“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.

• Tuesday, May 23, 2006 | 5:30 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi and Ken Strickland

  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 ups and downs of the Hayden vote
By a vote of 12-3, the Senate Intelligence Committee has approved the nomination of Gen. Michael Hayden to become the next director of the CIA. Chairman Pat Roberts (R) told reporters this afternoon that there's an "excellent" chance Hayden will be confirmed by the full Senate before the Memorial Day recess.

The three members who voted against Hayden's nomination were Sens. Russ Feingold, Ron Wyden and Evan Bayh.  Feingold and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), who voted for Hayden, have released statements explaining their decisions. Mikulski says she voted for Hayden because of his "competence and personal integrity" as well as his testimony last week during confirmation hearings. However, she cautioned observers that her "confidence" in Hayden "should not be interpreted as confidence in this administration." 

Potential presidential candidate Sen. Russ Feingold said he voted against Hayden because he is "not convinced" that he "respects the rule of law and Congress's oversight responsibilities." Specifically, Feingold says he's concerned with Hayden's "role in implementing and publicly defending the warrantless surveillance program" as a former head of the NSA. Feingold has aggressively opposed the program and has proposed censuring President Bush for authorizing it.

• Tuesday, May 23, 2006 | 10:30 a.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira and Elizabeth Wilner

Karl Rove returns to Capitol Hill
Top Bush midterm election strategist Karl Rove will return to the Hill tomorrow to meet with Republican House members and discuss immigration reform.  Rove's visit to the House side of the Hill last week didn't seem to have won over any GOP minds, per a canvass of several members after they left that gathering.  Rove stayed for only 10-12 minutes during that session -- but did tell members that he'd be following up, which presumably is what tomorrow's session is for.

As the Senate nears completion of its immigration-reform bill, which is broader than the bill passed by the House last year, White House officials and Senate Republicans are growing concerned that the House will be a roadblock to a new law.  As we noted earlier today, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has famously said that no bill will be brought to the floor without a majority of the majority, meaning the support of a majority of Republicans.  That mantra may doom an immigration compromise since many House Republicans oppose the guest-worker provisions of the Senate bill.

• Tuesday, May 23, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
Public opinion of Congress being what it is, this might wind up being a fairly small pity party.  Even if the Founding Fathers intended as much in establishing a separation of powers, it's not a great time for Hill lawmakers to be emphasizing how they should be treated differently from other Americans, particularly when suspected of having committed a crime.

As First Read reported Monday morning, some members of Congress are irked over the FBI's Saturday night raid of their Democratic colleague William Jefferson's office, believing it violated the separation of powers between the three branches of government.  NBC's Pete Williams confirms that this marked the first time the FBI has ever searched a member's Hill office.  The scope of the executive branch's authority as it pertains to Congress has already become a sticking point for some lawmakers over matters of intelligence gathering and over the line-item veto, and this latest development may escalate the battle.

Yet at a time when lawmakers on both sides are mired in scandals and Democrats' chief advantage heading into the midterm elections appears to be simply that they aren't Republicans, there are political risks for all who turn their focus away from the people's business and onto their own constitutional protections.  One prominent Democratic Senate candidate, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, felt moved to try to distance herself from her party Monday: “People in positions of power and privilege can’t be above the law," she said in a statement.  "If Washington won’t change itself, it’s time for us to change Washington.”

Democrats in Congress are stepping gingerly because of their added concern of not wanting to appear as though they're defending Jefferson's alleged acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, but the GOP leadership isn't being as cautious.  The first lawmaker to publicly decry the raid -- apart from Jefferson himself -- was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who responded to a question at a press conference by saying he's "very concerned" about the raid and that his office's lawyers have been in contact with Senate and House lawyers "to advise us as to what the proper course of action is."

Republicans may be thinking of the utility of keeping the Jefferson scandal front-and-center during a week when the ethics spotlight might otherwise be focusing solely on former Administration official David Safavian, who is on trial for his dealings with Jack Abramoff.  But if so, why take the heat off Jefferson and Democrats by criticizing the feds?  In a long statement, Speaker Dennis Hastert condemned the raid, calling it "constitutionally suspect."  "Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night...  Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's much briefer statement recognized the need for members of Congress to obey the law and comply with criminal investigations -- and also for Justice Department probes to be conducted in compliance with the Constitution "and historical precedent."

In a Hill press conference yesterday, Jefferson declined to talk about the "alleged facts" of the case, in which two of his associates have pleaded guilty of bribing him; he himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing.  He also asserted that he has no plans to resign and intends to seek re-election this fall.  Should he vacate his seat for any reason, New Orleans would suffer a severe blow to its political clout, already lagging behind Mississippi's when it comes to Hurricane Katrina recovery aid, as well as a possible blow to its image.  Mayor Ray Nagin's upset victory last weekend suggests that the city's electorate, though scattered across the country, remains quite African-American and Democratic, which may deter Republicans from making a real run for an open seat here.  The filing deadline is in August.

President Bush today has a joint press availability with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at 5:00 pm, which will follow a get-acquainted sitdown with Olmert at 3:10 pm.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that topics for the Bush-Olmert meeting will include Hamas, Iran, contacts with Hezbollah and -- the Administration expects -- Olmert's vision of realignment.

Vice President Cheney concludes his two-day trip to California with a rally at the naval base in San Diego at 1:40 pm ET and a 3:30 pm ET fundraiser for GOP House candidate Brian Bilbray, who is seeking to keep former GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's San Diego-based seat in the Republican column.  Gen. Michael Hayden's nomination to be CIA director is expected to be voted out of committee today.  Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) is giving a "major policy speech" on energy at the National Press Club at this writing, with Q+A to follow.  The Republican National Committee was ready early this morning to prebut Clinton's speech and Democrats' broader effort to focus on gas prices over the next few weeks.  More on this below.

And yesterday was the deadline for cities to submit their bids to host the 2008 GOP presidential convention.  Cleveland, Minnesota's Twin Cities, New York and Tampa-St. Petersburg all bid.  A verdict will come in November.

Ethics
The AP rounds up the concerns of members of Congress about the FBI’s search of Jefferson’s office this past weekend.

The Los Angeles Times focuses on the "old-style simplicity of what investigators found: bundles of C-notes, wrapped tightly like leftover lasagna...  Of all the peculiar lawmaker conduct to date, Jefferson and [former GOP Rep. Randy 'Duke'] Cunningham are certainly in competition for most colorful.  Cunningham filled his mansion with antiques, showered his wife with jewelry, took advantage of sweetheart real estate deals and hooked himself up with a yacht and a Rolls-Royce.  But Jefferson had the tin-foiled cash, which even congressional historians say compares to nothing they've ever known."

"Jefferson and his wife, Andrea, are targets of the investigation, and the government is moving closer to deciding whether to indict," reports the Washington Post, which also notes, "Legal experts were divided on the legality and propriety of the FBI's raid, but many said that it could raise serious evidentiary problems for prosecutors at trial."

"Legal experts, including some former government prosecutors, said the release of search warrant documents Sunday after the weekend raid of Jefferson's' congressional office -- two rare if not unprecedented acts -- seems designed to increase the pressure on Jefferson to cop a plea," writes the Times-Picayune.

The Hill reports that "as Jefferson’s situation worsens, other House Democrats are anticipating that Jefferson will soon vacate his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee."  In another story, the paper says the House Ethics probes of Jefferson and GOP Rep. Bob Ney "are unlikely to conclude before Election Day, diminishing their political impact."

Constitutional questions aside, some Democrats acknowledge "that the headline-grabbing case involving a colleague they know as Jeff had the potential to dilute one of their core political arguments against the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.” – New York Times

The Boston Globe takes its turn looking at how the Jefferson case will complicate the Democrats' "culture of corruption" charge against Republicans.  However, "what may seem like good news for Republicans could ultimately hurt them, some political analysts say" the scandals "might add to public disaffection with Congress in general, and voters are more likely to punish the majority party, said Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University."

The midterms
"For the first time in recent memory, the cash disparity between House Democrats and Republicans is almost nonexistent six months out from the November elections," Roll Call reports.  "Meanwhile, on the Senate side, the party campaign committees kept about an even pace in fundraising for the month, although Democrats continued to show almost a 2-1 cash-on-hand advantage as of April 30."

With exactly two weeks left until Alabama's primaries, MSNBC.com profiles Ten Commandments crusader Roy Moore, who's competing in the state's GOP gubernatorial primary against incumbent Gov. Bob Riley.  "Three years ago, Roy Moore was well on his way to becoming the Next Big Thing in American politics... Yet, in what seems to be one the biggest political reversals of fortune in recent memory, Moore is now trailing Riley in the polls by nearly 50 points."  More on Moore: "[P]erhaps the biggest reason for his decline is this simple rule in American politics: single-issue candidates rarely win higher office."         

Arkansas and Idaho hold their primaries today, though there aren't any attention-grabbing races, at least compared with other primary contests in recent weeks.  In Idaho, a handful of Republicans led by conservative state Rep. Bill Sali and moderate  former state Sen. Sheila Sorenson are vying to fill the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Butch Otter (R), who's running for governor; the seat is expected to stay in GOP hands.  Arkansas' competitive gubernatorial race to replace term-limited Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) is already set between Mike Beebe (D) and Asa Hutchinson (R).  Polls in Arkansas open at 8:30 am ET and close at 8:30 pm ET.  Polls in the eastern part of Idaho open at 10:00 am ET and close at 10:00 pm ET; in the western part, they open at 11:00 am ET and close at 11:00 pm ET.

Two weeks also remain until the California primaries.  "Under attack by rival Steve Westly for his ties to oil companies, gubernatorial hopeful Phil Angelides dashed up the California coast Monday to plug his environmental record at scenic beaches...  The jousting underscored the importance of the environment to voters in the June 6 Democratic primary.  It also was a reminder of potential political rewards for candidates who tap into voter anger at the oil industry." – Los Angeles Times

The Sacramento Bee covers Cheney stumping yesterday for two GOP House members.  “The local Republicans Cheney was attempting to boost... are powerful incumbents long considered unbeatable.  But this year, they are facing political challengers from both inside and outside their party amid criticism over their associations with disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.”

The paper of record is launching what they intend to be the blog of record on New York politics: The New York Times' "Empire Zone" debuts this morning.  Topping the blog at this writing: A teaser for the Times' front-page look at the Clintons' marriage, a topic of endless fascination for Democrats in Washington and New York and a potential source of serious baggage for any future Clinton run for national office.

The Wall Street Journal says that when Bush travels to PENNSYLVANIA tomorrow, vulnerable GOP Rep. Curt Weldon won't be present.  The story notes how GOP candidates' hesitation to appear with Bush is "forcing the White House and Republican advisers to improvise a strategy for success.  So far, they are putting Mr. Bush on the road to raise huge amounts of cash;" "making more use of popular first lady Laura Bush;" and "seeking to boost the president's standing on his most troublesome issues -- notably Iraq, but also immigration and energy -- while highlighting their differences with Democrats and underscoring the importance of local issues."

The immigration debate
As NBC's Mike Viqueira has noted here previously, Speaker Hastert has famously said that bills will only be brought to the floor if they have the support of a majority of the majority -- i.e., a majority of Republicans.  The Washington Post looks at how that policy might wind up blocking a compromise bill on immigration if one is actually hammered out in conference committee.

The Wall Street Journal on the likelihood that the Senate bill will pass this week: "Senate leaders moved last night to end debate on the underlying bill, setting up a vote likely by Thursday.  Today, the Senate will consider several changes, including a Democratic bid to allow illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for five years or less to remain in the country while they work toward citizenship."

“The Senate cast an overwhelming - but largely symbolic - 83-10 vote last night in favor of President Bush's plan to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants...  The White House says Bush already has the authority, so the vote was symbolic.” – New York Post

Security politics
The New York Daily News reports that prosecutors will call on two CIA officers in the Lewis "Scooter" Libby perjury trial.  “The U.S. alleges he learned about Plame from one of the CIA officials when he went after dirt on her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson…  Both CIA officials - including a top architect of the 2003 Iraq invasion - discussed Plame with Libby a month before columnist Robert Novak blew her cover in July 2003, prosecutors charge.”

Despite the controversial build-up to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's commencement speech, "including an impassioned outcry from some faculty and students," the Boston College "graduation passed uneventfully" yesterday.  "Her speech was pointedly noncontroversial -- devoid of policy statements, with only a tangential mention of Iraq as she spoke of the need for graduates to remain optimistic." – Boston Globe

It's the economy
The Federal Trade Commission yesterday issued a report detailing the results of its congressionally mandated probe into whether gas prices nationwide were "artificially manipulated" and into gas pricing by refiners, large wholesalers, and retailers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The FTC found no instances of illegal market manipulation that led to higher prices during the time periods in question, but found 15 examples of pricing at the refining, wholesale, or retail level that fit the relevant legislation's definition of evidence of "price gouging."  Other factors such as regional or local market trends, however, appeared to explain these firms' prices in nearly all cases.  The report also reiterated the FTC's position that federal gas price-gouging legislation, in addition to being difficult to enforce, could cause more problems for consumers than it solves.  The Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing on the report today.

Saying there are "no silver bullets" to solving the nation's energy issues, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) is at this writing proposing a reduction in "American oil consumption by nearly 8 million barrels a day in 2025 - or 50 percent of America’s projected imports," as well as a “Strategic Energy Fund” to pay for the "clean energy transition," per a summary of the speech she's delivering at the National Press Club.  She also would eliminate "oil company tax breaks that the companies have said they don’t need" and ensure that "that oil companies pay their fair share of royalties for drilling on public lands."  The Republican National Committee was ready with a new web video pummeling Democrats on energy, a statement charging that "adopting the energy policies of the 1970s is a price Americans cannot afford," and a release detailing Clinton's Senate votes which they say are in opposition to expanding oil production.

The Wall Street Journal on what's been (not) up with the markets these past few days: "Jitters about inflation and the chance that the Federal Reserve's rate-boosting campaign will stifle growth have led to a steep decline by stocks in the days following the Fed's recent rate increase.  Investors are also increasingly nervous that the selloff will gain momentum of its own as the steep declines create a climate of fear on Wall Street that precipitates a bear market."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Assuming that House Speaker Dennis Hastert makes it to June 1, as he himself wryly questions, he will become the longest-serving GOP Speaker in history. – The Hill

The New York Times examines how the Medicare prescription-drug benefit has become a political football.  “Republicans call it a godsend, Democrats call it a disaster.  But each party contends that its candidates will benefit in a big way from Medicare's new prescription drug coverage.”  The article also notes that each side is stretching the facts in the debate.

The Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DEFCON), a liberal group dedicated to maintaining the separation between church and state, is running a full-page ad in today's New York Times criticizing the "religious right" for preventing the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act from making it to the Senate floor.  Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the House's passage of that bill.  The ad calls Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and Focus on the Family's James Dobson "America's Most Influential Stem Cell Scientists" who have "enormous sway over Majority Leader Bill Frist."  After courting social conservatives with an eye toward his presidential bid, Frist surprised many last July when he changed his position on the bill and announced his support for it in a speech on the Senate floor, during which he said that embryonic stem cell research "must be addressed."  Since then, however, the issue has been absent from the Senate's agenda.

The Democrats
Roll Call notes how Senate Democrats are keeping quiet on what they'd do in the majority, in tacit disagreement with their House counterparts.  "A Democratic operative familiar with the political strategy said Senate Democrats know that it won’t pay dividends to offer up too much of a majority game plan in an election year where the stakes are so high.  This source said the 2006 election is a referendum on President Bush and the Republicans, and the Democrats shouldn’t give any political ammunition to an already floundering GOP."

The Boston Globe's Canellos, examining the dynamics of Connecticut politics, writes that "[d]espite having one of the most liberal electorates in the country -- which strongly disapproves of the Iraq war -- Connecticut nonetheless has three Republicans in its five-member House delegation, each of whom backed President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003."  Democrats "need a dramatic issue to prove that the three are, indeed, out of the Connecticut mainstream" but are faced with having one of Bush's most ardent supporters of the war, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), challenged in his primary by anti-war Ned Lamont, which "has scrambled the electoral equation across the ballot in Connecticut, causing Democratic hand-wringing from Hartford to Washington."

MSNBC.com’s Tom Curry reports on possible Democratic presidential candidate Evan Bayh's trip to Iowa this past weekend.  "[T]he Indiana senator's mellow demeanor, folksy Midwestern charm and credentials as a governor and U.S. senator gave Bayh threshold credibility with most of the rank-and-file Democrats he met.  But Bayh has something else that’s not an asset, something that gives a reporter a distinct sense of déjà vu: his vote for the Iraq war resolution in 2002."

Disaster politics
Just one day after winning re-election, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was making enemies.  The Times-Picayune reports that "on Sunday, Nagin said he hoped businesses would join him in creating a 'new paradigm' and would stay, 'but if they don't, I'll send them a postcard.'"  That comment "outraged" some business leaders.

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