Thursday, August 3, 2006 | 3:00 p.m. ET
From Mark Murray

  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

DeLay's seat: a pick-up for Democrats?
A federal appeals court has just ruled that Texas Republicans can't replace former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's name on November's ballot. And that appears to be a blow to Republicans.

The ruling, it seems, forces them to have DeLay run for re-election, or essentially concede the race to Democratic nominee Nick Lampson, a former Texas congressman who lost his seat in DeLay's Texas redistricting scheme.

If the latter happens, that would put Democrats one step closer to netting the 15 seats they need to retake control of Congress in November. In recent days, DeLay has suggested that he might indeed run for re-election, if the court forced him to remain on the ballot. But it would be a tough contest for him; after all, there were reasons -- his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff among them -- why he decided back in April not to run for re-election.

A spokesman at the GOP House campaign committee declined to comment on the court's ruling, saying the were awaiting DeLay to make his own statement.

Thursday, August 3, 2006 | 12:45 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner

RNC meets in Minneapolis
MINNEAPOLIS -- The formal intent of the Republican National Committee's summer meeting here may be to take stock of the looming midterm elections, but the buzz, once again, is about all matters 2008. Representatives of the camps of Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney are working the RNC members. (A convention of Screaming Eagles, a/k/a the 101st Airborne Division, also taking place at the hotel was jokingly referred to as the "McCain advance team" by one member.)

The meeting will be the RNC's last before they gather to hold their chairmanship election in January, but one wired-in RNC member says he presumes current chair Ken Mehlman is running for a second term because, he says, Mehlman is already meeting with aides to the various GOP presidential candidates. And as members go from meeting to reception to meeting, they're sizing up Minneapolis as a possible convention site -- the city is one of four on the RNC's short list. (Imagine the possibilities for donor events at the Mall of America...)

Thursday, August 3, 2006 | 9:43 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

In today's issue:

  • Bush heads to the border, then to the ranch
  • Iraq is back as Rumsfeld faces emboldened Senate Democrats
  • Lamont's cruising in Connecticut


    FIRST GLANCE
    President Bush heads to McAllen and Mission, TX for events and remarks on immigration reform.  As a reminder of the challenge he faces in nudging the Senate and House toward a compromise that he can accept, the Senate yesterday approved funding for the construction of 300 miles of fencing (plus 570 miles of other barriers) along the nation's border with Mexico, while House Republican leaders, whose bill calls for 700 miles of fencing, are insisting that border security issues like these be tackled first, before the guest-worker plan that Bush wants and the Senate has passed.

    Looking to set the tone on Iraq as they prepare to break for the August recess, Senate Democrats are expected to aggressively question Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a 9:30 am Armed Services hearing on Iraq.  They're emboldened not only by a letter signed by top party lawmakers earlier this week expressing a unified position on US troop withdrawal, but by their success yesterday in haranguing Rumsfeld into appearing before the committee's scheduled open session as opposed to briefing them behind closed doors.  Democrats complained that Rumsfeld has not publicly testified about Iraq before the committee in six months.  Sen. Hillary Clinton took the lead in that criticism and claimed victory in a press release after Rumsfeld changed his mind.

    At the same time, as we have said before, what's going on in Connecticut highlights a party split over what to do about Iraq.  A new Quinnipiac poll has challenger Ned Lamont leading Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) by 13 points, 54%-41%, among likely primary voters -- up from a four-point lead in last month's poll.  Lamont voters were asked if Lieberman's support of the Iraq war is the main reason they're against him; 44% say it is.  MSNBC.com's Tom Curry reports from the Lieberman-Lamont battlefield below.

Reporters looking to gauge the mood and enthusiasm of GOP donors and activists will converge upon the Republican National Committee's summer meeting in potential 2008 convention city Minneapolis.  One under-the-radar dynamic of the meeting is that it will be the last one before the RNC's next chairmanship election in January.  (RNC chairs serve two-year terms; DNC chairs serve four-year terms.)  Sometime between November 7 and January, current chair Ken Mehlman could decide against seeking re-election, opting not to spend the next 18 months playing referee to a multitude of warring presidential candidates.

And after today, one of the most anticipated -- and already, one of the most written about -- Senate races in the country will get underway.  Tennessee Democrats will make the obvious official today, nominating Rep. Harold Ford as their candidate for retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's seat.  Republicans will finally settle on a nominee between three candidates who have been attacking each other for months: conservative former Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary and more moderate former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.  A recent Mason-Dixon poll had Corker at 39%, Bryant at 23%, and Hilleary at 22% (there is no runoff for this primary).

Democratic strategists believe that Tennessee could be the elusive sixth seat -- after Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Montana, Missouri, and Ohio -- they must net in order to retake control of the Senate.  But the odds of that happening seem to depend on whom Ford faces, among other factors.  According to the Mason-Dixon poll, Corker led Ford in a hypothetical match-up, 49%-36%, while match-ups between Ford and the other two Republicans showed statistical dead heats.  Ford's camp disputes the poll results, arguing that the pollsters oversampled Republicans, but an earlier University of Tennessee poll showed nearly similar results: Corker leading Ford, though by a narrower margin, and Ford tied with the other two.

National Democrats have showered praise on Ford's campaign so far: He's raised more than $6 million and has $1.8 million in the bank, and his TV ads have aggressively tackled gas prices and national security issues, including blasting Iraqi leaders for considering granting amnesty to insurgents who've killed US troops, among other topics.  Tonight, former President Clinton will help Ford raise more money at a fundraiser in Nashville.  But Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report tells First Read that the moderate and personally wealthy Corker, if he becomes the nominee, would have a chance to neutralize Ford in this increasingly Republican state.  "Corker has a great appeal to more 'country club' Republicans," she says.  "Against either Hilleary or Bryant, those voters might be inclined to vote for Ford."  Duffy notes that a Ford-Corker match-up would be competitive, and that conservative voters might possibly abandon Corker.  But even so, "you have to put a thumb on the scale for Corker" because Tennessee is a GOP-leaning state.

The closer Ford makes the general election, the closer Democrats can legitimately talk about having enough seats in play to take back the Senate.  "Missouri is the bellwether, and Tennessee is the firewall," Duffy explains.  Polls close at 8:00 pm ET.

First Read will be taking Fridays off in August, so we'll return on Monday, August 7.  Have you checked out MSNBC.com's political calendar lately? 


SECURITY POLITICS
The APnotes Rumsfeld yesterday suggesting that politics could be playing into his critics' demands that he testify publicly, and also reports that the Pentagon gave no reason for his change of heart on appearing today. 

The Democrats' stance on Iraq specifically avoids "any mention of a date for the removal of all forces from Iraq" and "calls for limiting the future mission of U.S. troops to counterterrorism, training and logistical support for the Iraqi army and protecting U.S. personnel...  It was seen as a reluctant recognition by House and Senate Democratic leaders that a precipitous pullout still remains unpopular among most Americans, as shown in a Gallup Poll," writes the Washington Times

With the death of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus' nephew in Iraq, the New York Times notes the handful of children and relatives of members of Congress who are serving (or who had served) in the military overseas.  "A White House aide... said Wednesday that he knew of no top Bush administration official who had a relative who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan." 

The Washington Post says that the GOP's strong support for Israel could pay off down the road because of its appeal to Orthodox Jews, the fastest-growing slice of the Jewish population. 

The new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll shows majority support for Israel and "evolving" public opinion on what the US involvement in the conflict should be, and also shows "that the Democrats have not yet created a groundswell of opposition over concerns that civil liberties are being inappropriately sacrificed as the administration pursues its national security policies." 

IT'S THE ECONOMY...
The poll also shows that the Administration's hoped-for public recognition of a growing US economy "hasn't materialized," and compounding that problem for the GOP, "the economy may have peaked months before the election."  More: "The 56-month expansion is the fourth-longest since World War II.  The economy has generated 5.4 million new jobs since June 2003, and the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.6 percent, a level economists consider full employment.  Yet many Americans remain unimpressed."  As we wrote earlier this week, the public no longer appears to measure the nation's economic well-being according to the level of unemployment. 

Another Bloomberg story looks at the widening "wealth gap," which "is reviving protectionism in Congress, awakening a debate on the minimum wage, and making the Federal Reserve more sensitive to the risks of causing a collapse in financial and housing markets." 

At a Senate GOP rally yesterday, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports, Sen. Robert Bennett talked up economic growth and said that notwithstanding what some "Hollywood comedians" and "some of the scare people on cable TV" are saying, "the recovery has produced an enormous and exciting economic performance."

In a very August kind of detailed analysis, USA Today considers how the federal government does its accounting, noting that its rules "would be illegal for a corporation to use because they ignore important costs such as the growing expense of retirement benefits for civil servants and military personnel," and suggesting that "[g]ood accounting is crucial at a time when the government faces long-term challenges in paying benefits to tens of millions of Americans for Medicare, Social Security and government pensions." 

AUGUST
USA Todaynotes that Bush is taking just 10 days of vacation this month, "the shortest summer break of his presidency," with everything that's going on.  "Bush usually spends three to four weeks at his 1,600-acre spread near Crawford, Texas.  His rest, though, has been marred by wars, a re-election campaign, anti-war protests and Hurricane Katrina...  White House press secretary Tony Snow says Bush is taking a shorter break not because of criticism but because he has other things to do." 

The McAllen Monitor previews Bush's stop in the Valley today, which is his first since taking office:

As Bush reviews border operations there, the Washington Times notes that yesterday, 66 Senators changed their votes on a bill to pay for border fencing and patrol from "no" to "yes" since last month, when they voted on the same measure. 

Los Angeles Times: The latest hearing convened by House Republicans on immigration reform held true to form: witnesses "painted a bleak portrait of the costs of illegal immigration to American taxpayers," and Democrats "sharply criticized its tenor, calling the event the latest in a series of repetitive sessions meant to delay making hard choices on the illegal immigration issue." 

Two days (or so) away from adjournment until September, Senate Republicans held a rally to tout their accomplishments yesterday and refute Democrats' "do-nothing" charges, per NBC's Viq.  Sen. Mitch McConnell (who was first elected in 1984) asserted, "This has been the most accomplished Congress since I've been here."  Meanwhile, Senate Democrats will again highlight the issues of a "real" minimum wage increase -- i.e., one that is not tied to further tax breaks for the wealthy, unlike the current "trifecta" bill -- and President Bush's veto of more federal funding for embryonic stem cell research at a 12:15 pm press conference.  The chairs of the party's Senate and House campaign committees also will hold a 3:00 pm press conference call to talk about the minimum wage.

The Wall Street Journal says the trifecta bill's odds may be fading as Senate Democrats maneuver for a fast vote on that legislation, even though Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist isn't sure he has the votes for passage, so as to get to the pension-reform measure more Democrats support. 

The Washington Post points out how the linking of the minimum wage hike to the tax breaks has caused the two sides in the minimum wage debate to basically trade positions, with longtime advocates of an increase suddenly calling for the bill's defeat and longtime opponents of an increase calling for it to pass. 

Bob Novak criticizes the House's passage of the trifecta bill, saying the "Republican-controlled Congress again had abandoned conservative doctrine...  In accepting this, GOP lawmakers cast doubt on what they really believe." 

The Chicago Tribune covers the final press briefing in the White House briefing room before it temporarily closed for renovations: "Old presidents and reporters may bid farewell, and old soldiers may fade away, but it's not every day that a smelly old room retires." 

LIEBERMAN VS. LAMONT
Campaign morale and energy aren't necessarily accurate indicators of which candidate will win, MSNBC.com's Tom Curry observes from Connecticut.  But after a day of traveling with both Sen. Joe Lieberman and rival Ned Lamont on Wednesday as both men sprint toward Tuesday's primary, Curry says that Lieberman does not seem at his peak of vigor and ebullience, while Lamont seems loose and confident.

In a meeting Wednesday afternoon with about 50 supporters in the upper-crust town of Wilton, Lamont was peppy and confident-sounding.  When a 20-something man in the crowd asked Lamont his views on legalizing marijuana, Lamont said, "I'd oppose it on the ground that I have three teenagers."  A few minutes later during the Q&A, another 20-something guy -- seated next to the one who'd asked about marijuana -- raised his hand.  "Cocaine?" Lamont ad-libbed.

Then Lamont was off to rallies at black churches in Bridgeport and New Haven with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.  About 400 people showed up at the New Haven event, giving Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Mayor John DeStefano a more enthusiastic reception than they did Lamont, but wildly cheering Jackson's call for an end to the Iraq war.  Jackson attacked Lieberman's contingency plan to run as an independent.  "He should play by the rules!  Play by the rules!"  Jackson chanted along with the crowd.

Lieberman soldiered on through a series of diner stops and visits to a senior citizens' center in Milford and a health clinic in Newtown.  Each was friendly turf, with a decidedly senior-citizen demographic.

If Lieberman doesn't win on Tuesday, there are plenty of Republicans and independents who'll vote for him in November, said Republican ex-state legislator Mae Schmidle in Newtown, where she showed up at a Lieberman event.  Lamont supporters are touting the notion that with a big enough loss on Tuesday (Lamont 60% to Lieberman 40%, for instance), Lieberman will yield to pressure from party leaders to drop an independent bid.  There was no indication from Lieberman on Wednesday that he'd do this, Curry says.

The New York Daily News writes that Lieberman yesterday attacked the Bush Administration for its conduct of the war.  "'I supported our war in Iraq but I have always questioned the way it was being executed.  This administration took far too many shortcuts.  We continue to suffer the consequences, as do the Iraqi people." 

Washington Post: On a day when Lamont campaigned with the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, the Lieberman campaign assailed their rival for a doctored photo showing Lieberman in blackface that was posted online by a Lamont supporter, "Natural Born Killers" movie producer Jane Hamsher.  Lamont's campaign tried to distance itself from the posting. 

Hartford Courant: Lieberman is still declining overtures from Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert to appear on his show, even though Lamont has appeared.  Colbert has placed an empty leather chair for Lieberman on the set should he accept the invite.  "Colbert said he expected Lieberman to accept his challenge to appear on the show last night.  He even turned to interview Lieberman at one point, and asked about the senator's relationship with President Bush...  But the chair was still empty." 

The New York Times notes how Lieberman has used Lamont's wealth against him.  "But an examination of Mr. Lamont's wealth and his business career shows that while he clearly benefited from his family's wealth and connections, he has also made his own mark." 

ETHICS
Rep. Katherine Harris (R), her party's candidate for the Senate in Florida, is declining to say whether or not she has received a grand jury subpoena in connection to the ongoing Justice Department investigation involving former defense contractor Mitchell Wade, reports NBC's Joel Seidman.  Justice is investigating Harris' dealings with Wade, who has pleaded guilty to bribing now-jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) and is now cooperating with prosecutors.  Harris' campaign press secretary, Jennifer Marks, tells Seidman that since May, Harris has been cooperating with the investigation and that there has been "no request for her personally" and no requests through her congressional office that would need to have been reported to the Speaker of the House.  Gerry Fritz, Harris' House spokesperson, said his office has not received a subpoena.

"Members of Congress have cut in half the number of privately financed trips they accept in the wake of a lobbying scandal that could figure into the fall elections," USA Today reports.  "Analysts predict the decline in privately paid travel will make life difficult for the lobbyists who sometimes bankroll these trips and rely on the opportunities they offer, such as on planes, to deliver messages on behalf of their clients." 

MORE ON THE MIDTERMS

"The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has reserved $51.5 million of television advertising in 32 congressional districts," The Hill reports.  "The allocation reveals an aggressive posture toward the midterm elections, with 27 Republican-held districts targeted and only five Democratic districts identified as needing the defense of DCCC cash.  By reserving the ad space early, the DCCC has tipped its hand as the August recess begins; the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is circulating the list of targets." 

More from The Hill: In GEORGIA, Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney's runoff opponent, Hank Johnson, "has tapped into the pro-Israel fundraising network that helped her virtually unknown challenger Denise Majette topple McKinney and Artur Davis beat then-Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) in a pair of hotly contested 2002 primaries in black-majority districts." 

Also in TENNESSEE today, three GOP candidates -- led by state Rep. Jim Bryson -- duke it out for the party's nomination to face incumbent Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) in the fall, a contest Bredesen is heavily favored to win.  In addition, there are crowded primaries to fill the congressional seats being vacated by Ford (D) and Bill Jenkins (R), neither of which is expected to switch parties in November.

The Houston Chronicle: And in TEXAS, a three-judge panel is set to hear arguments about how to partially redraw the state's congressional map in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in June.  "It is unclear when the three-judge panel may issue a decision, but Texas elections officials say a ruling by Monday is necessary for changes to go into effect for the Nov. 7 election." 

OH-EIGHT
Time says Sen. Evan Bayh (D) is "hiring two dozen staffers to work on other congressional and state legislature campaigns in Iowa" as part of "Camp Bayh," which will announce the placement of 50 trained field workers in races around the country next week. 

Roll Call weighs the reviews of Frist's work as Majority Leader as his retirement draws closer -- along with the possibility of a full-fledged presidential campaign.  Frist "said he really isn't concerned about what others will view as his legacy (he openly admitted he probably won't read this article) nor has he really stopped to reflect on what he's accomplished."  The success or failure of the trifecta bill could play big in his Senate legacy.  

The New York Daily News has former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) "talking tough on the Middle East" during an appearance on FOX.  "'I don't think you can take the military option off the table,' Giuliani said of ending Iran's nuclear program.  'It really depends on the circumstances, but the option has to be there."' 

And as he prepares to head to the National Governors' Association confab in Charleston, SC this weekend, the Des Moines Register notes that Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack has been a busy traveler.

“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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