Thursday, July 6, 2006 | 4:00 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

Decision: Democrats
A federal judge's ruling today that Tom DeLay (R), who stepped down from Congress last month, must remain on the ballot this November might be the best news that Texas Democrats have received in quite some time. If the decision is upheld, as the Houston Chronicle reports, DeLay would have to decide whether to campaign for an office from which he already has resigned. And it would greatly improve the Democrats' chances of winning the seat, bringing them a step closer to winning the 15 needed to take back control of the House.

At issue was the Texas Republican Party's declaration that DeLay -- who won his GOP primary in March -- was ineligible for the ballot because he moved his residency to Virginia after announcing he was resigning from Congress. That was going to allow another Republican in this GOP-leaning Texas district to face Democratic challenger Nick Lampson, a former member of Congress. But Texas federal judge Sam Sparks ruled that although there is testimony and evidence DeLay has moved to Virginia and taken steps to become a resident, "there is no evidence DeLay will still be living in Virginia tomorrow, let alone on November 7, 2006... DeLay himself testified that he does not know what will happen with his life in November, stating only that he plans to continue living in Virginia 'indefinitely.'"

The Texas Republican Party issued a statement that it will appeal Sparks' decision. And as a result, Republicans aren't ready to admit that the seat is now the Democrats' to lose. "There's a long way to go before that hypothetical becomes true," says Carl Forti, spokesman at the GOP House campaign committee. But regardless of what happens with the appeal, Bill Burton, Forti's counterpart at the Democratic House campaign committee, likes Lampson's chances of picking up DeLay's seat. "No matter what, this is a hugely competitive seat because Nick Lampson is working so hard and raising so much money."

Thursday, July 6, 2006 | 1:00 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi

Former Bush scribe speaks
With Iraq, Iran, and North Korea all in the news today, the man who coined the 2002 phrase to describe them as the "axis of evil" -- former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson -- spoke at this morning's Christian Science Monitor Breakfast to discuss the White House's speechwriting process and Bush's presidency. Some could argue that what a wife is to her husband, a presidential speechwriter is to the president: the brains behind the operation. But Gerson, who recently stepped down from his White House post, explained that speechwriting at the Bush White House is a collaborative effort.

Aside from his own team of speechwriters, Gerson said, Vice President Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush are key influences. Cheney is "deeply trusted" by Bush and asserts his influence on issues of his choosing -- such as foreign policy, national security, energy, and broad economic policy. The First Lady has added her input on issues affecting Africa, something she and their daughters have taken an interest in lately.

But the most important contributor is the President himself. While some might disagree, Gerson said Bush is a "passionate communicator" and a "good, aggressive editor." Bush also "hates" passive construction and repetitive points and who wants to hear his voice in the speeches written for him, he added. For example, Gerson said that on the campaign trail in 2000, he wrote many "vicious" things about GOP rival John McCain, but he couldn't get Bush to say any of them.

As an eyewitness to much of Bush's presidency, Gerson made some observations about how the Administration has evolved over the years. Gerson said he saw an "ambitious" reformulation of foreign policy after 9/11, as well as a change in the relationship between the media and the president followed by an increasingly polarized political environment. As far as the speech he is most fond of, Gerson said it is the one Bush delivered at the National Cathedral in the days after 9/11 because it offered comfort to the nation during a very difficult time.

Thursday, July 6, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

In today's issue:
Bush, at 60, talks war and border control
Showdown over Iraq: Lieberman vs. Lamont at 7:00 pm, live on MSNBC
Bush made it a triple-header on immigration yesterday
Another record high for gas prices

First glance
New and old national security concerns will dominate sexagenarian President Bush's joint press availability with the Canadian Prime Minister at 11:50 am and his meeting with the US Ambassador to Iraq at 1:25 pm.  Earlier in the morning, Bush takes part in a photo op with the 2006 March of Dimes National Ambassador, and later in the day, he heads to Chicago and dines with Mayor Richard Daley and opinion leaders in advance of some economic and fundraising events tomorrow.  The White House appears to be positioning Bush to capitalize the forthcoming jobs report, though rising oil prices might get in the way.

Tonight, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman appears in another nationally televised debate.  In the past six years, Americans have seen him debate countless times during his run for president in 2003-2004 and for vice president in 2000.  How things have changed.  At 7:00 pm, Lieberman and Ned Lamont, the wealthy challenger hoping to foil Lieberman's re-nomination, will face off for an hour at NBC affiliate WVIT, to be carried live on MSNBC.  The match-up is expected to be the only televised debate between the two contenders in this surprisingly competitive Senate primary before the vote on August 8.  Beyond MSNBC's live broadcast and MSNBC.com's live blogging from the debate, more than two dozen media outlets are expected to cover the event.

Not only has Lieberman been a candidate for national office twice in the last six years, but just a few months ago, it was presumed he'd coast to re-election.  Since then, the glimmer of a chance that the pro-war incumbent could lose his party's Senate nomination to the anti-war Lamont has flared into a real possibility, reflecting how powerful and divisive an issue Iraq remains within the Democratic party, how difficult it is to be a centrist in today's political environment, and what can happen to politicians whose positions stray from those of their constituents on key matters.

In a June Quinnipiac Poll, 63% of Connecticut voters said they believe the war was a mistake, and 73% of them disapproved of Bush's handling of it.  Likely Democratic voters favored Lieberman over Lamont by 15 points, 55%-40%.  But Lamont's fervent anti-war supporters may be more inclined to turn out for this late summer contest.

Earlier this week, perhaps deciding that the race has gotten too close for comfort, Lieberman announced he'll begin collecting the necessary signatures to seek re-election as an independent should he lose the primary.  Anti-war liberals jeered.  The Democratic National Committee announced it would support whoever wins the party's primary.  Sen. Hillary Clinton said that although she hopes Lieberman wins the nomination, she also will support whoever becomes the nominee.  (We wonder what Lamont would say, should he defeat one pro-war Senate Democrat, to this offered endorsement by another.)  Sen. John Kerry is refusing to even express a preference for Lieberman in the primary.

Republicans have pounced on this opening to press their argument about Democrats' divisions over Iraq.  The party's Senate campaign committee issued a release yesterday that was both a warning to Lieberman not to walk back his support for the war, and an effort to label the entire party as increasingly captive to DNC chair Howard "Dean and his blogging friends."  The release, which features a photo of an angry Dean, points out that Lamont is being supported by top liberal bloggers and by Dean's brother Jim, who took over Dean's grassroots Democracy for America after 2004.

Could a general election that includes a Democratic nominee Lamont, an independent Lieberman, and Republican Alan Schlesinger (the only Republican in the race) possibly result in Schlesinger winning in this deep-blue state?  Probably not, even though some state Republicans are excited by the prospect.  In a three-way race, per the June Quinnipiac poll, Lieberman got 56%, Lamont 18%, and Schlesinger 8%.  Eighty-seven percent said they haven't heard enough about Schlesinger, whose latest FEC report showed he has raised just $20,000.

Nor does the state GOP seem likely to replace Schlesinger with a stronger candidate.  "The question is, with whom?" says Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.  "There aren't a lot of strong Republicans there."  George Gallo, the state party chairman, tells First Read that Schlesinger, who won the party's nomination at its state convention, will be their candidate unless something extraordinary happens.  "He's going all the way."  The only way Schlesinger wouldn't be their nominee is if he exits the race, Gallo says.  If that happens, a new nominee would be selected at an emergency convention.  The GOP Senate committee release yesterday didn't mention Schlesinger at all.  Another Republican also could petition his or her way onto the general election ballot by obtaining 7,500 signatures by August 9 -- the same requirement that Lieberman needs fill in order to qualify as an independent.

Tonight's debate will be moderated by WVIT anchor Joann Nesti, with anchor Gerry Brooks and senior political correspondent Tom Monahan serving as panelists.  Lieberman and Lamont will be allowed 60-second responses and 30-second rebuttals.

Your favorite, constantly updated political calendar is always available on MSNBC.com.

Security politics
The White House says Bush is urging a unified diplomatic response to North Korea's defiant but unsuccessful missile tests.  Bloomberg looks at how the tests "are forcing" Bush, "his agenda consumed by Iraq and Iran, to enlist help from other nations, especially China."

The Financial Times says that "if Kim Jong-il's irascible regime was hoping to force the Bush administration to give into its demands to drop financial sanctions and negotiate on its own terms, it is almost certain to have gravely miscalculated."

"Congressional Republicans yesterday reacted to North Korea's series of test-firings by touting their party's support for missile defense and praising their expansion of the program's budget and scope," notes the Washington Times.  "It is uncertain whether Congress... will take legislative action, but aides for Republican leaders noted the unanimous passage of a Senate measure increasing funding for the U.S. missile defense system beyond the initial Pentagon request."

The Washington Post front-pages how, on the national security front, "the White House suddenly sees crisis in every direction."  The missile tests "underscored how the administration has lost the initiative it once possessed on foreign policy in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, leaving at risk the central Bush aspiration of democracy-building around the world.  They also showed how the huge commitment of resources and time on Iraq -- and the attendant falloff in international support for the United States -- has limited the administration's flexibility in handling new world crises."  National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley rejects these arguments.

Other people's elections
The latest on Mexico's still uncalled presidential election is that conservative candidate Felipe Calderon has passed his leftist rival by just a hair.  "With nearly 98% of the vote tallies recounted, Calderon had 35.62% of the vote, while [Andres Manuel] Lopez Obrador had 35.57.  It was the first time since counting began early Wednesday that Calderon held the lead.  Mexico's electoral officials said they would not announce any tendencies until the full count was completed."  That may happen by tomorrow. - AP

Still: "The expectation among election observers was that any result would again be challenged, this time in an electoral court." – New York Times

The immigration debate
Sens. Arlen Specter (R) and Ted Kennedy (D), leading supporters of the Senate bill, said yesterday that "they would consider" a proposed compromise that would set triggers for a guest-worker program after addressing border security first, Bloomberg reports, while "White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday the president was 'interested' in such a proposal."  More: "Karl Rove plans to address the issue in a speech to the National Council of La Raza... in Los Angeles on July 11, and Bush himself plans several immigration speeches in the coming weeks...  Still, any immigration compromise faces many potential pitfalls," including the chance that House Republicans might not "allow the border-security and guest-worker provisions to be included in a single measure."

The New York Times says that per White House officials, Bush in his own immigration remarks yesterday "was not stepping back from a compromise he has floated in recent days, in which border security measures would be put in place as much as two years before guest worker and immigrant legalization programs.  But the president restated that he did not want the security measures in a separate bill, as House Republicans insist."

There's much coverage of the three fronts in the immigration-reform fight from yesterday: the Senate field hearing in Philadelphia, where New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg stressed that his city's economy would "collapse" if illegal immigrants were deported; the House field hearing in San Diego, where Republicans emphasized the need for a 700-mile border fence; and Bush's event at a Dunkin' Donuts in the Virginia suburbs, where he touted his proposed guest-worker program.  Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, criticized House Republicans both for their narrow focus on border security and for rejecting earlier Democratic efforts to improve it. – Washington Post

Bob Novak writes about how the House Republicans who assembled in San Diego tried to draw attention to the "'terrorist loophole'" in the Senate bill, which he says prohibits local police officers from arresting illegal aliens for civil offenses.  "That means a sheriff's officer could not arrest someone whose papers showed he had overstayed his visa."  (Of course, it could also be argued that the House's immigration bill doesn't help deter terrorism, either, since it doesn't address how to bring millions of illegal immigrants out of the shadows.)

Timed to coincide with yesterday's field hearings, the DNC released a new radio ad urging Republicans to pass comprehensive reform and "tough and smart" border security measures.  The Spanish-language ad features Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D) of Texas, a former Border Patrol agent, who charges Republicans with blocking Democrats' attempts to increase border security and holding hearings instead to "keep scapegoating immigrants."  Per the DNC, the ad is airing in California and Texas markets, but they wouldn't say how much they're spending on the buy (which usually means, not much).

It's the economy
Oil prices grazed a new record high yesterday of $75.40.  "Analysts expect pump prices to rise quickly in the coming days...  After breaking through the previous record of $75.35 around noon yesterday, contracts for delivery of premium crude in August settled at $75.19 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, a $5 jump in the past two weeks," says the Washington Times.

Edward Lazear, chair of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, speaks at a luncheon sponsored by the National Economist Club in Washington at 12:30 pm.

NBC's Pete Williams says that legal experts -- none of them directly involved in the Ken Lay case -- believe his death ends both his prosecution and the government's attempt to get money from his estate.  As a technical matter, Williams notes, a person is not convicted until a sentence is pronounced.  So Lay's death will result in an abandonment of the criminal case against him: Once the proper motions are filed, it will vanish from the books as though it never existed, as far as his guilt is concerned.  Williams also points out that there's a separate question of the $43 million in fines the government wants from Lay, which could be levied against his estate now that he has died.  Several prosecutors and white-collar lawyers say it's unlikely that the government will be able to collect the money.  But in its filing last Friday seeking over $180 million from both Lay and Jeff Skilling, the government said both were liable for the fines, so it may now try to get the entire amount from Skilling.

The Financial Times reports that GOP Sens. Bill Frist and John McCain and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer "have asked [Bush] to raise the case of William Browder, the hedge fund chief who has been barred from entering Russia, when he meets Vladimir Putin at the" G8.  "The White House had not yet responded to the request...  Mr Browder, a UK citizen and chief executive officer of Hermitage Capital Management, with $4.1bn... in assets, has been barred from entering the country since November."  Mr. Browder "has been aggressive in calling for improved corporate governance at Russian companies," and "investors have looked on his case as a worrying indication of attitudes towards shareholder rights in Russia."

Ethics
A lengthy Chicago Tribune article explores how Speaker Dennis Hastert's net worth has soared from no more than $290,000 than to $6 million during his 19 years in Congress.  "Hastert's accumulation of wealth through a series of land deals has been the subject of recent scrutiny since a private research group last month questioned his sale of land near a federally funded highway project that he championed.  The transactions appear to comply with the law."

Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White, the lobbying firm at the center of a spreading federal corruption probe that has also sucked in House Appropriations Committee chair Jerry Lewis, "failed to disclose at least $755,000 in income from 17 nonprofit organizations and governmental entities, and $635,000 from 18 other clients between 1998 and 2005," says the Washington Post.  Lawyers for the firm "say that the errors were inadvertent.  But some experts have called them unusual and suggested that Copeland Lowery might have been trying to play down how much money it was paid by those who received federal grants the firm arranged."

More on the midterms
The Wall Street Journal focuses on this year's state legislative elections.  "With several statehouses controlled by razor-thin edges, the potential for swings in power may be greater at the state level than in Congress...  In 29 legislative chambers across the nation, a shift of no more than five seats would bring a new party to power...  Democrats appear to be in the better position. With modest gains in a handful of states, they could take a majority of legislative chambers...  But Republicans take hope in the fact that local races often cut against the national tide."

In Connecticut, Lieberman's camp says that in the debate tonight, he "intends to make a case for Democrats to re-elect him, rather than look beyond the primary to a potential three-way race with Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger," while Lamont will have "a chance to establish himself as more than a challenger who objects to Lieberman's outspoken defense of the war, a message that has left Lieberman uncertain about winning in August." – Harford Courant

Lieberman asserted yesterday that he's "concentrating on the primary, not the petition.  His aide said the staff has not requested a copy of a petition from the secretary of the state, which must be filed by Aug. 9 with 7,500 signatures." – Hartford Courant

Some Democrats worry that the primary "is a distraction from the party's biggest goal: taking control of Congress in November," writes the Boston Globe.  "Indeed, national party leaders have put three Republican-held House seats in Connecticut near the top of their target list."

The Boston Globe points out that unlike Senators Clinton and Harry Reid, "Kerry is declining to choose between" Lieberman and Lamont.

The New York Times writes that Clinton's decision not to back Lieberman if he loses the primary allows her "to signal to her party's liberal base that she is not in lockstep with Mr. Lieberman in defending the war in Iraq, without actually changing her own position."  More: "And on a personal level, it was the latest twist in a sometimes tortured relationship between the Clintons and Mr. Lieberman, who denounced President Bill Clinton from the floor of the Senate during the impeachment scandal."

Pegged to the Democratic primary in New York's 11th district, which is being hotly contested along racial lines, the Washington Post looks at how majority-black congressional districts "could be hurting the party in the long term."  Some suggest that the creation of urban districts that are somewhat less African-American and Democratic, for the benefit of adding more of these voters to nearby suburban districts, could result in more seats for the party.

Texas independent gubernatorial candidates Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn are lobbying the Secretary of State to allow their nicknames to be used on the November ballot, reports the AP.  Friedman wants to use "Kinky," while Strayhorn wants to use "Grandma."

Oh-eight
The Washington Times reports that conservative former Sen. Phil Gramm (R) is not only backing McCain for president but "has quietly been helping to write" his speeches, a fact which seems less surprising when you consider that McCain "was national chairman of Mr. Gramm's 1996 presidential campaign," and that top McCain strategist John Weaver helped run Gramm's own presidential bid.

And it's going to be a busy month in Iowa, the Des Moines Register says.  "Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner are planning to return as prospective presidential candidates in the coming days, continuing the extraordinarily early start to the campaign for the lead-off caucuses."

“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.

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