“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.

Friday, April 8, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
We did this yesterday, but rising gas prices today are a hot political topic after the Energy Department announced yesterday that already high gas prices will increase this summer and perhaps into 2006.  How Democrats and Republicans react to this will certainly be something to watch.  Congress, however, has a solution to curb higher electricity prices: by extending daylight-saving time.  (More on that below.)

  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

Meanwhile, with Pope John Paul II laid to rest in the wee hours of the North American morning, come Monday, Washington will get back to real business for the first time since they tried, with mixed success, to leave for recess on March 18.  On tap, of course, will be more wrangling over Social Security and Bush’s judicial nominees -- and also the fates of Bush nominees for UN ambassador and heads of the EPA and FDA, whom Democrats are either opposing or outright blocking.  

Tom DeLay, currently in Rome (and celebrating a birthday today), remains in the papers after appearing -- via videotape -- at the “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” conference yesterday.  And there’s more fallout over the Schiavo memo.  Democrats will continue to use these examples, and others, as evidence that Republicans are “drunk with power.”  But the question remains: Can they succeed with such an argument without offering some kind of reformist message that advocates positive change?

Republicans continue to have a difficult time reforming retirement programs: In California, Schwarzenegger has dropped his plan to overhaul California’s pension system -- for now.

Today we also take advantage of the political news gap to look more closely, below, at still more data from the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll -- this time on immigration, one of the country's thorniest issues.

And finally, on Monday, Parliament dissolves.  It sounds drastic but don't worry -- this is part of the United Kingdom's normal election process, which we lay out for you below.  Typically on Fridays, we look at some aspect of the great oh-eight race, but Tony Blair's campaign for an unprecedented third term is looking tight as a tick and the election is now less than one month away.

Gas politics
The Energy Department announced yesterday that “record pump prices will not only rule the road this summer, they'll stick around through 2006 as motorists' thirst for fuel shows no sign of abating,” the Los Angeles Times says.  “Overall, the government report sees no short-term relief for motorists. Crude oil costs are clinging to exceptionally high levels in response to economic growth and other factors, and refiners have little capacity to boost summer supply.” 

Meanwhile, the New York Times takes a stab at the politics behind the rising gas prices, noting the drop in Bush’s economic handling according to recent polls.  “Mr. Bush discussed energy prices with his cabinet on Tuesday and is sure to raise the subject during a meeting being planned for this month with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer.”

“But Democrats say they intend to use the renewed focus on energy issues to revive their case that Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom worked in the oil business, are more interested in helping oil companies than in helping consumers.” – New York Times

The AP notes that Congress has a possible solution toward curbing energy costs, especially in terms of electricity use -- extending daylight-saving time.  “Lawmakers crafting energy legislation approved an amendment Wednesday to extend daylight-saving time by two months, having it start on the last Sunday in March and end on the last Sunday in November.” 

Pontiff politics
While in Rome, Bush has certainly made a point of staying out of the public eye.  And the Washington Times says he "became the first president in years to conduct a full day's schedule on foreign soil without allowing a single press question, photograph or even fleeting image on videotape."  This, the article notes, is in contrast to former President Bill Clinton who gave an interview to NBC’s Brian Williams last night. 

E.J. Dionne examines all the nitty-gritty politics behind the election of the next pope, including the power of patronage, regional politics, interest groups, and the church’s ideological direction. 

The Washington Post tries to get to the bottom of why Jimmy Carter, the only president ever to host a pope at the White House when John Paul II came to visit a quarter-century ago, wasn’t included in the presidential delegation to the Pope’s funeral.  “Both sides agree that the White House invited Carter and that he ultimately chose not to go, but questions immediately arose as to whether he was genuinely welcome or subtly discouraged from joining the entourage.”

And similar to what he did after Terri Schiavo's death, Senator Santorum, with the US delegation in Rome, held a press conference call with reporters following the funeral earlier this morning.

Social Security
The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire looks at the Social Security crosstabs in the latest NBC/Journal poll.  “By 68% to 20%, Americans 65 and older call investing payroll-tax money in stocks ‘a bad idea,’ despite Bush's assertion that their benefits won't be affected. Seniors track the debate much more closely than do younger Americans. Overall, 29% say the president is spending ‘too much time’ on the issue, though 47% say Congress is spending too little.”

In other news about retirement programs, Arnold Schwarzenegger has dropped his plan to overhaul California's pension program, after intense pressure from firefighters and police officers, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.  Schwarzenegger, however, insists he will put pension reform to a vote in June 2006 if a deal on it can’t be struck by legislators and interests groups before then. 

Congress, the courts, and Schiavo
The New York Times says Tom DeLay continued to blast the federal judiciary, even though other Republicans -- like Bill Frist and Dick Cheney -- have distanced themselves from this attack.  “‘Judicial independence does not equal judicial supremacy,’ Mr. DeLay said in a videotaped speech delivered to a conservative conference in Washington entitled ‘Confronting the Judicial War on Faith.’”

“Mr. DeLay's comments are the latest evidence of his determination to follow through on his vows to hold federal judges accountable in the aftermath of the failure of the federal courts to order the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube as Congressional conservatives intended.” – New York Times

The Los Angeles Times takes a look at the longtime odd-couple partnership between DeLay and Speaker Hastert.  “With DeLay, the House majority leader, now caught in a swirl of political and ethical controversy, that partnership is being put to its toughest test.”

“‘If Denny would break with him at some point, that would be a significant situation,’ said Robert Walker, a former House GOP leader who was a onetime DeLay adversary. ‘But he won't do that unless the facts warrant it. And I don't see that factual case has been established.’” 

Meanwhile, Northwestern University law professors Stephen Calabresi and James Lindgren write a Wall Street op-ed, arguing for a constitutional amendment that limits Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms.  “With justices now staying 10 years longer than they have historically, vacancies are opening up a lot less often… The typical one-term president now gets to appoint only one instead of two justices, and with the recent 11-year drought of vacancies a two-term presidency could in theory go by without being able to make even a single Supreme Court appointment.”

“We think this is unacceptable. No powerful government institution in a modern democracy should go for 11 years without any democratic check on its membership.”

More fallout from the Schiavo memo: The Washington Post says that Sen. Mel Martinez’s office is investigating whether the memo that one of his aides, Brian Darling, drafted was distributed to other Senate offices, and whether any other Martinez aides had seen it. 

The Miami Herald also reports that some Republicans are worried that Martinez's image will suffer due to this memo.  “The memo and Martinez's handling of it, those supporters said, could damage his relationship with other senators and portray him as driven more by political partisanship than conviction. It also could lead to questions about his level of oversight of his staff and raise doubts about his attention to detail.”

The guest-worker proposal is for George W. Bush what NAFTA was for Bill Clinton -- a presidential priority that seems almost politically counterintuitive in that it pits the president against certain factions of his base for the purpose of expanding the party.  President Bush and his top political advisors clearly have determined that the GOP must reach out to the nation's growing Hispanic population.  And as we have written here before, there's some thought that Bush, with his Texas roots and experience as a border-state governor is better positioned to try this than any other Republican out there.

But even more than health care, immigration may be the most complicated and enduring political issue of our lifetime.  Everyone can at least agree up front that all Americans should have access to health care; the disagreements are over how to go about it.  With immigration, the debate stalls over who or what makes an American before you even get to consider how to handle it.  The arguments are chiefly economic and cultural, between those who believe that immigration is good for the American economy and/or culture, versus those who believe it's bad for employment and/or the culture.  And as Bush sets about broadening the GOP, a microcosm of this debate is playing out within it, between its business interests and cultural conservatives.

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (March 31-April 3; 1,002 adults; MOE +/-3.1%) shows no partisan divide on immigration between Republicans and Democrats or Bush and Kerry voters, but that feelings about immigration depend on age, geography, and socio-economic status.  Some of the strongest opposition to immigration, per the poll, is among those over age 65.  Westerners tend to be less tolerant than residents of the East Coast, low-income adults less so than wealthier ones, and less-educated people less so than highly educated people. 

The poll shows that 89% of those surveyed say immigration is of some importance to them.  Among the 36% who say it's "extremely important" are 43% of those blue-collar workers polled, 41% of retirees, 44% of Western voters, and 46% of conservative Republicans.  And as pollsters Hart/McInturff point out, those who feel intensely about the issue tend to be on the opposite side of the President.  Overall, 53% say they are opposed to Bush's guest-worker program; 43% favor it. 

Asked which statement comes closer to their point of view, 48% of those surveyed say immigration weakens the United States because it "detracts from our character" and "puts too many burdens on government services, causes language barriers, and creates housing problems."  Forty-one percent say immigration strengthens the United States because it "adds to our character" and "brings diversity, new workers, and new creative talent" into the country.

The split was even, at 46% to 45%, between those who view immigration as an economic benefit to the United States "because immigrant workers fulfill jobs in America that citizens otherwise do not want or cannot do, and those who view immigration as an economic threat "because immigrant workers take jobs that would otherwise be fulfilled by American citizens."

The biggest hurdle to tackling immigration is the difficulty of disentangling illegal immigration from other aspects of the debate.  As a gut reaction, when some Americans hear the word "immigration," they automatically think illegal immigration.  "Imagine the emotional welfare debates of mid-1980's" over how "people get something for nothing, but it's worse because they're not part of our own country," says NBC pollster Bill McInturff on how some react to illegal immigrants.  Also, politicians and the political parties err in assuming that the US Latino and Asian communities are solidly pro-immigration -- many of them want immigrants to overcome the same hurdles they did. 

Beyond the gut check and questions of fairness, illegal immigrants are also being adapted into the US economy to such a degree that it's extremely difficult to extricate them.  Some view this as the flip side of outsourcing.  McInturff also notes there's an underground tax economy being fueled by illegal immigrants with bogus Social Security numbers whose employers are paying taxes on them.  And the need to hire workers "is a potent reason why the business community would push to deal with this issue," McInturff says.  Companies are looking to sidestep the politics of illegal immigration in a way that is similar, he points out, to how they began offering domestic partner benefits long before the government began to deal with that issue. 

"It takes years for our political culture to kind of litigate a difficult issue," he says, adding, "Major corporations and the business community will deal with this first."

Another poll released this week by Celinda Lake (D) and Ed Goeas (R) for the National Immigration Forum, an organization which supports Bush's plan, shows a 75% support level for a proposal very similar to Bush's, including among Republicans.  Senators McCain and Kennedy will offer this plan in the coming weeks.  Also according to this poll, support for the proposal is solid across party, regional, and demographic lines.  "People want change," said Frank Sharry of the NIF.  "They are used to having an either-or debate.  The fact is, when presented with a combination of elements... they are overwhelmingly supportive."  The NIF's take, rather like the business world's, is that Americans need to accept that the system is already broken.

PM's and MPsS: the UK elections
Why?  Because this is the only international election in which Americans regularly show more than passing interest.  Because Tony Blair's prospects for a third term hinge to such a degree on public opinion about the Iraq war.  Because some Democrats -- including many in DC -- look at Blair wistfully and think of their last American president.  And because Parliament dissolves on Monday. 

With local elections in the United Kingdom already scheduled for May 5, few were surprised when Blair said earlier this week that national elections will occur on the same day.  Blair made the announcement after meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, during which he requested the early “dissolution” of Parliament, marking the end of the legislative session and the start of the campaign season.  The Queen, who must have a valid reason to reject the request, usually obliges the PM, who has the authority to call national elections whenever he or she chooses so long as they’re held every five years.  The last elections were held in June 2001. 

In setting the date, Blair set the election pendulum into motion.  Along with the dissolution of Parliament on Monday, an election writ officially declaring election day is sent out to local officials, who have until next Thursday to make the notices public.  Candidates for local office then have about five days to collect the money and signatures required to get onto the ballot.  A gag order on government entities goes into effect as they cannot discuss any new initiatives or policies during this time.

While some candidates have been unofficially campaigning for months, the campaign season essentially lasts one month -- markedly different from US presidential elections in which campaigning begins as early has two years (or in the case of 2008, over three years) before election day.

The UK’s constitutional monarchy has two main branches.  Under the executive branch, the Queen employs a largely ceremonial role as the “Chief of State” while the PM serves as the head of government.  The Parliament includes the elected officials of the House of Commons and the appointed members of the House of Lords.  This election will designate 646 new members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons (down 13 from 2001 because of redistricting) and a PM.  Each MP represents one voting district and is elected by a “first-past-the-post” system, which means simply that whoever has the most votes, wins.  No set percentage or majority vote is needed. 

The leader of the party that captures the most MPs becomes the PM.  If no party achieves a majority, some parties may form a coalition to reach a majority, then elect a leader, usually picked from the larger of the parties.  If Blair loses next month and his party wants to attempt to retain power, they could give a “no confidence” vote to the new party by rejecting a ceremonial speech given by the Queen.

A whopping 44 million of the UK's 60 million residents are registered to vote, and turnout in 2001 was 59%.  Blair won by landslides in 1997 and 2001.  If he wins again this year, he will be the first Labor Party leader to win three consecutive terms.


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