Wednesday, July 26, 2006 | 12:30 p.m. ET
From Ken Strickland, Kelly O'Donnell and Huma Zaidi

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Reid backs off Maliki
After Democrats called on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday to clarify his recent anti-Israel statements and to condemn Hezbollah as he did Israel, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters this morning that he has gotten the clarification he needed at a breakfast meeting with Maliki and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebary. When asked about his position on Hezbollah, Reid says Maliki, who spoke through an interpreter, gave a long-winded response that didn't answer the question directly. But according to Reid, Zebary, who spoke English, told Reid that he "was at the meeting of the Arab League last week" and "was directed by the Prime Minister to join with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to condemn Hezbollah." Reid said that's "clarity" for him. "I'm not going to push it anymore. I think the point's been made. He has to be more guarded in what he says and he has to speak out against violence."

However, that might not be enough "clarity" for some other Democrats who called on House Speaker Dennis Hastert to cancel the speech altogether. Assistant Democrat Leader Dick Durbin and Sen. Jack Reed will hold a press conference to respond to Maliki's speech and call for a "new direction" in Iraq at 12 noon. Maliki, who just wrapped up his address to Congress, will cap off his day with a dinner this evening at the Naval Observatory with Vice President Cheney along with members of the Bush Administration and Iraqi delegation visiting with Maliki.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

In today's issue:
Condi on the hot seat in Rome
Partisan politicking around Maliki's Hill address
How's the public feeling these days?  New NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out tonight at 6:30 pm ET

First glance
In the face of partisan protests and possibly some empty seats, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will address a joint session of Congress at 11:00 am.  He and President Bush will then travel to Fort Belvoir in the Virginia suburbs to have lunch with US military personnel and their families at 1:00 pm.  Democratic lawmakers yesterday demanded that Maliki either "apologize" for, or "clarify" recent statements they see as anti-Israel.  Some suggested they may not attend his speech today, while others said they will attend to see if he apologizes, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  House Speaker Dennis Hastert refused to disinvite him.

At his joint press availability with Bush yesterday, Maliki reiterated his call for an "immediate" cease-fire in the Middle East in support of Lebanon, while Bush called for a "sustainable" cease-fire.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sits down for emergency talks in Rome today amid increasing pressure on the United States to back an immediate cease-fire now that an Israeli airstrike has killed four UN observers.

Regularly accused by Republicans of being divided and therefore "indecisive" on Iraq, Democrats are trying to present a united front on national security by putting Bush and Republicans on the hot seat for backing Maliki and his government while Maliki stakes out an anti-Israel position on the Middle East conflict.  At the same time, as we noted yesterday, Democrats are having to watch their flank in Connecticut, where Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) may or may not be renominated because of his support for the war in Iraq.  A Lieberman loss could send a signal to the Jewish community that there isn't room for pro-war Democrats in the party at a time when the GOP standing firmly behind Israel -- and would welcome the community's support.

Democrats also continue to allege that the Administration's policy on Iraq is handicapping its effort to help achieve a resolution in the Middle East.

Where does the public stand? The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll will be released on NBC Nightly News at 6:30 pm ET, and in Thursday's First Read and Wall Street Journal.  The survey measures public opinion on: how Bush is faring with his second-term goal of spreading democracy; his Administration's approach toward all the current national security hotspots, including the Middle East and Iraq; detainee policy; gas prices and the economy; the two parties' standing and support for their agendas; and Americans' feelings about the future.

Prior to his visit to Fort Belvoir, Bush takes part in a photo op with the 2005 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers at 10:45 am, at which we may hear a revival of Bush's push for his competitiveness agenda.  After Fort Belvoir, he heads to Charleston, WV for a closed-press fundraiser for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.

The Hill has its eye on other national security issues beyond the Maliki address today.  The NSA's controversial warrantless wiretapping program is back in the spotlight today with a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Unlike past hearings, NBC's Ken Strickland notes, this one concerns legislation on the program that has been negotiated by the White House and committee chair Arlen Specter.  If Congress approves the bill, with any changes approved by the White House, President Bush would then submit the program to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to determine whether it's constitutional.  Also unlike past hearings, Strickland says, today's witnesses are the most qualified to talk about the program and represent the Administration: General Michael Hayden, the current CIA director, who was the NSA director when the program was created; and General Keith Alexander, the current NSA director.  But the future of the bill is uncertain, Strickland says.  Leading committee Democrats say the bill gives Bush even more power while restricting congressional oversight.

House Republican leaders talk to reporters about their conference's August plans around 10:00 am.  House Democrats had breakfast at their party's House campaign committee earlier today.

And Vice President Cheney takes part in the swearing-in of new Small Business Association Administrator Steve Preston at the SBA at 4:45 pm.

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

Security politics
"Almost every nation attending the international conference in Rome is pressing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call for an immediate end to the fighting on the Israeli-Lebanese border.  But Rice stood her ground in two days of diplomacy in Lebanon and Israel and the West Bank.  Rather than a quick fix, she has repeatedly said the region needs enduring solutions, and other U.S. officials have raised doubts about an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in the south of Lebanon." – USA Today

The Houston Chronicle: "Israeli officials believe that [Rice's] departure from Israel on Tuesday without demanding an immediate halt in attacks on Lebanon gives them at least another week to attack Hezbollah on land and from the air, military analysts said."

The Washington Post says that despite strong support for Israel in both houses of Congress, "a few lawmakers from both parties are warning that the United States and Israel may pay a price -- in world opinion and in public support -- if Congress does not find a middle ground in the search for a peaceful resolution."

The Boston Globe notes that "public doubts about the war and the ongoing bloodshed have grown, prompting some Republicans to distance themselves from the president.  Instead of showcasing the Republicans' traditional edge over Democrats on national security, Maliki's presence in the very chamber where GOP leaders enthusiastically backed the president's use of force against Iraq has become a reminder of a mission unfulfilled."

The Los Angeles Times details the differences between Bush's and Maliki's calls for a cease-fire.

At their joint press availability yesterday, Bush also announced that, per the guidance of military officers, the United States will increase its presence in Baghdad to address the mounting sectarian violence there.  As NBC has reported, US military officials say 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 admitted there are "challenges" in the capital and that the violence there has become "terrible," and said the additional troops will be given "better tools" to offer them "greater mobility, fire power, and protection."  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.

The New York Times' analysis: "Sending in additional troops is an implicit acknowledgment of what every Iraqi in Baghdad already knows: Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's original Baghdad security plan has failed.  In the past two weeks, more Iraqi civilians have been killed than have died in Lebanon and Israel."

Bloomberg links Iraq to the Middle East: "U.S. efforts to broker an enduring halt to hostilities in Lebanon are complicated because its main adversaries in the region -- Iran and Syria -- are convinced that America is pinned down by troop deployments in Iraq and have taken advantage of Bush's previous reluctance to engage in Arab-Israeli peacemaking...  At the same time, some Middle East experts said, relations with Arab governments have suffered because of Bush's strong tilt toward Israel in its showdown with Hezbollah radicals."  Bush Administration officials counter that "with Iraq's fragile representative government gaining a toehold and more Iraqi army divisions meeting training requirements, American military involvement may be winding down in the near future."

In advance of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, the Wall Street Journal looks at how the White House continues to insist that "the Constitution and a congressional resolution passed after the terror attacks grant the president almost unlimited power to protect the country."

NBC's Strickland also reports that the Senate Armed Services committee's planned hearing on the military commission for Guantanamo detainees has been postponed until next week.  The New York Times reports on a draft of the bill which would preserve the idea of military tribunals for detainees, would allow hearsay evidence to be introduced, and would permit defendants from being excluded at their own trials.  One expert suggests that bill might face trouble in the Senate.

It's the economy...
House members from both parties are rushing to pass some energy bills that would allow them to claim efforts have been made to ease gas prices, the Wall Street Journal says.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is the latest big-name Democrat to focus on the middle class with a 10:00 am press conference on pocketbook issues.

The immigration debate
The Houston Chronicle fleshes out the details of the Hutchison-Pence compromise proposal, which would require the Administration to beef up security on the border before setting up a guest-worker plan that would force participants to first return to their home countries.

The Wall Street Journal has former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin voicing support for a guest-worker plan.  "'I don't know if I support precisely' Bush's proposed program, 'but the general gist of it struck me as right.'"

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Both chambers have now passed bills that would prevent people from helping pregnant girls circumvent parental-notification laws by traveling across state lines, but the bills differ greatly and face other procedural obstacles to final passage.  Bush issued a statement yesterday urging Congress to send him a bill.  The Chicago Tribune: "Senate Democrats criticized the Republican leadership for bringing the bill to the floor, saying it was a 'make-good' measure to compensate for the passage of a stem cell research bill last week and calling the vote an election-year ploy to energize the GOP's conservative base."

The San Francisco Chronicle says yesterday's "debate reached an emotional crescendo when Sen. Hillary Clinton, a former Arkansas legal aid attorney who defended incest cases, squared off against Sen. Tom Coburn, a former Oklahoma obstetrician who said he failed to save a girl who died of complications from a secret abortion."

A new Gallup poll shows 61% saying Bush vetoed increased embryonic stem cell research funding last week "for personal moral beliefs; 32% say he did it to gain political advantage."

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt said yesterday that there might be a vote to increase the minimum wage "this fall or sooner" -- meaning, in time for the midterms, reports the Boston Globe.  "The promise of a vote is a victory for moderate Republicans, who have been clamoring to take up the minimum wage before the November elections.  Democrats have made the stagnant minimum wage a major campaign theme in a range of contested districts, particularly in industrial states."

The Democrats
The underlying message of a Roll Call report that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has made it clear to his caucus that the offshore drilling bill should not be blocked, so as to bolster Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu's chances of getting re-elected in 2008, is that Reid thinks that regaining the majority in the Senate will be a two-step -- i.e., 2006 and 2008 -- process.

Rep. John Murtha plans to stump for Democratic candidates in 41 states this fall, The Hill reports.  Murtha has announced, and temporarily suspended, a campaign for majority leader should Democrats retake the House in November.  But will he be welcomed with open arms?  One party lawmaker "said that while Murtha has a centrist record on many issues, voters would be most aware of his strong position against the war, which could alienate swing voters in states Bush won.  The lawmaker noted that Democrats need to capture districts in those so-called red states."

Ethics
Justice Department investigators are looking at records related to the negotiations over, and passage of the Help America Vote Act as part of their probe of then-House Administration Committee chair Bob Ney, who has serious Abramoff problems.

"Nearly five months after asking for them, the U.S. attorney's office is San Diego has not received any of the thousands of pages of documents it has sought... as part of the continuing criminal probe into the bribery scheme that brought down former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.)," Roll Call reports.  "Federal prosecutors and officials in the House general counsel's office are still negotiating over the parameters..., with the House officials seeking to narrow the scope of documents sought... from the Intelligence, Armed Services and Appropriations committees."

More on the midterms
While some political commentators say that liberal bloggers' attacks on the centrist Lieberman amount to an ideological witch-hunt, MSNBC.com notes that outside of this race, "the left-wing blogosphere this election cycle has often been more concerned about winning races against Republicans than battling over ideology."  For example, these bloggers have supported Senate candidates Bob Casey in Pennsylvania (despite his conservative views on abortion), Jim Webb in Virginia (even though he's a former Republican), and Ben Nelson in Nebraska (who's considered the Senate's most conservative Democrat).  "'There's more pragmatism among the bloggers than they get credit for,' says Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of The Hotline."

House Republicans will announce today that they've received pledges for at least $10 million, and have already collected about half that, for a new fundraising campaign.  They currently trail their Democratic counterparts in available cash. – Roll Call

USA Today notes that a record five -- out of eight -- women governors are on the ballot this November, and looks at why they seem to have more bipartisan appeal than their male counterparts.

A San Diego-area campaign stop yesterday "quickly turned into a bitter complaint session" for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), "with conservative voters visibly angry at him over illegal immigration and the parole of murderers...  The tone of the unscripted exchanges startled the governor," who later "told reporters that he found the questions, which went 'into dangerous areas,' troubling."  Democratic challenger Phil Angelides "ridiculed the governor for what he said were contradictory policies on immigration and his support of the Minuteman volunteer border-monitoring group." – Los Angeles Times

In an interview yesterday with a Spanish-language newspaper, Schwarzenegger said his onetime support for the state's anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 was "'wrong,'" the Sacramento Bee says.  "In the same interview, the Republican governor downplayed his past praise of the Minutemen...  Though the Republican governor has the backing of 85 percent of his own party's voters according to a Field Poll released this week, his leftward shift on immigration prompted criticism Tuesday from conservative Republicans at" that town hall outside San Diego.

The Bee also notes that President Bush's approval rating in a new Field Poll is 32% in California, which "is up slightly from 28 percent in late May, and about the same as April."

The New York Daily News has Sen. Hillary Clinton reaffirming her support of Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, and also saying that a Lieberman loss wouldn't negatively affect her.  "'Every case is different.  Every candidate is different.'"

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean is in Florida today, addressing an event in West Palm Beach.  A new Mason-Dixon poll on the Senate race there shows that Rep. Katherine Harris (R) "has lost almost half of the Republicans who planned to vote for her," and suggests she "has little chance of unseating Sen. Bill Nelson." – Miami Herald

The White House says it's standing behind its Senate candidate in Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, even after Steele conceded that he was the one quoted by the Washington Post on background yesterday morning saying that being a Republican is like wearing "a scarlet letter."  Steele is one of the GOP's top African-American candidates for office this year. – Washington Post

As part of its overall look at women governors on the ballot this fall, USA Today writes up the race in Michigan, in which onetime Democratic party rock star Jennifer Granholm is now "running no better than even against Republican Dick DeVos, a political neophyte who already has spent a record-shattering $10 million to air TV ads that depict him as a can-do businessman.  Granholm is scrambling to channel voter angst over the state's economic travails toward President Bush, GOP policies, free trade and globalization - and away from her."

The New York Times covers last night's debate between New York Democratic gubernatorial candidates Eliot Spitzer and Tom Suozzi.  "The debate... was seen by political analysts as a make-or-break moment for Mr. Suozzi, who has been lagging far behind Mr. Spitzer in public opinion polls and fund-raising."

In advance of Bush's August 2 fundraiser for Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell (R), Democratic opponent Ted Strickland's campaign yesterday sent out a fundraising e-mail to make political hay out of that visit.  "Bush "is helping Blackwell, just as Blackwell helped him in 2004," the e-mail says, reminding supporters of Blackwell's controversial role as the state's top elections official during the presidential contest.  "Together, they hope to raise 2 million dollars that night - and we urgently need your help to respond."

In Oklahoma yesterday, Rep. Ernest Istook (R) easily won his primary and will face Gov. Brad Henry (D) in the fall, the Tulsa World writes.

And Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman attends fundraising events for Sen. George Allen in Virginia.

“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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