“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 24, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
With his broadly thematic inauguration speech behind him, President Bush is likely to start road-testing more specific domestic policies and language for his February 2 State of the Union.  His scheduled public events this week are devoted to pushing domestic issues and courting key constituencies.  Meanwhile, the Hubble appears to be the first high-profile casualty of Bush's forthcoming budget, which will reflect his determination to halve the deficit.

  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

Bush gets domestic against the backdrop of increasing pre-election violence in Iraq and Abu Musab Zarqawi's threat to wage war against democracy.  Iraq will continue to feature prominently in Condoleezza Rice's confirmation process, which resumes tomorrow and is expected to wrap up on Wednesday.  The influx of US media this week means the Iraq elections will get covered the way American elections do, with a heavy focus on process, but again, the important question is whether or not the Iraqis buy the election results, a dynamic which may be less tied to process than we're used to seeing. 

Bush returns to DC from Camp David today.  His only scheduled event is a 12 noon call to participants in the March for Life, who will be rallying on The Ellipse at that time before setting off.  Tomorrow, Bush meets with African-American leaders and pastors, where he'll presumably continue to press for his Social Security plan.  He devotes his public schedule on Wednesday and Thursday to health care, with Thursday marking his first trip to Ohio since the election.

The Senate meets at 2:00 pm; the House is not in session.  In the latest effort to organize and concentrate their firepower, Senate Democrats today seek to match their GOP counterparts in announcing their top legislative priorities.  And Kerry, like Bush, plans to push health care this week.

And Social Security stays front and center: After some key GOP resistance to Bush's proposal emerged yesterday, the opposing AARP today releases a poll.  AARP policy director John Rother tells NBC's Rosalind Jordan that the poll finds Americans split 50-50on whether private accounts are a good idea -- but that support for private accounts drops to 5%when people are told that the following factors might be needed to create them: $2 trillion in transition costs; no access to the accounts until retirement; management fees being deducted from the accounts rather than covered by the government; and a cost-of-living index change to track the rate of inflation, not the rise in wages.

Rother says there won't be a second media ad blitz to trumpet these poll results, Jordan reports, but AARP plans to respond immediately to whatever President Bush says about Social Security in the SOTU...

And we're off.

The Bush agenda
Knight Ridder covers some Hill Republicans' urge "to take a chance this year on a massive legislative package that would overhaul Social Security and the income-tax code at the same time -- a challenge of historic proportion that could lead to sweeping changes throughout American society."

"Republicans have reached no consensus on the question, which would disrupt President Bush's preferred schedule of taking on Social Security first and tax changes later.  The issue is expected to be one of the main topics that Republican lawmakers will debate during a retreat this week at the Greenbrier hotel and spa in White Sulfur Springs, W. Va...  Still, Social Security and the tax code are so enormously complex and ideologically freighted that lumping efforts to overhaul them together could doom both."

USA Today wraps up Sunday-show comments by Ways and Means chairman Thomas and moderate GOP Senate Finance member Olympia Snowe doubting Bush's claim that Social Security is in crisis and his proposed private accounts.  Thomas "suggested Congress examine controversial ideas, such as varying retirement ages based on gender, race and occupation, and new ways to finance all benefits for seniors - Medicare and Medicaid as well as Social Security...  Snowe expressed reluctance to tinker with the basics of a system that has provided a stable monthly income and kept seniors out of poverty for 70 years."

The Washington Post notices some selective excerpting of past Clinton and Moynihan comments by Administration officials "to bolster their claims that the retirement system is in crisis.  But the gambit carries some risk, Bush supporters say.  Clinton's repeated calls during his second term to 'save Social Security first' were specifically to thwart what President Bush ultimately did: cut taxes based on federal budget surplus projections.  Likewise, internal Treasury Department documents indicate that Moynihan... expressed misgivings about the president's push to partially privatize Social Security."

Thomas, Frist, Hastert, DeLay.  The Los Angeles Times covers the "political dynamic taking shape as Bush begins his second term: Some of his most powerful lieutenants in the congressional leadership have agendas of their own for the next two years, and they may not always coincide with Bush's.  That is in part because key GOP leaders are at crucial points in their own careers, and they will be viewing the next two years through the prism of their own ambitions and legacies."

Knight Ridder follows up on the Washington Post's earlier report about the GOP's planned permanent campaign.  RNC chairman Ken Mehlman "intends to craft 'a durable Republican majority,' and consign the Democrats to perpetual minority status, by taking the national grassroots army he built during the campaign... and putting it to work lobbying lawmakers for the Bush agenda...  And while Mehlman puts his campaign army to work - on behalf of Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security, and, at some point, to name a conservative Supreme Court justice - he will be aided by the same 'independent' groups, many of them created or financed by Republican strategists and fund-raisers, that buttressed Bush's reelection bid with TV ads and mailings.  (The Democrats are aided by similar groups.)"

The New York Times says the Republican Party is more dominant than anytime since 1928 -- but that overconfidence, dissent within the GOP ranks, and increasingly aggressive Democrats could imperil that dominance. 

With the White House no longer pushing for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, with less combative second-term Cabinet secretaries, with a pro-choice co-chair of the RNC, and with Thursday’s idealistic inaugural address, Bob Novak wonders if Bush is side-stepping away from the right and toward the middle.  “Is he looking more like his father and less like Ronald Reagan?”

Inaugural reax
The Washington Times gathers up praise and favorable poll numbers for the address -- and signs of skepticism: "Some of the president's most consistent supporters said they were taken aback by the scope and ambition of the speech."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein: "Applied with a proper sense of humility and limits, Bush's goal of spreading liberty is an appropriate, and even traditional, lodestar for U.S. foreign policy.  But expanding freedom does not need to be an entirely, or even principally, American mission, as Bush's speech implied."

"Foreign governments and commentators are reacting with alarm, skepticism and defiance to President Bush's inaugural address," says USA Today.  "Republicans denied that Bush had signaled a major shift in U.S. policy...  But elsewhere, commentators characterized the speech as evangelical or militaristic.  Others scoffed at what they called a gulf between Bush's rhetoric and the practical demands of thwarting terrorism and nuclear proliferation."

January 30
The Washington Post on Zarqawi's threat and Negroponte's Sunday-show assertions that steps are being taken to protect Iraqi voters.

The Post also reports signs that followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr will not accept the elections results.

Leading Shiites say “they have decided to put a secular face on the new Iraqi government they plan to form, relegating Islam to a supporting role,” the New York Times says. 

The Chicago Tribune focuses on the split between the Shiites and Sunnis.

Gannett looks at the significance of the Pentagon's recent determination that Iraq faces an "insurgency:" "This admission is meaningful... because military commanders do not use the term 'insurgency' indiscriminately or interchangeably."   Insurgencies "are a special type of conflict with deeply rooted military and political characteristics that make them excruciatingly difficult to defeat.  Modern insurgents attack military, economic, social, political and religious targets...  Insurgency is the only form of warfare that has ever defeated a superpower, most notably the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s."

Voter registration for Iraqis living in the United States has been extended until tomorrow night. - Washington Post

"The Iraqi elections will get intense American-style coverage.” - Washington Times

Condi, etc
The Washington Times covers Barbara Boxer's insistence that she was the victim in her exchange with Condi Rice during Rice's confirmation hearing -- that Rice "'turned and attacked me".

Asa Hutchinson plans to resign from his border and transportation security post at DHS today after being passed over twice to run the department. - AP

The values debate
Now that it has been determined that all human embryonic stem cell lines approved for use in federally funded research are tainted, the Bush Administration faces the question of what to do about its stem cell policy. - Los Angeles Time

The Washington Times previews today's March for Life and looks at the prospects for further nominations of pro-life judges and restrictions on abortion.

Roll Call reports that abortion has not only become a prominent issue in the race for DNC chair, due to the candidacy of pro-life former Rep. Tim Roemer, but in the effort to recruit pro-life state Treasurer Bob Casey (D) to challenge Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R).

Dean continues to rack up endorsements from key DNC figures in his bid for chair, the latest being vice-chair Gloria Molina and deputy chair Ben Johnson.

The Sacramento Bee wraps up Saturday’s DNC-chair forum in Sacramento, noting that Dean seemed to receive the loudest applause, that Roemer defended his anti-abortion stance “before a wary crowd” (he said he would back the party’s position supporting abortion rights); and that the rest of the field whacked Bush. 

Roll Call reports that the Senate Minority Leader's office "and trusted allies have been working to formalize a working relationship with K Street Democrats as part of a bigger plan to ramp up communications efforts to promote their legislative goals.  So far, there have been at least six meetings at various downtown offices..."

"In addition to strengthening ties to Democratic lobbyists, Reid is expected to turn to a handful of Democratic consultants..."  (How does this mesh with all the DNC chair candidates insisting the party needs to stop listening to consultants and start emphasizing the grassroots?)

It's the Boston media's turn to have at the prospect of an RFK, Jr.-Cuomo bout for the Democratic nomination for New York attorney general. - Boston Herald


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