“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.

First glance
Not that the Administration hasn't been working on health care.  The President has been pushing health savings accounts -- just not as hard as private accounts for Social Security.  He also has been pushing to lower the cost of health insurance -- albeit through med mal reform. 

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But today's a day when the White House could -- COULD -- be doing a cool "us, running?" racewalk to get out in front of a Hydra-headed story about the growing costs of his Medicare prescription-drug law and American health care in general, which could -- COULD -- have all sorts of implications for congressional and public attitudes toward his Social Security plan, his budget blueprint, and his sense of priorities in general.

First, there's the news this morning that Bush's top priority for his first term, the Medicare prescription-drug law, will cost more than Bush himself suggested, though Administration officials say it's in line with earlier projections.  They might not be met with skepticism this time if they hadn't used that line before.  GOP conservatives and Democrats on the Hill don't sound happy.

On top of that, the GAO chief told Congress yesterday that the costs of Medicaid reimbursements and health care are the greatest threats out there to the US economy.  On cue, a Boston University study coming out today shows that health care spending now accounts for about one-quarter of the economy.

OR, Bush could simply get a break from the Social Security and budget wars today by pushing for legislation which, for a change, seems very likely to pass.  Not only that, but class-action reform is not a presidential goal that, like Social Security, seems to embody a conflict between a desire to halve the deficit and requiring trillions of dollars in borrowing.

One-third of the tort reform package that ranks high on Bush's agenda, class-action reform is the focus of a presidential "conversation" at the Commerce Department at 1:20 pm.  The CW among those involved in both sides of this effort is that this piece will pass because it has some Democratic support and the trial lawyers are holding their fire, but the other two pieces -- med mal and asbestos litigation reform -- face much tougher opposition.

Bush also meets with the President of Poland at the White House at 11:25 am.

The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

And tonight, incoming DNC chairman Dean, who's not supposed to have an agenda, hosts an event for his supporters at the Cap City Brewery on the Hill at 7:00 pm.

Bush's priorities
"The White House released budget figures yesterday indicating that the new Medicare prescription drug benefit will cost more than $1.2 trillion in the coming decade, a much higher price tag than President Bush suggested when he narrowly won passage of the law in late 2003," the Washington Post leads.

Last night, Bush's Medicare chief "acknowledged that the cumulative cost of the program between 2006 and 2015 will reach $1.2 trillion, but he cited several major savings and offsets that he said will reduce the federal government's bottom-line cost to $720 billion.  The disclosure prompted new criticism by Democrats about the administration's long-term budget estimates.  It also showed that Medicare, the national medical insurance program for seniors, may pose a far more serious budgetary problem in the coming decade than concerns about the solvency of Social Security."

The Wall Street Journal says Administration officials, "defending against claims that the drug benefit has grown more expensive over time, said the figure was consistent with their earlier projections.  It appears larger primarily because it takes into account a new time frame with 10 full years of drug coverage." 

The Journal reminds us, "The administration's credibility on cost estimates was damaged after the 2003 passage of the drug benefit.  Many congressional Republicans found out belatedly that the administration believed all along that it would be more expensive than the $400 billion, 10-year budget.  Medicare actuaries had calculated a higher cost for the law, but their estimates were suppressed."

"Administration officials said the numbers were not comparable.  The original estimate was for the years 2004 to 2013.  The new estimate covers the period from 2006, when the drug benefit becomes available, to 2015," says the New York Times.  "The higher figure, which provides the first glimpse of the true cost of the drug benefit, could touch off a political uproar in Congress, where conservative Republicans were already expressing alarm about the costs of Medicare, including the drug benefit.”

“Passage of the Medicare bill was a major political achievement for President Bush and the Republican leaders of Congress.  It squeaked through the House... and it would probably not have been approved in its current form if lawmakers had thought the cost would exceed a half-trillion dollars.”    

The Washington Times covers the GAO report "on the nation's fiscal status presented to Congress yesterday," which "showed that expenditures in President Bush's budget are unsustainable and will lead to permanent deficits in the next decade...  GAO Comptroller-General David Walker said the greatest threats to the nation's economic stability are the ballooning costs of Medicaid reimbursements as health care becomes increasingly expensive."

And the Los Angeles Times reports on a Boston University study coming out today showing that "spending for healthcare is gobbling up about one-quarter of the growth in the economy, and health-related items now amount to more than three times the defense budget and twice what the nation devotes to education."

"In a few weeks, David M. Walker - comptroller general of the United States - will appoint a 15-member commission established by Congress to hold hearings around the country on balancing healthcare needs and costs...  Meanwhile, Bush is urging consumers to tackle costs directly by becoming managers of their own healthcare dollars" through HSA's.  "The Boston University researchers, however, questioned whether that strategy would work."

Writing up Bush's speech to the Detroit Economic Club, the AP notes that "Bush ran through his list of domestic priorities, pressing Congress to make past tax cuts permanent, add private accounts to Social Security, curb lawsuit awards to plaintiffs, allow small businesses to pool health insurance purchases, approve his energy plan, create a guest worker program for illegal immigrants, require testing of high school students, and simplify the tax code...  He portrayed his spending plan as a centerpiece of his prescription for prosperity."

On the likely-to-pass class-action reform, Roll Call reports that "the handful of Democratic supporters of the legislation had made a pledge to Republican sponsors to vote against all amendments."

Tom DeLay talked with reporters yesterday about the border security legislation proposed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R), which is scheduled to come up in the House today.  Sensenbrenner is pushing for Congress to tackle his bill before the President's guest-worker proposal.  DeLay distinguished the bill from the President's goal -- "We have to protect our borders before we go to immigration reform" -- and said he supports a guest-worker program where individuals apply from their country of origin.  He added, "The President doesn't discount that you apply in the country of origin."  The Washington Post spots a rare policy difference between Bush and DeLay.

The budget and the Hill: Day Two
Not much better than Day One.

The Wall Street Journal says "many Republicans found something not to like on Mr. Bush's long list of proposed cuts...  When asked about her least-favorite cuts, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine paused before responding: 'How long do you have?'  The moderate Republican, a crucial swing vote in the narrowly divided chamber, faces re-election next year."

House Budget chairman Nussle yesterday raised the specter of a Bush veto, to hold congressional spending in check, the New York Times says.

The Washington Post notes that the Bush budget marks "a clear break from Republican campaigns of the 1990s to downsize government and devolve power to the states" in that "Bush is fostering what amounts to an era of new federalism in which the national government shapes, not shrinks, programs and institutions to comport with various conservative ideals."  The story says that "a growing number of conservatives are uneasy with what they deride as 'big-government conservatism.'"

"Concern" among GOP lawmakers "about a persistent budget deficit combined with resistance to deep spending cuts could make it harder for Bush to achieve other domestic priorities, such as making his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent."  - Los Angeles Times

"Republicans raised questions about how closely the GOP-led Congress will follow the president's fiscal outline."  - USA Today

DeLay yesterday on the budget: "I'm not disagreeing with the President, but from my perspective, everything should be on the table, including Defense and Homeland Security.  Nothing should be left out of our scrutiny."

On the amount of time congressional lawmakers are taking to come forth with their disputes over Bush's budget proposal, The Hill suggests that "[t]he delayed reaction may suit the administration.  It did not release a list of the 150 programs...  The White House may be forcing congressional staff to comb through the document to keep lawmakers from pouncing on the proposed cuts all at once."

Meanwhile, the still-digging Washington Post points out that under Bush's blueprint, the TSA "faces a large-scale dismantling".

And Bush's proposal to cut an aircraft carrier has Gov. Jeb Bush lobbying to keep the USS John F. Kennedy, based in Mayport, FL, from being the one to go.  The AP reports that Jeb Bush "came to Washington for a two-day visit this week...  The governor is expected to lobby legislators today to keep the carrier in Mayport."

Social Security
USA Today has unencouraging numbers for the President on Social Security: "Two-thirds of those surveyed by USA Today/CNN/Gallup last weekend say it would be a 'good idea' to limit retirement benefits for the wealthy and to subject all wages to payroll taxes...  But some ideas that President Bush said in his State of the Union address were on the table for consideration are rejected by solid majorities.  By more than 2 to 1, Americans oppose reducing retirement benefits for those now under age 55.  Nearly as many say it's a bad idea to raise the retirement age, and 57% are against reducing benefits for early retirees." 

"Even though Bush's address last week highlighted Social Security, he failed to convince more Americans that the retirement program is in a state of crisis or that his approach is the right way to fix it.  In early January, 18% of those polled called it a crisis.  Now 17% do.  Support for Bush's plan" of private accounts "is unchanged from January: 40% call it a good idea; 55% say it's a bad one."

Beyond the deficit-cutting versus trillions-in-borrowing issue, the Washington Post points out another conflict seemingly posed by Bush's plan -- that "Bush is relying on projections that an aging society will drag down economic growth.  Yet his proposal to establish personal accounts is counting on strong investment gains in financial markets that would be coping with the same demographic head wind."  Economists "divide sharply between those who believe the stock market cannot meet the president's expectations and those who say investor demand from a faster-growing developing world will keep stock prices rising."

D'oh.  Roll Call reports that AARP questionnaires filled out by GOP members targeted by Democrats for defeat back in 2004 show, "by and large, a striking sameness of response that centers on four basic pillars: no benefit cuts for current or near retirees, no increase in payroll taxes, no raising of the retirement age and no privatization of the system."

The Washington Times covers efforts by some "rank-and-file Democrats" to push "alternative ideas to President Bush's Social Security reform concept, despite their leadership's argument that there isn't a need to offer a counterproposal right now:".

The New York Times notes that as many companies are pulling back their once-generous retirement plans, many aging workers who expected to retire in their 50s and 60s are being forced to go back to work.

DCOS Rove
Coverage of the President's appointment of Karl Rove as deputy chief of staff universally reflects the national press corps' view that this simply formalizes an influence Rove already wielded:
Washington Post
USA Today
Washington Times

Democratic sources raise the following questions about Rove's new responsibilities -- "putting aside," they note, "whether Rove had a hand in these things before now:" Is he a national intelligence expert?  Is he a foreign affairs expert?  A military expert?  A biodefense expert?  Or a cybersecurity expert?

Partisan warfare
Two hundred people, mostly African-American, attended RNC chairman Ken Mehlman's first Black History Month town hall in Largo, MD last night, says the Baltimore Sun.  The story notes that Mehlman exuded "the charm of a salesman;" told the mostly African-American crowd that "'[i]f you give us a chance, we will give you a chance to own your own home and start your own small business;" and that LG Michael Steele (R) "also spoke as if campaigning for an upcoming election."

"In Maryland, the concerns of people of color increasingly have risen to the forefront of state politics, in particular because of a growing minority population.  Of the state's 5.5 million residents, almost a third are African-American and more than 8 percent are Latino or Asian."

Rounding up the President's recent efforts to court African-American voters, The Hill notes that "Bush’s move to trim the federal budget by attempting to cut Medicaid and education programs could hamper his effort to court minorities."

Harry Reid said yesterday at the post-policy luncheon stakeout that President Bush brought up the RNC's attacks on Reid at their private dinner Monday night, but Reid refused to discuss details of a private conversation with the President.  Still, Roll Call reports that "before the dinner, Bush pulled Reid aside and told him that he had nothing to do with the Republican National Committee mailing that got Reid so riled up...  Neither Bush nor Reid said anything at the dinner table about their squabble or the RNC’s 13-page document."

Another release taking after Reid went out yesterday from the GOP Senate campaign committee.

Whither the Democrats
A new study says Democrats in Iowa spent too much time courting absentee voters in the state -- a misallocation that may have cost them a victory in the state in November, the Des Moines Register reports.  "In contrast...  Iowa Republicans conducted an absentee ballot drive but also assumed their strongest supporters would go to the polls on Election Day.  That left them better able to target wavering or undecided voters..."

Dean e-mailed supporters of his Democracy for America yesterday, assuring them that DFA would go on despite his new post, and asking for contributions for the organization: "My personal involvement will be limited if I am elected Chair of the Party on Saturday...  If I am elected Chair on Saturday, it will be because of what you have done.  My job has been to support and empower.  You are the one who has the power to change this country."

Kerry, returning to the enviro issues he used to focus on before the general election campaign, speaks about "climate change and the role of America in protecting the global environment" at the Brookings Institution today at 1:00 pm.

Maybe Edwards knows something about the 2008 nominating calendar that we don't.  Kansas Democratic Party announced yesterday that Edwards will address their 100thAnniversary of Washington Days dinner on March 4 in Topeka.

And the New York Times writes about questions concerning a man -- Peter Paul -- who spent $2 million of his own money to pay for a 2000 fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton.  The Times adds that Paul is “a man who pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and trying to defraud Fidel Castro's government out of millions of dollars in 1979, among other things.”

“Associates of the Clintons say the couple did not know of Mr. Paul's troubled past at the time, and in the months after the event, Mr. Paul turned on the Clintons, later urging investigators to look into the fund-raiser…"

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