“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, April 4, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Between Social Security, Democrats' efforts to tar Tom DeLay and the GOP by association, Bill Frist's threat to go nuclear and conservative members' declaration of war on the judicial branch, you can't light a match anywhere near Capitol Hill.  But a weekend that would otherwise have been devoted to anticipation of Congress' return, and all its possible implications for the President's agenda and the approval ratings of the two parties, was instead devoted to John Paul II and the process of replacing him.

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The papal funeral will take place on Friday morning.  Based on the traditional timetable, the conclave can be expected to begin sometime between Sunday, April 17 and Friday, April 22.  It will be the first to take place in the age of cable and the Internet, but the threat of excommunication over leaks, and the Vatican's efforts to literally seal off the participants from the outside world, mean we're facing a couple weeks of endless speculation about the identity of the next pope.

In the United States, there's the unavoidable tinge of politics to lawmakers' sincere expressions of respect.  President Bush, who reached out to the Vatican during his re-election campaign, will be the first US president to attend a papal funeral.  Bush's written statement about the Pope over the weekend reflected their shared belief in a "culture of life," but didn't mention their disagreement on the Iraq war.  NBC's Phil Alongi reports that Justices Thomas and Scalia and Senators Martinez and Santorum (who is being challenged in 2006 by a pro-life Catholic) will attend the funeral along with the President.  Santorum's written statement noted that he met with John Paul II on "five separate occasions," while Senator Clinton's pointed out that she met with "several times" as first lady.

Democrats have seen a 20-point slide in support among white Catholics in presidential elections since 1996.  So it struck us that amidst all the statements issued over the weekend, one was missing -- again.  Are we scrutinizing Howard Dean too much in noting that the DNC's statement, issued "from the DNC," did not include a quote from the party chair?

Narrowing the gap on Catholics could be an issue for a party headed by a New Englander.  Professor Mark Silk, who studies religion and politics at Trinity College in Connecticut, told us back in March, before the Pope passed away, that Dean's reluctance to talk about religion is probably due more to ingrained regional habits than anything else.  "That's a lot of the problem for Democrats," Silk told First Read.  "It's not so much that they don't get religion in some generic sense" -- it's that they hail from blue-state cultures where religion is not publicly discussed, "except for when they go into black churches, where they understand how to deal with it."  Silk added, "It's more complicated than just, Democrats don't get religion.  It's that the return of this evangelist style of talk in public life is not what they're coming from."

Asked whether Democrats need to field Southern Baptists like Clinton to win elections, Silk said that the widening gap "of more religious or more worship-attending voters voting Republican" actually began to occur in the 1990s.  "Clinton was talking religion fine and he was comfortable with it...  No one ever really accused him of not being a person of faith."  The trouble, Silk said, was that Clinton "was morally problematic.  Being able to talk the talk and do values, that's not going to be enough.  Clinton did that extremely well."  But Democrats' loss of ground among these voters began during his presidency.

Silk added that the "ratcheting up of abortion politics and even same-sex marriage... was unstoppable" and has played a big role with these voters in recent elections, but "that's not to say that Clinton couldn't have changed the equation a bit had he behaved differently" in the last decade.

As members of Congress make their way back to DC, a slew of press conferences, town halls, and other events are being held today by both sides in the Social Security and nuclear option debates.  Details are below.  The Senate meets at 2:00 pm; the House is not in session.

And President Bush today meets with President Yushchenko of Ukraine at 10:20 am, then the two do a joint press avail at 11:25 am.  At 3:00 pm, Bush awards the first Medal of Honor of the Iraq war.

The papal conclave
Some inevitable handicapping of the papal conclave:
USA Today
Los Angeles Times
San Francisco Chronicles

The Los Angeles Times: "Some might read Bush's inclination to fly to Rome as a transparent attempt to court Catholics..."  But "the 'Catholic vote' is still up for grabs."  The story notes that "although John Paul espoused views that both Democrats and Republicans could claim, his promotion of conservative bishops and cardinals had the effect in the U.S. of emphasizing one side of his teachings over the other" -- and quotes the University of Akron's John Green saying the "'indirect result was to give strength to the social-issue conservatives within the church hierarchy, and that led more-traditionalist Catholics to vote for President Bush and Republican candidates on the social conservative issues.'"

The New York Times notes that one "of the potential successors to John Paul is Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, who during last year's presidential campaign said a politician who supported abortion ‘is not fit’ to receive communion'...  The rising assertiveness of some church leaders is particularly significant for American politics because President Bush has been making a concerted effort to win support among Catholic voters" as "part of an overall drive by his chief adviser, Karl Rove, to make inroads among typically Democratic groups of voters.”

Executive, legislative, judicial
Morton Kondracke in his Roll Call column offers three reasons for Bush's lagging approval ratings: "(1) he’s not communicating well enough about the good things that are happening, (2) gasoline prices are soaring, dominating most people’s attitudes about the economy, and (3) he’s been preoccupied with Terri Schiavo and Social Security."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein notes that on "almost every major question in Washington today, the choice isn't whether to move in a Republican or Democratic direction, but how far in a Republican direction to move."  The situation has "produced surprising risks for Republicans, measured in skidding approval ratings for President Bush and Congress."  However, Brownstein says, "the Democrats have found virtually no opportunities to advance their own ideas or to steer the discussion onto their strongest terrain."  Their biggest problem is not a lack of ideas but a lack of "a viable means to spotlight or forge a party consensus behind these ideas."

Bob Novak gets anonymous GOP critics to say stuff along the lines of, “‘I have been around awhile, and this is the worst administration at congressional relations that I have ever been associated with.'"  Novak asks, "What about the praise of the strategic mastery that carried Bush to a second term?  Besides, is Bush not widely popular in Republican ranks?…  All that is true.  The dirty little secret, however, is that this administration succeeds despite chronic malfunctioning..."

The Washington Post covers Vice President Cheney's opposition to conservatives' threats of revenge against judges "for their refusal to prolong the life of the late Terri Schiavo," as voiced to the New York Post editorial board on Friday, though Cheney refused to criticize DeLay "for declaring that they will 'answer for their behavior.'"

Social Security
The San Francisco Chronicle notes that Bush has made Social Security such a high-profile issue that it's "difficult for either side to walk away and declare victory without doing anything" -- despite increasing signs that Congress and the public aren't all that receptive to Bush's plan.  "Both sides are tentatively circling two areas of potential common ground that have emerged from public opinion polls and town hall meetings.  One is fixing the program's solvency...  The other is the government's continued spending of Social Security payroll taxes on things other than Social Security."

Roll Call previews a "renewed push" by the White House and Hill Republicans "in the next month to coordinate their campaigns to overhaul Social Security, even as they try to control the damage caused by prominent Republicans expressing doubt that a bill will be approved by Congress this year."  The push will include "high-profile House and Senate press conferences and a staged Senate floor debate between Republicans and Democrats."

The Boston Globe profiles Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL), who is representative of those GOP members who find themselves "squeezed between their sense of party loyalty and the opposition of elderly constituents, who also happen to be a highly organized voting bloc."  The article also notes that in February, while Bush was in Tampa, "he gave Brown-Waite a ride in the presidential limo" and made a "personal appeal."  "The fact that Brown-Waite is generally a loyal Republican makes her refusal to commit to Bush's plan particularly troublesome to some in the GOP."  The DCCC "has begun compiling statements made by Brown-Waite that Democrats say are contradictory or represent positions that would hurt her own constituents."

The RNC holds a conference call at 11:45 am today with Republican members of Congress who will talk about their recess experiences at Social Security town halls.

Steve Forbes talks with American University Washington Seminar students about why private accounts are the "most effective way to ensure they have a secure retirement" at 10:30 am.

Anti-private accounts Americans United holds a press briefing today at which they'll make an announcement about -- surprise! -- TV ads being launched by (yet) a(nother) new organization called ProtectYourCheck.org.  This one's being run by The Media Fund trio of Ickes, Jordan, and Smith.

Also, Americans United spokesperson Brad Woodhouse e-mailed First Read that they have "hired someone to go into South Carolina when the President gets there this week - not a state on our target list - but the President ain’t getting a free ride from us no matter where he goes."  Woodhouse adds, "We had a big national conference call with Senator Baucus and state legislators on Thursday...  One of our big pushes over the next several weeks is to highlight and push anti-privatization resolutions in states where they are still alive - which is between 15 and 20."

Democratic Rep. Sander Levin, ranking member of the Ways & Means Social Security panel, seeks to pressure GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach by holding a town hall in Gerlach's district at 11:00 am.  The Americans United press release points out that Gerlach "has not taken a firm position on Social Security privatization," and that he "has expressed concern" about them, based on a local press report.  Woodhouse calls this "one of our most in your face events of the recess," and adds that also Rep. Hilda Solis of California is also holding a town hall in GOP Rep. Jon Porter’s district in Nevada."

The Los Angeles Times uses Social Security as a prime example in its long look at the permanent campaign.

Although both sides of the debate may well be guilty of this, the Washington Times covers charges that AARP's recent poll of its members showing opposition to private accounts was distorted.

Other Hill hot-buttons
On the nuclear option, the Committee for Justice organizes a press conference for the pro-nuclear coalition today, featuring Committee for Justice chair C. Boyden Gray and prominent conservatives Gary Bauer, David Keene, and Grover Norquist.

And Senate Democrats and a coalition of liberal groups will hold an anti-nuclear event on Wednesday, where they will "present as many as 1 million signatures they gathered online to show opposition."

On DeLay, the DNC sent out an organizing e-mail late last week that featured a mock mugshot of DeLay and charged, somewhat misleadingly, that he is "at the center of a bewildering array of investigations into corruption, abuse of power, and ethics violations."  The link to the "full case file" leads to a page headlined, "Scandal Man."

The Democratic Senate campaign committee's latest fundraising e-mail raises the prospect of "mini-Tom DeLays running around the Senate," singling out GOP Senators Burns, Chafee, and Santorum for allegedly behaving, in various ways, like DeLay.

On Sunday, the Houston Chronicle published a poll suggesting potential trouble for Delay in 2006.

Gay marriage
Tomorrow, Kansas will vote on an amendment to ban gay marriage.  "Many pastors in the state, who have pushed for the ban along with conservatives in the Legislature, have attached a sense of doomsday urgency to the referendum.  Gay-rights activists say the proposal has exposed broad prejudice in Kansas, and legal analysts say the amendment would be among the most restrictive in the nation."  Voter turnout is expected to be heavy and the amendment should pass easily.  – Boston Globe

The Connecticut Senate could vote to legalize civil unions on Wednesday.

Last year, the New York Times writes, Michigan was one of 13 states to define a marriage as being between a man and a woman.  And in March, the state’s AG took that one step further by saying the constitutional amendment meant that gay and lesbian state workers were ineligible for health benefits for their partners.  Now, Michigan “has become the focus of attention with the filing of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union in which 21 same-sex couples are asking the state courts to clarify whether the amendment's passage means the loss of their benefits.”

Business and politics
The Wall Street Journal examines how Bush and the GOP "are reviving Big Government," with the approval of not only social conservatives, but business folk as well.  "In banking, insurance and telecommunications, the Bush administration and Congress are pushing federal regulation instead of state oversight -- to the applause of business constituents who now consider that more efficient and less onerous than in the days of Democratic rule...  To be sure, economic trends have helped change attitudes, as local markets have been consolidated into regional and national ones...  But the changing philosophy of those holding power in Washington also has contributed to businesses' different tone."

The Sunday New York Times was the first to lay out in detail the war between Wal-Mart and the rapidly coalescing anti-Wal-Mart campaign.  Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, a member of the coalition pressing Wal-Mart to change its approach to employee hiring and benefits and the environment, calls the effort "an assault on a business model.  We're not trying to shut Wal-Mart down."  The company has invited 100 journalists to its Arkansas HQ on Tuesday make its case.

The Washington Post profiles outgoing NFIB chief Jack Faris, who was primarily responsible for transforming the association into an organizational powerhouse.

Speaking of blending business and political strategies, one of the nation's finest political reporters is teaming up with a Bush-Cheney senior strategist and a top operative for Bill Clinton to write a book about how Bush, Clinton, and Applebee's -- yes -- all "used similar tactics to thrive in an era of immense changes."  Simon & Schuster expects to release the book by Ron Fournier of the AP, Matthew Dowd (R) and Doug Sosnik (D) in fall 2006.

Immigration
The Arizona Republic notes that a recent report studying the effects of Proposition 200 or the "Minuteman Project" in Arizona says the state is a "hotbed of 'xenophobia and discrimination.'"

MSNBC.com’s Brock Meeks has been on the story for the past week.

The Los Angeles Times says only about 200 of the touted 1,000 volunteers have shown up for Minuteman Project duty, but "their efforts have already had a dramatic, if perhaps short-term effect."

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