“First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from 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.

• Monday, May 15, 2006 | 1:35 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

Tracking Karl Rove’s remarks
President Bush's regimen of tax cuts, free trade and budgetary discipline are keeping the economy strong and Americans' unhappiness with the way things are going in the country right now is because of the war in Iraq, says top White House advisor Karl Rove.  Addressing a conservative think-tank in Washington this morning, Rove repeated the familiar refrain that Bush inherited an economic downturn from then-President Clinton and that the five "major tax relief bills" passed in each of Bush's five years in office are primarily responsible for the economic recovery.  In this context, he touted the two-year extension of the tax cuts on dividends and capital gains which Bush is scheduled to sign into law on Wednesday.  He also emphasized that Bush has reduced non-security related discretionary spending in every year of his presidency.  Rove's speech was part of an ongoing effort by the White House and GOP leadership to motivate activists and the party's rank-and-file with an emphasis on the causes they hold dear.

But perhaps the most interesting aspects of the speech were in how it contrasted sharply with Rove's last big, much-covered address, a speech to the Republican National Committee back in January, in which he insisted that Republicans would win the midterm elections on national security.  Although the war never came up during Rove's economic address, he himself mentioned it three times during the Q+A session which followed, always as a response to questions about why the polls show Americans feeling so sour about the direction of the country.  "We're in a sour time" because of the war, he said at one point.  His other comments went hardly any further; at another point, he asserted almost in passing that the GOP's favoring a strong national defense gives them an advantage over Democrats.  Quite a change from the national security-focused speech of five months ago.

Meanwhile, the White House has announced that President Bush's planned US-Mexico border visit on Thursday to tout his proposed immigration policies will take place in Yuma, AZ.

• Monday, May 15, 2006 | 10:05 a.m. ET
From Kelly O'Donnell and Elizabeth Wilner

Bush’s political opportunity/cover
White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters this morning that President Bush plans to do at least a "couple of run throughs" today of his scheduled 8:00 pm ET address on immigration reform, which is expected to run somewhat short of 20 minutes.  Per Snow, Bush began considering giving such a speech back during a long weekend spent in California in April.  Asked why now, Snow said, "I think it's really more about political opportunity, rather than political cover.  If the President wanted political cover, he would probably be hiding in a sense.  I mean, this is a very contentious issue."

The White House continues to massage its message on Bush's expected proposal to deploy 5,000 National Guard troops along the US-Mexico border, which has already gotten criticism from border-state governors and Democrats who argue that the Guard may become overstretched.  White House aides says the Guard will not have a law enforcement role, but will serve in "supportive roles" like surveillance, transportation and construction.

• Monday, May 15, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
Having gotten one significant piece of domestic policy out of Congress last week, President Bush gives an unusual primetime address tonight to exhort them to pass another.  But whereas most Republican lawmakers saw their way clear to extending the tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, they remain deeply divided over immigration reform.  A presidential job approval rating in the low to mid-30s and the prospect of alienating the party base in advance of a high-stakes midterm election don't give those members who disagree with Bush much incentive to fall in line.

The Medicare prescription-drug benefit also hangs out there as an example of GOP lawmakers going their own way.  Registration for the benefit expires today and the Administration is refusing to extend it for most seniors, believing that a hard-and-fast deadline is motivating them to enroll.  But some Republicans in Congress are working to lessen the penalties for those who sign up late.  First Lady Laura Bush takes part in a Medicare enrollment event at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington at 11:05 am.

Per the White House, Bush in his big immigration speech tonight will call for: 1) tighter border security through better equipment, increased funding and advanced technology; 2) a guest-worker program; 3) holding employers accountable for the workers they hire by making it easier for them to verify an employee's legal status; and 4) rejecting amnesty, but at the same time, recognizing that it is not realistic to round up millions of people and send them home.  Later this week, Bush is expected to travel to the border and reach out to members of Congress and to stakeholders in the debate.

In an effort to reassure those lawmakers and activists who are most concerned about border security, Bush also will announce a proposal to assign 5,000 National Guard troops to patrol the US-Mexico border for about two years, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.  That plan, however, may do nothing to loosen the logjam over amnesty, as GOP critics call the effort to offer a path to citizenship to those currently in the country illegally.  The proposal also provides Democratic opponents with an opening to object to Bush's approach on the basis of looking out for the arguably overstretched Guard, though O'Donnell reports that per the White House, Guardsmen will not be sent straight from Iraq to the border.

The point of the speech, the White House says, is for Bush to weigh in with his own preferences as the House and Senate prepare to try to reconcile their two bills.  The already passed House version focuses narrowly on border security; the broader Senate version is expected to offer a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are currently in the country illegally.  In each chamber, critics of the other's approach make a meeting of minds seem unlikely at this point.  The Senate returns to Washington today and is expected to spend the next two weeks working on their bill, with a vote before the Memorial Day recess and negotiations with the House to come in June.

Given the considerable impasse Bush faces in getting what he calls a "comprehensive" (i.e., guest-worker plan included) immigration reform bill, and how Congress is legislating at a pace that's considerably less than full-throttle, the tax-cut extension which passed last week might be the last bill with widespread public appeal that Bush gets this year.  He's scheduled to sign the tax-cut extension and the one-year "patch" sparing an estimated 15 million Americans from the alternative minimum tax into law on Wednesday.  Karl Rove, who is no longer the White House domestic policy advisor, nevertheless delivers a "major policy address" on taxes and tax cuts at conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute in Washington today at 11:00 am.

Prior to his primetime speech tonight, Bush makes remarks at the annual peace officers' memorial service at the Capitol at 12 noon.

And Vice President Cheney has two events outside the Beltway today: a fundraising luncheon for House candidate Craig Foltin in Cleveland at 12:30 pm ET, and a rally with the Minnesota National Guard in Minneapolis-St. Paul at 3:25 pm ET.

The immigration debate
"Despite terrible polls," says the Washington Times (citing one), "the White House believes the public is coming around to its point of view" on immigration reform.  The National Guard plan comes as Bush "is under pressure to address border security.  In recent speeches, he has touted increased spending on the border, but it has not translated into approval...  And Democrats have found an opportunity to blast the president on the issue and push for more funding."

The Boston Globe reports on reaction from border-state governors who are concerned about Bush's proposed deployment of the National Guard.  "Bush aides were working into the night yesterday to resolve details of the proposal and ease concerns among some federal and state officials that it would overburden the military."

The Washington Times says the Senate bill "would more than double the flow of legal immigration into the United States each year and dramatically lower the skill level of those immigrants."

Bloomberg, on the other hand, points out that the bill also includes an overlooked "proposal to raise the annual cap on so-called H-1B visas for skilled workers to 115,000 -- a 77 percent increase -- and make it easier for such workers to gain permanent residency."

While "it might seem intuitive that converting many of the country's nearly 12 million illegal immigrants into legal residents would ease the pinch on city hall and statehouse budgets... that's not necessarily the case," notes the Dallas Morning News.  The "greatest costs - health care, education and public safety - would remain regardless of their residents' legal status...  As illegal immigrants become citizens, they'd be eligible for food stamps as well as joint federal-state low-income benefits such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program," which could extend the financial burden on local governments.

The Washington Post says the "newly formed network of groups that organized demonstrations for illegal immigrants is conference calling, brainstorming and consolidating its forces so that it can respond to the government with a unified voice" after Bush's speech.

Security politics
At odds with last week's Washington Post/ABC poll showing majority support for the NSA phone records database, the new Gallup survey shows 51% of Americans disapproving of the program.  "Most" of the 43% who approve "say it violates some civil liberties but is acceptable because 'investigating terrorism is the more important goal'...  Two-thirds are concerned that the database will identify innocent Americans as possible terrorism suspects."  - USA Today

CIA director nominee Gen. Michael Hayden is scheduled to have his confirmation hearings (both open- and closed-press) on Thursday in the Senate Intelligence Committee.  The Washington Times rounds up talk amongst Senate Republicans that the hearings "will center on questions about the Bush administration's post-September 11 domestic eavesdropping program, which some lawmakers say is illegal."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
USA Today takes its turn covering the possibility that GOP lawmakers will lessen penalties on those seniors who miss the registration deadline for the Medicare prescription-drug plan and wish to sign up late.

The New York Times notes that under one compromise that’s gaining momentum, “Monday would still be the deadline for enrollment and beneficiaries would not have another opportunity to sign up until November.  But people who sign up at the end of this year would be spared the late enrollment penalty, a permanent surcharge that would otherwise increase all future premiums by 7 percent or more.”  More: “With Monday's deadline looming, insurance counselors around the country said they were overwhelmed with pleas for help from Medicare beneficiaries trying to select plans.”

The Washington Post looks at how House GOP leaders are increasingly disagreeing with their counterparts in the Senate.  "Congressional leaders say recent clashes were individual policy disputes, not a sign of broader friction between the two bodies...  However, some House leaders privately acknowledge the tension as an inevitable byproduct of record low approval ratings for Congress and the president -- a disaffection that recently has spread to self-described conservative voters."

Roll Call previews the House GOP's forthcoming "pro-family" agenda, designed to motivate social conservatives to vote in November.  The House GOP leadership "met last Tuesday with representatives of the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family to discuss the House agenda."

The New York Times says many key religious conservatives are dissatisfied with the White House and the GOP-led Congress.  "Christian conservative leaders have often threatened in the months before an election to withhold their support for Republicans in an effort to press for their legislative goals…  But the complaints this year are especially significant because they underscore how the broad decline in public approval for Mr. Bush and Congressional Republicans is beginning to cut into their core supporters.”

Laura Bush, meanwhile, said on FOX yesterday that gay marriage bans shouldn’t be used for campaign purposes. - AP

The Wall Street Journal also rounds up other GOP efforts to motivate the base legislatively.  "The extension of Bush tax cuts last week is seen as a first step toward rehabilitating relations with fiscal conservatives...  But 'that's last year's homework turned in late,' says Grover Norquist, head of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform.  This year, fiscal activists want to see an end to the estate tax, repeal of the excise tax on telephone bills and a clear signal that Republicans are ready to curb spending.  They are expecting President Bush to find a deficit-expanding bill to veto soon -- which would mark his first veto during two terms in office."

Reviving controversial judicial nominations is another means of stirring up the base.  The Committee for Justice, the conservative group created to help Bush's judicial nominees win confirmation, holds a conference call at 10:15 am to counter some of the charges surrounding appellate court nominee Terrence Boyle.

Upon his hiring as White House press secretary, there had been talk that Tony Snow would stop televising the daily press briefings in their entirety.  Snow is expected to hold his first televised briefing tomorrow.  During his first off-camera briefing on Friday, Snow said the televised briefings "will continue as they have in the past...  Rumors of the televised briefings demise are greatly exaggerated."  With Snow now ensconced in the job, he gets a profile by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.

Disaster politics
Tomorrow night, MSNBC and NBC New Orleans affiliate WDSU co-host a nationally televised New Orleans mayoral debate at 9:00 pm ET.  MSNBC's Chris Matthews and WDSU's Norman Robinson will co-moderate the face-off between Mayor Ray Nagin and challenger Mitch Landrieu, the state's lieutenant governor.

Nagin and Landrieu met last night in another debate, in which they discussed "whether the campaign has put some aspects of the reconstruction program on hold," reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  Nagin said "that his re-election campaign has forced him to delay some actions, such as establishing a financial-oversight structure and lining up appointments for a national recovery committee."

According to Secretary of State Al Ater's office, roughly 11,534 voters cast early ballots in the mayoral runoff between last Monday and Saturday.

Ethics
Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson of New Orleans, who is under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes to help promote a broadband telecommunication services firm in Nigeria, has until this afternoon to file objections in federal court in an attempt to prevent the unsealing of potentially embarrassing documents, NBC's Joel Seidman reports.  Already, former Jefferson aide Brent Pfeffer and Kentucky businessman Vernon Jackson have pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges.  Jefferson hasn't been charged and has denied wrongdoing.  The documents include a search warrant affidavit filed in August for the Potomac, MD home of Jennifer E. Douglas, wife of Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

As we've written here before, not only is the timing of the scandal swirling around Jefferson is inconvenient for Democrats seeking to paint the GOP as corrupt, but 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, between Nagin's possible (probable) loss to Landrieu and the potential for Jefferson to have to give up his long-held seat, expediting a shift to white representation.

We wonder whether Bush's visit to Kentucky on Friday was scheduled before Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) was indicted, but he heads there for an event on his competitiveness initiative and a fundraiser for a GOP member of Congress.

House officials tell Roll Call that federal prosecutors "are seeking to interview at least nine current or former staffers on the House Intelligence, Appropriations and Armed Services committees," and looking through "'tens of thousands of pages' of Congressional documents," as they "widen their probe into the bribery scheme involving" former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R).  "The information sought by federal prosecutors signals that the corruption probe that began with Cunningham has now clearly moved beyond the actions taken by the imprisoned former lawmaker to other Members, according to several Congressional sources."

The Washington Post front-pages the problems Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan faces over the network of nonprofit groups he established in his home state of West Virginia and to which he has funneled millions of dollars in congressional earmarks.  Federal prosecutors are investigating this network and Mollohan's his finances.  The kicker: "Mollohan promises a report soon that will explain how he so quickly became a multimillionaire."

And the Los Angeles Times looks at how GOP Rep. Ken Calvert of California used the earmark process to increase the value of a parcel of land in his district which he and a partner bought and sold within one year for a profit of about $400,000.  "Calvert said he had used earmarking solely to benefit his district.  Those appropriations, he said, have had nothing to do with his investments or financial gains."

It's the economy
"A USA Today survey of all 50 states and the District of Columbia found deep concern in state capitals about the effect of gas prices on family budgets and state operations."  The paper says "states are eyeing relief measures ranging from reducing gas taxes to running more state vehicles on alternative fuels...  The most common proposal: reducing state gas taxes or eliminating them for the summer.  At least 20 states are debating whether to cut gas taxes, which range from 8 cents per gallon in Alaska to 49.5 cents per gallon in New York."

Sen. Barack Obama (D) lays out in a Houston Chronicle op-ed some long-term suggestions for lessening the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

The midterms
Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean does The Daily Show tonight.  Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman makes remarks at the International Democrat Union meeting and luncheon, which is closed-press.

The New York Times says that New York Rep. John Sweeney (R) “finds himself in the political battle of his life, as he faces his first significant electoral challenge since taking office in 1998, from a political novice” -- Kirsten Gillibrand (D) -- “who has not only turned out to be a surprisingly strong campaigner and fund-raiser but who also has assembled a seasoned campaign team closely tied to the vaunted Clinton operation.”

Gillibrand told First Read last week that the Democratic House campaign committee has been very helpful -- that chair Rahm Emanuel calls her often to check on fundraising and to ask if the campaign needs anything.  He'll be fundraising for her on May 21 in Albany.  "He delivers," she said.

The AP says GOP Sen. George Allen's re-election battle in VIRGINIA could complicate his hopes of running for president.  "A loyal foot solider for President Bush, the Virginia lawmaker faces a surprisingly tough re-election campaign that is keeping him pinned down in his state while other Republican presidential hopefuls traverse Iowa, New Hampshire and other important places in the 2008 nomination fight."

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