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• Wednesday, June 21, 2006 | 4:15 p.m. ET
From Alex Isenstadt 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

Politics of no immigration bill
Now that House Republicans have decided to conduct nationwide hearings this summer on immigration reform -- thus seeming to kill any chance for immigration bill to pass Congress this year -- Democrats have begun lashing out at their GOP counterparts. Their argument? That by failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Republicans are jeopardizing national security.

"Everywhere Republicans run, their constituents will be reminded that it is Republicans who have failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform that secures our borders and protects the American people," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. And Senate Minority Harry Reid stated on the Senate floor: "For all their tough talk about securing our borders, House Republicans have no intention of actually accomplishing that goal. They want to defeat comprehensive immigration reform of the kind we passed in the Senate, and they're willing to sacrifice the security of the American people to do it."

But if Democrats simply cared about the security- and enforcement-only provisions, we're pretty sure Congress could pass an immigration bill next week. Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate all support securing the nation's borders; where they all differ is on the controversial guest-worker and citizenship provisions.

• Wednesday, June 21, 2006 | 1:30 p.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira and Elizabeth Wilner

GOP holding out on voting rights renewal
The re-upping of one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history has temporarily gotten sidetracked by the objections of a handful of House Republicans. The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, was supposed to hit the House floor today and receive a fairly smooth ride to reauthorization by tomorrow. Now the Republican leadership has had to pull it because of a revolt by Southern conservatives.

In a closed-door meeting today, GOP members from Texas and Georgia objected to reauthorizing the "pre-clearance" provisions of the Act, which require states and cities covered by the Act -- most of them in the South -- to get advance clearance from the Justice Department for any attempted changes in voting laws or to district maps.

The argument from Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) and other southern lawmakers is simply that times have changed, and the discrimination at the polling place against minorities that was a driving motivation for the original VRA back in the 60's no longer exists. Now, in 2006, they say they are tired of having to jump through hoops every time a polling precinct location has to change, or the congressional district map is redrawn.

As it happens, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision any day now about the constitutionality of the redistricting that Texas Republicans pulled off in 2003, which wound up costing Democrats a handful of House seats in 2004. And in Georgia in 2005, Republican legislators redrew their district lines to weaken a couple of Democrat-held House seats whose incumbents will be put to their first test under the new lines this November.

The Act is also being attacked on another front by GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa), one of the House's leading proponents of tougher immigration laws, who objects to the Act's requirements for bilingual ballots.

• Wednesday, June 21, 2006 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

First glance
The Senate will continue debating the two proposed Democratic amendments to the defense authorization bill which would set goals for redeploying US troops from Iraq.  Votes are expected tomorrow.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that we'll probably hear today from Sen. John Kerry, who's calling for a July 2007 deadline for US troop withdrawal, and possibly from Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose support for the war Kerry indirectly criticized in a speech last week.  Republicans are sticking to their "cut and run" mantra and are offering no alternatives.  As we wrote last week, the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that while Republicans are trying to paint the debate in stark terms, those who are on the ballot this fall will need to be more nuanced when it comes to talking about Iraq in order to reflect Americans' complex feelings about it.  Fifty-four percent of those polled said they'd favor a candidate for Congress who supports pulling out all US troops out within the next year.

While Republicans seek to exploit Democrats' lack of unity on what course to take in Iraq, their own internal disagreements on immigration reform appear to have killed the chance for a broad solution to pass this year.  In a highly unusual move, Speaker Dennis Hastert is asking House committees with jurisdiction over the issue to hold a round of hearings on the Senate's reform bill, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  The House has, of course, already passed their own bill, which focuses narrowly on border security and other enforcement provisions; the broader Senate version includes a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States.

House Republicans took note when their party's candidate in a recent special congressional election in California won after emphasizing his hard-line stance on immigration, Viq says, and Hastert's call for more hearings on the Senate version may be intended as a chance for GOP members to flog the issue and fire up the party base.  The latest NBC/Journal poll shows that while "the President with a long-term view is where the American public is at, the difficulty is that the base of the Republican Party is marching in the other direction," says NBC/Journal pollster Peter Hart (D).  "I believe that House Republicans will interpret the CA-50 special as a 'don't blink' -- that for this election cycle for 2006, the Republican party ought to only do security and employer sanctions, those efforts must be done first, before you can talk about a long-term solution," said fellow NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R).

Whatever the intent behind the new hearings, their addition to the legislative calendar, already abbreviated because of the midterm elections, now makes it even less likely that the House and Senate will agree on a bill before November.  Per Hastert's office, no fewer than seven or eight committees have jurisdiction over this issue, Viq reports.  July hearings will take place in Washington and August hearings in the field.

All of which will exacerbate a dynamic that was already beginning to set in.  Lately, Bush and other White House officials' remarks on the need for a guest-worker plan and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants have had a hollowness that reminds us of Bush's campaign to reform Social Security, which he kept up well after its prospects appeared dead on Capitol Hill.  Yesterday morning, Karl Rove pitched a group of small business owners on the merits of a guest-worker program.  Just the day before, a bunch of prominent conservatives released a letter to Bush asking him to drop his support for a guest-worker plan because it put him out of step with, they said, 85% of Republicans in Congress.  Like the Social Security campaign, Bush's push for a guest-worker program was aimed at extending the GOP's reach to voters not traditionally aligned with the party.

Beyond immigration, the House is busy with a number of longtime pet GOP projects, including a possible repeal of the estate tax.  Also today or tomorrow, the House will debate and probably pass the first reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act since it was signed into law in 1965.  Some Georgia and Texas lawmakers object to the 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'll get to air their case on the floor.

President Bush has a packed day of meetings and sightseeing in Vienna, with a press availability with European Union leaders this morning (Eastern Time).  He overnights in Budapest.

And the Senate will vote today on Democrat Ted Kennedy's proposal to increase the minimum wage and on a Republican alternative.  Both will need 60 votes for passage and, Strickland advises, both will come up short.  The latest NBC/Journal poll shows that 54% of those surveyed would favor a candidate for Congress who supports increasing the minimum wage.

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

Security politics
The Boston Globe says the phrase "cut and run" "began in the 1700s as nautical shorthand for a swift retreat, a commander's order to slash his ship's anchor chain and outrace overwhelming enemy fire."  The story then notes that "analysts say the Republicans' ability to use language to outmaneuver Democrats could transform three small words into an advantage at the ballot box."  Democrats "seem hard-pressed to avoid the phrase, even when vigorously defending themselves."

The New York Times front-pages that some Democrats are -- once again -- unhappy with Kerry's views on Iraq.  When Kerry was their nominee in 2004, "Democrats fervently wished he would express himself firmly about the Iraq war.  Mr. Kerry has found his resolve," but some Democrats now "fear the latest evolution of Mr. Kerry's views on Iraq may now complicate their hopes of taking back a majority in Congress in 2006."  More: "Privately, some of his Democratic peers complain that he is too focused on the next presidential campaign."

The New York Daily News reports that Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) is prepared to back the Levin-Reed resolution advocating a gradual troop withdrawal without a deadline.

Potentially overshadowing the US-EU talks is North Korea's plan "to test a long-range ballistic missile believed capable of reaching U.S. territory," the AP suggests.

The Washington Post chronicles Bush's reception on his 15th trip to Europe as president, noting that "if relations at the political level have improved, public opinion has lagged far behind...  Diplomats and experts on Europe say public opinion is a significant drag on Bush's ability to expect much from political leaders here -- for instance, for his renewed effort to secure international assistance for the new Iraqi government."

Potential presidential candidates and Sens. John McCain (R) and Joe Biden (D) appear on MSNBC's Hardball today at 5:00 pm.

The immigration debate
On the new House hearings, the Washington Times reports, "Aides in both the House and Senate said yesterday the developments mean immigration legislation is essentially dead for the year.  Pushing something through before the November elections would be too politically unpredictable, they said, and there would be no incentive to do it between the election and year's end."

The Houston Chronicle says "House Republicans are monitoring how the immigration issue is playing in special elections and party primaries.  In Utah, GOP Rep. Chris Cannon, who favors an approach similar to the president's, is facing a tough primary challenge next week from businessman John Jacob, who opposes the parts of the Senate bill that go beyond the crackdown."

The San Francisco Chronicle says "Bush appears to be close to irrelevant on the issue, despite his televised address last month...  Weeks of White House barnstorming seem to be making no headway against what Republican senators and House members heard in their districts after the Senate passed its sweeping immigration overhaul."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) takes a helicopter tour of the California-Mexico border today.  In Massachusetts, potential presidential candidate and Gov. Mitt Romney (R) "is seeking an agreement with federal authorities that would allow Massachusetts state troopers to arrest undocumented immigrants for being in the country illegally.  Currently, State Police have no authority to arrest people on the basis of their immigration status alone." – Boston Globe

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
With the legislative clock ticking down to the moment when Congress checks out to hit the campaign trail, House Republicans are doing triage on their priorities.  Tomorrow, Viq reports, House GOP leaders plan to push ahead with a floor vote on a partial repeal of the estate tax.  The compromise bill means that Republicans are abandoning hope -- for this year, at least -- for a permanent, full repeal.  Though the House has voted out a full repeal in the past, the measure has been unable to get through the Senate.  This new bill was drawn up at the request of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and the GOP hope is that the compromise will quickly pass the Senate after the House sends it over later this week.

Also, tomorrow, the House is scheduled to vote on presidential line-item veto authority.  The last time Congress passed such a measure back in the 1990s, the US Supreme Court struck it down.  Republicans are now trying to leverage frustration over the level of federal spending and earmarks into support for the measure.  Critics point out that despite appearing so concerned about spending, Bush has never vetoed a spending bill.  Some lawmakers who have balked at the level of executive authority being claimed by the Administration over controversial national security programs are now balking at the prospect of giving Bush line-item veto authority.  House GOP leaders will hold a press conference about the line-item veto effort later this morning.

Will fiscal conservatives take heed or dismiss this report because of the source?  Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, has released a study showing that the Administration "has greatly expanded the use of contracts with private companies to provide public goods and services even as the number of government employees has increased...  Waxman's report is described as the first comprehensive assessment of contracting under the Bush administration, which had vowed upon taking office in January 2001 to provide services more efficiently while reducing the size of government.  It reveals an 86% increase in contracts with private businesses." – Los Angeles Times

The Democrats
Hill Democrats are pushing for an increase in the minimum wage as one pillar of their "new direction for America" agenda, but House Majority Leader John Boehner says he will "probably not" allow any measure on the House floor that contains such an increase, Viq reports.  "I've had every rotten job there ever was," explained Boehner yesterday.  That notwithstanding, he said, a raise 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 adds.  The vast majority of House Republicans don't favor the bill, per Boehner, even though there may be enough votes in the House to pass it.

"The parliamentary plays are the latest in the partisan game of tit for tat that has long stymied efforts to raise the federal minimum wage," says the Boston Globe.

The Washington Post looks at what's shaped up to be "idea week" for the Democratic party.  "Those in the middle of these events share a similar conviction, which is that for too long Republicans have been winning the battle of ideas (and often campaign strategy) in American politics, in part because conservatives invested in what is now a well-funded infrastructure of organizations that have produced ideas, thinkers, publications, strategists, and politicians...  There is also a belief shared at least by some of the participants that Democrats have ridden for too long on what are the fumes of the New Deal and the Great Society."

Ethics
The first trial of an associate of Jack Abramoff has resulted in the first conviction: Former Bush White House procurement chief David Safavian was found guilty in federal court yesterday of lying and obstructing justice.  "Several legal experts said the case could embolden federal prosecutors to seek additional indictments against cronies of Abramoff," says the Washington Post, which notes that the scandal has yielded four other guilty pleas -- and that the Safavian verdict further endangers GOP Rep. Bob Ney.  Roll Call reported yesterday that Abramoff may not enter prison until next year if he continues to be helpful to federal prosecutors.

The Democratic National Committee plans to file an appeal today with the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Administration to receive information on which units of the "White House Office" have the Worker and Visitor Entrance (WAVE) records documenting how many times Abramoff, Safavian, and certain other Abramoff associates visited the White House, NBC's Joel Seidman reports.  (Back in May, the DNC filed its second FOIA request to receive this information, but was told that under this Administration, the records are "maintained by the White House Office," not the Office of Administration.  The "White House Office" consists of a number of offices.)

Abramoff's lead attorney, Abbe Lowell, does his part for lobbying reform by writing in a USA Today op-ed that "[r]eal reform will not occur until the very relationship between lobbyists and public officials is re-examined."  And he lays out some proposals to "weaken" that link.

It's the economy
"While the White House is pushing for the Senate to confirm Henry M. Paulson Jr. as Treasury secretary, the Senate Finance Committee may not hold his confirmation hearing until June 27 at the earliest," says the Wall Street Journal, which puts the potential delay down to the committee's need to review Paulson's paperwork.

The New York Times says that prices for the most widely used prescription drugs "rose sharply in this year's first quarter, just as the new Medicare drug coverage program was going into effect...  While the higher prices have a general impact on the drug-taking public, consumer advocates said the higher prices have special implications for Medicare, which Congress barred from negotiating prices with drug makers when lawmakers devised the new so-called Part D drug program."

More on the midterms
The Democratic House and Senate campaign committees currently have more cash on hand than their GOP counterparts, a stunning development that overshadows the Republican National Committee's huge fundraising edge over the Democratic National Committee.

A decision by Sen. Joe Lieberman to run for re-election as in independent in Connecticut should he lose the Democratic primary could put party leaders in a bind, Roll Call says, since supporting such a bid by Lieberman would require rejecting the wishes of the state's Democratic voters.  "[A]n Independent campaign by Lieberman would represent only the third time that an incumbent would have taken such a step in modern Senate history."

Roll Call reports the first Democratic House candidate to get a visit by former President Clinton will be former Rep. Baron Hill, who's running for his old seat in Indiana.

RNC chair Ken Mehlman addresses the St. Mary's County, Maryland Republican party.

The Los Angeles Times (the paper of Hollywood, Republicans might say) front-pages Democratic Rep. Harold Ford's bid for the Senate in Tennessee.

And in Texas, the Houston Chronicle notes how Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell is skewering independent candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn (a/k/a Scott McClellan's mom).  "For several days, Bell has been touring Texas, seeking to stem Democratic defections to Strayhorn's independent candidacy.  Bell "is trying to hold together the Democratic base vote for an election that likely will be decided by a plurality, rather than majority, of votes."

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