Tuesday, July 25, 2006 | 4:15 p.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira, Ken Strickland and Mark Murray

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Dems criticize Iraqi prime minister
Some House Democrats are arguing that Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki shouldn't be permitted to address Congress tomorrow if he doesn't offer an apology or a clarification to what some consider to be anti-Israeli statements he's made in the wake of the renewed violence in the Middle East. "Recent statements by Iraqi leaders are beneath contempt," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D). Lantos added that he got a visit yesterday from Iraq's ambassador, who "expressed his regrets" for statements made by both Maliki and the speaker of Iraq's legislature. Maliki reportedly termed the current Middle East conflict "an act of Israeli aggression." House Speaker Denny Hastert contended that the prime minister should still be able to address Congress. "We have 130,000 troops in Iraq," he said. "We have to have some kind of a dialogue."

Senate Democrats also pressed the prime minister for a clarification of the remarks he's made denouncing Israel's actions against Hezbollah.

"This raises serious concerns about whether Iraq, which is suppose to be our ally, can play a constructive role in resolving the current crisis by bringing stability to the Middle East," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

This isn't the first time that Democrats have tried to use statements or actions by Iraq's fledgling government against the Bush Administration and Republicans. Earlier this summer, they seized on -- and tried to score political points over -- news that Iraq's government was considering granting amnesty to those who had committed acts of violence in that country, even against US soldiers. But Maliki has stressed that attacks on Americans will not be pardoned.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006 | 1:30 p.m. ET
From HumaZaidi, Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube

Bush, Maliki meet the press
In a joint press availability with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this morning, President Bush announced that, per the guidance of military officers, the United States will increase its presence in Baghdad to address the mounting sectarian violence there. US military officials tell NBC that approximately 400 soldiers from other areas within Iraq will be sent to Baghdad and an additional 400 soldiers, who are currently on standby in Kuwait, will be sent to Ramadi.

Bush, who admitted there are "challenges" in the capital and that the violence there has become "terrible," said the additional troops will be given "better tools" to offer them "greater mobility, fire power, and protection." Maliki, who expressed his gratitude to Bush and the international community for their ongoing support, said such measures are important for Iraqi forces to become self-sufficient, which he said is essential to rebuilding the country. They also announced an "Iraqi leaders initiative," which will bring 200 high school and college students from Iraq to study at US educational institutions, which Bush said would help build the "next generation" of Iraqi leaders.

When asked if some troops could be withdrawn by the end of the year, Bush said that the United States needs to stay flexible and that he would base such decisions on the advice of Gen. George Casey. Bush and Maliki also discussed the continuing violence in Lebanon and Israel. Maliki reiterated his support for an immediate cease fire in support of Lebanon, while Bush noted his desire for a sustainable ceasefire.

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

In today's issue:
Maliki's DC debut returns Iraq to the fore; Democrats cry "pro-Hezbollah"
Is an immigration compromise in the works?
Bill in Connecticut; Hillary in Denver
Arnold leads in California

First glance
Violence continues to roil the Middle East, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Washington debut returns Iraq to the forefront of the midterm election debate for the first time in two weeks.  President Bush meets with Maliki at 9:30 am and the two hold a joint press availability at 11:25 am.  "President Bush looks forward to discussing how the United States can best support the Prime Minister in improving the security situation across Iraq," per the White House release.  Tomorrow, they'll travel to Fort Belvoir in Virginia to meet with US troops and their families, and Maliki also will address a joint session of Congress.

One month after the GOP's "cut and run" onslaught, in which they sought to box in Democrats as indecisive on what course to pursue in Iraq, Democrats are amassing their troops to pose a tough, united front, arguing that Bush's approach isn't working.  On the Senate side, their push began with a floor speech yesterday by Minority Leader Harry Reid, will continue today with the 9:30 am presentation of an Iraq "report card" by Senate Democrats' Iraq point man Jack Reed and a liberal think-tank, then will shift to floor speeches tomorrow following Maliki's address, per NBC's Ken Strickland.  On Friday, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee will hold an unofficial hearing on Iraq contracting and reconstruction.

Democrats in both chambers are also seeking to draw attention to what they view as Maliki's anti-Israel stance on the Middle East conflict in an attempt to put Bush and Republicans in the hot seat for supporting both Israel and the Prime Minister.  A letter from several Senate Democrats to Maliki says it is "imperative that the U.S. Congress and the world know immediately whether you support or condemn Hezbollah's acts of terrorism."  They'll also hold an 11:00 am press conference on this today.  On the House side, three Democrats yesterday began protesting Maliki's scheduled address to the joint session, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  The three, including Democratic House campaign committee chair Rahm Emanuel, are asking other members to sign a letter of objection to Speaker Dennis Hastert.  As Viq says, it's unlikely that they'll succeed in heading off the speech.

Yet while Democrats try to pose a unified front on Iraq in Washington, former President Bill Clinton and embattled Sen. Joe Lieberman were in Connecticut yesterday saying there should be room in the party for a variety of opinions on the war.  Two weeks from today, Lieberman may well lose his primary to anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont, subjecting Democrats to an August full of soul-searching and internal squabbling (though a Lamont loss may have nearly the same effect).  While her husband was campaigning for Lieberman yesterday, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who like Lieberman supports the war, was addressing a centrist Democratic confab and laying out a domestic agenda designed to appeal to the middle class -- and avoiding talking about Iraq.

The debate also highlights other issues for Democrats when it comes to talking about this issue.  As NBC political analyst Charlie Cook suggests in his latest Congress Daily/AM column, Democrats probably are worse off trying to fight Republicans on the battlefield of what course to pursue in Iraq than they are on the battlefield of why the United States went to war in Iraq in the first place.  And Cook points out how Democrats have few credible spokespeople on national security issues, noting that Rep. John Murtha's stature on the war has gotten dinged up lately.

Also today, per the White House, Bush will meet with Minni Minawi, Sudan Liberation Movement/Army Leader, at 1:10 pm.

And Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Rep. Mike Pence hold a 10:00 am press conference to propose a compromise solution to the standoff over immigration reform -- that border security be addressed first, with a trigger established for the implementation of the more controversial guest-worker plan.

Have you checked out MSNBC.com's political calendar lately?

Security politics
Previewing their White House meeting today, the AP reports that Bush "retains confidence in [al-Maliki] despite the failure of the Shiite politician's signature effort to improve security in Iraq's bloody capital...  Al-Maliki's six-week old plan to enhance security in Baghdad, which Bush praised on his surprise visit to the city on June 13, clearly is not working, and the two leaders probably will discuss a substitute when they meet."

The Washington Times more definitively says that Bush and Maliki will "seek to devise a new plan that will include adding thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops to fight insurgents in the capital.  Although the White House would not confirm that the new plan will include a redeployment of American troops, U.S. military leaders said yesterday that more soldiers will be moved to Baghdad.  The size of the redeployment is not known, but units that were to be sent elsewhere are being diverted to the capital."

A Wall Street Journal analysis says the meeting "will serve as an unsettling reminder that Washington's strategies for pacifying Iraq so far have had little impact and that the U.S. is running out of options for turning things around...  The dire situation is raising fears that Mr. Maliki's selection as Iraq's first constitutionally elected leader may join the list of other developments hailed prematurely as turning points there," including "the capture of Saddam Hussein, the transfer of sovereignty to an interim government, the country's first and second elections and the killing of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  None of the events had any discernible impact on the country's violence."

The New York Times front-pages that Maliki is expected to make requests that clash with Bush's foreign policy goals, including "asking [Bush] to allow American-led troops in Iraq to be tried under Iraqi law, and to call for a halt to Israeli attacks on Lebanon...  The growing differences between Iraqi and American policies reflect an increasing disenchantment with American power among politicians and ordinary Iraqis."

Reporting from Murtha's district and listing others, USA Today says, "Some of the most pointed critiques of the administration's policy in Iraq are coming from lawmakers who represent constituencies with close ties to the military.  Their criticism underscores how widespread concerns about the war have become, even in areas where support has been strong for President Bush or the troops."

Responding to a report from the American Bar Association which challenged Bush's use of signing statements, Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter plans to offer legislation this week allowing the statements to be reviewed by a federal court "with the view to having the president's acts declared unconstitutional," NBC's Strickland reports.  Signing statements are written presidential statements that accompany bill-signings, thereby making the bills law.  Critics, including Specter and some Democrats, charge that Bush has used them to indicate which parts of the law he will enforce and/or ignore, claiming executive powers or unconstitutionality.  In a statement on the Senate floor yesterday, Specter said if the president has any issue with a bill passed by Congress, the only appropriate recourse the president has is to veto the bill, Strickland reports.  Specter agreed with the ABA's assessment that such statements "threaten our separations of power."

Despite some progress made on this front, including the endorsement of former leading GOP critic George Voinovich, Senate Republicans "acknowledge privately" to Roll Call "that the full Senate is unlikely to consider" UN Ambassador John Bolton's confirmation before September.

It's the economy...
"The nationwide average price for regular gasoline passed $3 a gallon Monday for the first time in more than 10 months and was within pennies of the all-time high, the government said.  The average U.S. price at the pump was $3.003 Monday," which was "the highest since Sept. 5, when the average gasoline price shot up to a record $3.069 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina." – USA Today

"Three months after soaring gasoline prices sent members of Congress scrambling to propose energy legislation, the House and Senate are poised to go on August recess with little to show," says the Washington Post in its round-up of where various energy bills stand.

A group of Senate Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, will hold a 10:30 am press conference to criticize Republicans for doing too little to help average Americans on "near record" gas prices and too much to help oil companies.

The Post also takes the latest look at how an unusual coalition including Western Republican lawmakers is opposing the Administration's hoped-for expansion of domestic energy exploration.

Clinton in Connecticut
Campaigning for Lieberman yesterday, the former President "said no Democrat should be held responsible for the war in Iraq...  The message driven home Monday in time for the evening news was simple: Lieberman, 64, a three-term senator, is a good Democrat with a solid record on labor and environmental issues...  But not even everyone on stage was committed to Lieberman. Leo Canty, an official with both the AFL-CIO and the teachers' union, the AFT, said he is still struggling." – Hartford Courant

"'We Democrats have a bad habit: We are prone to think,' Clinton said to hoots and applause from the crowd packed into the ornate Palace Theater.  'When people are thinking, they sometimes disagree...  But if we fight together, we should go forward together.'" – Houston Chronicle

The Washington Post notices that "Clinton made no effort to support Lieberman's view" on the war.  Clinton has made it clear that, like his wife, he will support whoever becomes the party's nominee.

The Boston Globe's Canellos says that Clinton has "one obvious agenda -- the political career of his wife," and "yesterday he followed it, and perhaps other unseen agendas, into the biggest political fight of the moment."  Canellos also foreshadows that "[s]hould national Democrats back Lieberman in big numbers, they would stand accused of abandoning the party's core antiwar voters.  However, if leading Democrats supported Lamont, and if Lieberman were to win, there would be no end to the havoc a bruised and resentful Lieberman could wreak on his party."

Challenger Ned Lamont "made his own Clinton connection yesterday, appearing in New Haven to accept the endorsement of Carl S. Feen, a former Lieberman campaign official who was appointed by Clinton to a federal pension board." – Boston Globe

At the DLC...
Several news organizations cover the centrist DLC's "American Dream Initiative" as a potential domestic platform for a Hillary Clinton presidential run.  The Washington Post: "Clinton argued that Democrats proved to be good economic stewards and protectors of the middle class during the administration of her husband...  Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt contested Clinton's appraisal of the GOP's economic record," noting that 5.4 million jobs have been created in the past three years.

Bloomberg reports that Clinton "spent a year working with the DLC and other think tanks to develop an 'economic opportunity agenda' that is based on four 'pillars' of the middle class: college, home ownership, secure retirement and health care...  Bruce Reed, president of the DLC, said the cost of the American Dream Initiative would be about $400-$450 billion over 10 years.  The cost would be offset by the $550 billion in savings the initiative would realize over that time period, he said."  A spokesperson for a liberal anti-war group notes that the plan omits any mention of Iraq.

The Chicago Tribune: "While [Clinton's] own political ambitions officially went unspoken here at a conference of moderate Democrats, there was little doubt that her marquee speaking position, as well as a policy booklet handed out to participants, was designed to provide a framework for a prospective presidential bid."

MSNBC.com also covers Clinton's speech, as well as the speeches by Sen. Evan Bayh and Gov. Tom Vilsack.  In sum, the three possible presidential candidates said that to win in November and beyond, "Democrats must convince Americans that they are tough on national security; that they speak to voters' values; and that they will reach out and strengthen the middle class."

Colorado Democrats also used the DLC confab to showcase Denver's bid for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.  Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper yesterday told the audience that he hoped the conference had demonstrated "what the city can do."  A day earlier, Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff made a similar pitch.  "We're hoping to nominate the next president of the United States here in two years."

The finalists to host the Democratic convention are Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and New York.  Note that two of those locations, Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York, are also on the Republican National Committee's list of four finalists, along with Tampa and Cleveland.  The RNC is holding its summer meeting in Minneapolis next week.  Because the conventions will take place literally back to back, two weeks in a row, and because of the weeks of set-up time required, it seems impossible that the parties could hold their events at the same site.  So, with the parties considering two of the same cities, there could be even more than the usual gamesmanship about the site selection and announcements.  Right now, Republicans are scheduled to announce their convention site after the Democrats announce theirs, but timetables could always change.

The immigration debate
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).  Yesterday, 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.

The Washington Times recounts another image from the "border security first" department, reporting that Speaker Dennis Hastert wound up having to loan his helicopter to short-handed Border Patrol agents during his weekend visit to the Mexican line.

The Washington Post outlines the Hutchinson-Pence immigration-reform compromise.  Several key Republican strategists "were briefed on the plan in hopes that they would help build pressure on skeptical lawmakers...  White House officials, including presidential adviser Karl Rove, have been told of the framework but not the details.  A Republican close to the White House said President Bush 'won't be crazy about it, but I think he would sign it.'"

"The proposal... has received mixed reviews from those briefed on it," says the Los Angeles Times, which says it's "aimed at unifying Republicans on an issue that has bitterly divided them for months and threatened to damage the party in future elections."

The New York Post covers an appearance McCain made at the New York Yacht Club last night, where he asserted that the good of the US economy depends on the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
After White House chief of staff Josh Bolten got grilled by NBC's Tim Russert on the topic last Sunday, spokesperson Tony Snow yesterday seemed to soften the White House's position on embryonic stem cell research, saying he "overstated the President's position" when he said last week that the research amounts to "murder."  ( The Bolten transcript )

The New York Times notes how some governors are pumping state money into supporting embryonic stem cell research in the wake of Bush's veto.  "More than 100 bills have been considered over the past two years by dozens of state legislatures, with one, South Dakota's, banning such research altogether and five... allocating state resources to the effort.  Other states... have taken steps to support stem cell science without directly paying for research."

Any White House hedging on stem cells aside, the Washington Times says all the votes Republican leaders have held on issues dear to conservatives' hearts have worked -- that the "Republican base is being rejuvenated."

The Wall Street Journal calls the postponement of a vote on an estate tax repeal until September a potentially "major blow" to the effort.  "Republicans have tried to eliminate estate taxes each session of Congress since Mr. Bush in 2001 signed a temporary phase-out of the tax.  With the party likely to lose seats in the November elections, Republicans tried this year to find a compromise with Democrats that would eliminate the tax for all but the wealthiest Americans."

Bloomberg reports, "Trade experts on both sides of the Atlantic say the Bush administration's unwillingness to risk alienating Farm Belt supporters with cuts in agricultural subsidies was a key factor in the collapse of weekend [Doha Round] talks in Geneva."  Certain subsidy cuts "were sought by the European Union and developing nations in exchange for agreeing to steep tariff reductions."

More on the midterms
The latest Field Poll in California has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) leading challenger Phil Angelides (D) by eight points.  "Last October, state Treasurer Angelides led Schwarzenegger, 47 percent to 41 percent, when voters were asked about a potential head-to-head matchup.  The latest poll shows 45 percent of likely voters back Schwarzenegger and 37 percent support Angelides, while 15 percent are undecided and 3 percent prefer other candidates."

The San Francisco Chronicle: "Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, says the numbers reflect Angelides' continued struggle to recover from the effects of brutal mudslinging in the June Democratic primary against state Controller Steve Westly."

A new poll in the Florida GOP gubernatorial primary shows that after "solid weeks of television advertising," state Attorney General Charlie Crist has increased his lead over Tom Gallagher to 31 points, while the Democratic primary contest appears to be tightening, meaning that Republicans may have the luxury of getting their general election effort underway a bit earlier than Democrats.

And the two Democratic candidates for governor of New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, face off tonight for their first and possibly only debate.  Spitzer leads Suozzi by margins of around 60 points, depending on which recent poll you're looking at.

“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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