Monday, July 24, 2006 | 11:40 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner

  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

Poignant push for immigration changes
Supporters of a guest-worker plan and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States have hit upon a poignant way to try to drum up support for the controversial measures: remind the public of how many immigrants serve in the US armed forces.  Not long ago, Joint Chiefs chairman Peter Pace actually choked up during a hearing as he recounted his family's story of traveling from Italy to America.  The hearing had been convened in Miami by the chief backers of the Senate immigration bill, Sens. John McCain (R) and Ted Kennedy (D).  The image of an emotional Pace garnered the hearing a lot of coverage -- more so than House Republicans' numerous hearings, which they have used as forums to criticize the measures.

Today, President Bush went a step further, participating in a highly planned yet emotional moment by appearing at Walter Reed Army Hospital to witness the naturalization of some US troops who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He took the opportunity to note his post-September 11 "executive order making foreign-born members of our military immediately eligible for U.S. citizenship when they serve on active duty," as he put it.  Bush: "We are stronger and more dynamic when we welcome new citizens like these.  More than 33,000 non-U.S. citizens currently serve in our military...  And just like everybody else who wears the uniform, they understand the stakes of what it means to serve in the United States military."

During his visit to the hospital, Bush also gave out some Purple Hearts.

Monday, July 24, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

In today's issue:
Bush lands a one-two punch on the war and immigration reform
Bill Clinton aims to give Lieberman a lift
Hillary Clinton and other '08 contenders gather in Denver
Nevada's second-in-the-nation caucus?

First glance
In the latest surprise visit by a key Bush Administration official to a foreign policy hotspot, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making a surprise stop in Beirut.  Her diplomatic outreach and the intensifying violence will dominate the news today.  In Washington, President Bush opens the week with a one-two punch on the war and immigration reform, making remarks at a naturalization ceremony at Walter Reed Army Hospital for US troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His 10:10 am remarks come just days after House Speaker Dennis Hastert told USA Today that he hasn't budged on his demand that the government address border security first, before turning to the controversial guest-worker plan and path to citizenship for illegal immigrants which are included in the Senate bill and which Bush wants.

Bush then signs the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005 at the White House at 2:25 pm.  As flag-related bills go, this one, which guarantees condominium owners' right to display the flag, generated little controversy as it made its way through Congress.  And with the GOP campaign committees at near parity with their Democratic counterparts in total cash on hand, per their June FEC reports, Bush helps the Republican National Committee raise a helpful $1 million in a closed-press event at 5:35 pm.

The highlights of Bush's schedule this week include a joint press availability with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq tomorrow; lunch with US troops and their families at Fort Belvoir, with Maliki in tow, on Wednesday; a meeting with another ally on Iraq, the President of Romania, on Thursday; and on Friday, a joint press availability with British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- and a photo op with the top 10 American Idol finalists.

Maliki also will address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.  Congress is in its final stretch before the August recess, not to return until after Labor Day.  The House is scheduled to leave this weekend; the Senate is in until next week.  The House may act on any of a number of issues this week, per NBC's Mike Viqueira, including pension reform and a minimum wage hike.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing on Thursday for UN Ambassador John Bolton, who attained his post via a recess appointment which will expire in January.  NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports that the Administration thinks they have the votes to get Bolton confirmed this time, but potential presidential candidate and Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Joe Biden has said he will oppose Bolton until the Administration releases classified communications that Democrats say might indicate Bolton's role regarding pre-war intelligence about WMD.

Per NBC's Ken Strickland, the Judiciary Committee also holds a couple of hearings of note this week on the Administration's approach to prosecuting the war on terror, including one on a legislative fix for the Supreme Court's recent ruling on the Administration military commission for Guantanamo detainees, and a review of a White House-backed bill that would place the NSA warrantless wiretapping program under legal review by a secret court.

If the White House and Republicans are looking for a chance to return the focus to Democrats' divisions on Iraq, those divisions are on display today.  Former President Clinton campaigns with embattled Sen. Joe Lieberman at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT this afternoon, trying to help Lieberman overcome a surprisingly strong primary challenge from anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont.  Clinton must be acting with his wife's interests in mind, since she too supports the war.  (Indeed, he goes from stumping for Lieberman today to an appearance for Senator Clinton tomorrow at an event for her campaign in Manhattan.)  Two House members from California and Ohio endorsed Lamont over the weekend because of his views on the war.

Senator Clinton herself is addressing the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in Denver today, along with fellow potential presidential candidates Sen. Evan Bayh and Govs. Tom Vilsack and Bill Richardson.  Much more on the DLC and on Lieberman below.

Have you checked your favorite political calendar lately?

Security politics
The AP covers Rice's stop in Beirut, saying she has tried to walk delicately between supporting the democratic government of Lebanon while not dictating to Israel how it should handle its own security.  "'We all want to urgently end the fighting.  We have absolutely the same goal,' Rice told reporters traveling with her."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hails progress made by Iraqi security forces in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Before Rice made her unscheduled stop, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) told Bloomberg that "Bush's handling of the escalating violence between Israel and Hezbollah gunmen in Lebanon" has been "'a disaster.'"

Roll Call says the FBI "is close to finishing a series of interviews with" key members of Congress "as part of its wide-ranging criminal probe of alleged leaks of the" NSA wiretapping program.  "It's unclear whether the federal investigators believe this leak came from Capitol Hill, or that a Member served as a secondary source for the report, or whether they are simply doing due diligence in pursuing all possible leads."

The Los Angeles Times reports that the White House's respect for the New York Times and its reporters appears unaffected, despite its public crusade against the paper for reporting leaked information about certain national security initiatives.

Clinton in Connecticut
In Waterbury today, the former President is expected "to urge Democrats to redirect their anger over the war in Iraq away from [Lieberman] and toward Connecticut's three congressional Republicans," says the Hartford Courant, which also notes, "Clinton has no intention of undercutting his endorsement of Lieberman from the Palace stage, but a spokesman said Sunday that Clinton has the same position as his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton: His support would end with a Lieberman loss in the primary."

Even though Waterbury's Democratic Establishment is behind Lieberman, the hometown paper says there's something of a swell of support for Lamont, who has a fundraiser there tonight. – Republican-American

The announcement from Lieberman's campaign about Clinton's appearance noted, "Clinton and Lieberman have known each other since Clinton worked on Lieberman's first campaign for State Senate in 1970 while he was in school at Yale in New Haven.  Years later, Lieberman was the first Senator outside the South to endorse Clinton in his 1992 Presidential Campaign."

The New York Times writes about all the officials who are flocking to the state to campaign for either Democrat.  "Besides Mr. Clinton, Senator Barbara Boxer... will campaign for Mr. Lieberman on Monday.  Mr. Lamont... spent the weekend campaigning side by side with Representative Maxine Waters... Representative Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, also campaigned for Mr. Lamont on Saturday.  Mr. Lamont will counter the Clinton visit on Monday by announcing the endorsement of Carl S. Feen, a former Lieberman campaign official and a Clinton appointee who lives in New Haven."

As we mentioned on Friday, one of the backdrops to the DLC confab in Denver is what Lieberman's fate in his August 8 primary could mean for centrists and the party.  DLC senior fellow Marshall Wittmann told First Read that a Lieberman primary loss would be disastrous: "The Democratic Party could come out looking weaker on national security," he said.  "The Democratic Party [would be] turning its back on one of it national security spokesmen."  He also speculated that national Republicans could use Lieberman's loss as a way to reach out to more Orthodox Jews simply by highlighting how liberal Democrats took down one of their own.  We'd add that Jewish donors to the Democratic party might also be more inclined to direct their support to the GOP -- particularly at a time when the President and Republican lawmakers are solidly backing Israel in its battle with Hezbollah.

At the DLC...
At a brief press conference yesterday, DLC chair and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, DLC founder Al From, and Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff stressed that the purpose for the annual meeting was about coming up with ideas on national and economic security to help Democrats win future elections.  Vilsack briefly previewed the "American Dream Initiative" that Sen. Hillary Clinton will unveil today, saying that its focus will be on helping individuals achieve the American Dream.  From also mentioned that Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who's facing a tough bid for re-election this fall, might join the other governors in attendance (Gregoire of Washington, Napolitano of Arizona, Richardson and Vilsack) today.  And he relayed word that former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, another possible presidential candidate, would have liked to participate at the conference but couldn't because he's on vacation with his family in Spain.

Vilsack also called for the party to flex its muscle on national security.  '"I would like to be identified as a leader who makes sure Americans understand the challenges that we face and that Democrats have the answer,"' the Des Moines Register quotes him as saying.

By the way, only three of yesterday's breakout sessions were originally open to the press -- until the DLC was informed that, according to Colorado's sunshine laws, the media are allowed into any meeting where two or more state legislators are discussing policy.

Oh-eight (D)
Weekend developments merit a Monday section.  The Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws panel voted on Saturday to recommend to the full DNC that Nevada and South Carolina be allowed to move up their presidential nominating contests and hold, respectively, an early caucus on the Saturday after the Iowa caucuses, and an early primary after the New Hampshire primary.

South Carolina held the first primary after New Hampshire's in 2004.  The awarding of an early caucus to Nevada is a nod to Senate Minority Leader and Nevadan Harry Reid.  Although the state offers what the DNC panel was looking for, a growing minority population and a big bloc of union members, the state party may have a ways to go to prepare for the big event in January 2008.  It remains to be seen how many of the Democratic presidential candidates will compete in Nevada, where New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson might start with an edge.  Those candidates who voted in favor of the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain might start at a disadvantage.

First Read also left that DNC meeting with the impression that Sen. Hillary Clinton's team is allowing her to appear nervous about the prospect of a rival presidential bid by former Sen. John Edwards, who beat Clinton in a recent Des Moines Register poll of potential Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa.  During the discussion of which state should hold an early primary, Clinton supporter and occasional advisor Harold Ickes objected to the proposal of an early South Carolina primary because, he said, South Carolina is a state where Edwards should do well.  Ickes argued that the party would be better off holding an early primary in Alabama, where no candidate appears to have an edge.  Several other members of the DNC panel expressed surprise later on that Ickes would come right out and say as much, suggesting that it made Clinton look anxious about an Edwards bid.  Some members of the panel also said Clinton advisors made calls before the meeting to try to rally support for an Alabama (as opposed to South Carolina) primary.

For those paying hyper-close attention, the two nominal frontrunners for the parties' nominations seem to be keeping a particular eye on two rivals -- Clinton on Edwards, and on the GOP side, Sen. John McCain on Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.  Last week, the McCain camp gleefully touted their endorsement by Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who had been presumed to be a Romney supporter.

At this DLC confab this weekend, 2008 contenders Bayh and Vilsack said they disagreed with the plan to insert Nevada in between Iowa and New Hampshire, but that they would support the DNC's decision. – Des Moines Register

The New York Post looks at Clinton's $3.4 million in political spending, and notes that it includes "bills of $285,000 for political polling, more than $650,000 for direct mail and $200,000 for postage."

Sen. Chris Dodd's hometown paper followed him to Florida, where he keynoted a Democratic fundraiser over the weekend and impressed some with his speaking skills -- even though they weren't sure where he's from.  The paper lays out the likely stages of a presidential run by the most recent entrant to the field. – Hartford Courant

Recess
Both sides are making plans for the August recess; House Republicans have even titled their agenda, "Making August Matter."  Roll Call that despite the range of issues they plan to talk about, "border security is expected to be the most frequently discussed issue in most lawmakers' districts."

A top Democratic House aide says they plan to spend the week continuing their drumbeat against Social Security private accounts and Bush's Medicare prescription-drug law, and that lawmakers are scheduling "New Direction" events in their districts for August.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
An American Bar Association task force is criticizing Bush's practice of "writing exceptions to laws he has just signed" as unconstitutional.  "ABA policymakers will decide whether to denounce the statements and encourage a legal fight over them...  The task force included... former FBI Director William Sessions; Patricia Wald, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards; and former Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein." - AP

The Chicago Tribune says the report being released today "calls on Congress to exert more oversight and empower the courts to review presidential signing statements."

The Washington Post notes, "The impact of the report on the administration is uncertain, given the belief by many conservatives and some members of the Bush administration that the ABA has a liberal bias.  Early in its tenure, the administration ended the association's special role in evaluating judicial nominations."

Yesterday, the Boston Globe reported that "job application materials" they obtained from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division from 2001 to 2006 show that the Administration is "filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights."  But some "defenders of the Bush administration say there is nothing improper about the winner of a presidential election staffing government positions with like-minded officials.  And, they say, the old career staff at the division was partisan in its own way -- an entrenched bureaucracy of liberals who did not support the president's view of civil rights policy."

White House budget director Rob Portman tells the Financial Times that the Alternative Minimum Tax "should be reformed in a way that results in no revenue loss," and that it wouldn't prevent the Administration from meeting its deficit-reduction target.

More on the midterms
Against the backdrop of a tough climate for the GOP majority on top of the historical trend of losses for a second-term president's party, the Washington Post rolls out its Bellwether Project, in which it identifies the "contests that illuminate in especially vivid fashion the currents shaping a potentially historic year."  A series of eight essays considers: the problem an unpopular Bush might pose for the GOP; whether Democrats can compete in the South and whether Republicans can win in the Northeast; how economic issues will play out; whether and how scandals might matter; the potential effect of state ballot initiatives on turnout; and how immigration and the Iraq war might play out.

Vice President Cheney fundraises for Arkansas gubernatorial candidate and former Bush homeland security official Asa Hutchinson in Springdale at 1:25 pm ET, then headlines a fundraiser for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley in Dothan at 6:00 pm ET.  The Benton County Daily Record previews Cheney's stop in Arkansas today.  Per a Cheney spokesperson, as of Friday, he had "appeared on behalf of GOP candidates some 78 times this election year."

Per the Miami Herald, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is "shattering Florida fundraising records, raising more than $15 million for his reelection bid -- already more than Republican Sen. Mel Martinez raised in his successful 2004 race," and outraising his opponent, GOP Rep. Katherine Harris.  "The haul puts Nelson in the mega-money stratosphere with just a handful of senators, including" Sens. Rick Santorum and Hillary Clinton.

The extreme longshot candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in Maryland's Senate race may wind up siphoning crucial support from frontrunner Ben Cardin, handing the nomination to rival Kweisi Mfume and setting up a historic race between two African-American nominees which Republicans would have an improved shot at winning. – Washington Post

Salon's Walter Shapiro considers the welterweight gubernatorial fight between Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R) and Rep. Ted Strickland (D) in Ohio, where a recent poll held bad news for Blackwell, one of the GOP's star African-American candidates.

With all the focus on Lieberman's Democratic primary in Connecticut, Roll Call's Stu Rothenberg warns not to overlook GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee's tough primary challenge in Rhode Island.  "Chafee has some considerable advantages, but the fundamentals of the race, including Chafee's liberalism and the normal ideological dynamic in a GOP primary, suggest that Laffey is no worse than even money to beat the Senator."

“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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