“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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Two dynamics that can't be counted out when it comes to Social Security: 1) the ever-present chance that the President, by far his own best salesman of his private accounts, can get distracted from his 60-day pitch by other events; and 2) the degree to which Democrats desperately want to beat Bush on this.  Even if a victory on a substantive level would amount to no more than preserving the status quo, the psychological value of the win for Democrats and their coalition would be nearly inestimable.

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We haven't conducted our own survey, but we strongly suspect that the number of Republicans who wake up each morning thinking, "Boy, I can't wait to establish private accounts" is outnumbered by the number of Democrats who wake up each morning thinking, "Boy, I can't wait to beat Bush on private accounts."  Sometimes the difference in energy and enthusiasm shows, as it did with yesterday's dueling Social Security events.  (Also starting to show: the media's boredom with these events, which get almost no coverage today.)  More on the events below.

Democrats' win-at-all-costs attitude is risky.  Not only would the death of private accounts open them up to charges of opposing reforms to a system that an increasing majority of Americans believes needs fixing, a prospect well hashed through already.  But some days it seems as if the Democratic coalition of Hill lawmakers and their war rooms, and interest groups and their umbrella organizations, cares about only two things: defeating private accounts, and defeating Bush's judicial nominees.  Meanwhile, other Bush priorities have made it through Congress.  NBC's Mike Viqueira says the House is expected to send the bankruptcy bill to Bush for his signature on Thursday.  And although some have called these early legislative successes low-hanging fruit, more may follow.

But again, Democrats need the win.  One strategist closely involved in the web of interest groups and 527s tells First Read: "When Bush's Social Security plan is dead, we all get to have a big parade, and everyone can use that for fundraising and membership drives."

On the GOP side, we wonder whether the White House will try to come up with some means to further extend Bush's self-imposed 60-day deadline.  Bush travels to Parkersburg, WV today for what will now be his only Social Security event this week, after a planned event in South Carolina got scrapped so he can attend the Pope's funeral.  Bush tours the Bureau of Public Debt at 10:40 am, and follows with remarks on Social Security at the local UWV campus at 11:15 am.  Back at the White House at 2:30 pm, he meets with his Cabinet.

The politics of papal funeral delegations will provide fodder for the Hill papers and the Leibys, Novaks and Groves of the world for days.  Bush leaves for Rome tomorrow morning as part of a five-person presidential delegation that will be announced today.  First Read reported yesterday morning that Justices Scalia and Thomas and Senators Martinez and Santorum also are going.  At this writing, we have no confirmation as to who else is going from the Hill.  But Mayor Bloomberg is.

Also today: Kansans vote on a gay marriage amendment, and California lawmakers vote on a professional-duty bill that would require pharmacists to fill emergency contraception prescriptions even if they find them immoral.  The Connecticut Senate is expected to consider legalizing civil unions tomorrow.

And another international election of interest has been called: Tony Blair has set May 5 as the date for his own election, in which he's seeking to win an unprecedented third consecutive term.

The Senate meets at 9:45 am; the House meets at 2:00 pm.

Pontiff politics
More handicapping from the Chicago Tribune.  The paper also covers the complicated Bush-Pontiff relationship “bound by faith and steeped in politics.”  “In matters of life, the two men often agreed.  In matters of death, their views sharply collided.  But differences aside, Bush's decision to lead the U.S. delegation to the papal funeral Friday underscores the significant influence the Vatican has had on the White House and illustrates how diverging religious beliefs can join for a common goal.”

NBC's Pete Williams reports that this appears to be the first time a US president has ordered flags flown at half-staff upon the death of a pope.  At least, the flags were not ordered to half-staff upon the deaths of any of the eight popes who died in the 20th century.  Williams notes that some have questioned the propriety of changing the display of the US flag to honor the death of a religious leader, but in the case of a pope, such an action is permitted by US law, which allows the president, by proclamation, to order the honor upon the death of "foreign dignitaries."  The State Department considers the pope a head of state -- the Holy See.

As with the President's schedule, Congress' agenda for the week is being adjusted for the Pope's funeral, though it's still unclear which members will be attending, Roll Call says.

The Hill says that "according to a Vatican spokesperson, the Vatican does not issue such invitations.  'The Vatican just announces the date, and the dignitaries contact them if they would like to attend,' the spokesperson said."

The Washington Post says Frist is "leading the delegation...  Starting as early as last Friday, lawmakers began phoning leadership offices to say they were interested in attending the funeral.  One of the first was" Pelosi.

Legislative v.  judicial
Democratic communications aides are decrying GOP Sen. John Cornyn's seeming suggestion on the floor yesterday that the recent "spate of courthouse violence" might be connected to "the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public."

The Boston Globe's Canellos says "the implications of DeLay's comments" suggesting retribution against judges after Terri Schiavo's death "are sweeping, and suggest that the Schiavo case may well mark the moment the public became concerned about overreaching by the one-party-controlled government" in DC.  Canellos goes on to suggest that "[l]inking an attempt to change filibuster rules to the spectacle of Congress rushing home to pass special Schiavo legislation could be disastrous for Republicans.  It would take a move that has been sold as a matter of procedural fairness -- fidelity to the Constitution, even -- and connect it to a post-Schiavo push to fill the courts with judges of a certain ideology."

Ted Kennedy told the Roll Call staff yesterday that the "Schiavo case has created the image of a Republican abuse of power that will help Democrats in battling the Bush administration...  Such rhetoric, Kennedy said, helps Democrats make the case against changing rules on filibusters and other items of President Bush’s agenda.  He likened the actions of Frist and DeLay to the 'overreach' by Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) soon after he became Speaker in 1995."

Frist aides "said yesterday that he soon will offer Democrats a compromise on" the handling of judicial nominees, "even though a growing number of conservative activists are pressing him to force a showdown now.  Democrats predict the offer will be too flimsy to entice them to stop filibustering," but also say that if Frist is talking compromise, he must not have the votes to go nuclear.  The Post says "some top Republicans say" that the party is "at a precarious juncture, where it needs to reassure voters that its leaders are ethical and focused on hearth-and-home issues such as jobs, affordable gasoline and secure retirements."

The Washington Times looks at how the effort to eliminate the filibuster "has become a priority for a broad range of conservatives."

On the other side, well, there's nothing like being ratted out by colleagues for not playing along.  The Hill reports that House Democratic leadership staff members "initially rebuffed a request from their Senate counterparts to join the upper body in its message blitz against the 'nuclear option'" because they thought the message "was too narrow and esoteric...  As a compromise, they offered to keep pounding Republicans for an 'abuse of power,' but they urged the Senate to broaden the attack from the 'nuclear option' to include broadsides against" DeLay.  House aides, for their part, fired back that Senate Democrats are doing a poor job of coordinating with them.

The anti-nuclear Alliance for Justice will launch a new ad campaign today with an animated TV spot on national cable and in "several targeted states."  The ad aims to explain the nuclear option through characters "Phil A. Buster" and "Checks" and "Balanz," saying that "a few politicians" want to get rid of checks and balances and establish "one party rule."  The group's president, Nan Aron, says in a statement that "Frist wants to change the rules of the Senate in the middle of the game to pack the courts with out-of-the-mainstream judges who will roll back individual rights and freedoms.  We want to educate the public so they can take action to protect their voices and values.”

Kerry's anti-nuclear ad runs today in USA Today.  The half-page ad on the paper's editorial page urges every Republican Senator "to stand on principle and reject" any measure that would eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations.  "Imagine the appointment of federal judges turning into a tightly-controlled one-party exercise.  Imagine the justices that will sit on the Supreme Court -- if Bush nominees never need a single Democratic vote.  Imagine the kind of decision those judges will make."

The Hill says business leaders, worried about the prospects for the rest of their congressional agenda, "are urging" Frist not to go nuclear.

Social Security
There's no doubt that Bush wants to overhaul Social Security, and has wanted to for years.  Ditto the folks at Cato and Heritage.  But beyond some leading conservatives who don't like the government to be involved in much at all, does Social Security get the GOP base fired up in the way that cutting taxes, opposing abortion, rolling back business regulations, and nominating conservative judges do?

At two separate events yesterday marking the halfway point in the Administration's 60-day tour, it seemed that the Democrats' hearts are in this fight much more than Republicans'.  Democrats, with whom Social Security used to be firmly identified, obviously have more at stake.

On a press conference call sponsored by the RNC, Sens. Rick Santorum and John Cornyn and Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida discussed how their town halls had gone during the latest recess.  All three noted that Americans -- particularly younger workers -- firmly believe that Social Security's future solvency is a problem that must be addressed.  In comparing the most recent round of town halls with ones held earlier this year, Santorum, who got booed at an earlier town hall covered by the New York Times, noted that crowds are still large.  But he said there's now an increased understanding that something needs to be done to fix the program.  That said, on the conference call, they said very little about private accounts.

The three GOP lawmakers became more animated when they lashed out at Democrats for not participating in a healthy debate on the issue.  Santorum said Democrats have instead focused on shooting down Republican proposals, while Putnam charged that Democrats are in total denial that something needs to change.  Cornyn added that Americans appreciate politicians who tackle tough issues instead of kicking "the can down the road...  People don't have respect for politicians who merely hold office without delivering results when confronted with an overwhelming problem."

By comparison, Democrats' anti-accounts coalition were quite fired up at their press conference yesterday.  Rolling out a slew of numbers, Brad Woodhouse of Americans United to Protect Social Security said that since the State of the Union, the coalition has conducted 249 events in 45 states expressing opposition to Bush's plan, including 13 press conferences calling on members of Congress to sign "anti-privatization pledges" and 26 rallies outside Bush/Cheney/Snow forums.  Since the beginning of Bush's 60-day tour, Woodhouse added that the groups have held 183 events compared with the Administration's 108.

"Our action to date is just a preview of things to come," Woodhouse said.  "We are going to be on these folks like a bird dog to a quail -- we are going to hunt them down, flush them out and force them to pick a side."

Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux then displayed a host of already publicized poll numbers showing that Americans disapprove of Bush's handling on Social Security, oppose his proposal, and like his proposal even less the more they hear about it.  He argued that Bush's numbers would fall even more once the public that Bush's plan would cut guaranteed benefits and would increase the debt.

Cue the brand-new group ProtectYourCheck.org, which announced at this event that it will begin running a new TV ad later this week that emphasizes "benefit checks cut almost in half" and "$5 trillion in new debt" -- charges that might draw criticism for being unfair, since Bush says current seniors and near-retirees won't see their benefits under his plan.  The ad will first run for three weeks on national cable channels (at a buy of close to $1 million), and then will be targeted after that in individual states and districts.

Parrying some of Americans United’s charges, the RNC then e-mailed around some background information about the group, noting its ties to organized labor, liberal interest groups, and Democratic sugar daddies George Soros and Stephen Bing.

The West Virginia News and Sentinel previews Bush's stop in Parkersburg today, noting that it's Bush's third visit there in less than a year.

West Virginia United to Protect Social Security, "formed to oppose Bush's reforms, will hold an informational forum at 11 a.m. today... around the time when the president will" be speaking.  Also: "saying she had a previous commitment, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the only Republican in the West Virginia congressional delegation, will not be in Parkersburg Tuesday.  Capito has not signed on to the president's Social Security plan."  - West Virginia News and Sentinel

The New York Times front-pages a report on the millions of illegal immigrants in this country who pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes -- yet who don’t receive any benefits.  “As the debate over Social Security heats up, the estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the United States are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year… [T]he extent of their contributions to Social Security is striking: the money added up to about 10 percent of last year's surplus.”

Two hundred members of the international press are covering the Minuteman Project, says the Los Angeles Times, which also notes, "President Bush outraged many of the activists by calling them vigilantes.  They responded by calling Bush the co-president of Mexico and a leader who had failed his responsibility to secure the country's borders."

The Washington Post says the "full impact... remained elusive Monday...   Thus far, there were no immediate signs of the white supremacist gangs or other troublemaking groups that local officials feared would be drawn by the event, and no reports of clashes or violations.  But the event also seemed much smaller than advertised."  The story also quotes a self-IDed Bush supporter who thinks Bush is "wrong" on immigration.

The Boston Globe covers concerns that the group could spur violence, while some say they may not be successful in keeping out illegal immigrants who mortgage their entire lives on the American dream.

The AP says the Minutemen are accidentally "tripping sensors that alert agents to possible intruders," causing hassles for Border Patrol agents.

The values debate
The Topeka Capital-Journal briefly previews today’s statewide ballot question asking whether to amend the Kansas constitution to prohibit same-sex marriages and civil unions.

California legislators today will consider "whether to create the nation's first law requiring pharmacists to fill emergency contraception prescriptions and other medications even if they find them immoral," says the Los Angeles Times.  "The push in Sacramento comes after four more states... gave pharmacists the right to refuse to fill orders about which they have moral qualms.  Reproductive-rights groups are pressing lawmakers" in a handful of other states "to establish professional-duty laws...  On Friday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued a 150-day emergency order that would require pharmacists to fill contraceptive prescriptions..."

USA Today has an op-ed in support of pro-life pharmacists' "right to conscientiously object to providing drug therapies that violate their religious or ethical consciences...  The profession believes, and properly so, that the right of conscience and the right of patient access stand on equal footing."

Whither the Democrats
We've written before that Democrats have pretty much stopped talking about the Iraq war, despite the verdict of the WMD commission and the ongoing violence in the region.  But one Democrat who just might aspire to run for president again is talking to the party base about it.  In a Dean-like move, Wes Clark has e-mailed supporters in advance of his testimony on Iraq before House Armed Services tomorrow, asking them to take an attached "survey:" "I need the power of your questions and insights there at that witness table with me."

The New York Post notes that Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), himself an outside presidential candidate, told the London Sunday Times that Democrats should look beyond Senator Clinton in 2008.  “‘People love [Clinton] or they hate her, and I don't know in the end how all that plays out.  But I sure hope there are other people who would step forward,’ he was quoted as saying.”  Bredesen's press secretary said the quotes were taken out of context.

Per the AP, DNC chairman Dean "will be the keynote speaker Friday at the Association of State Democratic Chairs luncheon" in Little Rock.  "Dean will highlight the committee's agenda to strengthen the state parties in his speech."

Kerry is donating $1 million -- $500,000 flat out, and another $500,000 he'll raise -- to the severely debt-burdened Democratic House campaign committee.

The Washington Times covers the launch of Gore TV, a/k/a Current, its ideological roots, and its reputedly non-ideological content.


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