Friday, July 28, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

  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

In today's issue:
Tony Blair gets overshadowed by Taylor Hicks?
Half of Congress departs for recess with little to show
Possible vote on a minimum wage hike today
The best presidential campaign reporter you never heard of

First glance
En route to California, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stops at the White House, where he's expected to ask President Bush to back an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East.  Blair also will be the third US ally in the Iraq war with whom Bush meets this week.  The two sit down at 11:10 am and hold a press availability at 12:30 pm.  The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows 45% approving of Bush's handling of the Middle East conflict -- but also shows that negotiating peace in the Middle East ranks fourth on people's lists of top foreign policy priorities for Bush and his Administration, at 11%.  Stabilizing Iraq ranks first at 20%, followed by fighting the war on terrorism (18%) and dealing with growing superpower China (12%).  North Korea, Iran and Darfur -- also likely topics of the Bush-Blair meeting -- place lower.

Bush then ducks into a phone booth and changes from his world-leader uniform into his regular-Joe suit for a photo op with the top 10 American Idol finalists.  He'll spend part of the weekend in Washington before heading to Miami, where he'll make remarks on the economy on Monday.

The House is about to become the first chamber to empty out for the August recess, not to return until September; the Senate will be in session for another week.  Both parties are taking stock of what they have to promote during the break, and signs point to both coming up a bit short.  Republicans can claim few real accomplishments from this past work session -- unless you give points for scheduling, that is.  Yesterday, the GOP leadership announced 21 hearings on immigration reform in 13 states during the next month.  The point of this latest round of hearings, once again, appears to be to gin up public opposition to the proposed guest-worker program supported by Bush and passed by the Senate.

Another sign that Republicans feel they're coming up short: last-minute consideration of a vote on a minimum wage hike.  NBC's Mike Viqueira notes that in a concession to their endangered moderates, House GOP leaders may bring a minimum wage hike to the floor today as their last act before leaving town.  They're looking at a phased-in increase to $7.25 per hour, up from the current $5.15.  But an increase would be paired with a measure that would allow for the creation of association health plans, a potential poison pill for Democrats.  As Viq notes, many GOP conservatives staunchly oppose the minimum wage.  And as loudly as Democrats have called for an increase lately, making it a plank of their "New Direction" agenda, they're not eager to give Republicans any victories in these months leading up to election day.  They could point to the association health plans measure as a reason why they feel forced to withhold support for the wage hike.  Partisan politicking may well stymie a measure that 76% of Americans support, according to the NBC/Journal poll.

As for Democrats, they spent a lot of time yesterday rolling out a six-point agenda that contained nothing new, but provides them with a playbook for August and the fall, as one party source concedes to First Read.  One of those six points is preserving Social Security, even though Bush's desired changes to the entitlement program don't stand a chance of passing, or probably even of making it to the floor in either chamber for the duration of his presidency.  Americans United, the liberal group that helped defeat Social Security private accounts last year, also tells First Read that the group will be running ads in five TV markets next week that cover important battlegrounds: Harrisburg, PA; West Palm Beach, FL; Montana; Jefferson City, MO; and Columbus, OH.  The ads -- with the message, "Don't let them cut Social Security" -- show seniors sharing a hot dog for dinner and cutting a pill in half.

Why the ongoing effort by Democrats to keep this issue alive?  We can think of two reasons: First, because it motivates the senior vote, and second, because it does for Democrats what the war on terror does for Republicans, which is unite them behind a single, proven successful rallying cry.

But just because they're leaving town doesn't mean that crazy House magic is gone.  On Monday, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) is scheduled to debate her runoff opponent, Hank Johnson, Jr.  McKinney skipped some debates during the primary campaign, then failed to win the necessary 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff.  The Monday event takes place at the Atlanta Press Club from 7:30-8:00 pm.  Also on Monday, a federal appeals court will hear Texas Republicans' case for removing former Rep. Tom DeLay's name from the ballot in his district, which would allow them to substitute another candidate.

And for this Friday's look at the oh-eight presidential race, we'll introduce you to the newest member of perhaps the most exclusive club in politics, the cadre of top political journalists in early primary and caucus states.  The expected addition of a Nevada caucus to the roster of early Democratic (at least) contests in 2008 is putting the Silver State's top political reporter in league with Iowa's David Yepsen and New Hampshire's John DiStaso.  So who is he?  See below.

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

Security politics
Bloomberg reports that Blair "will press [Bush] to back an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah fighters and to work on a United Nations resolution spelling out the terms of a peace plan...  Bush has refused to call for Israel to stop its bombardment, noting Hezbollah started the conflict, and to date Blair has sided with him."

"Blair is under growing pressure at home for Britain to distance itself from the U.S. and call for an immediate end to violence between Israel and Hezbollah," the AP reports.  "Many in Britain believe he should align himself with the United Nations and European Union and call for an immediate end to the fighting in Lebanon, and use the White House meeting to press Bush to add his support to such a move."

The New York Times reports on a public opinion survey in The Guardian on Tuesday, which showed "a majority of Britons" saying Blair "should show more independence from the United States - mimicking the 'Love Actually' moment from the movie of that name starring Hugh Grant as a British prime minister who breaks publicly with an American president."

As NBC's Ken Strickland suggested yesterday, the confirmation of UN Ambassador (via recess appointment) John Bolton seems headed toward "another partisan showdown on the Senate floor, although Democrats would not say whether their opposition would amount to a filibuster as it did last year," reports the AP.

The Washington Post covers an "obscure law" approved by the GOP-run Congress in 1996 which "has made the Bush administration nervous that officials and troops involved in handling detainee matters might be accused of committing war crimes, and prosecuted at some point in U.S. courts."

As part of their week of planned events to counter/challenge the Administration on the war, given Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's visit, Senate Democrats hold an informal hearing on alleged "cronyism and waste" in Iraqi hospital contracting.

And just in time for August, AP reports that anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan has bought five acres of land in Crawford, using the insurance settlement from her son's death in Iraq.  The land will give war protestors a place to camp out.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
"'American Idol' will reach the pinnacle of political validation today," the Los Angeles Times says of this afternoon's White House photo op.  "It's not as if the blockbuster Fox show needs more publicity...  But Bush could use a ratings boost."  The story notes, "Although the president is following a time-honored tradition of hosting popular champions at the White House, the juxtaposition with world events could strike some as a bit jarring."

USA Today: "Visiting with the most recent stars of the Fox TV show is the latest example of Bush being a regular guy, exuding a down-home style that has been both a blessing and curse to the president...  Wayne Fields, director of American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said these moments help Bush relate to average Americans.  'The problem,' he added, 'is that in times of real crisis, people begin to think maybe you need somebody who is extraordinary.'"

Pension reform has stalled. The Wall Street Journal ties that effort to the movement for a minimum wage hike.  "Lurking behind both fronts is an election-year gamble by party leaders to mount yet another attempt to cut the federal estate tax, benefiting some of America's wealthiest households.  In advancing this effort, the pension bill has been put in jeopardy, because popular tax breaks -- which had been destined to be part of the measure -- will instead be packaged with the new estate-tax bill in the House.  At the same time, the Republican focus on estate taxes has fed into a Democratic campaign demanding that Congress first help the working poor by raising the minimum wage, frozen at $5.15 an hour since 1997."

Supporters of legislation that would prevent people from helping pregnant girls circumvent parental-notification laws by traveling across state lines are directing their ire, and their phone-banking efforts, onto Senate Democrats for blocking the bill in that chamber, the Washington Times says.

It's the economy...
$10.36 billion.  ExxonMobil's second-highest quarterly profit ever is "likely to intensify political anger at the oil industry at a time when many U.S. consumers are paying more than $3 a gallon for gasoline," per the Wall Street Journal.  The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows 40% of those polled saying gas prices and energy costs are the most important economic issue facing the country, with the "gap between rich and poor" at a distant second, at 18%.

"...[T]he rich harvest of profit was joined by calls from some in Congress to tax the profit windfall at large oil companies to compensate for the increasing pressure put on consumers' budgets and the risk that higher energy costs would slow the economy." - New York Times

Former White House chief of staff Andy Card "has joined the board of Union Pacific, the largest US rail operator, reinforcing the close relationship between the Bush administration and big business." - Financial Times

The Democrats
Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean addresses the National Urban League's annual convention in Atlanta this morning; RNC chair Ken Mehlman addressed the group yesterday.  In his remarks, Dean will likely keep up Democrats' criticism of the GOP's record on protecting minority voting rights in their effort to counter Bush's signing of the Voting Rights Act reauthorization yesterday.

The Washington Times covers the web ad Democrats displayed for reporters yesterday which "shows several clips of Mr. Bush using the phrase 'stay the course,' contrasted with statistics on the national debt, record-high gas prices and increased health care and college costs for middle-class families.  'His message: Stay the course,' the ad states.  'Our message: A new direction.  Now.  Vote Democrats ... for a change.'"

Ethics
The Washington Post front-pages the ties between House Government Reform Committee chair Tom Davis and an old friend and high-tech consultant who has done well by his clients with the help of his ties to Davis and his office.  Davis' wife also works for the consultant.  The House Ethics Committee "told the congressman that his wife can work for the consulting firm as long as the couple does not personally benefit from any official acts by the congressman."

More on the midterms
House Republican campaign committee chair Tom Reynolds holds an off-camera briefing with reporters to talk about the midterm elections at 10:00 am.  He might get asked about why his own first TV ad of the fall campaign doesn't seem to mention his party affiliation.

Although it's four years from now, former NBA star Charles Barkley says he's thinking about running for Alabama governor as a Democrat in 2010, the AP says.  "Barkley continued to identify himself as a Republican until recently, when he switched parties.  'I was a Republican until they lost their minds,' he said earlier this month."

Blair's trip to California will include a shared moment on-stage with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).  "...[A]ides to Mr Blair insisted there was logic to the talks with Mr Schwarzenegger," because there are "'synergies'" between their approaches to stem cell research and climate change. - Financial Times

The San Francisco Chronicle says that since the June 6 primary, Schwarzenegger has raised nearly twice the amount of money that challenger Phil Angelides (D) has.

In Connecticut, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) is up with a new TV ad featuring former President Clinton.  "'I'm proud that I helped Joe Lieberman in 1970, proud that we've been friends all these years,' Mr. Clinton says in the opening of the ad.  Then he ends: 'Go out and elect Joe Lieberman.  He's earned it.  He's done you proud.'"  Meanwhile, challenger Ned Lamont is blanketing the airwaves with an ad showing him with students. - New York Times

Maryland Senate candidate Michael Steele (R) has suggested that his talk with reporters on Monday, which caused a mini-firestorm because he likened being a Republican to wearing a scarlet letter, was off the record and that the Washington Post reporter who published his comments "'decided to stick his finger in my eye and the president's eye by going public with that conversation.'"  In fact, the conversation was on background -- at least until Steele outed himself a day later.

Another Republican is having to make amends for things he's said: Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, who faces a tough re-election fight, is apologizing "for criticizing a firefighting team for its work on a blaze in southern Montana, saying his frustration came from a meeting with upset landowners." - Associated Press

In Texas, per the Houston Chronicle, gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn (I) has dropped her legal fight to be listed on the ballot as "Grandma," after a state judge ruled she didn't have jurisdiction to hear the case.  "'You will hear people across this state calling me by my nickname,' Strayhorn said.  'I just won't be on the ballot with my nickname.'"  (You will also continue to hear us call Strayhorn by our nickname for her: Scott McClellan's mom.)

Oh-eight: The Nevada caucuses
There are several ways you could gain national fame or notoriety during a presidential election.  For starters, you could run.  You also could claim you had an affair with one of the contenders; release an incendiary film about the incumbent; or -- our personal favorite -- challenge MSNBC's Chris Matthews to a duel.  As few and far between as such occurrences are, so are the moments when a local political reporter becomes a big fish in the pond that is national politics.

Meet the next big fish.  Until now, he's been a prominent political journalist in Nevada who currently publishes his own newsletter, hosts a TV show, writes columns for two Las Vegas papers, and frequently serves as a guest commentator.  As if that isn't enough, his job is about to become more challenging, now that the Democratic National Committee is poised to give Nevada a second-in-the-nation caucus to be held on the Saturday after Iowa's and before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.  And Nevada Republicans may follow suit and schedule a caucus for the same day.  Suddenly, he won't just be vetting local pols anymore.  David Yepsen, John DiStaso -- meet Jon Ralston.

A Buffalo, NY native, Ralston completed his undergraduate studies at Cornell University and earned a master's in journalism from the University of Michigan, then moved west and began his career in Las Vegas on the night police beat for the Review-Journal.  Several years later, he started the Ralston Report, a daily political newsletter he still writes today, 20 years after he started covering politics for the Review-Journal.  Nevada's early caucus will make Ralston, the foremost expert on Nevada politics, as influential a reporter and handicapper as Yepsen of the Des Moines Register and DiStaso of the Manchester Union Leader.  Like them, Ralston will cover the presidential race in its early stages, analyzing the political landscape for reporters who are based far away and aren't as well positioned to observe for themselves.

Asked what he thinks about being compared to Yepsen, Ralston says he's flattered.  "I'd be honored to reach that level," he tells First Read.  "I actually do take that responsibility seriously, but I also think I am going to have a lot of fun."  Nevada will be a "brave new world," he thinks, as its voters and election officials try to adjust to their new status.  But the reality that this is a "big deal" hasn't quite hit home yet for Nevadans, Ralston says.  "I do not think that the average person has picked up on the significance of this."

While it's too far out to predict which other issues will play big in the state, Ralston notes that it'll be interesting to see if candidates like former Sen. John Edwards (D) change their position on the plan to turn Yucca Mountain into a repository for nuclear waste.  But Edwards, who voted for the project, may not lose too many votes over it.  What's important is grassroots support, Ralston says, and Edwards has strong support from unions, which are quite prominent there.

Ralston jokes that maybe he should prepare a guidebook for reporters who will soon descend on the state.  But in case you're curious now, he has a few suggestions.  Whereas reporters covering the Iowa caucuses in January rotate between dining at Centro and 801, Ralston says reporters will have a plethora of restaurants to choose from, especially on the famed Paradise Road and, of course, the Strip.  And for those of us who know how painfully cold Des Moines can be in January, he says the weather in Nevada at that time of year is "beautiful," and that while the temperatures are "cool," in his 22 years in the state, it has snowed only twice.

With all the advantages for Nevada if the DNC approves the plan, Ralston can only think of one drawback: "The only con that I can see is that we're not before Iowa."  (Kidding!)

More oh-eight
Now that Mass Pike Chairman Matt Amorello has stepped down, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) "faces the biggest crisis of his Bay State tenure, with pitfalls that could further sink the effort and possibly his political future," says the Boston Herald.  "Romney has put himself in the spotlight since the deadly July 10 tunnel collapse, repeatedly calling TV cameras to the State House for briefings.  But some national pundits wonder if his commandeering of the project could backfire." - Boston Herald

Two Democratic presidential candidates give "major" speeches on Monday.  Sen. Hillary Clinton will give her fourth "major policy address, this time on rural issues, in Lockport, NY at 12 noon.  Clinton has already delivered policy speeches on the economy, energy and privacy.  And Sen. John Kerry will give a "major speech" on health care at Faneuil Hall in Boston, also at 12 noon.  (What's his fascination with Faneuil Hall?  He keeps giving speeches there.  It's a symbol of patriotism, sure, but isn't it also a reminder of his concession to Bush?)

And in a Boston Globe op-ed, which might be read by Democrats in neighboring New Hampshire, Sen. Joe Biden (D) lays out his proposal for how to achieve diplomacy in the Middle East and how the Administration should "reconstruct the alliance that ejected Syria from Lebanon."

“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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