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• Monday, June 26, 2006 | 5:15 p.m. ET
From 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

Contemplating swing voters
Who are the swing voters out there? What are they thinking? And how will they vote? Those are the questions that two Democratic pollsters -- Anna Greenberg and Guy Molyneux -- tried to answer in a briefing today of what they billed as the largest poll of likely swing voters this year (613 swing voters in 66 swing congressional districts and eight swing Senate races). Their findings: 73% of these likely swing voters think the country is on the wrong track; they favor Democratic House candidates over Republicans, 45%-28%; and they prefer Democratic Senate candidates over Republicans, 53%-31%. "What is very clear about this is that they're looking for change," Greenberg said.

The poll also found that swing voters, by large majorities, favor a government agenda that boosts education funding, provides health care to all, and promotes energy dependence -- all while rolling back Bush's tax cuts for Americans earning more than $200,000 per year to pay for it. But if swing voters find that kind of agenda attractive, why didn't more of them vote for John Kerry, who campaigned on a nearly identical platform two years ago? Greenberg explained that that Kerry didn't articulate that agenda well, and that the Iraq war and national security issues overshadowed it. "I'd argue we haven't had a fair test" of this agenda, she said.

• Monday, June 26, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

First glance
With yet another recess looming at the end of this week, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill are devoting more of their increasingly scarce legislating time to bills that stand little to no chance of becoming law.  Pegged to the Fourth of July holiday, the Senate will debate and vote this week on a constitutional ban on flag-burning and the House will consider making it tougher for federal courts to hear constitutional challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance.  The flag-burning ban is closer to Senate passage than ever before, believed to be somewhere in the vicinity of the required 67 votes, but it must also be ratified by 38 states.

Meanwhile, as we have written here before, the sweeping immigration reform that President Bush had hoped would become his signature domestic initiative of his second term, after private accounts for Social Security failed, is instead meeting a similar fate.  House and Senate field hearings on a guest-worker plan and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants will begin, perhaps coincidentally, the day after the Fourth of July.

Congressional Republicans hammered Democrats for two weeks for trying to set goals for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.  Now Democrats are pouncing on the news that the top US military official in Iraq has himself privately called for reductions in troop levels starting later this year.  White House officials and GOP lawmakers are also now contending with the Iraqi prime minister's proposal that some insurgents be granted amnesty; the White House has not yet officially commented.

Having spent the previous week arguing with Republicans and among themselves over what course to take in Iraq, Senate Democrats will attempt to shift the focus of the overall debate back onto the use of pre-war intelligence and the absence of WMD with an unofficial Democratic Policy Committee hearing today at 1:30 pm.  Among the witnesses will be Larry Wilkerson, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, who has been highly critical of the Administration's prosecution of the war since he left the State Department.

NBC political analyst Charlie Cook notes that a focus on why the United States went into Iraq, whether intelligence was misused, and whether Americans were misled is a far more politically advantageous debate for Democrats than one over whether and how to withdraw US troops.  In retrospect, Cook says, Democratic Rep. John Murtha's bombshell call to pull out US troops late last year effectively shifted the spotlight away from this area of heightened Bush Administration vulnerability and shrinking credibility, and onto the question of what course to take in Iraq, where no national consensus exists and on which Democrats themselves have the least amount of credibility, Cook says.

Bush today meets with organizations that support the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan at the White House at 10:00 am, including lead activist and "Forrest Gump's" Lieutenant Dan, actor Gary Sinise; takes part in a photo op with the 2006 presidential scholars at 10:35 am; raises an estimated $1.3 million for the Republican National Committee at a luncheon at 12 noon; and celebrates Black Music Month on the South Lawn at 5:30 pm.

Bush isn't the only one on the fundraising circuit today: Vice President Cheney hits the road to raise money for House candidates Adrian Smith, who's expected to easily win the open seat in western Nebraska, and Michele Bachmann, who's in a tough race in the Twin Cities suburbs in Minnesota.  (The Smith event is open-press; the Bachmann event is closed.)  Former President Clinton raises money for Democrats' gubernatorial challenger in Rhode Island.  Karl Rove campaigns for House candidates in Iowa.  Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist holds a fundraiser in New York tonight to raise money for the GOP's Senate contenders in Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and West Virginia; Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman will make remarks.

House Democrats plan to focus this week on problems with the Medicare prescription-drug plan and on college affordability, two more components of their "New Direction for America" agenda, after they zeroed in on a minimum wage increase last week.  Members will hold "New Direction"-themed events in their districts during recess next week.

Also this week: a key Republican congressional primary tomorrow in Utah, in which the incumbent may lose his seat to a hard-line advocate of immigration controls; a Fed meeting mid-week which is expected to result in the 17th interest rate hike in a row; a US Supreme Court verdict as early as today on the Texas redistricting case, which is expected to affirm that the GOP's move to redraw the state's map in 2003 was within the bounds of the Constitution; and a late-week presidential visit with the Prime Minister of Japan, which will include a trip to Graceland.

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

Security politics
The Washington Post covers Democratic lawmakers' anger over the Sunday New York Times report that Gen. George Casey has privately called for a substantial withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by late next year.  "Coming so soon after the congressional debates, the report of Casey's briefing served to keep the debate going another day," the Post says.  "White House and Pentagon officials declined to confirm the projections."  One White House "official dismissed the suggestion by some Democrats that Casey's approach resembles their approach."

Liberal Sen. Russ Feingold, who co-sponsored John Kerry's amendment calling for US troops to be out of Iraq by July 2007, appeared yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press and said, among other things, that he could defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton in a Democratic presidential primary based on their positions on the war.

In Democrats' response to Bush's radio address, DNC chair Howard Dean said the United States should begin pulling troops out of Iraq this year. - Reuters

"Closed-door negotiations" between Hill lawmakers and Administration officials over how to subject the NSA warrantless wiretapping program to review by a secret intelligence court "marked a new willingness on the part of national security officials to accept congressional oversight of domestic surveillance," the Boston Globe notes.

The AP says that Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen "Specter did not mention specific legislation, but the context of discussions between members of Congress and administration officials has revolved around tweaking of the law that would acknowledge the surveillance program's legality while at the same time placing it under additional oversight."

In a letter to readers on the paper's website, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller justifies the Times' report on the government's surveillance of international banking records.  "Since September 11, 2001, our government has launched broad and secret anti-terror monitoring programs without seeking authorizing legislation and without fully briefing the Congress.  Most Americans seem to support extraordinary measures in defense against this extraordinary threat, but some officials who have been involved in these programs have spoken to the Times about their discomfort over the legality of the government's actions and over the adequacy of oversight."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
At this point, both sides concede that the outcome of the scheduled vote on a flag-burning ban is too close to call, per NBC's Ken Strickland.  Based on the number of co-sponsors and considering how Senators have voted in the past, the bill's supporters appear to have just enough votes to ensure passage.  Neither side is claiming victory, however.  The votes appear to fall along party lines with Republicans in favor of a ban and Democrats opposed, Strickland says, but there are a few notable exceptions: Minority Leader Harry Reid intends to support the amendment, while the number-two Republican, Mitch McConnell, is against it.  California's two Democratic Senators were split the last time the vote came up in 2000.

"Supporters say the issue has affected elections," reports the Wall Street Journal.  "South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune invoked Tom Daschle's opposition to an amendment in his successful bid to unseat the Senate minority leader in 2004.  Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen did the same in defeating Democratic Sen. Charles Robb in 2000."

USA Today says that should the ban pass, we'll see "a lobbying frenzy in all 50 states of TV ads, ballot initiatives and Internet campaigning, backers and opponents say.  The amendment also is likely to become a litmus test in state legislative elections this fall, says Tim Storey, a political analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures...  Most state legislatures have wrapped up their 2006 sessions, although governors could call them back for special sessions...  If the flag amendment goes to the states, it could become an issue for the 85% of statehouse seats up for election this fall, Storey says."

The Senate may also vote this week on a House bill that would permanently reduce the tax on inheritance, commonly referred to as the estate tax and labeled the "death tax" by Republicans.  While it stops short of the full repeal Bush and conservatives had sought, Strickland says, the bill would eliminate the tax on estates worth up to $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples.  It also reduces the tax rate to 15% for estates worth $5 million to $25 million.

Six months after congressional Republicans rushed to introduce lobbying reform proposals, lobbying reform has basically stalled on the Hill, with House Republicans not yet having named their conferees.  "Legislators and public-interest group advocates say the most likely result this year is a minimalist package that would allow members to say they have responded to the Abramoff situation and other scandals but would do little to crimp their ability to accept lobbyist favors."  Why the rush to begin with?  "Almost from the start, House and Senate leaders misread the wishes of their rank and file...  Most of the entreaties that deluged [Speaker] Hastert's office, for instance, came from lawmakers with difficult reelection fights and did not reflect the views of the GOP majority." – Washington Post

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing tomorrow on Bush's use of presidential signing statements to claim the authority to circumvent 750 laws enacted since he took office.

The immigration debate
The latest poll by the Salt Lake Tribune shows GOP Rep. Chris Cannon tied with his primary opponent heading into tomorrow's balloting.  John Jacob's momentum is being stoked by his tougher position than Cannon's on immigration.  Jacob has the support of Cannon's House colleague, Rep. Tom Tancredo.

The Sacramento Bee examines what it calls the "Bilbray factor" -- GOP Rep. Brian Bilbray's recent victory in a special congressional election in California, fueled in part by voters' anger over illegal immigration.  "Republicans say Bilbray's victory over Democrat Francine Busby, in a race watched nationally, confirmed that voters in this election year are angry about illegal immigration."

The AP writes that the US population is expected to hit 300 million by this fall.  "Latinos -- immigrants and those born in this country -- are driving the population growth.  They accounted for almost half the increase last year, more than any other ethnic or racial group."

It's not that Americans don't want to do the jobs immigrants are doing -- it's that they can't afford to take them "because of declining pay and benefits," Bloomberg reports economists saying.  "And they say the influx of immigrants has helped drive down compensation in occupations such as the needle trades, landscaping and restaurant help."

It's the economy...
Bloomberg reports on the likelihood that the Fed will raise interest rates again this week to fight inflation, even though too-high rates "might cause the already cooling housing market to crack, undercutting consumer spending.  Jittery global stock markets might take a knock as hedge funds move en masse to dump shares."

The Democrats
Sen. John Kerry, once again at Boston's Faneuil Hall, gives a speech about energy independence at 11:30 am.  Per excerpts, Kerry will trash the Administration's energy policy and "propose specific steps for an energy revolution as far-reaching as the industrial revolution."  He'll also say he believes that "if Al Gore had a vote in the United States Senate, it's what he would vote for."

The Boston Globe covers Democrats' mixed feelings about a repeat Kerry bid in 2008, including encouragement from the left and cringing from the Establishment.  "Some party officials and Democratic lawmakers said in interviews that they are seeing in Kerry some of the same loser-liberation that has attracted people to former vice president Al Gore."

USA Today covers Democratic lawmakers' efforts to make an issue of the congressional pay raise, which is on track to go into effect without a separate vote, including by trying to tie it to an increase in the minimum wage.

A Democrat-affiliated advocacy group will release a poll of swing voters in 66 swing districts, conducted by a Democratic firm, today at 2:00 pm.  The pollsters find that "swing voters want change, badly;" that they're currently swinging against Republicans; and that they want more government accountability and fiscal responsibility.

More on the midterms
The New York Daily News says the GOP playbook for the November elections is to paint Democrats as being weak on Iraq -- in addition to pushing tax cuts, border enforcement, and reforming Medicare.  (We thought GOP incumbents were hoping to campaign on local issues, not national ones...)

Roll Call covers speculation that if the Supreme Court determines that the GOP-drawn Texas map is constitutional, Democrats will seek opportunities to draw new maps in other states.  "Besides Illinois, Democrats now enjoy executive and legislative control in seven states: Maine, New Mexico, New Jersey, North Carolina, Louisiana, Washington and West Virginia.  The party is poised for similar dominance... in Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and possibly even Tennessee and Montana.  Realistically, though, there may be only four states where Democrats would be positioned to redraw the lines before the next census and get away with it politically: Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York."

The Washington Times is the latest to note that although Democrats still remain poised to net seats among the governorships on the ballot this fall, they've lost momentum in some of the races.  "In another time, Democrats would ordinarily be favored to reclaim governorships, now held by Republicans, in heavily Democratic states such as Massachusetts, Maryland and Arkansas.  But polls in those states suggest those races could go either way.  Republicans are in trouble too, in some of their traditional states."

The weekend Wall Street Journal said Vice President Cheney's visit to a GOP-leaning suburban Chicago district represented by a vulnerable Democratic incumbent last Friday was an effort to "ramp up the White House's increasingly aggressive campaign to portray Democrats as weak on national security...  While the political spotlight is largely focused on the three dozen districts Democrats think they have a chance of capturing in hopes of taking control of the House, there are also a half-dozen seats on which Republicans believe Democrats have a shaky grip," starting with this one.

In California, the state GOP is running two news ads using failed Democratic gubernatorial contender Steve Westly's words against the party's nominee, Phil Angelides.  One ad "goes through a list of Westly comments, such as his statement in May that Angelides is proposing a 'tax on darn near anybody.'  It concludes by asking, 'What if Steve Westly was right?'" – Sacramento Bee

The Chicago Tribune takes its turn writing about the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut between incumbent Joe Lieberman and anti-war challenger Ned Lamont.  "Democrats are hoping that this year's congressional elections will turn on the issue of war, channeling voter anger to flip control of the House and Senate to the Democrats.  But one Democrat has become ensnared in that equation--the 64-year-old Lieberman."

In Iowa today, Karl Rove will campaign for his party's candidates seeking GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Nussle's open House seat and Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell's occupied one.  – Des Moines Register

In Maryland, a fundraiser thrown last week for GOP Senate contender Michael Steele by the producer of the 1988 Willie Horton ad is raising eyebrows.  "It seemed a most unusual choice for Steele, the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland and a Republican whose strategy for winning a Senate seat in a state dominated by Democrats has involved the aggressive courtship of black voters."  Steele "said he sees nothing unusual about getting help from Floyd Brown's Citizens United Political Victory Fund...  Nor, Steele said, was there anything incongruous about donations he took from others who have offended black audiences in the past." – Washington Post

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