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• Tuesday, June 20, 2006 | 3:10 p.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira and 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

Congress counts down to recess
With not much time left on the calendar to legislate and rack up accomplishments, House Republicans are doing triage on their priorities. First, they announced that they would push ahead with a floor vote on Thursday to partially repeal the estate tax, thus abandoning -- at least for this year -- their desire for permanent, full repeal. "At some point you have to deal with reality," explained House Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas (R). Although the House has voted for full repeal in the past, the measure has been unable to get through the Senate. Under the compromise announced today between House and Senate Republicans, the estate tax would be permanently reduced, but not eliminated: Estates up to $5 million in value would not be taxed; estates valued up to $25 million would be taxed at 15%; and estates valued over $25 million would be subject to a 30% tax. However, a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid says there is no reason to believe this compromise will be able to pick up any additional votes in the Senate.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader John Boehner says he will "probably not" allow any measure on the House floor that raises the minimum wage. Last week, a House panel attached a provision to a spending bill that would raise the minimum wage from the current $5.15 to $7.25. At his weekly off-camera briefing with reporters, Boehner explained that a hike in the minimum wage would "take away the first rung of the economic ladder" for low-wage employees. "[It] creates more unemployment among people who have no skills," he said (although Democrats would counter that the last federal minimum wage increase in 1996 was soon followed by a booming economic expansion).

• Tuesday, June 20, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

First glance
President and Mrs. Bush have departed for Vienna, where Bush and European leaders will focus on Iran's developing nuclear program.  Bush made Iran the focus of his high-profile commencement address yesterday, reserving general remarks about the war on terror for an evening fundraiser that brought in $27 million for GOP House and Senate candidates.  He, for the most part, avoided starkly partisan rhetoric, though he did note that he's "proud to be serving with people who understand the lessons of September the 11th."

Capitol Hill sticks to its scheduled focus on Iraq, meanwhile, as Republicans seek to gain political advantage and psychological rejuvenation from casting Democrats as uncertain about what course to take there, and Democrats raise questions of oversight and accountability.  Yesterday, a couple of Senate Democrats offered a non-binding, "sense of the Congress" resolution calling for the "responsible redeployment" of US troops, without a timetable for redeployment.  Today, Sen. John Kerry will offer a more specific, binding proposal to redeploy the troops by July 1, 2007.

After many Democrats showed discomfort with his original deadline of December 31, Kerry has pushed back the date by which he wants US troops withdrawn.  Two of the Senate's most liberal members, Barbara Boxer and Kerry's fellow potential presidential candidate Russ Feingold, have signed onto the plan, which also requires: that essential US troops remain in Iraq; that the United States maintain an "over-the-horizon military presence;" that Bush "work with the new Iraqi government to convene a summit... to reach a comprehensive political agreement for Iraq that addresses" numerous non-military issues; and that Bush's Defense Secretary "report to Congress on how U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by July 1, 2007."  When asked whether the postponed deadline amounted to a forced compromise on Kerry's part, NBC's Ken Strickland reports, aides simply said the new proposal is "reasonable and responsible."

Republicans relish any debate with Democrats on Iraq, but particularly one with the former Democratic presidential nominee.  One Senate GOP leadership aide e-mails, "Whatever we can do to help Senator Kerry figure out his position on the war and court the liberal base, we're happy to oblige."

While Republicans press for an advantage on Iraq, Democrats are pressuring the majority party on the minimum wage.  Liberal lion Ted Kennedy yesterday proposed an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour.  Strickland advises that Senate Democrats are expected to come up short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a key procedural hurdle.  Nevertheless, Kennedy and some Senate and House colleagues will hold a 3:30 pm press conference today to push for a hike.  Democrats are having more luck in the House, where the issue gained some momentum last week when a committee passed a similar measure with GOP support.  After House Republican leaders put off a vote on that bill, Democrats are trying again with another one.

Another issue that's re-emerging this week is the Voting Rights Act, which the House will debate and likely reauthorize for the first time since it was signed into law in 1965, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  House leaders had thought that an earlier agreement between the House and the Senate would mean smooth sailing for the historic legislation, but a mini-revolt by Georgia and Texas lawmakers has slowed things down.  These lawmakers are upset over the proposed continuation of a provision that requires many Southern states to get sign-off from the Justice Department whenever they make any changes to voting procedures, including redistricting.  They have demanded and received a chance to amend the bill on the floor this week, possibly as early as tomorrow.

Also potentially on the Senate's plate this week: The Armed Services Committee is waiting for the Pentagon to finish its investigation into allegations of a Haditha massacre before it can hold public hearings; the Finance Committee awaits White House paperwork so it can hold confirmation hearings for Hank Paulson to become Treasury Secretary (the White House formally nominated Paulson yesterday); and of course, all concerned await a breakthrough in the dispute between Senate leaders that has kept House and Senate negotiators from crafting a final immigration bill.

Your new favorite political calendar can be found on MSNBC.com by clicking here .

Security politics
The major papers cover the two proposals being offered by different pairs of Senate Democrats for redeploying US troops from Iraq or bringing them home:
Washington Post
New York Times
Los Angeles Times

"Both Democratic plans are expected to be defeated by wide margins in the Senate," says the Boston Globe.

The San Francisco Chronicle reminds us that sentiments similar to the non-binding Democratic proposal offered yesterday "were expressed last year when both houses of Congress passed a nonbinding resolution stating that 2006 should be a year of significant transition in Iraq, in which Iraqi forces are supposed to take over more of the fighting.  So far, that has happened only in a limited way."

The expected departure Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick nevertheless "leaves a large hole in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's foreign policy team," says the Washington Post.  "Zoellick spearheaded efforts to end the violence in Sudan's Darfur region and was the administration's main interlocutor in the delicate relationship between the United States and China."

Bush's speech yesterday at the Merchant Marine Academy "was in part meant to serve as a table-setter for discussions about the nuclear standoff with Iran that are expected as part of a broader agenda this week at the United States-European Union summit meeting," says the New York Times.

All the last-minute rearrangements and additional costs were well worth having Bush address their commencement for the first time, say Academy officials. - USA Today

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Last night at the big GOP fundraiser, Bush told the audience, "We're here for a reason.  We're here to solve problems and not pass them to future congresses and future Presidents."  Among the items Bush may leave for future presidents to handle, based on current projections: US troops in Iraq, per his own assertions, and a hefty deficit, unless he manages to make major cuts in entitlement spending before he leaves office.

A House vote looms this week on a repeal of the estate tax, as Democrats call it -- or "death tax," as Republicans call it.  The Wall Street Journal notes, "House approval of the proposal would likely force a vote on similar legislation in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats have been at loggerheads over the tax for years.  House leaders in the past had said they would settle for nothing short of full repeal."

Reflecting strong Democratic support for a constitutional ban on flag-burning, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), in a USA Today op-ed, rejects critics' suggestion that "we must choose between trampling on the flag and trampling on the First Amendment...  There is no idea or thought expressed by the burning of the American flag that cannot be expressed equally well in another manner."  The amendment is believed to be one vote shy of passage, the closest it's ever come.

Roll Call reports lobbying reform isn't getting anywhere on the Hill.

Sen. John McCain (R) tells the Financial Times that "Congress is unlikely to give final approval this year to the Bush administration's civilian nuclear energy deal with India," though McCain isn't saying he opposes the bill -- just that he wants more scrutiny of it before it comes up for a vote.  "The White House has been pushing Congress to make the required changes in US law as soon as possible.  However, Republicans and Democrats are increasingly reluctant to approve the deal before details such as what safeguards India would negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency are hammered out."

The immigration debate
In his CongressDaily column, NBC political analyst Charlie Cook argues that the tone of the immigration debate could end up costing the GOP.  "While many Hispanic voters had mixed views on immigration reform at the outset of this debate, they now see the fight as having turned into immigrant and Hispanic bashing, and this is certainly to the detriment of the Republican Party.  And that's why most of the most forward-thinking minds in the Republican Party are so concerned that anti-immigrant elements within the GOP are now inflicting the same long-term damage on the party that [former California] Gov. Pete Wilson did a decade ago."

In an overlooked but unusually competitive GOP primary, Roll Call says Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah is being attacked for his position on immigration by a hard-line border security advocacy group formed by his fellow Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, who's supporting Cannon's primary challenger.

The Democrats
"Democrats aim to make the minimum wage a maximum political problem for Republicans this election year," says the Wall Street Journal.  After the House GOP leadership put off a full vote on an increase, Democrats now plan to "offer the same wage amendment as part of a second appropriations bill funding science and law-enforcement agencies...  The last federal increase, signed into law" in 1996, "followed bargaining over tax- and health-insurance-related issues important to Republican conservatives.  The same could happen now...  Discomfort is growing among rank-and-file Republicans, especially as organized labor has mounted ballot issues in various states."

In addition to the press conference planned for this afternoon, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer will focus his weekly off-camera briefing on "Democrats' fight to increase the minimum wage, and Republicans' continued refusal to address this issue," per the release.

It's the economy
Bloomberg zeroes in on how the fact that wages aren't keeping up with inflation poses a political problem for Bush and may well be one of the factors suppressing his popularity.

The New York Times reports that House lawmakers have introduced a total of 267 energy-related bills, while their Senate counterparts have introduced 210, per one analysis.  The reason?  "Not only are gasoline prices higher... but elections are approaching.  Judging from the bulk of new energy-related legislation floating around Congress, woe to the lawmaker with no response to the voter who asks, 'So, what have you done about energy costs?'"

Ethics
Per NBC's Joel Seidman, the legal defense trust for Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby is holding a $500-a-head reception at Mary Matalin's home in Virginia tonight (will Democrat hubby James Carville will protest outside?).  So far, Seidman adds, the trust has raised more than $2 million for Libby's legal defense in the CIA leak case.

"The Justice Department and attorneys for disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff have agreed to postpone for at least three months the day he has to report to federal prison - the latest sign that Abramoff's continued cooperation with an ongoing corruption probe in Washington, D.C., is proving helpful to prosecutors...  Roll Call reports several sources close to the case believe Abramoff may not be required to begin his prison sentence in the Florida case until next year, depending on how the Washington corruption probe is progressing."

The New York Times front-pages the woes -- coming in the form of indictments against 15 different people -- afflicting Kentucky's Republican party and governor, Ernie Fletcher (R).  "The accusations have threatened to reverse a tide that Republicans in the state have worked for more than a decade to turn in their favor."

More on the midterms
Despite the poor overall political environment for Republicans, money is one of their few consistent advantages heading into the midterms.  As of June 1 -- before last night's $27 million event -- the GOP House campaign committee had raised a total of about $88 million, with $22.8 million cash in hand, per data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.  Meanwhile, the GOP Senate campaign committee had raised almost $55 million, with $17 million in the bank.

Democrats have gained attention for their ability to keep up with, or even surpass their GOP counterparts: The Democratic House campaign committee had raised more than $60 million, with $22.8 million cash on hand.  And the Democratic Senate campaign committee had raised $59 million, with more than $32 million on hand.  But despite all the attention paid to this positive development for Democrats, there's no overlooking the severe disadvantage the Democratic National Committee is at compared to its Republican counterpart.  As of June 1, the RNC had nearly $45 million on hand, while Howard Dean's DNC had just $9 million on hand.  The danger for Democrats is that the RNC, in addition to having plenty to fund its successful "72-hour program" in the final hours before election day, might be able to disperse these leftover millions to key House and Senate races.

Democrats have always trailed Republicans in the money chase.  But as we head into November, one of the more interesting storylines to follow will be whether their financial advantage will allow the GOP to offset, or at least minimize the current political environment.

RNC chair Ken Mehlman does MSNBC's Hardball today at 5:00 pm.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) inaugurates his "Ask the Governor" webcast today, during which he'll do Q+A moderated by a local TV anchor.  One June 29, per the Los Angeles Times, he will "headline a fundraiser for gay Republicans in Hollywood next week, in what would be his first appearance in front of a gay audience since he took office."  The event "for Log Cabin Republicans comes as Schwarzenegger considers whether to veto a bill that would require chapters from gay history to be added to public school textbooks in California.  The governor already has indicated that he opposes the measure."

The Democratic Senate campaign committee isn't ruling out supporting Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) in Connecticut even if he's forced to run for re-election as an independent because of an unusually tough primary challenge from the left. – Roll Call

Florida gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher (R) admitted yesterday "that he had an extramarital affair that led to his 1979 divorce and said he used marijuana before he was elected to public office 'many, many' years ago," the Miami Herald writes.  "The revelations come as Gallagher courts religious conservatives, who have embraced him, in part, because he is married and has a 7-year-old son.  They see him as more of a committed family man than his GOP primary opponent, Attorney General Charlie Crist, who remains single after a divorce in 1980 following seven months of marriage."

In Iowa's hot gubernatorial race, Rep. Jim Nussle (R) is turning the "culture of corruption" charge against the Democrats over a scandal at the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium.  The Des Moines Register's Yepsen: "This controversy is a gift from the political gods to Nussle. Anytime the Democrats want to talk about the GOP's culture of corruption in Washington, Nussle can talk about the Democrats' culture of cronyism in Polk County."

In New York, with her political opposition divided and in disarray, "Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has embarked on a fund-raising sprint on behalf of fellow Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, potentially allowing her to collect favors in two important presidential battleground states," the New York Times says.

The New York Post writes up a new Siena College Research Institute poll showing Clinton with a 54% approval rating, an 18-month low.  '"It may be disaffection over the Iraq war, along with stepped-up attacks by Republicans,' said Siena spokesman Steve Greenberg."  But "Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said the survey's findings 'don't seem necessarily consistent with other numbers I've seen in public polling."'

Is Sen. Rick Santorum (R) turning into American Idol's Ryan Seacrest?  Per a release, Santorum is using text messaging as a campaign tool in his re-election contest in Pennsylvania against challenger Bob Casey (D).  At a women's outreach breakfast yesterday, for example, Santorum encouraged attendees to text "LEADING" to a number to receive a text message highlighting Santorum's record on issues regarding women and families.

In South Dakota, a referendum that would overturn the state's near-total ban on abortion has qualified for the November ballot.  The Chicago Tribune: "Although South Dakotans are staunchly conservative, the outcome of the referendum is not preordained. Some voters who consider themselves 'pro-life' are uncomfortable with the fact that the law makes no exception for cases of rape or incest, or to prevent serious injury to the woman.  The fact that opponents managed to collect more than 38,000 signatures in a state with fewer than 500,000 registered voters was considered an indication of that discomfort."

And as early as tomorrow, the Houston Chronicle reports, the secretary of state in TEXAS may announce whether independent gubernatorial candidates Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn qualify to get on the ballot this fall.

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