“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.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
There's some interesting GOP backtracking -- or in President Bush's case with private accounts, a "shifting of emphasis" -- on both Social Security and the nuclear option. We get into that below, along with yet more drips on Tom DeLay, fallout for the GOP on Terri Schiavo, and all the other bits and pieces that could add up to public opinion issues for the Republican Party. Coincidentally, there's a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll coming out tonight.

  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

There are also a lot of faith and values matters on the table. Around the states, after Kansans overwhelmingly passed a gay marriage ban yesterday, the Connecticut Senate is expected to pass a bill legalizing civil unions today. The bill appears to have a fair chance of getting enacted into law, which would make Connecticut the latest state to approve a legalized form of same-sex unions -- though Kansas just became the latest of a slew of states to move in the opposite direction. And, when asked whether Governor Schwarzenegger would sign a "professional-duty" bill to require pharmacists to fulfill emergency prescriptions for contraceptives even if it goes against their personal beliefs, a Schwarzenegger spokesperson tells First Read that they have not addressed the issue, noting that the bill has not yet passed.

The papal conclave will start on April 18. The new NBC/Journal poll being released tonight on NBC Nightly News, and in tomorrow's Journal and First Read, tested public opinion on the Pope and the Catholic Church's role in various aspects of American life. The poll found that Catholics are more likely to see the Pope and Church playing a "major" role in most of the aspects tested, including spiritual life, daily life, and charity -- except in government and politics, in which case Catholics share the same view as adults overall. Only 22% of all adults polled, and 23% of Catholics, believe that the Pope and the Church play a major role in US politics and government; 58% of adults and 59% of Catholics polled believe they play a minor role.

The Bushes have left for Rome, taking 41, 42 and Condi Rice with them. The 14-member Senate delegation leaving tonight includes Frist, Biden, Collins, Kennedy, Kerry, Leahy, Martinez, and Santorum (7 R and 7 D, including a few oh-eighters). The House delegation includes Hastert, DeLay, Pelosi and 23 others (for a total of 14 R, 12 D). NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that per Pelosi's office, if she is given the opportunity to take Communion in Rome, she will, despite being a supporter of abortion rights. Indeed, most of the Democrats in the congressional delegation are pro-choice. We presume that this won't become a real issue.

NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the Terri Schiavo case also re-emerges in the Senate today: The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee holds a hearing on "Health Care Provided to Non-ambulatory Persons," which was originally announced in March as part of the effort to keep Schiavo's feeding tube in place. In their rush to come up with legislative means to prevent the removal of the tube, some panel members had requested that Schiavo and her husband Michael appear before the committee. By doing so, GOP leadership stated that "federal criminal law protects witnesses called before official Congressional Committee proceedings from anyone who may obstruct or impede a witness' attendance or testimony."

Also per Strickland, this afternoon, Senate Democrats, led by Clinton and Nelson (FL), will hold a news conference on living wills. And conservative GOP Senator Brownback has announced he will dig in his heels to whatever degree necessary to prevent the expansion of federal funding for stem cell research, on which House GOP leaders are allowing a vote. More on this below.

Lastly, before some of their ranks depart for Rome, members of Congress gather in the House chamber at 11:00 am for Ukrainian president Yushchenko's address to the joint session.

Whither the GOP
More drips on DeLay. The Washington Post front-pages a 1997 DeLay trip to Moscow that was "underwritten by business interests lobbying in support of the Russian government" -- but through a funding arrangement about which some details are still unclear, but which involves lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Remember that the House Ethics Committee is still deadlocked...

And the New York Times reports that DeLay’s wife and daughter have received more than $500,000 from his PAC and campaign committees since 2001. “Most of the payments… were described in the disclosure forms as ‘fund-raising fees,’ ‘campaign management’ or ‘payroll,’ with no additional details about how they earned the money. The payments appear to reflect what Mr. DeLay's aides say is the central role played by the majority leader's wife and daughter in his political career." The story notes that "several members of Congress employ family members as campaign managers or on their political action committees."

The Times doesn’t mention this in its article, but First Read also remembers that there was a complaint in the 1990s that another member of DeLay’s family -- brother Randy, a Capitol Hill lobbyist -- also benefited from the Congressman’s proximity to power, although the Ethics Committee cleared DeLay of any wrongdoing on this matter.

And the Times notes that before he changed his plans to attend the Pope’s funeral, DeLay was “scheduled to be a headline speaker this week at a conservative conference, ‘Confronting the Judicial War on Faith,’ sponsored by the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration. According to its organizers, potential steps to be discussed are impeaching federal judges who let personal values influence decisions, reducing or eliminating court financing, and giving Congress and the states the power to vacate Supreme Court rulings.”

Roll Call reports that Frist yesterday "rebuked" DeLay's claim "that judges would have to 'answer' for their Schiavo decisions," and "said Congressional intervention in the matter was a singular event and the case would not result in any further legislation related to judges... Frist also said that the Schiavo case, which pumped up the passions of conservative activists across the country, would make it neither more nor less likely that the Senate would adopt a GOP plan to end filibusters on judicial nominations."

Roll Call reports that Frist also "told his Republican colleagues in a private meeting Tuesday that he stood by his decision to have Congress intervene in the Terri Schiavo debate - but added that he would support a full review of Congress’ action," including possible "Senate hearings on whether Congress acted within its jurisdiction."

New Gallup polling shows that the Schiavo controversy "has raised concerns among many Americans about the moral agenda of the Republican Party and the political power of conservative Christians." Also, "most Americans disapprove of the efforts by President Bush and Congress to draw federal courts into the dispute." And, "Some old stereotypes about the two parties have been reversed: By 55%-40%, respondents say Republicans, traditionally the party of limited government, are 'trying to use the federal government to interfere with the private lives of most Americans' on moral values."

NBC's Strickland reports that two of the Senate's most conservative Republicans are preparing to take on their own party on two core fronts: abortion and fiscal restraint. Sam Brownback said yesterday in a press release that he "will use all legislative options available" to defeat any legislation that would expand federal funding for stem cell research. Brownback was responding to reports that House leaders plan to allow a vote on such an extension. "I oppose destructive embryonic stem cell research because it results in the untimely termination of a young human life."

The Hill reports, incidentally, that the bill to increase federal funding for the research "is gaining momentum in the House, increasing the chances that it will be the first bill President Bush vetoes."

And Tom Coburn is telling the White House that an emergency war supplemental is for "emergencies," not for reorganizing the Army or building an embassy in Baghdad, Strickland says. Coburn says he's going to have "a tough time supporting" such items, which he feels belong in the regular budget or approps bills. More than just voting "no" against the supplemental, which will probably hit the Senate floor next week, Coburn is likely to offer amendments that would strip those billions of dollars from the bill. "The money we're going to spend, we don't have. We're going to borrow it," Coburn said after making his debut at the Tuesday stakeout with GOP leadership. "An emergency supplemental ought to be just that: an 'emergency' supplemental."

(Speaking of Coburn, the Senate Ethics Committee has denied his request to be allowed continue practicing obstetrical medicine for the sole purpose of covering his cost of his Oklahoma practice, Strickland reports. However, the committee will allow Coburn to do so for six months as a way of "winding down" his care of existing patients. The ruling ends a four-month campaign which pitted Coburn's medical ethics of not abandoning his patients against Senate ethics of conflicts of interest; and which also pitted House rules, which were waived for him in 1998, against Senate rules which prohibit any form of compensation. Some observers also viewed this as a conflict between a Senator who thinks of himself as above the rules, versus the beliefs by others that elected officials should maintain their roles as "citizen legislators.")

More on the nuclear option
Still more on the nuclear option: Ted Kennedy rails against the nuclear option in a Roll Call op-ed.

The Boston Globe reports on Frist's statement yesterday about not going nuclear yet, "Democrats suggested privately that Frist is stalling for time. They say he is unsure about how best to proceed and isn't certain he has" the votes to pull the trigger.

Today at 1:00 pm, the Coalition for a Fair and Independent Judiciary, an umbrella organization of left-leaning public interest and civil rights groups, will rally on the steps of the Supreme Court and present Harry Reid with 1 million petitions signed by opponents of the nuclear option. The group held a conference call yesterday to outline additional efforts being made. Reps from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Alliance for Justice, People for the American Way, and Move On, among others, said they are pouring money and grassroots work into educating the public about the filibuster fight and charged that the threat is part of an outright “power grab” by Republicans.

Wade Henderson of the LCCR said that preserving the integrity of the checks and balances system should not be a partisan issue. Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, which launched an ad yesterday called “Save Phil”, said the group will also run banner ads on news and blog websites, and pass out literature on the Hill and at Metro stops. They have also done ed boards and hosted debates at law schools to raise awareness. Aron added that reps from her organization spent some time on the Hill last week and thought they noticed an “unease” among some Republicans over the issue because they recognize the plan is “dangerous” and “unprecedented.”

Ralph G. Neas, president of PFAW, which launched a $1 million ad buy earlier this month, said his group has set up a war room and plans on spending another $4 million on ads in the coming weeks to “sound the alarm” on the “constitutional coup” in Congress. And Ben Brandzel, advocacy director for MoveOn PAC, which also launched radio ads yesterday, said the group has started a national “letter to the editor” campaign. Move On's new radio ads, targeting Senators Specter, Snowe, and Warner, among others, charge that "radical Republicans want absolute power to appoint Supreme Court justices who will support their radical agenda and favor corporate interests over our interests."

In a "fact sheet" sent out after the call, the RNC responded, "No Republican Senator is advocating ending the legislative filibuster, even though several Democrats have in the past." Per the release, Senators Kennedy, Kerry, Lieberman and six others voted to end the filibuster in 1995. And it said the filibuster has been around for barely 100 years, not 200.

Social Security
Not to get nitpicky, but we noticed from the text of his Social Security speech in Parkersburg, WV yesterday that Bush didn't talk about private accounts until the 23rd graph of the meat of his pitch -- about the three-fourths of the way through the speech. He spent the preceding 22 graphs emphasizing 1) that seniors and near-retirees wouldn't be affected, and 2) that the system is headed to insolvency.

Also, this dovetails with what the Democrats stressed yesterday, but Bush is dismissing the accumulated Social Security trust fund in arguing that insolvency occurs in 2017 instead of 2041 or 2052 (as the CBO projects). In fact, Bush never mentioned 2041 or 2052 in his speech yesterday, but said: "Americans must reject temporary measures. In other words, you'll hear people in Washington say, well, we got a 75-year fix, for example. You know, in 1983, the issue came to focus, and President Reagan and Speaker Foley, as well as other Republicans and Democrats, set aside their partisan differences and said, look, we have an obligation to act on behalf of the country. And they came together and put what they thought was a 75-year fix to the problem. The problem is that the 75-year fix wasn't a 75-year fix, because here we are, 22 years later, talking about it again."

So, if you buy the 2052 date, then isn't what Congress and Reagan did in 1983 nearly a 75-year fix?

The New York Times says Bush “was on solid ground” yesterday when he said the trust fund was basically "just I.O.U.'s." “The Social Security trust fund is an accounting device representing the billions of dollars in government bonds that were bought over the years as Social Security taxes have exceeded benefits. In the next decade, benefits will begin to exceed taxes, and the government is supposed to redeem the bonds in the trust fund to meet the cost of benefits.”

More coverage of Bush's shift off of private accounts:
USA Today
Los Angeles Times

Despite the President's shift in emphasis, White House economic advisor Al Hubbard devotes an entire Wall Street Journal op-ed to touting the virtues of private accounts.

The Center for American Progress put former Clinton economic advisor Gene Sperling on a press conference call to talk about "the merits and weaknesses of potential Republican alternatives" on Social Security at 1:00 pm.

Democrats yesterday took aim at Bush's remark that there is no Social Security trust fund. "This type of statement is highly misleading and dangerous," said Reid and Pelosi in a letter to Bush. "For a President to even suggest that the federal government might, for the first time, default on a security backed by the full faith and credit of the United States unnecessarily misleads American workers about the health of the Social Security program." And in a conference call, Sen. Jon Corzine (D) speculated that Bush's comment about the trust fund "might be a desire to create uncertainty" whether Social Security will remain solvent until either 2041 or 2052. On that call, Bill Halter, former acting Social Security Administration commissioner under Bill Clinton, added, "I don't think I've ever witnessed a President trying to cast doubt on the most secure investment in the world."

The House Democratic leadership holds a presser on their Social Security town halls held over the recess at 10:00 am.

The Washington Post reports on how GOP House members over the recess did fewer town halls and more "workshops" in which "administration officials did most of the talking and lawmakers stepped up to answer a few questions after lengthy presentations from Bush appointees."

The Des Moines Register reports that Iowa Democrats are on the warpath against Chuck Grassley as his Finance Committee preps for hearings later this month. "Opponents plan to target Grassley with press conferences, phone calls, mass e-mailings and more, according to an official with a liberal-leaning group organizing to oppose the president's plans for Social Security... On a conference call with Iowa reporters, Iowa Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson slammed Grassley for moving ahead with the president's plan for individual accounts." Nevertheless, the paper says, "[a]t a tax conference on Tuesday, Grassley was asked for a timeline on when he would produce a Social Security bill. 'Your question to me is "When?" I think it's more a question of "if,"' said Grassley, according to Bloomberg News Service."

And Tom Daschle made bashing private accounts the topic of his first visit to South Dakota since losing in November. – Boston Herald

More on the values debate
Kansas became the 18th state yesterday to pass an amendment banning gay marriage, the Wichita Eagle reports. “More than 550,000 people approved the measure by more than a 2-1 ratio... Opponents… called the election ‘merely the beginning of the fight for fairness in this state,’ pledging to challenge the measure in courts." – Wichita Eagle

The Hartford Courant explores why many in Connecticut oppose the civil union bill. "Even in liberal states such as Oregon and Connecticut, many residents have shown a persistent unwillingness to accept gay marriage."

State Republicans have asked to postpone debate in the Senate until after the pope's funeral on Friday. Also, the "Family Institute of Connecticut, which opposes civil unions and gay marriage, said Tuesday it hopes to turn out 25,000 demonstrators on the state Capitol grounds on April 24 to persuade [Governor] Rell to reconsider her endorsement of civil unions." – Hartford Courant

The Washington Times says it surveyed all 55 Senate Republicans and all say "they have never seen the Terri Schiavo political talking-points memo that Democrats say was circulated among Republicans during the floor debate over whether the federal government should intervene to prolong her life."

Is Governor Bush trying to mend fences with conservatives post-Schiavo in saying he will "sign a bill that would allow people who feel threatened - even on the street or at a baseball game - to 'meet force with force' and defend themselves with a weapon without fear of prosecution?" – Los Angeles Times

Whither the Democrats
The Hill reports that Chuck Schumer will be the Senate point man on "negotiations to repeal or restructure the estate tax," which "may inoculate Democrats from future political attacks on what has been a tough issue for them in rural and swing states."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein reports on the upsides and downsides to MoveOn's partnership with Sen. Robert Byrd, for whose re-election bid they're raising a lot of money after Byrd spearheaded their anti-nuclear campaign. "...[T]he torrent of MoveOn money drew quick fire from Republicans, who signaled that they intended to make the group's support an issue not only in West Virginia but also in other states." Brownstein reminds us that Bush carried West Virginia by 13 points.

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