“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, February 15, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Demonstrating how he can simultaneously go long for a permanent political realignment via Social Security reform and play base politics in the short term, the President sent Senate Democrats a Valentine yesterday in the form of a list of nominees to the federal bench, including seven US circuit court nominees who had previously been filibustered.

  1. Other political news of note
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      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
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

This is the first shot in a battle that will, at the least, turn the atmosphere in the Hill's clubbier chamber much more acidic, and could at worst land the Senate in legislative gridlock, as NBC's Ken Strickland suggests.  Those who are about to be seriously tested: Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, who pledged to the White House that he'd get Bush's judicial nominees out of committee; Majority Leader Bill Frist, who wants to run for president with the support of social conservatives and has threatened to go nuclear; and Senate Democrats, who don't appear to be backing down from another fight despite GOP efforts to label them as obstructionist.

But the focus right now is on Frist, who has threatened to use the so-called "nuclear option" to ease confirmation of these nominees.  As Strickland says, the option is an arcane bit of Senate procedure that would change the Senate rules to eliminate filibusters on judicial nominees.  Democrats say they'd retaliate by using procedural maneuvers of their own to bring all legislative action to a virtual halt.

But when Frist came off the Senate floor yesterday, Strickland says, he would not commit to pulling the trigger.  "I'm urging restraint," he repeated.  Yesterday, the Washington Times had Frist saying he has the necessary 51 votes for the rule change, but when pressed Monday evening, Frist played coy and wouldn't say whether he has them.

Strickland reports that the Judiciary Committee could take up some of the nominations as early as Thursday at an already scheduled session.

The Senate meets today at 9:45 am; the House meets at 12:30 pm.  The President has no public events scheduled at this writing; Scott McClellan gaggles at 9:00 am and briefs at 12:30 pm.

PS, Did the Gonzales swearing-in yesterday remind you to wonder what's happened with those statues at DOJ that were modestly draped during Ashcroft's tenure?  NBC's Pete Williams says that as of yesterday, the drapes were still there.  However, Williams says, they may go, since Gonzales seems very eager, in ways large and small, to make it clear that he's going to operate with a different style.

Capitol Hill forecast
Beyond the expected confirmation of Michael Chertoff as director of homeland security today, NBC's Strickland says much of the Senate agenda this week is about money -- money for the war, money for Social Security, and money to run the government.  Most of the action happens tomorrow: Rumsfeld appears before Appropriations to talk about the $82 billion supplemental.  Greenspan appears before Banking, where Democrats plan to quiz him on Bush's Social Security plan and his take on the economy.  Condi Rice gives her first official testimony before Foreign Relations, addressing her department's budget request for 2006.  And rising Medicare cost issues could come up when HHS Secretary Leavitt testifies on his budget before the Finance Committee.

Rumsfeld and Rice also will make their case on the House side this week.  Strickland adds that Rumsfeld is back on the Senate side on Thursday with Joint Chiefs chairman Myers to discuss the Pentagon budget with Senate Armed Services.  

Bush's priorities
The President yesterday asked Congress for another $82 billion for Iraq, Afghanistan, and tsunami aid in "one of the largest emergency requests in recent U.S. history, coming on top of $25 billion already allocated for the war in 2005," says the Washington Post.  The sum exceeds the president's combined 2006 funding request for the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development, and it is nearly five times the savings Bush is seeking next year in cuts to discretionary spending."

The Chicago Tribune reports that the supplemental “includes $3 billion that is unrelated to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and $19 billion more that is not directly related to U.S. military costs there.”

The Post on Bush's latest effort to confirm his more controversial judicial nominees: "The battle over the makeup of the federal bench is also a key issue for conservative evangelicals and others at the core of the president's political base who see judges as crucial to their efforts to outlaw abortion, allow for a broader religious presence in daily life and limit the influence of the federal government."

"GOP sources said [Specter] has told colleagues he would like to select one of the least controversial nominees and try to win enough Democratic support to defeat a filibuster, then push for other victories."

The Washington Times repeats from previous interviews Frist saying he has 51 votes to pass the rules change, and Specter saying he prefers negotiating with Democrats over going nuclear.

A former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives wrote yesterday on Beliefnet.com that "President Bush has failed to deliver on his promise to help religious groups serve the poor, the homeless and drug addicts because the administration lacks a genuine commitment to its 'compassionate conservative' agenda."  Per the Washington Post, David Kuo's charge that Bush didn't try hard enough to secure his promised $8 billion in funding for his faith-based initiatives marks "the second time a former high-ranking official has criticized Bush's approach to the faith-based issue."

"White House spokesman Trent Duffy said yesterday that Kuo is wrong about the president's commitment...  In the Beliefnet column, Kuo said that he continues to have 'deep respect, appreciation and affection for the president.'"

The Los Angeles Times says Kuo "complains that 'even the grandly announced new programs aren't what they appear.'  One of those, he said, is the anti-gang initiative announced by Bush in his State of the Union address early this month and headed by Laura Bush.  The program was hailed as new, but, Kuo said, the $50-million annual cost is coming out of the 'already meager' $100-million request for a faith-based project..."

The Wall Street Journal takes a long look at the shift among middle-class workers away from employer-provided health care plans to cheaper taxpayer-funded plans, which "ultimately will cost publicly funded state and federal programs billions of dollars and could eventually force even consumers of private health insurance to pay higher premiums."  Some states are considering imposing curbs on enrollment.  The story says Bush has proposed fixing the State Children's Health Insurance Program "in a broader proposed overhaul of Medicaid."

And the Wall Street Journal previews the fight the Administration seems due to have with mayors and local lawmakers over its proposed municipal budget cuts.

Social Security
In advance of his Wednesday appearance before the Senate Banking Committee, the Los Angeles Times sets up Greenspan as a "potentially critical constituency of one" for the White House in its effort to reform Social Security.

Even though Greenspan plays no official role here, if he "signals his support this week for Bush's private account plan, or voices no objections to the initial borrowing it would entail, it could improve the president's prospects in what is shaping up as the biggest legislative battle of Bush's second term...  Similarly, if Greenspan insists that future benefit reductions must be part of any Social Security restructuring package, it could undermine efforts by some Republicans to let workers create private investment accounts but leave the current benefit structure untouched."

Democratic Senators Corzine, Schumer and Reed prebut Greenspan's expected discussion with the banking panel on Social Security with a presser today at 3:30 pm.

The New York Times notes the “rocky ride” Bush’s push for Social Security overhaul has had in recent weeks.  “Six weeks into this Congressional session, Mr. Bush faces an almost solid wall of Democratic opposition to the idea of diverting payroll taxes to private investment accounts.  On the major legislative battles of his first term, notably tax cuts and Medicare, the president managed to prevail with a significant number of Democratic votes."

Today at 2:45 pm, the House Democratic leadership and other members will discuss "the importance of protecting survivor benefits" for Social Security.  Reps. Pomeroy, Neal and Thompson "will share their personal stories on how Social Security's survivor benefits affected each of their lives."

GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has a USA Today op-ed calling "personal accounts crucial to sustaining Social Security for future generations".

Expected snow isn't the only chilly greeting Bush will receive when he visits New Hampshire tomorrow to tout his Social Security plan.  According to a new Granite State Poll released yesterday by UNH, only 32% of residents think private accounts are a good idea, while 54% believe they're a bad idea.  In addition, only 13% say Social Security is in a crisis, compared with 53% who think it has major problems, and 28% who says it has minor problems.

Previewing Bush's visit to New Hampshire tomorrow, the Boston Herald says Bush will speak to a crowd of about 2,000 people -- picked by "GOP officials."

Partisan warfare
The Washington Post's Milbank covers the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, through which Democrats can hold informal hearings without GOP participation, making it "one of their best vehicles for raising a ruckus."  Milbank notes, as the RNC would, that the committee is taxpayer-funded.  "The Democrats' complaint is that Republicans, who control the real committees, will not hold hearings on anything that might embarrass the administration."

The DNC web team has been e-mailing supporters for awhile now, but yesterday we met Mindy and Katie, two members of the RNC web team, who e-mailed about the RNC's new weekly video series of "candid interviews with Party leaders, activists, and rising stars in the GOP."  Sen. John Thune, who ousted Tom Daschle in South Dakota, debuted the series by talking about "his recent visit to Iraq and the importance of new media in politics."  The series will be emailed to the RNC’s 7.5 million "eActivists."

The New York Post says the head of the New York GOP charged that Democrats are the party that supports terrorists.   “State GOP Chairman Steven Minarik… called Democrats the party of Lynne Stewart, who was convicted last week for aiding convicted terrorist Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.  ‘The Democrats simply have refused to learn the lessons of the past two election cycles, and now they can be accurately called the party of Barbara Boxer, Lynne Stewart, and Howard Dean,’ Minarik said.”

“‘Don't accuse the 5.5 million Democrats in this state of treason if you hope to win our votes,’ said Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for the state Democrats..."

Whither the Democrats
The Boston Globe says Democrats are tempering their criticism of the Iraq war while supporting reconstruction: "Top Democrats are no longer dwelling on Bush's decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence.  Instead, they are developing a more nuanced critique of the administration's Iraq policies focused on accountability issues such as irregularities involving contractors."

While few Democrats are expected to vote against Bush's "request for $82 billion in supplemental war funding... Democrats plan to use the debate to call for more accountability in spending."  Yet even with this new strategy, the Globe says Democrats are still not united: "Until a new Iraqi government has an opportunity to gain a foothold, many Democrats feel more comfortable targeting narrow aspects of the war's prosecution instead of the broad question of whether the war was justified, said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst."

Just because Democrats have a new party chair doesn't mean they have settled on a new direction, writes Roger Simon.

The values debate
Yesterday, Bush nominated acting commissioner Lester M. Crawford to head the FDA, and the New York Times says some pro-choice groups aren’t too happy.  “Fierce criticism came from abortion rights groups, angry that top agency officials overruled drug reviewers last year and refused to approve over-the-counter sales of Plan B, a prescription emergency contraceptive.  The groups said the agency was ignoring science and making the decision on political grounds.  An official denied that.”

The New York Times also writes that supporters of covenant marriages (which limit divorce to only a handful of reasons, like adultery and abuse) see November’s election results as a reason to expand these types of marriages beyond Arkansas, Arizona, and Louisiana -- which are currently the only states where covenant marriages are legal. 

And the Chicago Tribune covers Alan Keyes’s daughter’s public comments yesterday that she is a lesbian.  Keyes “issued only a terse statement about his daughter's coming out.  ‘My daughter is an adult, and she is responsible for her own actions,’ the statement read. ‘What she chooses to do has nothing to do with my work or political activities'...  Marcel-Keyes said Monday that her father's private stance toward her homosexuality has been consistent with his public statements on the subject.”

On an 11:00 am ET press conference call today, Al Gore previews his Wednesday night speech on the Bush Administration's refusal to sign up for the Kyoto Protocol. 

Senator Clinton makes remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus memorial service for Shirley Chisholm.  Roll Call contemplates the political implications for the party's presidential field and for the GOP of a Senator Clinton unencumbered by a serious opponent in 2006.

The Boston Globe covers Kerry's call for increasing US ground forces by 40,000: notes that "Kerry, blasted during the campaign for voting against" the previous Iraq supplemental, plans to vote yes this time.

The Boston Globe's Canellos, looking at GOP Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential ambitions, runs through the history of other Massachusetts pols who have had other ambitions: "linking Romney, whose service as governor seems calculated to buttress preexisting presidential ambitions, to William Weld, who joked about his short workdays as governor, and Paul Cellucci, who seemed only too eager to get the keys to an ambassador's mansion in Canada, forms a chain of selfishness over service."

Governor Schwarzenegger rolls out his Coalition for Education Reform in Sacto today at 2:30 pm ET, but the big event on his schedule is a screening of "Get Shorty" sequel "Be Cool" at the Crest Theatre at 11:00 pm ET.  "Be Cool" stars The Rock, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer, Harvey Keitel, and Christina Milian are expected to walk the red carpet, followed by the Governor, who will then make remarks inside the theatre about "the reasons California is the best place in the world to film movies and television shows," per the release.

Roll Call offers a status report on the fledgling effort to amend the Constitution so that naturalized citizens like Schwarzenegger can run for president.  That said, "Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, may pose the biggest obstacle.  Shriver... has told Vanity Fair magazine that, while she supports a constitutional amendment, she doesn’t expect her husband to take advantage of it."

Roll Call also notes that when Schwarzenegger sits down with the state's Hill delegation in DC on Thursday, he and his closest ally in Congress, Rep. David Dreier (R), will continue to agree to disagree on his redistricting plan.

Media notes
An academic trio and Senator McCain will release a report today showing that local TV stations are giving up on covering local races, says USA Today.  "In the month leading up to last Election Day, just 8% of the local evening newscasts in 11 of the nation's largest TV markets devoted time to local races and issues...  Over the same period, 55% of the newscasts included reports about the presidential race."


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