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• Thursday, May 4, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Ken Strickland and 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

The return of judicial nominations
In an outright effort to avoid a Democratic filibuster and produce "favorable results," Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter announced this morning that he'll honor committee Democrats' request for another hearing for appellate court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The hearing will take place on Tuesday, with a vote scheduled for next Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has pledged to bring up the nominations of Kavanaugh and one other controversial Bush judicial nominee for final votes before the Senate leaves town for Memorial Day.

Judiciary Democrats want another chance to question Kavanaugh, who last appeared before the panel in April 2004. He currently serves as the White House staff secretary and, in that post, handles all the paperwork that moves through the Oval Office. Although Democrats have other issues with his nomination, their call for another hearing stems mainly from the various White House controversies and scandals that have surfaced since his last one, such as the NSA domestic wiretapping program.

In announcing the new hearing, Specter said, "I do not want to place the Senate where we were a year ago," when the chamber was engaged in a judicial showdown "and posed a very serious threat to our institution." Specter said he was also led to believe that "if we have another hearing and the bottom doesn't fall out or something cataclysmic happen," that a key coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans would not support a filibuster.

• Thursday, May 4, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
While Republicans try to curry support among their rank-and-file voters through extending some of the Bush tax cuts and passing earmark reform, Democrats today will focus on one of the cycle's biggest potential wedge issues.  At 11:00 am, a group of senior Senate Democrats plan to call on Majority Leader Bill Frist to bring up the embryonic stem-cell research bill during his proposed "health week" next week, when he plans to push other health-care legislation.  The stem-cell bill has already passed the House.

Probably by design, the move could put Frist himself on the spot.  The physician-turned-legislator changed his position on the issue last summer, surprising the same social conservatives whose support he had been courting in his fledgling campaign for president.  "I... strongly believe -- as do countless other scientists, clinicians, and doctors -- that embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells cannot provide," Frist stated then.  But after catching flak from conservatives, he hasn't said much on this issue since.

If the congressional agenda is looking more and more like an arms race, with each side cherry-picking issues they believe will give them some advantage with voters in November, then one resurfacing issue with the potential to motivate both parties' bases is judicial nominees.

The prospect of filibusters, the "nuclear option," and the compromise-seeking Gang of 14 are all back.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that today, Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter will announce whether he'll hold a new hearing or proceed with a scheduled vote on controversial appellate court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.  Frist has pledged to bring up Kavanaugh's nomination before the Memorial Day recess; Minority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday that Democrats are still "considering" blocking or filibustering it.

Judiciary Democrats want another chance to question Kavanaugh, who last appeared before the panel in April 2004.  In a letter to both Senate and committee leaders, Democratic Gang members called a request for a new hearing "entirely reasonable, so the Judiciary Committee can have an opportunity to ask questions and seek answers on new issues which have arisen since" then.  Kavanaugh currently serves as the White House staff secretary and handles all the paperwork that moves through the Oval Office, Strickland notes.  Although Democrats have other issues with his nomination, the call for another hearing stems mainly from the various White House controversies and scandals that have surfaced since his last one, such as the NSA domestic wiretapping program, and whether he had any involvement in them.

Strickland says the mood in the Senate is reminiscent of last year's judicial showdown when Democrats filibustered several of Bush's conservative nominees and Frist threatened to change longstanding Senate rules using a procedural tool, the so-called nuclear option.  The crisis was defused when the bipartisan "Gang of 14" senators struck a deal that kept the rules in place, but also allowed votes on some nominees.

Yesterday, we wrote that Bush and GOP Hill leaders have decided that a return to the themes of tax cuts and fiscal responsibility will give them a boost in the midterm elections.  As one Washington-based Wall Street analyst then commented to us, there's arguably an oxymoron in there, as Bush continues to press for tax cuts in a time of war.  In his remarks yesterday, Bush repeated his case that his tax cuts have boosted the economy and that in order to keep the economy strong, the cuts must be made permanent.  In the same speech, he repeated his commitment to halving the deficit by 2009.  This analyst asks, "A serious question for Republican leaders is, given just how good they say the economy has been, if now isn't the time for serious deficit reduction, when is the right time?"

Bush also repeated his threat to veto the emergency supplemental bill if it arrives on his desk with a price tag larger than the $92 billion he requested, plus a bit more to pay for bird flu preparations.  The Senate nevertheless continued to add non-emergency spending projects to the bill, which is expected to come up for a final vote today.

Bush today makes remarks at the National Day of Prayer at 9:15 am, meets with the President of Uruguay at 10:20 am, makes remarks on Cinco de Mayo at 1:45 pm, and addresses the American Jewish Committee’s Centennial Dinner at 7:00 pm.  Vice President Cheney has meetings in Lithuania, where he gave a speech attacking Russia earlier this morning for allegedly both backtracking on democracy and for manipulating its oil and gas resources for political purposes.

It's the economy...
The House passed a series of penalties for energy price-gouging yesterday.  In addition, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee sent a letter to ExxonMobil requesting a detailed description of how former CEO Lee Raymond's $400 million severance package was calculated.  The panel also sent letters to the five largest US oil companies requesting internal records on their refinery operations and capacity.  One question reads: "Has ExxonMobil ever reduced, or considered reducing, domestic refining capacity in order to constrict gasoline supply and keep gas prices high?  If so, please provide all records relating to such decisions or discussions."  The panel wants responses to these questions by May 15.

The Chicago Tribune: “Analysts said a measure approved by the House on Wednesday to strengthen penalties on gasoline price-gouging would do little, if anything, to affect gas prices…  Most experts agree that, geopolitical events aside, the only way for Americans to reduce gas prices in the short run is to cut consumption significantly.  And history suggests consumers are unlikely to do that until pump prices approach $4 a gallon or more.”

"Published reports suggest Republicans eager to take action on the spiraling cost of gasoline may use a Senate bill that singles out Florida waters as a centerpiece of legislation that could come to the Senate floor as early as next week," writes the Miami Herald.  "The bill would open up nearly four million acres of Lease Sale Area 181, a sprawling, natural gas-rich region of the Gulf of Mexico off Florida's Panhandle."

Security politics
The Des Moines Register reports that Sen. Tom Harkin (D) thinks the United States should withdraw all troops from Iraq by December 31 (basically Russ Feingold's proposal).  “Harkin said commanders have acknowledged the remaining challenges are mostly political rather than military.  ‘Given these realities, President Bush's call to "stay the course" is a slogan, not a strategy for success,’ said Harkin.”

Valerie Plame Wilson, the New York Times writes, is shopping a book proposal.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
With the Senate emergency supplemental bill now $14 billion bigger than Bush wants, the AP writes that negotiations to slash projects to cut costs "will test the determination and political strength - and ingenuity - of Gulf Coast Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.  They will fight for home-state projects and priorities despite opposition from House and Senate GOP leaders and the White House." – Dallas Morning News

"Senators keep stuffing new provisions into" the emergency supplemental, "ignoring President Bush's veto threat to advance their priorities," says the Washington Post.  "[W]ith November midterm elections approaching, senators showed little restraint on items that would prove popular with constituents or important interest groups."

Pork-buster John McCain (R) expresses both hope and skepticism that the non-emergency spending will be stripped from the bill in conference. – Los Angeles Times

Bloomberg casts the agreement in principle on an extension of the Bush tax cuts on dividends and capital gains as a possible result of new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten's improved outreach to Capitol Hill.

Even so, the Wall Street Journal says Bush isn't likely to get a bill this week.  "Republicans continue to wrestle over its details...  By not reaching a deal yesterday, lawmakers won't be able to approve the bill this week, because the floor schedule in the House is booked for today, and the House is out of session tomorrow."

The Washington Post points out that if the tentative deals on the tax cuts come to pass, "every major tax cut passed in Bush's first term will be set to expire on the same day five years from now."  (The initial round of tax cuts were set to expire at different times.)  "At that moment, politicians would face a choice: Either allow taxes to rise suddenly and sharply on everyone who pays income taxes, is married, has children, holds stocks and bonds, or expects a large inheritance, or impose mounting budget deficits on the government far into the future."  The Post notes that Bush "did not acknowledge" this trade-off in his speech yesterday.

The Washington Times says the speech "brought the White House back to basic conservative themes of tax cuts and controlled spending."

With the May 15 registration deadline for the Medicare prescription-drug program looming, the White House has announced that Bush on Monday will head to Florida to give a boost to vulnerable GOP Rep. Clay Shaw and to hold Medicare events in a handful of cities.

Disaster politics
Rob Couhig, the fourth-place finisher in last month's mayoral primary in New Orleans, has endorsed Mayor Ray Nagin in the upcoming runoff between Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  "In the end, Couhig said, Nagin carried the day because Couhig believes him to be someone 'who understands business...  The reference appeared to be a signal from Couhig, the race's only Republican to gather double-digit support, to on-the-fence members of his party that they should feel more comfortable with Nagin than with Landrieu, whose family name is synonymous with Democratic politics on the local and national levels."

Nagin and Landrieu met in a forum last night and "touched on an array of topics, from their plans to carry forward the federal city plan for the Naval Support Activity to their views on repairing streets to their plans to keep New Orleans fiscally solvent since Hurricane Katrina decimated city's sales and property tax revenue," reports the Times-Picayune.

Ethics
As the House was voting on its lobbying reform bill yesterday, Louisville, KY high-tech entrepreneur Vernon Jackson was pleading guilty yesterday to bribing Rep. William Jefferson (D) of New Orleans with more than $400,000 to promote Jackson's business in Africa.  Jefferson said in a statement that he was "surprised and disappointed to learn of Vernon Jackson's guilty plea and of his characterization of our relationship.  As I have previously stated, I have never over all the years of my public service, accepted payment from anyone for the performance of any act or duty for which I have been elected.  I am confident and am trusting God, that this simple fact will be established in the proper forum as I am innocent in the matter to which Vernon Jackson has plead guilty."  Jackson's is the second guilty plea in the federal probe of Jefferson's dealings, though Jefferson himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The timing of the scandal swirling around Jefferson is inconvenient for Democrats seeking to paint the GOP as corrupt.  It also compounds the concern of some civil rights activists that New Orleans could lose much of its African-American political representation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Mayor Ray Nagin already faces a tough challenge from Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who is white, in a May 20 runoff.  Landrieu did win substantial support from minority voters in the primary.  Still, "in the civil-rights, voter-empowerment world, disasters -- natural or man-made -- leading to the removal of incumbent black officials is not a good precedent," Ken Smukler, president of a voter contact firm, told First Read back before the primary.

Dr. DeForest "Buster" Soaries, a former New Jersey secretary of state who was named the first head of the election-reform panel created by Congress in 2002, recently suggested that if New Orleans' electorate proves to be much smaller and whiter now than before Katrina, when the state's congressional district lines are redrawn, the city may no longer be in position to elect an African-American to Congress.  If Jefferson has to resign from his otherwise safe seat because of ethical problems, we'd note, it could expedite such a shift to white representation.

Roll Call says Democrats won't publicly call on Jefferson to resign, much as some would like to.  "Among other things, the Democratic leadership does not want to alienate the Congressional Black Caucus by calling for Jefferson’s ouster."

By 217-213, the House barely passed the GOP leadership's lobbying and earmark reform bill yesterday, setting up potentially tough negotiations in conference because the Senate version is stricter.  "What remains to be seen is whether the two chambers can agree specifically on earmark reform language for both chambers - and whether they need to...  Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which has sought to tamp down on earmarking, said he thinks the conference report can accommodate different earmark standards for either chamber...  House Republicans believe that passing the bill Wednesday gave them a major strategic victory over Democrats on the issue."

The Los Angeles Times reviews how the House bill grew weaker as it progressed.

USA Today lays out the differences between the House and Senate bills.

Possibly throwing more fuel on the fire in the 2002 New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal, the Senate Majority Project, a Democratic 527 group, has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission charging that the Jack Abramoff-related Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians wrote a $10,000 check to the New Hampshire GOP -- twice the amount of the legal limit.   Not only did the state GOP report receiving the legal amount of $5,000, the Senate Majority Project alleges, but the contribution from the Choctaws helped fund the party's illegal phone-jamming program in the state's 2002 Senate race.

The Orlando Sentinel sheds light on the connection between Rep. Katherine Harris (R) and Mitchell Wade, the defense contractor at the center of the Duke Cunningham scandal in California.  Per the Sentinel, Harris steered Wade's $10 million appropriation request "to a defense appropriations subcommittee, despite the request's being late and difficult to understand...  In the weeks before Harris submitted Wade's appropriations request, Wade spent up to $2,800 entertaining Harris at one of Washington's most expensive restaurants."

The midterms
Roll Call looks at how both sides are trying to spin Tuesday night's turnout in Ohio.

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman addresses his party's state chairs at their meeting in Colorado Springs this afternoon.

As he runs for governor of California, the Los Angeles Times weighs Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides' record after seven-plus years on the job, finding a slew of contrasts between his image as an activist and his efforts to raise campaign cash and help friends get jobs.

Last night's debate on environmental issues between Angelides and Democratic rival Steve Westly, the state controller, became a "mudfest" even though the two have similar positions on the environment. – Los Angeles Times

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle observes that all of the three candidates in this field -- Angelides, Westly, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) -- “have been surprisingly passive in the discussion over the role of immigrants -- despite their personal connections to the issue.”

The Washington Times rounds up intraparty criticism and concerns about GOP Rep. Katherine Harris' faltering Senate bid in Florida.

The nation’s most hyped race, the Pennsylvania Senate contest between Rick Santorum (R) and Bob Casey (D), is narrowing, a new Philadelphia Daily News/Keystone poll finds.  In it, Casey leads Santorum, 47%-41% -- down from Casey’s 51%-35% advantage in November.  Also in the poll, incumbent Gov. Ed Rendell (D) “has pulled far ahead of Republican opponent Lynn Swann, and is now leading the former NFL star and broadcaster by 14 percentage points.”

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