Monday, July 31, 2006 | 4:35 p.m. ET
From Joel Seidman, Alex Isenstadt and Huma Zaidi

  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
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    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

DeLay on the ballot in November?
This afternoon, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether or not former Rep. Tom DeLay's name must appear on the ballot in this fall's congressional election, even though the Texas Republican left his seat in June. During the 45-minute hearing, state Republicans argued that voters should be allowed to replace DeLay's name on the ballot since anything less would be a violation of their voting rights, and that because DeLay is now a Virginia resident, he is clearly ineligible to appear on the ballot. Democrats, however, said that DeLay's residence is not conclusive and that Texas law states that a candidate who wants to withdraw from the race cannot be replaced on the ballot if the opposing party has a viable candidate. The court is expected to make a decision in the next two weeks.

Tied to today's hearing, the Texas Democratic Party held a conference call with reporters and said they are "confident" that the judges will decide the case in their favor. Party chair Boyd Ritchie said Republican primary voters had chosen DeLay to be the party nominee -- and now the GOP party heads were trying to "game the system." "Tom DeLay won that primary and decided to cut and run. Republicans I've spoken to are disgusted with the party for trying to manipulate the electoral process," he said. Party officials on the call also stressed that they are confident in Democratic nominee Nick Lampson, who they said was "set up and prepared to run a campaign against and second, third, or fourth choice candidate the Republicans pick."

Monday, July 31, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

In today's issue:

FIRST GLANCE
Florida's sizable Jewish community will pay particular attention to President Bush's expected comments in Miami today on the situation in the Middle East and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's call for an "urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement." 

Judging from his schedule, Bush's other topics for the day include disaster preparedness, port security, and the economy, about which he'll speak at 10:10 am.  We'll see whether he veers from his usual stump speech about indicators pointing to a strong US economy to recognize the latest signs of a slowdown; address high gas prices and/or the bill to expand oil and gas drilling off of Florida's coast, which the Senate is scheduled to take up today; or call on the Senate to pass any of the measures just shoveled onto their plate by the departing House, including a partial estate tax repeal, extensions of some of business tax breaks, and a minimum wage increase which GOP conservatives oppose but which 76% of Americans support, per the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

11th-hour passage of a minimum wage hike tied to a series of tax breaks gives them some accomplishments to tout during the August recess, but burdens a Senate that already had enough to tackle before leaving town.  As a result, action on some priorities will likely be postponed until September or even later to a lame-duck session.  The way House Republicans rushed to pass the package also exacerbated already existing tensions between the two chambers, which may come back to haunt efforts to achieve a compromise on immigration reform before the midterm elections.  Leading Senate Democrats say they'll filibuster the package, arguing that a minimum wage hike paired up with more tax breaks for the rich is hypocritical and unfair.  Republicans will spin a filibuster as Democratic obstruction of their efforts to help the poor, hoping to defuse a plank of Democrats' 2006 platform.

That House GOP leaders even allowed a vote on the minimum wage increase was widely viewed as a concession to their moderate ranks who face tough re-election campaigns.  But it also suggests some nervousness among the ranks that the way the Administration and the party leadership talk about the economy isn't resonating with the public.  Record high gas prices might be the biggest reason why arguments about stats like the GDP aren't winning many converts, but another reason could be that the White House continues to emphasize low unemployment and over 5 million jobs created in the past few years, when for many Americans, the issue is no longer jobs -- it's wages.  As our NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters note, unlike during the 1990s, unemployment is no longer the bar by which people determine whether or not the economy is doing well.  That is now being assessed by other factors.  In the latest NBC/Journal poll, 40% ranked gas prices as the most important economic issue facing the country.  Second to that, 18% said "the gap between rich and poor."  Unemployment rated near the bottom with 5%.

In addition to his economic speech, Bush today also sits down for an interview with NBC's Telemundo, visits the National Hurricane Center, tours the Port of Miami, and headlines a Republican National Committee fundraiser before heading back to the White House this afternoon, where he'll meet with Rice.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid will criticize the House GOP's minimum wage hike/tax-cut package in remarks at the liberal Center for American Progress at 12:30 pm.  He'll also take on the GOP's "values agenda."   Per advance excerpts, Reid will criticize Republicans for devoting time to polarizing social issues when gas prices are at record highs and the Middle East is roiling.  "There's not a single proposal there" -- in the "values agenda" -- "to address the every day problems families encounter," Reid is expected to say.  The pro-life Senate Democrat will focus on abortion specifically. 

Connecticut's two biggest papers yesterday endorsed Sen. Joe Lieberman in his Democratic primary on August 8, while the New York Times endorsed challenger Ned Lamont.  Meanwhile, former President Clinton comes to the aide of yet another Senate Democrat who has supported the war in Iraq and faces a primary challenge, albeit not as great a threat as Lieberman faces. Clinton will be in Seattle tonight campaigning for Sen. Maria Cantwell.  Due to Senate votes, Cantwell will participate via video.

Also today, 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.

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

SECURITY POLITICS
Just before boarding her flight back to Washington earlier this morning, Rice said "she will seek international consensus for a cease-fire and a 'lasting settlement' in the conflict between Lebanon and Israel through a U.N. Security Council resolution this week," per the AP

A New York Times analysis says it was the United States that produced, and then announced, the concession from Israel that it would suspend aerial strikes for 48 hours after Qana.  "The American decision to break the news on what was essentially an Israeli tactical change reflected the increased concern in the Bush administration about the rising civilian death toll in Lebanon and the havoc it is wreaking with America's already shaky relations with the Arab world." 

In the wake of the attack, the Washington Post examines the potential for a backlash against "Israel and its prime sponsor."  "Analysts think that if the war drags on, as appears likely, it could leave the United States more isolated than at any time since the Iraq invasion three years ago and hindered in its foreign policy goals such as shutting down Iran's nuclear program and spreading democracy around the world."  Still, Bush "hopes the crisis will ultimately help him rally world leaders against Iran's nuclear program." 

A new Financial Times poll shows British Prime Minister Tony Blair's popularity at an all-time low.  "The prime minister, who is facing unease in the British cabinet over his closeness to George W. Bush, appears to have lost more public support for his backing of the US president's strategy" in the Middle East "than he did over Britain's involvement in the Iraq war three years ago

IT'S THE ECONOMY...
Bloomberg points out that Bush has been mum about high gas prices: "after nine energy-policy speeches between February and May," he "has mentioned his strategy only once in the past two months -- a period in which oil futures reached a record $78.40 a barrel...  Bush's silence is an implicit acknowledgement that the U.S. government, particularly one run by a president devoted to free-market principles, doesn't have much influence over energy prices." 

MORE ON THE BUSH/GOP AGENDA
The Washington Post
says Bush's trip to Florida suggests "the depth of White House concern over his political standing as Republicans head into the campaign with a leader whose approval ratings remain stuck in the 30s.  The president rarely travels domestically on the weekend and almost never spends the night in a city within easy flying time of Washington." 

The Miami Herald, writing up Bush's "warm reception" in Miami yesterday. notes that the trip "is the second out-of-town, extended stay for the president in the span of a month.  And political observers suggest that the trips are aimed at rebutting critics who say Bush is out of touch." 

"Congress is leaving for a month-long recess with so much unfinished business that it's planning a fifth consecutive post-election session, the most since 1935," says USA Today, which raises the possibility that "important business could be completed by lawmakers who have been rejected by voters.  If Republicans lose control of Congress, they'd still direct the agenda until January, when lawmakers are sworn in." 

The Wall Street Journal forecasts Senate passage of the pension-reform bill but rough sailing for the minimum wage/tax cut package.  "Republicans hope that adding the minimum-wage provisions might win over Democrats and some Republican moderates, such as Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee.  House Republicans used the estate tax to get their own conservatives to vote for a minimum-wage increase and thereby help moderates under pressure from unions in the Northeast...  An administration official said the White House had hoped for a stronger bill" on the estate-tax repeal, "but that the president will sign it." 

The Los Angeles Times says of House Republicans' August field hearings on immigration reform that they "continue to bet that their push for enforcement-only legislation is more appealing to voters than the Senate formula...  Reflecting that belief, the upcoming House hearings are scheduled not only in states struggling with illegal immigration... but in states such as Indiana, where several Republican House members are struggling to get reelected." 

Given how pressed they are for time, the Senate isn't likely to take up any more controversial judicial nominations before election day, Roll Call says. 

The New York Times reports on a "'conservative boot camp'" for college students, where they read conservative scholars, debate abortion and the Iraq war, and pay homage to Ronald Reagan's "Western White House." 

THE DEMOCRATS
First Read recently summarized the Democratic party's various voter turnout plans being implemented for the fall, noting that the party's challenge is to build a turnout machine that will take advantage of the voter enthusiasm they're seeing in the polls, and not let a single potentially competitive state or district fall through the cracks.  Unlike in 2004, we wrote, there's no presidential campaign to oversee a unified get-out-the-vote effort, leaving the various campaign committees and interest groups to undertake their own, and some of the operatives who were involved in the 2004 effort are focusing on the next presidential race -- not on the midterms.  The Washington Post reported that indeed, three of the party's top field organizers are undertaking a new GOTV project -- for 2008. 

The Boston Globe notes that last week's renewal of the Voting Rights Act "overshadowed a quiet but growing debate among Democrats: whether mostly black voting districts in cities like Petersburg [Virginia] -- which helped elect the state's first African-American House member in more than 100 years -- should be diluted to spread around liberal voters and help elect more Democrats get to Congress." 

ETHICS
Arguments begin this morning before a federal appeals court in Austin on whether the Texas Republican Party is stuck with former Rep. Tom DeLay's name on the ballot as their candidate for his old seat.  NBC's Joel Seidman reports that state party attorney Jim Bopp says he expects the three-judge panel to render a ruling "within two weeks."  Bopp says that these judges have had no other campaign or political fund-raising cases before them and are a "clean slate" as far as their record on these issues.  Business and government strategist Billy Moore (D) notes for his Texas associates, "The panel hearing the case consists of two appointees of President Bill Clinton and an appointee of President George W. Bush."

MORE ON THE MIDTERMS
The chair of the GOP House campaign committee is now naming names of potentially vulnerable incumbents, reports Roll Call, including members in Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Indiana. 

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt tells Bloomberg that Bush's "personal appearances on the campaign trail may have limited appeal for some Republican congressional candidates, though they'd welcome the money he raises and visits by first lady Laura Bush." 

The Dallas Morning News profiles two of the GOP's most influential donors, Bob Perry and James Leininger.  Perry, who donated $8 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, and Leininger, who funds the Texas Public Policy Foundation, have remained invisible but are now "taking measured steps into the public eye - acknowledging that their enduring silence has let critics define them as spooky, secretive power mongers."  The two are "unapologetic for their political influence, and both are expected to be major players in this fall's elections." 

Tony Blair becomes a factor in the CALIFORNIA gubernatorial race?  Incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) meets with Blair and a bunch of corporate executives today to discuss efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  The Wall Street Journal notes that "President Bush's top environmental adviser, James Connaughton, won't attend, because of a scheduling conflict."  Schwarzenegger challenger Phil Angelides (D) also is scheduled to get time with Blair and hold a media availability afterward. 

The Sacramento Bee previews Bill Clinton's stop tomorrow to campaign for Angelides -- and how Clinton's appearance comes nearly two weeks after his new buddy, George HW Bush, stumped for Schwarzenegger. 

Today's Wall Street Journal runs David Broder's column from yesterday's Washington Post on the CONNECTICUT Senate primary: "Democrats everywhere are looking to Connecticut for clues about the party's direction. The primary will probably point them leftward, toward a stronger anti-war stand.  But often in the past, the early successes of these elitist insurgents have been followed by decisive defeats when a broader public weighs in.  That is why this contest is so consequential for the Democratic Party." 

US News & World Report writes that "the Lieberman-Lamont primary has shaped up as a head-on collision between the Democrats' staunchly antiwar base and party leaders worried about the security and political implications of an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, not only in the fall but also in 2008." 

According to the Hartford Courant, four of Lieberman's Senate colleagues campaigned for and with him yesterday.  Lamont campaigned with Rep. Maxine Waters of California.  Lieberman says he thinks Bill Clinton's appearance on his behalf will wind up being the turning point in the race. 

In GEORGIA, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) is scheduled to debate her runoff opponent, Hank Johnson, Jr., at the Atlanta Press Club from 7:30 pm till 8:00 pm.  McKinney skipped some debates during the primary campaign, then failed to win the necessary 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff.  The runoff takes place on August 8.s

With MICHIGAN's primary on August 8, Republican Senate candidate Mike Bouchard today campaigns for a second day with conservative rocker Ted Nugent.  The winner of the GOP primary, either Bouchard or Keith Butler, will face incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D).

In his Sunday Chicago Sun-Times' column, Bob Novak said that "Republican senators at last week's Tuesday luncheon meeting were stunned by news from OHIO of the Columbus Dispatch poll showing Sen. Mike DeWine behind his Democratic challenger, Rep. Sherrod Brown, by 8 percentage points...  Ohio, long regarded as the national key to Republican fortunes, is shaping up as a disaster area for the GOP in the wake of Gov. Bob Taft's unpopular administration.  The Dispatch poll has Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland leading Secretary of State Ken Blackwell by 20 percentage points for governor." 

President Bush is scheduled to campaign for Blackwell on Wednesday.

In VIRGINIA, a Richmond Times-Dispatch poll released on Sunday shows Sen. George Allen (R) leading challenger Jim Webb (D) by 48%-32%, with 20% undecided.  "As an early snapshot of a race that could help decide control of the Senate, the poll suggests Allen is using the advantages of incumbency, including a huge edge in fundraising, to navigate potential hazards."

OH-EIGHT
Two Democratic presidential candidates give "major" speeches today.  Sen. Hillary Clinton will give her fourth "major policy address, this time on rural issues, in Lockport, N.Y. at 12 noon.  And Sen. John Kerry will give a "major speech" on health care at Faneuil Hall in Boston, also at 12 noon.  Per his office and per excerpts, Kerry seems to be trying to capitalize on the public's frustration with the pace of Congress lately.  His office touts how he is "refusing to walk the timid path of Washington incrementalism, and instead fighting to guarantee universal health care by 2012, starting immediately with all of America's children, and putting soaring health care costs first and foremost on the agenda."  Kerry previews his speech with a Boston Globe op-ed.

The Indianapolis Star reported yesterday that Sen. Evan Bayh (D) has gotten DNC members from his home state of Indiana to agree to oppose the proposed changes to the party's presidential nominating calendar in early 2008.  Bayh currently doesn't appear to have any advantage in either Nevada or South Carolina, the two states which are likely to be awarded new early contests because of their sizable populations of Hispanic and African-American voters. 

The Boston Globe: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) left the state and the Big Dig behind him this past weekend to visit Iowa, where he "portrayed his stewardship of the crisis as a sign that he is 'willing to take action.'  Romney, in his first significant out-of-state political trip since the July 10 accident, told 200 people at a Republican lunch yesterday that he had stepped in to oversee the beleaguered $14.6 billion project when others would not."  He called the Dig a "tar baby."  "Romney's rhetoric suggests that he and his advisers sense an opportunity to write a new and glowing chapter in his political biography." 

More from the Globe: Afterward, Romney had to apologize for "using the expression 'tar baby' -- a phrase some consider a racial epithet." 

And the Washington Times covers the re-emergence of Newt Gingrich (R).

“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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