't hearing much from constituents about the Abramoff scandal or ethics in general.  "Democratic strategists say that the ethics issue does not carry a lot of weight by itself.  They say that, to win over voters, they must link Republicans' alleged coziness with lobbyists to failures in Washington to address specific public needs, such as health-care coverage and economic security."

It's not just the Abramoff scandal that could drag down more members of Congress, apparently.  The Wall Street Journal reports that federal prosecutors "are investigating whether two contractors implicated in the bribery of former Rep. Randall 'Duke' Cunningham supplied him with prostitutes and free use of a limousine and hotel suites...  Besides scrutinizing the prostitution scheme for evidence that might implicate contractor Brent Wilkes, investigators are focusing on whether any other members of Congress, or their staffs, may also have used the same free services, though it isn't clear whether investigators have turned up anything to implicate others."

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D), who has temporarily relinquished his post as ranking member of the Ethics Committee, "said this week that his purchase of farm property with a corporate chief executive has no relationship to his support for legislation providing a $2.1 million defense contract to the CEO's company." – Washington Post

One week after he relinquished his domestic policy duties at the White House, Karl Rove yesterday testified before a grand jury in the CIA leak probe for the fifth time.  Rove was not subpoenaed, appearing voluntarily after discussions with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, NBC reports.  It's unclear what exactly he testified about, but since his previous appearance before a grand jury in October 2005, some new details about his involvement have emerged.

Rove initially told prosecutors that he did not speak to any reporters about the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson.  In October he revised his story, telling prosecutors that he had forgotten about a conversation he'd had with Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper about the issue.  But another Time reporter, Viveca Novak, said she told Rove's lawyer, Bob Luskin, that she believed Rove had spoken with Cooper seven months before Rove changed his testimony.  Rove supporters now fear that Fitzgerald is returning to the theory that Rove only updated his testimony because Cooper had been subpoenaed by prosecutors a few days before Rove appeared before the grand jury to alter his testimony.

His appearance raises questions about whether he will become the second person in the Administration to be indicted in the case, but there were no announcements yesterday.

The New York Times: “It was unclear on Wednesday whether the decision by the new chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, to remove domestic policy from Mr. Rove's portfolio preceded the scheduling of his latest grand jury testimony.”

The midterms
The Democratic House campaign committee has dubbed 22 challengers and open-seat candidates deserving of an assistance package "of campaign cash, communications support and a mentor from the ranks of current House Democrats."  More candidates will be awarded the same package at a later date.

Once again, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana-West Virginia nexus offers a slew of competitive House races.  Roll Call's Stu Rothenberg counts nine, many of which reflect current national election themes.

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman is in Washington this morning, taking part in the national commemoration of the Days of Remembrance for victims of the Holocaust, then he heads to Memphis for a fundraiser.  The DNC has announced that volunteers in all 50 states will take part in its "neighbor-to-neighbor" organizing event on Saturday.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is again encouraging state House Speaker Allan Bense to challenge Rep. Katherine Harris in the Republican Senate primary, reports the Miami Herald.  "Bense wraps up the legislative session on May 5; the last day to qualify as a U.S. Senate candidate is May 12."

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