“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.

• Wednesday, May 24, 2006 | 5:05 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi

  1. Other political news of note
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      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

Dueling political scandals
DNC chairman Howard Dean refused to comment today on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's call for Rep. William Jefferson to give up his seat on the Ways and Means Committee, but said that if he is indicted, the Democratic party will "condemn" his actions. Dean hastened to note that Jefferson has not been indicted and that the actions (if they are indeed illegal) of one person within the party do not compare to what Democrats charge is a track record of unethical behavior within the GOP.  Echoing what Pelosi told NBC News yesterday, Dean said if Democrats take over the House and/or the Senate in the midterm elections, they will quickly enact "real ethics legislation."

Democrats have been using legally-challenged Republicans Tom DeLay and Randy "Duke" Cunningham as the poster boys for a "culture of corruption" campaign alleging that the GOP is infected with morally and ethically inept members who need to be swept out of office in November. DeLay is quitting Congress on June 9 and Cunningham gave up his seat before going to jail a few months ago. When asked by First Read if the Jefferson probe affects that strategy, Dean quickly sought to distinguish Jefferson from the other. "There really is no comparison between one errant congressperson who may have done something wrong and again has yet to be indicted. But certainly, if he is, we would condemn that," Dean said. "There is a Republican culture of corruption and we will stand for honesty and openness in government," he later added.

Dean was speaking at a press conference with six Democratic mayors from around the country who were there to talk about the local challenges -- increased violence, high gas prices, health care problems -- they say they're facing as a result of the Bush Administration's "misplaced priorities."

• Wednesday, May 24, 2006 | 2:15 p.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira

The peculiar case of Bill Jefferson
Witness the Democrats trying to throw Rep. Bill Jefferson, D-LA, overboard, while Republicans try to defend him.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, conceded to NBC News Tuesday that the Jefferson affair hinders her ability to beat up Republicans for "the culture of corruption," and this calculation surely has something to do with her call for Jefferson to step down from a coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

But Republicans and Democrats are genuinely, “no foolin'” outraged over the FBI's tactics. At the least they consider it overkill.  The agents were in the Rayburn House building for 15 hours; nobody there was informed in advance; the search was executed 48 hours after the judge signed off on it; and the Feds basically showed up and said, basically, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way: open it up or we'll bust it down.” (paraphrase).

(Rep. Jefferson filed a request in U.S. District Court Wednesday, asking to have his seized documents returned.)

But why, when the feds are surveilling, secretly taping, and otherwise investigating Jefferson and perhaps several other members of Congress, would members get mad about this? What's the difference between those tactics and a search of an office?

The argument is one of principle: suppose that Jefferson or any other member was conducting oversight over the FBI and found things that the Bureau wasn't crazy about people knowing. Does this mean that they can go ahead and bust the door down to purge congressional files under the guise of an investigation? Or, let's say that a member is a crucial swing vote on a big piece of legislation that the administration has a strong position on. Can the Feds shake them down and intimidate them by searching their office? Such are the chilling scenarios being spun.

Not everyone is buying it. A senior law enforcement official on the Hill says that first, of course the Feds aren't going to give anyone up here prior notice of a search. Second, this is a matter of pride and "turf" - preserving their status as a "separate but equal branch of government" and not above the Constitution.

Bottom line: There are mixed reports of some kind of resolution of the matter being reached today.  Pelosi and Hastert are meeting at this hour.

• Wednesday, May 24, 2006 | 1:30 p.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira, Ken Strickland, and Mark Murray

Update on Jefferson & immigration
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has asked embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D) to resign from his post on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. "In the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus, I am writing to request your immediate resignation from the Ways and Means Committee," Pelosi said in a letter she sent to Jefferson this morning. But Jefferson, whom the FBI is investigating for allegedly accepting bribes, isn't budging. In a letter replying to Pelosi's request, Jefferson argued that his committee seat has benefited his New Orleans constituents. "If I agreed," he said, "it would unfairly punish the people of the 2nd district, and I will not stand for that. Further, such a request would be discriminatory, [since] no other Member currently under federal investigation has been asked to step down from a substantive, legislative committee assignment."

Also on Capitol Hill, the much-anticipated final vote on the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill will occur either late tonight or tomorrow morning. The bill's expected passage sets the stage for a showdown with the House, whose immigration bill differs dramatically from the Senate's. Over the next few hours, the Senate is expected to vote on several amendments, but none of them is expected to alter the core provisions requested by Bush -- the most controversial of which enables some illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. The final Senate vote will happen after those amendments are considered.

• Wednesday, May 24, 2006 | 10:50 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner

The important battle for Duke’s seat
The former chair of the Republican House campaign committee, Tom Davis, was cautious today in handicapping his party's chances in holding onto jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's seat.  Both national parties are pouring money into the contest in support of their nominees, Democrat Francine Busby and Republican Brian Bilbray, a former member of Congress.  The San Diego-based district traditionally leans Republican, but the still-percolating bribery scandal that landed Cunningham in jail and an array of national and local factors currently lined up against the GOP are making this race competitive.  On the national level, an unpopular war, an unpopular president, and an unmotivated party base are proving to be hurdles for Bilbray.  On the local level, bids by third-party candidates have "fractured" the local Republican base vote, Davis said.  On top of that, he noted, open seats are the toughest for a party to hold.

Davis also acknowledged that the stakes are high here.  Should Democrats win this seat on June 6, they will tout it as a victory for their "culture of corruption" argument against the GOP -- an argument that has gotten muddied lately by the scandals surrounding two of their own, William Jefferson and Alan Mollohan -- and try to argue that it bodes ill for scandal-plagued Republican incumbents who are seeking re-election.

And while he was handicapping, Davis was coaxed to offer his thoughts on the US Senate race in his home state of Virginia.  Starting with the caveat that both incumbent GOP Sen. George Allen and Democratic candidate Jim Webb are friends of his, Davis said he was "surprised" to see Webb, former US Navy Secretary under President Reagan, get in the race.  He said that campaigns require discipline, which can be a tough lesson for political neophytes.  "Let's see how that works out" for Webb, he said.  Webb has competition for the Democratic nomination from Harris Miller.  Allen is favored to hang onto the seat.

• Wednesday, May 24, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
The midterm elections are five and a half months away, but the key actors have the elections very much in mind as the Memorial Day holiday looms, a marker of sorts in this high-stakes contest, the moment when Congress next leaves town for recess and much of the general public tunes out for the summer.  Our NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters advised us in looking at the data from our last survey, in late April, that the framework for the midterms seemed to be in the process of locking in, and that once that happens, only a major external event could change it.  Political analysts in Washington are dusting off the term "calcification."

At 5:40 pm, Bush attends a "victory committee reception" in Philadelphia for endangered GOP Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach.  The money raised will be divided between the two candidates and the state party committee, says a Fitzpatrick aide.  One notable absence will be fellow GOP Rep. Curt Weldon, a 10-term incumbent and recent addition to the endangered list.  Sen. Rick Santorum (R), the most vulnerable senator by far this cycle, will be in Washington for Senate votes, per an aide.

The battleground state of Pennsylvania is ever shakier ground for Bush and the GOP.  Not only do Santorum and four Republican House members -- the three mentioned above plus Don Sherwood -- find themselves in competitive contests this fall, but voters here last week ousted more than a dozen state lawmakers in primary contests, most of them Republican.  A Democrat also won a special legislative election in a GOP stronghold which happens to be located in Gerlach's congressional district, says state political analyst G. Terry Madonna.  "There are real, real concerns among Republicans about the Philadelphia suburbs," Madonna tells First Read.  In that context, Madonna says, it makes sense for Bush to do these fundraisers, even if he's not greeted with open arms by all GOP members.  "He needs to do them because these races... have become tremendously important for the control of Congress."

Bush's first stop in Pennsylvania is in Pottstown, where he will tour the Limerick Generating Station at 2:55 pm and make remarks on energy there at 3:20 pm.  Prior to the trip, he takes part in a photo op with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Also keeping November 7 -- and November 8 -- in mind these days is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who yesterday previewed for NBC News her vision for the first day of a Democratic majority in the House over which, it was assumed, she would preside as the first female House Speaker.  If the election were held today, Pelosi declared, Democrats would win control of the House.  As the election is not being held today, she predicted that Democrats could have a "very rough row to hoe from here" because Republicans will resort to "desperate" measures and "deluge the system with money."  She repeated her hope that they will net 25-30 seats in the fall, noting that her party's campaign committee chair, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, "would be more conservative" in his estimates.

Asked whether such a net gain would provide a working majority, Pelosi said, "Our members know why they're Democrats," rejecting the idea that some might stray.  She recognized that there could be a difference in attitude between the considerable percentage of her caucus who have never served in the majority before and those who have (including nearly all those who would serve as committee chairs; see the list below), but said, "It's not going to be that big a difference," adding that "we owe it to the American people" to be civil.  "It may take a woman to do this," she observed.  At another point during the interview, when talking about ethics, she said she views the task as "a mother's mission" to "do the right thing for the next generation."  (Apparently in certain contexts, it's OK to be the "mommy party.")

Tops on the agenda for the first day of a Democratic majority, as she sees it: lobbying and ethics reform.  "No meals, no gifts," and no flights for members on corporate jets, she asserted.  These reforms would be enacted as changes to the rules.  Another change: no holding votes open for hours to allow time for 11th-hour conversions, as Republicans have done on a number of close calls.  And another: A Pelosi aide added after the interview that Pelosi would not apply House Speaker Dennis Hastert's rule that a majority of the majority must support a bill in order for it to get to the floor.  Other first-week priorities, beyond an emphasis on civility: a pay-as-you-go approach to budgeting and spending, passage of the September 11 commission proposals, and Democratic touchstones like making college more affordable, ending tax breaks for oil companies, and increasing the minimum wage.  Closer to the election, the party's candidates around the country will start laying out these ideas to show voters "how we would begin."  More from Pelosi in the next section.

Ethics
Pelosi's clear emphasis on ethics and lobbying reform during the interview may have been in part a reaction to the nationally publicized federal investigation of Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of New Orleans; two Jefferson associates have pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson with hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Pelosi called Jefferson's case "outrageous" and noted that she asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate.  She rejected the suggestion that the problems faced by Rep. Alan Mollohan (D) are similar; Mollohan's finances and ties to a network of nonprofit groups also are being investigated by the feds, a probe which forced him to temporarily relinquish his post as ranking member of the Ethics Committee.  "I don't think the Mollohan situation" -- she made a point of not calling it a "case" -- is in any way comparable," she said, though she recognized that "there are appearances he'll have to deal with."

At the same time, Pelosi denounced the executive branch of the government for the Saturday night raid of Jefferson's office, saying she was surprised "that there were no terms of executive engagement" worked out before the raid took place.  She also suggested that the raid may have been politically motivated, adding when pressed for details, "I don't know...  I hope not."  Pelosi's staff has been in touch with Speaker Dennis Hastert's staff, she said, though she also suggested that Hastert is probably more upset about the raid than she is.  "This is the president of his own party invading Capitol Hill...  I would imagine that the Speaker is much angrier than I am."

FBI and Justice Department officials are somewhat surprised at the complaints from some in Congress about the weekend search of Jefferson's office, NBC's Pete Williams reports.  Republican and Democratic members are suggesting it might be a violation of the separation of powers, but FBI and Justice officials say the FBI has searched the chambers of federal judges, wiretapped the offices of big-city mayors, and searched offices of state legislators -- all with permission from federal judges.  They also say the decision to go for a search warrant followed a battle with Jefferson, his lawyers, and lawyers for the House, all of whom resisted a subpoena that investigators say was issued last August.  And they note that a federal judge signed the subpoena with no reluctance -- even penning a notion in his own handwriting that directed the US Capitol Police.

House Majority Leader John Boehner yesterday predicted that this conflict will wind up being settled by the US Supreme Court, while House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, like Pelosi, suggested the Justice Department was politically motivated.

The New York Times: “Lawmakers and outside analysts said that while the execution of a warrant on a Congressional office might be surprising - this appears to be the first time it has happened - it fit the Bush administration's pattern of asserting broad executive authority, sometimes at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches.”

House Speaker Dennis Hastert took his complaint to President Bush.  "According to one Justice Department official, the White House is sympathetic to Hastert's complaint and is pressing Justice Department officials to figure out a way to placate Congress," says the Washington Post.  The story also notes that Pelosi "worked through intermediaries last night to try to persuade Jefferson to temporarily step aside as a member of the Ways and Means Committee."

"Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), chairman of the Rules Committee, ordered the panel's staff to study the search...  But some members said legislators should be held to the same standards as ordinary Americans." – Los Angeles Times

A day after Minnesota Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar (D) released a statement criticizing both parties for the scandals plaguing Washington, fellow Democratic candidate Francine Busby -- who's running for the congressional seat vacated by Randy "Duke" Cunningham -- called for Jefferson to resign immediately.  "Americans deserve the highest standard of ethical conduct from our members of Congress," she said in a statement.  "We must fight corruption in both parties to make Congress work for the people of this country."

The midterms
The Hill reports that former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, who saw his share of election heartbreak, recently told a group of investors that he doubts Democrats will retake the House this fall.  "But when asked about his comments, Gephardt suggested that people might have misconstrued what he said because they had expected him to predict a resounding victory this fall."

The Los Angeles Times writes up Vice President Dick Cheney's two-day swing through California this week "for a series of fundraisers aimed at bucking up three GOP House candidates facing unexpectedly tough fights in this political season of scandal.  Democrats were delighted."

As the Left Turns... The latest developments in Connecticut's Senate primary between incumbent Joe Lieberman (D) and challenger Ned Lamont (D): Democracy For America, the liberal group founded by Howard Dean, has endorsed Lamont.  Said chairman Jim Dean (Howard's brother): "Senator Lieberman has been a broken record supporting broken policies."  Meanwhile, anti-war MoveOn announced yesterday that Lieberman has declined to participate in its online primary scheduled for Thursday.  Lieberman spokesperson Marion Steinfels tells First Read that Lieberman had little chance of winning this contest: "Joe Lieberman probably has as good a chance of winning this primary as becoming the next American Idol."

Per the Idaho Statesman, state Rep. Bill Sali (R) won yesterday’s crowded congressional GOP primary in Idaho and will face Larry Grant (D) in the general election to replace Rep. Butch Otter (R), who is running for governor.  Sali is favored to win in November.

In New York, the state’s Conservative Party gave its gubernatorial endorsement to John Faso (R) over Bill Weld (R), the New York Times says.  “As expected, the Conservatives also nominated John Spencer, the former mayor of Yonkers, to challenge Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

The immigration debate
Top Bush midterm election strategist Karl Rove returns to the Hill today to meet with Republican House members and discuss immigration reform, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  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 today's session is for.

The Houston Chronicle: “With Senate passage of an immigration reform bill likely, key GOP senators on Tuesday urged Republicans in the House to rally around their party in an election year and allow negotiations on a final measure… Looking ahead to a final vote Thursday on the bipartisan Senate bill, Republicans said gridlock between the House and Senate would hurt the party in this election year.”

The Los Angeles Times takes the latest look at the seemingly immovable House.  "Amid the discord, however, there was an indication that some House Republicans were willing to explore finding common ground...  Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), leader of a House conservative faction, unveiled a plan that would create a guest worker program that potentially could include illegal immigrants currently in the U.S.  It would require them to briefly return to their home countries to be part of the program, but it also would allow them to seek permanent legal resident status... after six years."

The Hill says Sen. George Allen may be the only Republican presidential candidate to oppose the Senate immigration bill, since Majority Leader Bill Frist, along with the others, seems inclined to support it.

Security politics
Members of Congress hear from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a joint session today at 11:00 am.  At yesterday’s joint Bush-Olmert presser, Bush suggested that a new government in Iraq means a fresh assessment on how many US troops are needed there.

The New York Daily News: “Earlier in the day, a White House spokesman played down prospects of major troop withdrawals in the near future.  ‘We're not going to sort of look at our watches and say, “Oop, time to go,”’ said spokesman Tony Snow.  The establishment of a unity government in Baghdad has stirred talk of troop reductions by the United States and Britain… But with violence still widespread, both the White House and Pentagon indicated it may be too soon to make decisions on troop cuts.”

Gen. Michael Hayden's nomination to become the CIA director was voted out of the Senate Intelligence Committee by a 12-to-3 vote.  The three who opposed: Democrats Ron Wyden, Evan Bayh, and Russ Feingold.  The latter two are running for president in 2008.  Hayden could be confirmed by the Senate as early as tomorrow and sworn in before the holiday weekend.

The Los Angeles Times adds that the committee vote "was lopsided, but the dissent reflected lingering concern over his role in a domestic wiretapping program that has been a source of controversy for the Bush administration."

The latest in the NSA phone-records controversy: Reuters reports that the Federal Communications Commission “will not pursue complaints about the National Security Agency's access to millions of telephone records because it cannot obtain classified material.” – New York Times

It's the economy
Fed chair Ben Bernanke said during congressional testimony yesterday that his recent comments to CNBC's Maria Bartiromo about the possibility of further interest rate hikes, which caused the market to tank, represented a "lapse in judgment" on his part and that his future comments about interest-rate and other Fed policies will take place through the usual public channels. – Washington Post

A Wall Street Journal column notes that "many people still may get hit with higher taxes this year" because of other Bush tax cuts that were allowed to expire, like the "provision that allowed millions of people to deduct state and local sales taxes instead of state and local income taxes.  Other expired breaks include deductions for millions of teachers and for many people with college and graduate-school bills.  Congressional leaders hope to resurrect these and other expired tax provisions, including a business research and development credit, retroactively to the start of this year."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
As the Senate version of the war/Katrina supplemental nears passage, the Washington Post reminds us of what the bill's real purpose is, and how much is in there that isn't going to those who arguably need it the most.

"House and Senate spending chiefs have agreed to come down to Mr. Bush's number but are now fighting over which items get axed from the bill, which was designed to fund hurricane recovery and the war on terrorism.  The House officially appointed negotiators yesterday, indicating a deal may be possible before the Memorial Day break," says the Washington Times.

The Democrats
The Democratic National Committee and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin host the Democratic mayors for a joint 1:00 pm press conference at which they will "Outline (the) Impact of Bush Republicans Failed Policies and Priorities," per the release.

Good thing the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees are raising so much money these days.  In looking at DNC chair Howard Dean's plans for the Democratic mayors today, Roll Call reports that "Dean appeared to concede that his plan for supplementing the Democratic Congressional committees’ efforts in key House and Senate races did not include a financial boost...  The chairman talked of assisting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee with mail and ground wars in select districts and states."

Senate Democrats are being warned by their leadership not to buy into any GOP efforts at bipartisanship, Roll Call reports, because of a concern that "shows of election-year bipartisanship could help a number of Republicans facing difficult challenges, including Sens. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Conrad Burns (Mont.), Jim Talent (Mo.), Mike DeWine (Ohio) and George Allen (Va.)."

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) told the audience at her energy speech yesterday that she is "working to try to create space for sensible bipartisanship: we need that on energy and health care."  Meanwhile, The Hill looks at how "Clinton is positioning herself as a serious policy player" in advance of the 2008 election...

Al Gore's new movie about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, opens today.  The Boston Globe says it’s "debuting with a sort of exquisite timing that Gore has rarely been accused of possessing in his long career in public life… A convergence of factors -- including soaring gasoline prices, devastating hurricanes, and growing Evangelical concern about environmental degradation -- is slowly moving global warming to the forefront of political debate."

And K-Streeters must know this list by heart, but should the Democrats gain a majority in the House in November, the following members seem likely to ascend to committee chairmanships, based on seniority or (in a few cases) other circumstances.

Agriculture: Collin Peterson
Appropriations: David Obey
Armed Services: Ike Skelton
Budget: John Spratt
Education and the Workforce: George Miller
Financial Services: Barney Frank
Government Reform: Henry Waxman
House Administration: Juanita Millender-McDonald
International Relations: Tom Lantos
Homeland Security: Bennie Thompson
Judiciary: John Conyers
Intelligence: Jane Harman, Alcee Hastings, or Silvestre Reyes
Resources: Nick Rahall
Rules: Louise Slaughter
Science: Bart Gordon
Small Business: Nydia Velasquez
Standards on Official Conduct (a/k/a Ethics): Howard Berman (filling in for Alan Mollohan)
Transportation and Infrastructure: Jim Oberstar
Veterans' Affairs: Bob Filner (current ranking member Lane Evans is retiring)
Ways and Means: Charlie Rangel

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