Thursday, July 13, 2006 | 1:30 p.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira, Huma Zaidi and Mark Murray

  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

Web video causes uproar
A new Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) web video is causing an uproar on Capitol Hill today. Democrats and Republicans are accusing one another of exploiting the Iraq war for political gain. The video, released via email to their supporters today, includes images of flag-draped military coffins and mourning troops that appear under the heading, "Things have taken a turn for the worse."

House Majority Leader John Boehner said the video is outrageous. "It's disgraceful that they would use these images... To use these images to rally Democrats and to raise money I think is appalling," he said. He thinks the ad should be pulled and that Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chair of the DCCC, should apologize.

But Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi shot back minutes later. "Republicans have long been in denial about the consequences of their actions in Iraq... I don't know why they are making it an issue, except that it speaks truth to power," she said before pointing out that White House advisor Karl Rove has stated before that the war will be used as a political issue this fall. "If it weren't so tragic it would be almost funny," she said of the eruption from Republicans over the ad.

The DCCC just released a list of instances when Republicans have politicized Iraq and 9/11 -- from Karl Rove's declaration earlier this year that Republicans would use Iraq and the war on terror as a campaign issue for the midterms, to the Bush-Cheney campaign TV ad in 2004 showing a "flag-draped" body from the September 11th terrorist attack. Two examples Pelosi noted as well.

But Boehner said that the Bush ad and this latest DCCC video are not comparable. "The differences, in terms of the images, are as clear as night and day," he said. House Republicans are planning a presser later today to protest the ad.

Thursday, July 13, 2006 | 9:35 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

In today's issue:
National security hotspots proliferate for the Administration
Senate Republicans seem down on a judicial nomination; the House does the Voting Rights Act
Republicans will net House seats, per Speaker Hastert
Will Ralph Reed become the first Abramoff victim at the polls?

First glance
President Bush, in Germany, has a series of events with Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Escalating violence in the Middle East has national security experts and correspondents suggesting that the Administration, stretched thin between Iraq, Iran and North Korea, has up until now stayed on the sidelines when it comes to that region.  The violence has also boosted the price of oil.  As August looms, remember how a combination of rising gas prices and nagging national security concerns, emblemized by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, weakened a vacationing Bush's political standing during August 2005.

The White House announced this morning that Bush will welcome Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on July 25.  Today in the Senate, US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzhad will provide the Foreign Relations Committee with an update, and NBC's Libby Leist reports that "Zal's" (as Bush has called him) staffers are braced for a contentious hearing, in part because a top aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a tough time in front of the House Government Reform Committee earlier this week.  The House panelists criticized the Administration over a recent GAO report showing in sufficient planning and accountability in Iraq.  Per Leist, State Department aides say Khalilzhad has a good relationship with lawmakers on both sides, however, and that they will look to him for a real sense of what is happening day-to-day on the ground.

Also in the Senate today, Bush's latest controversial judicial nominee is turning out to be not like the other ones.  Federal appellate court pick William Haynes is caught up in the wake of the now 2-year-old scandal of Abu Ghraib, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.  His nomination could fail, not from a Democrat-led filibuster, but because there may not be 51 Senate Republicans who will support a nominee so closely tied to the infamous Bybee torture memo, which suggested that cruel, inhuman, or degrading acts of interrogation might not constitute prohibited torture.  Haynes was the Pentagon general counsel at the time.

This afternoon, the bipartisan group of 14 mostly moderate Senators who staved off a judicial showdown last year will meet again to take their members' temperature on Haynes and other controversial nominations that may come up this year, Strickland says.  At issue with Haynes is whether the group feels his situation warrants a filibuster.  GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Gang of 14 and of the Judiciary Committee, says it doesn't.  But during Haynes' hearing on Tuesday, Graham was critical of Haynes' role in crafting the Administration's torture policy.  Caught in the middle is Sen. John Warner (R), another  member of the Gang.  Warner was instrumental in convincing the Administration to accept Sen. John McCain's Detainee Treatment Act -- but he's also one of Haynes' sponsors, since the court to which Haynes has been nominated serves Virginia.

Graham has remained noncommittal with his support, as has Gang member McCain, Strickland says.  Another Senate Republican who would only speak on background said simply, "He's dead."

And just in time for the NAACP convention in Washington this weekend, the House is scheduled to vote today on whether or not to reauthorize certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act which are set to expire next year.  The GOP leadership had figured this would be an easy vote when they first tried to bring it to the floor last month, but they were thwarted by members of their own ranks who objected to the Act's provision for multilingual ballots, and to its "pre-clearance" requirement that states covered by the Act get Justice Department approval before making any changes to their electoral systems.  Lacking the support of a majority of the majority, Speaker Dennis Hastert was forced to postpone the vote.

Democrats have since become quite vocal in their criticisms of the GOP for its failure to reauthorize the Act, and in fact have made it one of their five priorities to accomplish before Congress leaves town for the August recess.  Hastert and his colleagues don't appear to have smoothed things over entirely since that aborted effort, and today's votes could get interesting, but the reauthorization ultimately is expected to pass.

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

Security politics
Bloomberg looks at the "minor" role being played by the Bush Administration in the Middle East, putting it down to their being distracted by Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.  "A year ago," the news service reminds us, "Bush made expanding peace and democracy in the Middle East a priority, as a way to counter Islamic terrorism and improve economic prospects for Arabs...  A White House official... said the administration is urging both sides to demonstrate restraint.  The official also reiterated Israel's right to defend itself, and criticized Iran and Syria for supporting Hezbollah."

Bush's more diplomatic rhetoric lately, and the escalating number of foreign policy concerns, could cause trouble for the Administration, McClatchy writes, saying that "Bush's gradual ditching of tough talk and moral clarity in his foreign policy has left his conservative supporters angry and frustrated." – Miami Herald

"More than 3,000 pro-Israel evangelical Christians will be in town next week for a 'Washington/Israel summit' to push the Bush administration toward stronger support for the Jewish state," per the Washington Times, which calls the conference "the evangelical answer to AIPAC, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby."

USA Today, covering Bush in Germany, says his relationship with Merkel is becoming "one of the administration's most important in Europe...  Foreign policy analysts say Merkel is now a Bush favorite on a par with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president's staunchest ally on Iraq."

Per the New York Times, "after saying that terror suspects had a right to protections under the Geneva Conventions, the Bush administration said Wednesday that it wanted Congress to pass legislation that would limit the rights granted to detainees."  More: "But some leading senators said they believed that the White House stance might still be evolving...  In particular, they thought the White House might be open to a solution that would abandon the tribunal approach in favor of one that would modify court-martial procedures."

Seeking to embarrass Democrats, House Republicans are claiming to be outraged by a "despicable" new Democratic National Committee fundraising video that shows footage of military coffins, and will hold a press conference to decry it at the Republican National Committee at 1:30 pm.

More on the midterms
Speaker Hastert rejected the CW that Democrats will gain some number of House seats and upped the ante for his own party in the midterm elections yesterday by asserting that his party will "increase our majority" in the fall.  As NBC's Mike Viqueira points out, up until yesterday, House GOP leaders had avoided making predictions, insisting only that they would maintain their majority status.  At this point, Democrats need to net 15 seats in order to win control of the chamber.  "We have a good story to tell," Hastert told reporters Wednesday morning.  He cited the economy, the shrinking deficit, job creation, that "we are winning in Iraq," and that "we can begin to bring our people home" at some point, as reasons for his optimism.

Hastert, Majority Leader Boehner, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt also announced their goal of raising $17 million in campaign funds from their members, Viq says.  Behind closed doors, the three had pledged to give $550,000 apiece; Boehner presented a check for the full amount on the spot, and Blunt came up with $500,000.  Hastert gave $150,000 for the time being.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic House campaign committee, was asked to respond to Hastert's claim that the GOP will expand their House majority.  "Anybody who says that they know what the outcome of the race is going to be doesn't know politics."  Emanuel said this while standing next to House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who has gone on the record saying she hopes Democrats will net 25-30 seats.  In the next breath, he added, "The only question now is how many seats they are going to lose."

The San Francisco Chronicle writes up yesterday's hearing on CALIFORNIA's prison crisis, in which an investigator accused the Schwarzenegger Administration of being too close to the prison guards' union.  "The dramatic hearing... prompted one state senator who attended to declare that Schwarzenegger's prison problems 'will be every bit as big as the energy crisis was for Gray Davis' in terms of cost to taxpayers and political fallout."  Democratic challenger Phil Angelides has sought to make the state of the prison system an issue in the governor's race.

MSNBC.com's Tom Curry reports that freshman Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar says he's heading to Connecticut on July 30 to campaign for colleague Joe Lieberman.  Curry notes the Lieberman and Salazar appeared to develop a bond during last year's meetings of the group of 14 mostly moderate Senators who were seeking to broker compromises on Bush judicial nominees.  They share a background as former state attorneys general, but also seem to be genuinely fond of one another.  Salazar describes Lieberman as "a good friend and a mentor.  He's been one of my mentors along with John McCain.  I view him as being a centrist independent Democrat that speaks his views in an authentic way.  We need a lot more people like that in the US Senate."

Per Curry, Salazar said he's gotten no criticism from fellow Senate Democrats for stating he'll back Lieberman even if he loses the Democratic primary.  But, he said, "I've gotten lots of calls from around the country from people expressing disappointment that I would not support the Democratic nominee in Connecticut.  But I'm very comfortable with that decision because I think Joe Lieberman is a good man and a good Senator and he'll continue to represent Connecticut in a very good way."   Curry notes that per CQ Weekly, in 2005, Salazar voted to support Bush 49% of the time (on roll call votes where the Administration took a position); Lieberman supported Bush only 46 percent of the time.

On IMUS this morning, Lieberman reiterated his now-familiar talking points -- that he doesn't regret his war vote, that primary challenger Ned Lamont ought to release his tax records, and that leaving open the option of an independent candidacy is the right thing to do.  "We have many good years ahead of us," he told Imus.

In Florida, per Hotline On Call, Rep. Katherine Harris' top aides = resigned from her Senate campaign -- again.  "One person involved in the campaign said there was no single precipitating factor.  'She's just very difficult to work with. It's all the same stuff.  The more than we put her out there, the more she shot herself in the foot,' this person said."

The fatal Big Dig accident earlier this week has jump-started the lagging gubernatorial campaign of Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly (D), who has launched a criminal investigation into the incident. – Boston Globe

Pegged to the barn-burner of a Senate race in Missouri, USA Today looks at how the Democratic candidates in a handful of key Senate races are focusing more on rural voters than the party has in the past.

House GOP Conference chair Deborah Pryce, "the highest-ranking Republican woman in the history of the U.S. House," faces a tough challenge to her re-election bid in Ohio because of her leadership position in the party and her support for Bush's policies, says Bloomberg.

In Texas, the AP says, independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn (a/k/a Scott McClellan's mom) sued the Secretary of State yesterday in her attempt to be listed on the ballot as "Grandma."  Also, the AP also reports, Nick Lampson, the Democrat running for former Rep. Tom DeLay's seat, has raised about $3 million.

And Democratic leaders in Vermont are backing Rep. Bernie Sanders' bid for retiring Sen. Jim Jeffords' seat.  Although he's the House's sole independent, Sanders consistently votes with Democrats.  National Democrats are now "in the uncomfortable position of supporting Sanders in lieu of any Democratic candidates," and "their decision to shun self-described Democrats in Vermont has led some to accuse their leaders of rigging the election." – Boston Globe

The immigration debate
House Republicans yesterday announced seven more hearings, all with rather aggressive titles, to be held in Washington over the final weeks of July on the controversial -- i.e., guest-worker and path to citizenship -- provisions of the Senate immigration reform bill, which they insist on calling the "Reid-Kennedy bill" even though GOP Sen. John McCain is a chief co-sponsor.  Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez urged Congress to pass a guest-worker plan in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Unlike other Administration officials, he didn't choke up (at least, we don't think he did). – New York Times

House Republicans "are apparently convinced that their push for an enforcement-only plan was helped by sessions last week in Texas and California," reports the Dallas Morning News.

The San Francisco Chronicle has Majority Leader John Boehner saying that the tougher, House-approved measures are gaining public support.  He "cited as evidence phone calls, constituent reaction and 'the number of conversations I've found myself in with Democrats and Republicans on the Senate side,' which he said 'have made it clear to me that there's some movement toward the House bill.'"

A Senate Republican Policy Committee report on that chamber's immigration bill says the bill "would require that foreign construction laborers here under the guest-worker program be paid well above the minimum wage, even as American workers at the same work site could earn less," says the Washington Times, which notes that the report's criticism of the provision "marks the official stance of the Republican Policy Committee, which formulates and implements the policies of the caucus."

Immigrant-rights groups are starting to dip their toe into political organizing, but they face a handful of logistical and financial obstacles to having a real impact on the midterm elections, says USA Today.

The Democrats
Senate Democrats continue to bang the "do-nothing" GOP majority drum with an off-camera briefing at 12:15 pm, at which they'll repeat their priorities: federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, college affordability, gas prices, reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and a "real debate" on Iraq.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi broke with many members of her caucus by pledging, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that "if Democrats succeed next year in rolling back President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the money would be used to reduce the federal deficit -- not for new spending...  Ms. Pelosi's remarks appear designed to address two liabilities: the Democrats' reputation as big spenders and her own California liberal image that has made her a favorite target for Republicans."

The New York Times is the latest to examine Democrats' push for a minimum-wage hike -- in ballot propositions in key battleground states, in Congress, and by tying it to any increase in congressional pay.

The Washington Post covers Democratic voters' contemplation of a presidential run by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D).  "Never has a politician stepped onto a presidential stage before an audience of voters who already have so many strong and personal opinions about her, or amid arguments that revolve around the intangibles of personality and the ways people react to it."  Beneath Clinton's many positives is "evidence of unease -- about her personal history, demeanor and motives -- among the very Democratic and independent voters she would need to win the presidency."

More on the Bush agenda
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced yesterday that the Senate will debate and vote on increased federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on Monday and Tuesday.  "Harry Reid, Democratic leader in the Senate, acknowledged the measure might not pass by a wide enough margin to override a presidential veto.  But he suggested public pressure could force Mr Bush to reconsider his position," says the Financial Times.

The Washington Post's Milbank covers the views of two former House Speakers, Democrat Tom Foley and Republican Newt Gingrich, on why (the GOP-run) Congress is failing Americans: "The men had no trouble identifying the symptoms: a collapse of committee deliberations, the demise of oversight of the executive branch, the loss of the 'regular order' of rules for debate and legislation, a runaway spending process, and a shrinking legislative calendar.  The causes were also not difficult to find: gerrymandered districts, travel and fundraising needs keeping lawmakers away from Washington, the loss of centrists in both parties, quickening news cycles and the reliance on lobbyist-raised cash."

Ethics
For all of the convictions and guilty pleas it has produced, the investigative articles it has inspired, and the stomach ulcers it has given Republican consultants, it's easy to forget one thing about the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal: So far, no politician linked to it has lost at the polls.  One of us writes on MSNBC.com that might -- or might not -- change when Ralph Reed faces off Tuesday in a GOP primary for lieutenant governor of Georgia.  "'Basically, the race is a dead heat,' said Matt Towery, CEO of InsiderAdvantage.  And the outcome could impact Georgia's gubernatorial contest and Reed's political career."

A federal civil lawsuit filed by a Texas Indian tribe alleges that Reed, as well as Abramoff and others, played a role in the fraudulent closure of their casino.

The AP covers conservative columnist Robert Novak's first extensive interview about his role in the CIA leak case, telling Fox that his all-important conversation with Karl Rove last about 20 seconds.

“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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