“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.

Monday, January 3, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
Happy 2005.  No time for small talk -- there's way too much to get to:

  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
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Continuing to counter earlier suggestions from abroad of grinchy US aid to tsunami victims, the Bush White House sends the President's brother and Colin Powell to southeast Asia today.  When Congress returns tomorrow, NBC's Mike Viqueira says the House and Senate are expected to pass resolutions expressing condolence and support, with funding to come later.  Potential 2008 presidential candidate and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is also taking his doctor's bag to Sri Lanka and India this week.

Folks who had rough holidays and are probably relieved that the tsunami wiped them out of the news: drug companies, airlines, and Bernard Kerik.

Still, as the week begins and so do the confirmation hearings, it's hard not to notice that the President starts 2005 without a new director of homeland security.

He also continues to use his bully pulpit to try to make his case that a Social Security meltdown is imminent and could be headed off by private investment accounts which Democrats and some analysts argue would not, in fact, solve the system's problems.

Bush addresses new Members of Congress today in the East Room at 3:00 pm.  Tonight at 6:00 pm, House Republicans plan to meet to discuss an expected effort to restrict ethics complaints after Tom DeLay was rebuked twice by the ethics committee.

Kerry left for Iraq and the Mideast yesterday and will not return until January 14 at the earliest, meaning that he'll miss the Thursday joint session at which Vice President Cheney will read the electoral vote count.  (Is it just us, or is it sort of ironic that Kerry could be in Iraq, the cause of so many of his difficulties during the presidential campaign, on the day Congress approves the electoral college vote...)

Kerry also is missing the release of the latest issue of Newsweek, which features what the magazine calls an "exclusive Kerry interview" from November 11 in which he "complains," per the Newsweek release, or seeks to set the record straight, per Kerry aides, about the magazine's post-election reporting on his campaign. 

On Thursday when the joint session convenes, Rep. John Conyers and some other House Democrats plan to protest Ohio's electoral votes going to Bush.  They're searching for a Senator to join them and make the objection official.  But if Kerry himself is not objecting, it seems unlikely that another Senator would do so.

Meanwhile, the loose coalition of groups and parties trumpeting Ohio as a rallying cry against Bush and the Electoral College is growing organically as old and new anti-Bush groups spot a PR opportunity and affiliate with the cause.  What started off as a Green and Libertarian party effort in Ohio, then spawned the Coalition Against Election Fraud, has now attracted the likes of the ReDefeatBushies. 

No one really knows where the race for DNC chair stands because many potential candidates are still waiting to determine if they can win before they declare they're running.  But a string of regional party meetings this month will help shake things out.  Meanwhile, the RNC prepares for its pre-inauguration winter meeting and expected election of its new chair.

And on Wednesday, Governor Schwarzenegger delivers his State of the State, which may become his first step toward an effort to reshape the California government through ballot initiatives -- "returning power to the people," as Arnold's team calls it, or "DeLay-like tactics," as Democratic critics would say.

Tsunami politics
The AP covers Powell's comments yesterday on US aid, now pegged at $350 million and expected to rise into the billions:.

NBC's Viqueira reports that while we'll soon see House and Senate resolutions expressing condolences for tsunami victims and their relatives, the appropriation of funds for relief and rebuilding will come later in January or in February, and will likely be attached to the must-pass supplemental spending bill needed to fund continuing operations in Iraq and elsewhere. 

In "President Bush's initial, halting response to the... tsunami catastrophe, followed within days by strong expressions of concern and decisive action," the Los Angeles Times sees "a governing style that sometimes finds its stride only after stumbling at the gate.  This seems especially true when Bush is confronted with a cataclysmic event and must improvise quickly - as with the Dec. 26 tsunami or the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."

"The first U.S. president with a graduate business degree, Bush sees himself as an unflinching leader who sticks to his guns.  Yet on numerous occasions he has shown an ability to bend to the public will - to the point of executing U-turns."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein, among others, points out that US aid to tsunami victims provides Bush with an opportunity to "demonstrate to the international community that America doesn't pursue its foreign policy goals only at the point of a gun.  After Iraq, that's an insidious suspicion in many parts of the world...  The rebuilding effort after this tragedy could also advance the changes in international aid that Bush and other Western leaders are promoting."

Bush's January
Find DHS chief, write two big speeches, prepare budget, promote agenda, tout Iraqi elections. – AP

The Chicago Tribune previews Bush’s Wednesday speech on tort reform, which will occur in southern Illinois' Madison County, dubbed the No. 1 “‘judicial hellhole’” by the American Tort Reform Association.

The New York Times says AG nominee Alberto Gonzales, whose hearings are set to begin on Thursday, will be the first -- and perhaps the only -- of Bush’s second-term Cabinet picks to face a confirmation test, due to his role overseeing legal memos “that appeared to condone mistreatment, perhaps even torture, of detainees.  The timing of the hearings has proven especially awkward for the administration.  They are coming just after a new round of disclosures about the treatment of detainees held by the United States military in Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and reports that the administration may hold detainees in Cuba indefinitely.”

Still: “Even some of Mr. Gonzales's detractors say they do not expect to prevent him from becoming the nation's 80th attorney general, as well as the first Hispanic holder of the office.  Instead, they say, they hope to lay down a record that will make it difficult for him to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.”

The Wall Street Journal also previews a bumpy road for Gonzales: "Some Judiciary Committee members" -- including GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham -- "say they intend to press Mr. Gonzales to explain his role in developing the policies" concerning detainees "and overseeing their implementation."

The AP says fiscal conservatives looking for private Social Security investment accounts and tax reform realize that it's now or never.  "Yet the path for Republicans and their conservative allies is not clear of potential barriers," including a middling Bush job rating, GOP wariness about potential losses in the midterm elections, GOP skittishness "about supporting broad proposals without knowing more specifics," and opposition from Democrats and some interest groups.

While the CW is that Bush doesn’t plan to tackle tax reform until after Social Security, Bob Novak reported yesterday that House Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas plans to try to combine the two.

And the Washington Post says no issue will "rock the Capitol as much as battles over" a Supreme Court vacancy and Social Security.

The Hill
NBC's Viqueira reports on the expected effort by some House Republicans to push through a series of changes to ethics rules when the new Congress convenes tomorrow.  Republicans would essentially remove the current provision that allows ethics complaints based on the wide-ranging "conduct unbecoming the House" standard, and reduce it to "compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and rules." 

But this is by no means a done deal, Viqueira advises: There seem to be some mixed feelings on the part of rank-and-file GOP members.  Some Republicans don't feel comfortable with a perceived loosening of ethical standards, and there could be changes to the expected changes.  Again, the House GOP caucus will meet tonight at 6:00 pm to try to hash it all out. 

"One proposal would require that a majority of House ethics committee members approve any investigation of a House member," the Los Angeles Times says.  "Currently, an inquiry can move ahead even if the ethics committee, which has five Republicans and five Democrats, is deadlocked.  Another proposal, its critics argue, would make it more difficult to enforce ethics rules unless the improper conduct is clearly spelled out in the rules."

Viqueira adds that the September 11 commission's main recommendations to change the structure of intelligence oversight by Congress will be ignored in this rules package.  Republicans had suggested earlier that the package would be the place to make the changes -- rather than in the big intel bill -- but in the end, there will be neither a subcommittee for intel appropriations nor a joint intel committee, as had been recommended.  The proposed package will make the House committee on homeland security permanent, but falls short of the jurisdictional scope called for in the Commission's report.

The Washington Post says industry groups are pushing to change the corporate reforms inspired by the Enron, WorldCom, and other Wall Street meltdowns:

And the New York Times profiles Denny Hastert, noting that his job this session won’t be easy.

January 20
In one of a handful of articles noting the contradiction between the relief efforts in Asia and the donors chipping in big bucks for Bush’s inaugural, the New York Times reports on the TV and music stars who will perform at inaugural events: Kelsey Grammer, Kid Rock, Gloria Estefan, and country singer John Michael Montgomery.

And the Washington Times also looks at the underwriters -- at $250,000 apiece -- of the inaugural festivities.

January 30
The Los Angeles Times covers the serious logistical challenges in supplying Iraq with all the necessary staff and equipment needed for the election, noting that the international team pitching in faces worse obstacles there than in other war-torn countries.  "The possibility of assassination is something many electoral workers and candidates say they have largely accepted as a daily reality."

A special election will soon be called to replace the late Rep. Bob Matsui (D), who passed away this weekend from complications due to a rare form a bone marrow cancer.  The Los Angeles Times, in its long recounting of Matsui's distinguished life, lists as possible candidates for the Democrat-leaning seat "state Sen. Deborah Ortiz and former Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, both Democrats from Sacramento."

The state's Democrat-run legislature returns today, ready to do battle with the Governator for the hearts of centrist voters.  "Conflict may be greater this year as Schwarzenegger tries to make reform of the way business is done in Sacramento a central theme of his sophomore year - starting in his State of the State speech Wednesday.  Many of the ideas he has been mulling over - including holding a special election to stop lawmakers from drawing their own districts, and reorganizing the way state agencies function - are direct challenges to Democratic power." - LA Times

Just because it's 2005 doesn't mean 2004 is over.  ReDefeatBush, which has joined the coalition of groups and activists beating the drum against the Ohio presidential results, has scheduled rallies tonight in Boston, tomorrow night in San Francisco, and on Thursday at 12 noon on Capitol Hill, just before the joint session.  The Thursday rally will feature Jesse Jackson, Green Party candidate David Cobb, and possibly Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik. 

One of New York Gov. George Pataki’s top political allies, state Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long, urged Pataki to decide whether he’s running for re-election by the end of this month, the New York Post reports.  “‘I want to know what his plans are, and I want to know very soon,’ said… Long, who is known to fear that the Republican Party could face a disastrous defeat in 2006.”

The New York Daily News dishes on Newsweek, which says "some Kerry loyalists are already plotting how to defeat an expected challenge by Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.”

The Boston Herald also wallows in Evan Thomas's report that Kerry is working on a possible comeback: "In the piece, which promotes a new book being published this month called 'Election 2004,' Thomas noted that Kerry has 2.9 million names on his mailing list and an organization in every state, advantages no other prospective Democratic candidate has right now...  Thomas said Kerry plans to spend the initial period after his defeat playing the role of opposition leader in the Senate and helping to rebuild the Democratic Party's grass roots...  If Kerry does launch another bid to take the White House, it won't be with the same team... "


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