“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.

• Friday, April 28, 2006 | 2:10 p.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 immigration protests
In advance of a scheduled nationwide boycott on Monday in protest of US immigration policy, President Bush in his Rose Garden press conference today was invited to wade into the debate over what effect the boycott could have on the course of immigration policy.  Bush said he's not a supporter of boycotts but that he is a supporter of legal immigration, and took the opportunity to re-emphasize his belief in the importance of border security and in a need for a temporary guest-worker program.  Fifty-seven percent of those Americans recently polled by NBC and The Wall Street Journal say that a boycott in protest of immigration policy will do more to hurt their cause; only 17% say it will do more to help their cause. 

• Friday, April 28, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
Detouring from domestic policy to the spread of democracy, President Bush meets with the President of oil-rich Azerbaijan at 10:05 am, with North Korean defectors and family members of Japanese abducted by North Korea at 11:05 am, and with Darfur advocates at 1:15 pm. He remains in Washington to attend the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner tomorrow night. With Congress wrapping up work for the weekend, life at gas stations on Capitol Hill should return to normal after yesterday's frenzy of press conferences decrying high fuel costs and demonizing the oil industry in the wake of ExxonMobil's $8.4 billion earnings report. A nationwide boycott in support of immigrant rights will return that issue to the fore in Washington on Monday.

In a turn of events that has been obscured by the frenzy of proposals and posturing about gas prices, the House lobbying and earmark reform bill is hanging on by a thread due to unified Democratic opposition and a split in the GOP ranks over how hard to crack down on earmarks. Indeed, the bill came close to failing yesterday despite its very weak reforms.

High gas prices top the public's list of concerns, per the April 21-24 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. But not too long ago, in the wake of the Randy Cunningham and Jack Abramoff scandals, members were falling over each other to draft a bill to change the way they do business with lobbyists and steer federal funds toward pet projects in their districts, and the current situation stands in stark contrast to that rush. NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that further votes aren't expected on the bill until Tuesday. House Majority Leader John Boehner last night released a statement after the bill's fortunes took a turn for the better: "The American people have every right to expect the highest ethical standards from their Congress, and every right to know their tax dollars are being wisely and responsibly spent." Democrats denounce the bill as too weak.

Scandals and earmarking both appear to be contributing to the public's growing disapproval of Congress, per the NBC/Journal poll . Of the 65% who say they disapprove of the job Congress is doing, which represents an increase of 12 points since March, one-third say it's because "too many members... are corrupt and unethical." And among a list of issues up for consideration on Capitol Hill, a ban on earmarks tops people's lists as the most important one for Congress to act on before it leaves town for recess. Thirty-nine chose a ban on earmarks, 32% said immigration reform, and 10% said extending the tax cuts. Only 8% said reforming lobbying rules, confirming members' apparent belief that their constituents have more pressing concerns on their minds.

NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R) says "don't be fooled" about where earmark reform stands compared to other issues like gas prices and the Iraq war, "but don't also be fooled by what inaction means."

Earmarks are in the spotlight right now because of the role they're playing in bogging down Bush's requested $92 billion emergency supplemental bill to further fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina recovery. The House has passed a $92 billion bill, but the version being debated by the Senate has been loaded up by appropriators with non-emergency spending projects and currently rings in at $106.5 billion. Bush has threatened to veto any bill that reaches his desk and exceeds his price tag, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has informed Bush that he has the necessary votes to sustain a veto in the Senate. But Congress is still at risk of passing a fatter bill than Bush wants at a time when the White House, Hill GOP leaders and conservatives are all convinced that cutting spending is a way to rally their base for the midterm elections.

MSNBC's David Shuster reports that the grand jury in the CIA leak probe is scheduled to meet again today after Karl Rove testified before the panel on Wednesday, and that sources close to Rove say he is now more worried, not less, that he is going to get indicted. Per Shuster's sources, Rove was surprised by some of the questions he received during his voluntary appearance before the grand jury on Wednesday and at the amount of time -- 3.5 hours -- he was there.

And in our Friday look at the great oh-eight presidential race, we pick apart the results of the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll's horse race between Sens. Hillary Clinton (D) and John McCain (R), a match-up which shows some interesting shifts since we last pitted the two frontrunners against each other back in November. Also, President Nancy Pelosi? See below for details.

Ethics
USA Today wraps up the current version of the House lobbying/earmark reform bill -- "Lobbyists would still be able to buy gifts for lawmakers, as long as they are worth $50 or less. Instead of banning privately financed trips, they would be suspended until the ethics committee could come up with new rules to govern them" -- and looks at why its proposals have been weakened since the concept of a reform bill was first proposed.

"GOP leaders acknowledged that the bill does not go as far as they once promised it would. But they said that was because of objections raised by both Republicans and Democrats, and expressed confidence that the measure would grow stronger when differences are reconciled between the House and Senate versions," per the Boston Globe.

The Hill says the maneuvers that saved the bill from failure yesterday "would make it significantly harder for House leaders to agree on a compromise with the Senate," even though they "saved the legislation from sure failure on the House floor."

The judge in the Lewis "Scooter" Libby case yesterday refused Libby's attorneys' request that the case be dismissed. His trial on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice is scheduled to begin in January. The New York Times says CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is expected to decide in the next two or three weeks whether to bring perjury charges against Karl Rove.

The AP reports that Gov. Haley Barbour (R), in 2000, arranged the start-up money for a GOP telemarketing firm implicated in the New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal. “A spokesman for the governor said Barbour had no idea the company would engage in criminal activity two years later. The lawyer for the now-defunct company's convicted president said Barbour was not consulted about its operations.”

The New York Times reports that the FBI "has notified three nonprofit organizations created by" Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan "and financed primarily through special federal appropriations he steered their way that they should expect subpoenas soon for financial and other records.”

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a rising star in the Democratic Party because of her popularity in her red state, "was fined $1,500 by the state ethics commission Thursday for illegally soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists... Democrats nationally have been making ethics a major campaign issue in the wake of the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal in Washington." - USA Today

It's the economy...
The White House and GOP will be touting the positive GDP news today as they continue their struggle to convince uneasy Americans that the economy is performing well. "This economy is strong," Bush told NBC's Brian Williams yesterday, citing his now-familiar refrain that unemployment is shrinking and that homeownership is at an all time high. "And yet there's a certain unease," Bush acknowledged, largely because of gas prices. Again repeating a refrain: "We're dependent upon oil... We've got to get off oil." Meanwhile, reporters were showered with "strong economy" press releases yesterday, including one from the White House highlighting the Dow Jones Industrial Average reaching a six-year high and one from the House Majority Leader's office hyping the surge in manufacturing.

But two figures obscure all others right now: $3 for a gallon of gas, and $8.4 billion, ExxonMobil's first-quarter intake, which will only fuel Americans' anger at the pump. Asked in the April 21-24 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll who is most responsible for high gas prices, 37% of those polled say the oil companies are most responsible. Oil-producing nations rank second at 22%, while only 15% lay the most blame at President Bush's feet and 4% say Congress bears the most responsibility. (At the start of last summer, oil companies and oil-producing nations shared more of the blame, with 28% and 31% saying each is most responsible, respectively.)

The two parties spent yesterday dueling at the pumps. At one press conference, Senate Republicans announced their "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. Because of the ANWR provision, the Senate GOP proposal may face a rough road.

At their own press conference, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel took issue with this GOP rebate plan and argued that gas prices would be the issue that will 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?" And 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."

The New York Times notes that the GOP’s rebate plan would cost, per aides, less than $20 billion. “The $100 payment would not be tied to gasoline consumption but would be sent to taxpayers at the end of the summer, going to single-filing taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes below $145,950, and to couples earning less than $218,950. The Finance Committee estimated that at least 100 million taxpayers would qualify.”

Meanwhile, Bush himself yesterday "renewed his call for Congress to give him the authority to 'raise' mileage standards for all passenger cars. White House officials said later, however, that they didn't know when or how the president would use that authority." - Washington Post

“But even as lawmakers jockeyed for political advantage on the issue, there was widespread agreement among economists and energy experts that the government has few if any weapons to quickly drive down gasoline prices that have rushed past $3 a gallon across much of the country.” - Chicago Tribune

Testifying before Congress' Joint Economic Committee yesterday, Fed chair Ben Bernanke "said he expects this spring's jump in gas prices to shave 'a few tenths' of a percent off economic growth in the spring quarter but not endanger the economy overall. He says he sees little respite from chronically high energy prices in the next few years, as supplies are barely growing fast enough to keep up with demand for fuel worldwide." - Washington Times

In advance of Bush's meeting today, Administration officials are stressing "Azerbaijan's key role as an alternative to Russia for delivering oil and natural gas to Europe" in the face of concerns expressed by activists about the country's human rights record. - Washington Post

A correction: On Tuesday, we quoted a New York Daily News article, which cited a CNN poll showing that 69% indicate gas prices are causing them severe hardship. However, the actual poll finds that 69% say these prices are causing them "hardship", not "severe hardship."

Disaster politics
Mayor Ray Nagin accompanied Bush on his visit to New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward yesterday. Per the pool report, Nagin began pounding nails with Bush "and the two talked briefly about Nagin's left-handed hammering. 'I am a lefty all the way,' Nagin said. Bush, of course, is a righty."

"Throughout the trip, Bush and Nagin gave every indication of enjoying a genuine friendship, a relationship both men have claimed is real but which Nagin acknowledged was a surprising development." - New Orleans Time-Picayune

In advance of their first mayoral runoff debate, Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu are throwing punches at each other over how they have served the city and state, respectively, during their time in office. - Times-Picayune

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The Washington Post's Milbank on yesterday's examples of the dissipation of GOP unity: "In the House, it took Republicans eight hours of private meetings and public bickering and name-calling just to agree to the terms of debate for legislation on lobbying... In the Senate, a single Democratic senator hijacked proceedings for nearly five hours as Republicans struggled to pass a war spending bill."

In a more serious look at the same topic, the Chicago Tribune writes, “From immigration reform to energy legislation, spending to ethics, Hastert is contending with an unpopular president who no longer dictates plays to the 231 Republican members of the House. With the public's approval of Congress also at record lows, lawmakers are thinking more of their own political survival and less about what President Bush wants.”

Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter, feeling he has been rebuffed by the White House in his requests for more information about the controversial NSA domestic wiretapping program, filed an amendment to the emergency supplemental which would block funding for the program. "Specter also said he would turn the amendment into a bill and hold hearings," though he "made clear that, for now, the threat was just that." - AP

The midterms
CongressDaily says that several GOP members from the Northeast -- for instance, Reps. Curt Weldon, John Sweeney, and James Walsh -- "are facing the fights of their careers... Of the 15 Republican seats that Kerry won in 2004, eight are in the Northeast. And many long-held Republican districts there are increasingly competitive."

In his weekly National Journal column, Charlie Cook asks this question: "Democrats have the political environment on their side, but with so many of their targeted states and districts located in expensive media markets, will they have the money they need to take advantage of the wind at their backs?"

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean is in Charlotte, NC for a fundraiser today and an organizing event tomorrow. Tomorrow at 12:30 pm, Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman addresses the RNC's "minority candidate college commencement." We'll use this event to once again plug an article one of us wrote for MSNBC.com , on the four GOP African-American candidates -- Ken Blackwell, Keith Butler, Michael Steele, and Lynn Swann -- who are running this year for governor or the Senate.

The Sacramento Bee profiles this weekend’s state Democratic convention in CALIFORNIA, where 1,800 delegates will decide whether to endorse gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides or rival Steve Westly. “The state Democratic party has not endorsed a gubernatorial candidate in a contested primary since state Attorney General John Van de Kamp beat Dianne Feinstein in 1990. But an official party endorsement is no guarantee: Feinstein ultimately won the primary.”

In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign has updated their website -- WheresCasey.com -- that lampoons Democratic challenger Bob Casey's absence from his state treasurer job. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Howard Dean all now make appearances on the site.

The Washington Times suggests that Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell's Republican challenger in Washington State is gaining ground with his "unusual campaign that is focused on growing public disapproval over the political bickering and legislative stalemate in the nation's capital and Miss Cantwell's reputation as a fierce partisan."

Oh-eight
"If the next election for president were held today, and John McCain were the Republican candidate and Hillary Clinton were the Democratic candidate, for whom would you vote?" The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll measures a McCain-Clinton presidential tête-à-tête for the first time since November 2005 and the results are intriguing, especially when you look at where the two have lost and gained ground. In just over five months, McCain has managed to widen his lead over Clinton from 2 points to 9 points. Last November, 44% said they would vote for McCain and 42% said they would vote for Clinton. Now, 46% would vote for McCain while 37% would pick Clinton. NBC/Journal pollster Jay Campbell (D) says there have been two shifts of note, in Clinton's support among young women and in McCain's support among the GOP base.

Clinton's support among women has taken a dive, especially among young women aged 18-49, while McCain has gained significantly in these same areas. In November, Clinton led among all women by 20 points and led him among young women by 31 points. But in the April survey, her lead has shrunk to 2 points among women and to 6 points among young women. That said, 46% of young women say they have "very positive" or "somewhat positive" feelings toward Clinton, while only 27% say the same about McCain. And when asked whether they are "optimistic" or "satisfied" that Clinton would do a good job in office, 56% of young women agree, while only 46% say they feel McCain would do a good job. Campbell explains that this shift shows that while young women have not "turned against" Clinton, they might be more "ambivalent" about actually voting for her.

Where Clinton is doing well and where McCain isn't so much is with their respective bases. A whopping 77% of liberals say they have "very positive" or "somewhat positive" feelings toward Clinton, while only 42% of conservatives say so about McCain, appearing to confirm the CW that Clinton might do well in the primaries but struggle in the general election, whereas McCain might do the opposite.

McCain's recent appeals to the right have included his maneuver at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis last month, where he asked attendees to vote for Bush in a presidential straw poll, and his change of heart in favor of extending some of the Bush tax cuts. Perhaps his effort to more closely align with the party base is starting to pay off there. Since November, he has gained 7 points among conservatives and 9 points among Republican moderates, while losing 13 points among liberals. Also, 76% of Bush voters now say they'd support McCain instead of Clinton, while only 68% said that in November.

President Pelosi? Not so fast. NBC's Joseph Viqueira asked the House minority leader yesterday if she wants to be president. At first, she laughed and suggested she was being set up by Little Viq's dad Mike. Then she said, "My ambitions are limited to the House of Representatives, so I won't be interested in running for president, but I'm very interested in who is president, and that's where I will focus. I'll support other people, but as for me," she said, laughing, "I'll be content to be Speaker of the House."

In its cover story this week, the New Republic profiles presidential candidate and Sen. George Allen (R), chronicling his past -- one he has been trying to make amends for -- that includes a Confederate flag once hanging in his living room, a flag pin he wore in his high school yearbook photo, and a vote in the state House against a Martin Luther King holiday. "There is a graveyard of old Allen personas... that could threaten his political ascendance... Before he runs for president, George Allen has to run against himself."

Senate Democrats still don't seem to have a cohesive message on what the Administration should do in Iraq. Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the most vocal critics of the war, announced yesterday that he plans to try to attach an amendment to the emergency supplemental calling for the redeployment of US troops in Iraq by December 31. Remember, fellow Sen. John Kerry has come out in favor of a May 15 deadline for Iraq to form a government before the United States withdraws its troops. Sen. Joe Biden, meanwhile, wants to attach an amendment to the supplemental bill "opposing permanent military bases in Iraq and U.S. control of the country’s natural resources," per a release from his office yesterday.

And, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) signed legislation into law yesterday intended to help secure the state’s first-in-the-nation primary status, the New York Times says. “The law, which grants the secretary of state greater flexibility in determining when candidates can file papers to run in a primary, is a response to changes in the Democratic National Committee's proposed calendar for 2008.”

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