“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, May 09, 2006 | 3:25 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

A Republican risk area?
How vulnerable are Republicans this fall when it comes to the Medicare prescription-drug law?  Florida Rep. Clay Shaw -- who joined President Bush today stumping to get seniors to sign up for the drug benefit -- might hold the answer. Shaw, after all, is facing a tough challenge this November from Democrat Ron Klein in a district with a sizable senior population which also voted for John Kerry in 2004. "I do think it's going to be a big issue in the district," says Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. "I'm sure Ron Klein will bring it up."

Indeed, as we mentioned earlier today, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 27% of adults have an unfavorable view of the drug plan (compared with only 17% who have a favorable view), 69% of seniors believe it's too complicated and confusing, and just 24% of seniors say it will help them personally. But there is some good news in the poll for Shaw and Republicans: these numbers have improved from past NBC/Journal surveys, and enrollment has increased. That's why, Jewett says, Bush and Shaw are promoting the Medicare plan today -- to prove to seniors that it's a program that works.

Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, believes the Medicare drug benefit might have a smaller impact on the race than some think it will. For one thing, she says, Shaw has earned the reputation that he delivers to senior constituents in his district, which could shield him from Medicare-related attacks. In addition, MacManus argues that other issues -- like Shaw's health (he had a cancerous tumor removed from his lung in January) and the national political environment -- might play a bigger role. "I don't really see it as the defining issue for the Shaw-Klein race," she says.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006 | 1:30 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi

Getting tough on security
Potential presidential candidates Sen. Evan Bayh, D-IN, and former Gov. Mark Warner, D-VA., both gave speeches this morning at the National Press Club to counter criticism that Democrats are weak on national security and that they lack a coherent message heading into the midterm elections. Warner said he is "annoyed" that Republicans continue to paint Democrats as soft on terrorism. "I don't need to be lectured by Karl Rove... about what is needed to keep America safe," he said. The real problem, Warner argued, is that the Bush Administration failed to develop a coherent strategy in Iraq, has not worked with other countries to combat terrorism, and is "caught" in a "19th-century mindset." Warner thinks Democrats can offer the "21st century approach" needed to address national security issues.

Bayh said that the Iraq war has been "tragically mismanaged" and argued that the U.S. cannot fight terrorism with what he called a weak economy (Republicans would obviously dispute that the U.S. economy is weak). Bayh's rationale is that terrorists don't need nearly as much money to carry out attacks as the U.S. needs to defend itself against them. Bayh also admitted that Democrats, who often focused on pocketbook issues in the last two elections, should have focused more on national security.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
Technically, House members don't get to vote on presidential nominees, so the practical impact of the objections by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Intelligence Committee chair Peter Hoekstra to their president's pick of Gen. Michael Hayden to head the CIA remains uncertain.

Symbolically, their opposition underscores President Bush's weakened political standing and is yet another reflection of all the posturing going on in Congress during these final weeks before they cut out for Memorial Day (and voters tune them out for the summer).  Consider the lip service Senate Republicans are paying to health care this week, their bringing up judicial nominees to whip up the base, and Democrats' talk of "Big Oil," "big drug companies," and future investigations under a Democratic majority.

NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the Senate Intelligence Committee hopes to hold confirmation hearings for Hayden "before the end of the month," according to a senior aide to committee chair Pat Roberts.  The week-long recess over Memorial Day would likely mean a final confirmation vote in June, the aide says.

The NSA program is expected to come up today in GOP critic Arlen Specter's Senate Judiciary Committee during a new confirmation hearing for appellate court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination stalled after his last hearing in April 2004.  Committee Democrats, along with Specter, have new questions for Kavanaugh, who has been serving as White House staff secretary and, in that role, has handled all paperwork coming out of the Oval Office, including on the NSA program.  Republicans are already trying to make hay of Democrats' demand for a rare second hearing for Kavanaugh in an effort to rile up their base.

President Bush is in Florida, though brother Jeb may be too busy dealing with fires across the state to appear with him.  The President has two events to tout his Medicare prescription-drug benefit in Coconut Creek.  He first visits a drug benefit enrollment center at Broward County Community College at 8:30 am, then makes remarks about the benefit in Sun City Center at 11:10 am before heading to Orlando for the night.

Democrats and other critics of the drug benefit also hold an array of events today.  Florida Democrats, led by Rep. Corrine Brown and state party chair Karen Thurman, hold a press conference in Orlando at 11:15 am.  A group called FamiliesUSA, a leading critic of the drug plan, will release a report charging that the program is failing to reach low-income seniors, NBC's Chip Reid reports.  The group wants the May 15 enrollment deadline extended till the end of the year.

Firing the first shot of the final week before the registration deadline, two Democratic-leaning groups held a conference call yesterday to demand an investigation of former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R), who helped write the 2003 drug law and immediately afterward became head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which reportedly pays him $2 million a year.  These groups charged that PhRMA hired Tauzin as a reward for drafting a bill that benefits the drug industry.  Another call is planned for 11:00 am today, on which Rep. Eliot Engel (D) will call for an extension of the enrollment deadline.

Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry (D), who also participated in yesterday's call, argued that the drug benefit has two shortcomings: 1) it penalizes seniors who sign up after the May 15 deadline; and 2) it prohibits Medicare from using its size to bargain for the lowest drug prices.  But countering that claim, pollster Bill McInturff (R), who co-conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, recently shot First Read another survey he took in late March which shows that knowledge about the Medicare drug benefit is growing among seniors, and that seniors who are enrolled in a Medicare drug plan are happy. 

The most recent NBC/Journal poll also reflects those findings.  It does suggest that the drug program has a ways to go before it becomes a political winner for Bush and the GOP-run Congress.  Per the poll, 27% of adults have an unfavorable view of the plan (compared with only 17% who have a favorable view), 69% of seniors believe it's too complicated and confusing, and just 24% of seniors say it will help them personally.  However, 58% of seniors agree that it's a good plan for seniors who don't have coverage.

Bush's Broward County visit is a reminder that Florida's filing deadline for the 2006 elections is on Friday, meaning that state House Speaker Allan Bense or anyone else looking to challenge former Secretary of State turned Rep. Katherine Harris for the GOP Senate nomination here has till then to make his or her intentions known.  Gov. Jeb Bush said yesterday that he doesn't think Harris can win.  The President probably won't echo that comment since Harris is expected to appear with him today.

And it's primary day today in Nebraska and West Virginia; see below for details.

Security politics
A bright spot for the Bush administration may be on the horizon in Iraq: "Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki said Tuesday that the main stumbling blocks to forming a new cabinet have been overcome and he expects to present his team to parliament for approval by the end of the week," the AP reports.

The Washington Post, reporting on the White House's quick announcement yesterday of a new, civilian No. 2 at the CIA to defuse concerns about Hayden's military background, calls the move "highly unorthodox."  "The White House was so eager to get out the news of [Stephen R.] Kappes's likely appointment that it was announced from the lectern in the briefing room, even though the Senate has not yet confirmed Hayden and Kappes was officially described as 'the leading contender' for the job." 

Number Three official Kyle "Dusty" Foggo is also leaving, NBC's Bob Windrem reports; Foggo has been drawn into the federal probe stemming from the bribery case against imprisoned former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R).

On Hayden's nomination, theLos Angeles Times says "the White House apparently is willing to revive the eavesdropping debate to highlight national security issues, which have been a political plus for the administration...  Some of Hayden's supporters see a difficult struggle ahead, conceding that the political stars are not aligning the way the White House and its nominee might have hoped." 

A separate story in the paper notes how the GOP opposition "further underscored Monday how difficult Bush is finding it to govern with approval ratings that have dropped to the low 30s.  And they muddied the message being promoted by White House strategist Karl Rove, who recently predicted that the terrorist wiretapping program would help portray Democrats as operating with a 'pre-9/11 mind-set.'" 

At home in his district yesterday, Hastert told reporters he objects to Hayden's nomination because he's "concerned that installing a top-ranking military official at the 'CIA would give too much influence over the U.S. intelligence community to the Pentagon.'" 

The Washington Times points out that Hayden "won an important supporter yesterday in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist,... who can help shepherd the nominee through the confirmation process.  And unlike many other voices, Mr. Frist saw Mr. Hayden's leadership in wiretapping suspected terrorists as a plus." 

“‘If Senate Democrats are looking to the Hayden nomination as an opportunity to attack the NSA's terrorist surveillance program, we welcome that debate," Texas Sen. John Cornyn said.

Yesterday in a big speech at the National Press Club, potential presidential candidate and liberal Sen. Russ Feingold defended his party against charges that they're weak on national security and outlined how he thinks Democrats can beat that rap to win elections.  Democrats must demonstrate a "practical and emotional readiness" to fight terrorism, he said, and emphasize to voters that they care about security as much as Republicans do.  He reiterated his call to withdraw US troops from Iraq by the end of the year and said that Iraq has become a "crucible for the recruitment and development" of more terrorists.  The administration's Iraq-centric focus on fighting terrorism is, he said, the "Roach Motel Theory," which is that "somehow all the terrorists are gonna come from all over the world intro Iraq and we'll get 'em all." 

But Feingold didn't save all his criticism for the administration and GOP.  Senate colleague and potential presidential rival Joe Biden's proposal for Iraq, breaking the country up into three distinct regions, is "at best" an "experiment" with the Middle East and would make it look like the United States is "meddling," Feingold said.

In a separate statement on Hayden's nomination, Feingold, who has proposed censuring President Bush for authorizing the NSA program, did not come out flatly in opposition, saying, "General Hayden will need to convince me that he is committed to the rule of law in order to win my support."

Other potential rivals of Feingold's for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Evan Bayh and former Gov. Mark Warner, appear this morning at the rollout of a book of essays on national security by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute at the National Press Club.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
As Bush focuses on his Medicare prescription-drug benefit today, USA Today reports that "the program is being used least by those who could benefit most: poor, often minority Medicare beneficiaries." 

With some leading conservatives upset at the slow pace of judicial nominees since Samuel Alito's confirmation, Karl Rove and White House counsel Harriet Miers "yesterday told conservative activists and Senate staff that the administration would soon send the names of more than 20 judicial nominees to Capitol Hill for confirmation," The Hill reports. 

Roll Call says of the Senate's "health week," "Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledge the Senate is unlikely to pass any legislation this week, but nonetheless say the debate itself is worthwhile in a year when voters will decide who is best suited to be in charge.  Not only does it showcase where the parties stand on major health care reforms, they argue, but it also will serve as an opportunity to highlight the positions of individual senators." 

Meanwhile, GOP leaders have made progress toward passing extensions of the Bush tax cuts on dividends and capital gains. 

Ethics
Embattled Rep. Bob Ney (R) was just renominated last week in his Ohio congressional district despite Democrats' assault on him for his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff .  This week, however, things are taking a turn for the worse.  As part of the broad Abramoff probe, Ney's former chief of staff, Neil Volz, pleaded guilty yesterday to federal charges of conspiracy to corrupt Ney.  Ney spokesperson Brian Walsh called the plea agreement "thin at best" and repeated that Ney has done nothing wrong and "is more confident than ever that he will be vindicated in this matter."  Walsh also asserted that Ney "has every intention of continuing his work representing the people of Ohio's 18th District and running a vigorous campaign for re-election." 

The government alleges that "Representative #1," i.e., Ney, accepted an all-expenses-paid golf trip to Scotland in 2002, a trip to Lake George in New York in 2003, regular food and drinks at Abramoff's restaurants, and tickets to sporting events and concerts, NBC's Joel Seidman reminds us.  In exchange, according to prosecutors, Ney agreed to support and pass legislation, to support or oppose actions taken by government agencies and departments, and to assist Abramoff and his clients.  Seidman reports that per Ney's attorneys, the government was "sold a bill of goods" by Abramoff.  The attorneys deny that the facts support any of the prosecution's allegations about Ney, though they say they have had a number of discussions with government attorneys concerning the allegations.

A second lawsuit was filed yesterday seeking Abramoff-related visit logs from the White House.  The Democratic National Committee filed its suit in US District Court, saying the Secret Service has failed to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request for the logs.  Judicial Watch won an earlier lawsuit.

"Two Republican House Members will call on Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) to forfeit his seat on the Appropriations Committee as early as today, citing an ongoing FBI investigation into the lawmaker’s financial dealings," Roll Call reports

Patches’ wild ride
Democratic activists in Rhode Island endorsed Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) for re-election last night at their state convention, reports the AP.  "Republicans have said that Kennedy should step aside because he cannot fulfill his duties.  But Democratic leaders said last night that he has done a good job and deserves support in his battle with addiction." 

The endorsement brought "howls of protests from Republicans," writes the Boston Herald, which also reports that a former flame is the reason for Kennedy's recent problems.

Disaster politics
"The turnout in the metro area on the first day of early voting in the New Orleans runoff was higher than during the primary, but statewide the numbers were down, creating a slightly smaller overall tally," reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  "While the 1,607 votes cast Monday was about 4 percent less than on April 10, the first day of early voting in the April 22 primary, officials said they were encouraged by the turnout and that it's too early to determine what it will mean for the May 22 election." 

It’s the economy …
Treasury Secretary John Snow makes remarks on the US economy at the National Association of Home Builders at 1:30 pm.  The Dow is 138 points away from its all-time high, and average gas prices have at least temporarily stopped rising.  Snow's department is due to release a high-stakes currency report this week that will include a decision on whether or not to brand China as a currency manipulator. 

Former House Budget chair John Kasich (R) writes a New York Times op-ed, arguing that a way to lower gas prices is to mostly eliminate the 18.4-cent federal gas tax.  “By eliminating the federal gas tax, we would cut the big spenders off at the source, allowing states to direct money to the needs that they consider most pressing.” 

The Democrats
The New York Times front-pages how Democratic intellectuals are debating what their party should stand for.  “[S]ome of these analysts argue that the party needs something more than a pastiche of policy proposals.  It needs a broader vision, a narrative, they say, to return to power and govern effectively - what some describe as an unapologetic appeal to the ‘common good’…  This analysis is also, in large part, a rejection of the more tactical, consultant-driven politics that dominated the party's presidential and Congressional campaigns of the last six years.    

While her rivals for the presidential nomination loudly take positions on Iraq and on Hayden, the Financial Times reports that Sen. Hillary Clinton has signed up a new fundraiser in conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who "has agreed to host" an event for her re-election campaign in July.  "The decision reflects an assiduous courtship by Mrs Clinton and former President Bill Clinton." 

The midterms
Once press-shy White House aides are talking openly about how many requests Bush is getting to do fundraisers and photo ops and telling the Washington Times how Bush already has done "15 fundraising events so far in the 2006 election cycle... bringing in $12.4 million for House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates." 

USA Today takes its look at Democrats' apparent national advantage versus the GOP's focus on local issues by identifying "five big issues and how they're likely to influence who wins and loses:" the Iraq war, immigration, scandal, gas prices, and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

The Sacramento Bee notes that tax revenues are flowing into CALIFORNIA’S state treasury, which can only help GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election bid.  “While it doesn't feel like 1999 or 2000, when dot-com mania and a sizzling stock market turned thousands of Californians into instant millionaires, the state's economy is humming, and the era of the big payday has quietly returned.”

The AP has this reaction from Rep. Katherine Harris to FLORIDA Gov. Jeb Bush's assertion that she can't win the GOP Senate primary: "With all due respect to the governor... we know we can win."  

Appearing at a fundraiser for endangered Rep. Clay Shaw's re-election campaign in FLORIDA last night, Bush helped raise over $800,000, reports the Miami Herald.  But Shaw's opponent, state Sen. Ron Klein (D), is using Shaw's proximity to Bush against him in a radio ad campaign.  "While Clay Shaw is raking in the cash, we're paying the price for the Bush-Cheney-Shaw agenda: with skyrocketing gasoline prices, rising costs for healthcare and prescription drugs, higher insurance rates and a war that keeps waging on,' a narrator says in Klein's ad."  

Is it possible that perhaps the most famous man in NEBRASKA might not win a primary in that football-crazy state?  We'll find out when Nebraska voters head to the polls today.  Tom Osborne, former head football coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers and now a member of Congress, squares off against incumbent Gov. Dave Heineman and a lesser-known candidate in the state's GOP gubernatorial primary.  Osborne and Heineman, who took over the office when former Gov. Mike Johanns (R) became Bush's agriculture secretary in 2005, are neck and neck in the polls.  How could the race get this close?  Heineman campaign manager Carlos Castillo takes a stab at that answer, telling First Read: "If we've got someone who is doing a very good job, why do you change?"  The winner of the Heineman-Osborne match is expected to claim the seat in November.

Another Nebraska primary to watch is the Republican battle for the opportunity to challenge Sen. Ben Nelson (D).  The two top GOP contenders are former Ameritrade executive Pete Ricketts and former state Attorney General Don Stenberg.  Nelson, who's perhaps the Senate's most conservative Democrat, will be favored in the general election, but Ricketts -- with his Ameritrade money -- could make things interesting if he wins this primary.  Polls open at 9:00 am ET and close 9:00 pm ET.

WEST VIRGINIA also holds its primaries today, and the marquee race there is the GOP Senate primary to challenge 88-year-old incumbent Robert Byrd (D), whom Republicans think could be vulnerable in November.  The leading candidates in this field are John Raese, who ran against Sen. John Rockefeller (D) in 1984, and Hiram Lewis.  Polls open at 6:30 am ET and close at 7:30 pm ET.

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