“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, February 16, 2005 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
On the campaign trail in more ways than one, President Bush has a Social Security event with a friendly audience in an airplane hangar in Portsmouth, NH at 11:45 am. 

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Even without a candidate, the New Hampshire Democratic Party is doing its best to bracket Bush, trying to create a war room-style echo chamber by touting a UNH poll showing weak support for private accounts among New Hampshire residents, then pelting the national media with coverage of that poll.  The party also has organized a 9:30 am event and a 2:00 pm press conference call in opposition to Bush's Social Security plan.

Back in DC, the White House hopes to draw a trump card when Fed chief Greenspan appears before the Senate Banking Committee at 10:00 am and -- they hope -- utters a few words of support for private accounts.

Coincidentally, NBC and the Wall Street Journal release our latest poll later today, the first since before Bush's inauguration, which tests public attitudes toward his Social Security proposals just about every which way.  Has Bush's use of the bully pulpit and his campaign-style road show moved the public in his favor?  The poll will be released on NBC Nightly News tonight at 6:30 pm, in tomorrow's Journal and tonight at www.politics.msnbc.com.

And the barely advanced first meeting of Bush's tax reform commission today might prompt both sides to start asking, as Bush's personal push on Social Security goes, so goes his push for tax reform?  Though his plans on that front face a friendlier GOP reception on the Hill. 

The Kyoto Protocol also goes into effect today, and presumably Al Gore's press conference call gets almost no mention today because everyone's waiting for his actual speech in Los Angeles at 10:00 pm tonight.

Bush's priorities
The Wall Street Journal writes that despite seemingly staunch opposition from Democrats on the Hill, "in fact there are some Democrats who may yet help Mr. Bush accomplish parts of his agenda...  White House lobbyists estimate that as many as a third of the 44 Democratic senators will provide occasional assistance on issues such as energy, judicial nominations, tax-code overhaul and perhaps even Social Security.  Since Republicans need 60 votes to overcome Democratic filibusters, and have just 55 of their own, winning converts isn't optional."

"Some are good prospects for the White House because of their ideological orientation" (i.e., Lieberman).  "Others are propelled toward cooperation by constituent interests" (i.e., Landrieu and Byrd on energy).  "Perhaps most important for the White House are those Democrats who must cope with broad home-state support for Mr. Bush" (i.e., Nelson of Nebraska, Conrad and Dorgan of North Dakota, Johnson of South Dakota, and Bayh of Indiana). 

The President's tax-reform advisory panel has its first meeting today, and the Los Angeles Times focuses on two Bush proposals, the retirement savings account and the lifetime savings account, pointing out that "the White House says these accounts would raise revenue over five years," but also that "the windfall wouldn't last.  After the first five years, the accounts would develop into major drains on the Treasury - reducing future tax collections by an estimated $1 trillion over 75 years."

Will his push for lifetime savings accounts force Bush to confront a friendly industry he has so far avoided?  "Perhaps the most formidable foe of the... accounts is the life insurance industry, which worries that they would compete with life insurance for investors' savings."

NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to start on Bush's judicial nominees on March 1.  Roll Call reports that the committee wants to move tort reform first, before getting to judgeships, because of the expected polarizing effect of the nomination battles and because of the "glimmer" of a chance for successful negotiations to avoid GOP leaders going nuclear.  On that schedule, the story pegs early April as "the earliest possible time frame for a floor fight on any nomination."

That said, the Washington Post reports that former Interior Department solicitor William G. Myers III, whom some Republicans hope will be palatable enough for Democrats to break their "long-standing resistance to some of President Bush's choices," has been criticized by DOI's inspector general.

On the $82 billion supplemental, The Hill says the "budgeting process and Bush’s requests for money for nonemergency programs have irritated some conservatives who want offsetting spending cuts and who objected to sending $200 million to the Palestinian Authority, and a $600 million increase in aid to countries hit by the tsunami last December also concerns Republican lawmakers...  Meanwhile, Democrats plan to use the bill to question Bush’s strategy in Iraq and complain that some of the spending, such as tsunami relief, was included only to make it politically difficult to oppose the bill."

Senators and veterans' groups yesterday criticized the Administration’s proposed VA budget, especially a provision requiring veterans to pay a new fee of $250 a year for the privilege of using government health care, the New York Times writes.

In a challenge to NCLB, the Utah House unanimously approved a bill yesterday mandating that state officials give higher priority to local educational goals rather than federal laws, the New York Times also reports.  “Federal officials had sought to prevent the bill's passage, and Utah officials said a delegation from the Department of Education was expected in Salt Lake City today.”

Social Security
The AP previews Bush's visit to New Hampshire today.

Results of Bush's local media roundtables yesterday:
- Birmingham News
- New Haven Register
- South Florida Sun Sentinel
- Quad-City Times
- The Tennessean
- Orange County Register

The Washington Times covers Senate Democrats' efforts yesterday to prebut any Greenspan comments today in favor of private accounts.  They "said that Mr. Greenspan is a critic of excessive government debt and that the Social Security Commission he led in the 1980s said Congress 'should not alter the fundamental structure of the Social Security program or undermine its fundamental principles.'"

The Wall Street Journal editorial page says in anticipation that "it is going to be fascinating to see if [Greenspan] devotes the credibility he's built up over the years to promoting the kind of reform he's long supported."

The New York Times looks at another issue affecting the debate: immigration.  According to a new report to be released today, if legal immigration rises by one-third over the next 75 years, there will be a 10% reduction in the Social Security deficit.  The opposite is true if legal immigration declines by a third.  “The unanswerable question of immigration illustrates the difficulty of making long-range projections about the system's financing.”

Following Speaker Hastert’s comments last week that "you can't jam change down the American people's throat," the Chicago Tribune says that other Republicans, like Chuck Hagel, have noted that more work needs to be done to persuade the public to embark on Bush’s plan.

Meanwhile, Tom Harkin is claiming that Bush's Social Security plan ignores the disabled, the Des Moines Register says.

We already know that House members on both sides are plotting to hold hundreds of town halls this month on Social Security.  Now Roll Call reports on plans by both parties in the Senate: "Republican leaders... began quietly making plans to hold a March rally in a key battleground state to promote the issue."  Meanwhile, "Democrats are still finalizing the details of their own national tour next month to whip up opposition to Bush’s plan, a roadshow that will take them coast-to-coast over a two-day period," states TBD.

"...Republican leaders acknowledged it is going to be a difficult legislative fight and will not be an issue brought to the Senate floor in the near future."

The Washington Post says that the town halls by Republican Members "will feature President Bush, via DVDs, proclaiming the need 'to fix Social Security, once and for all'...  The presentation includes clips of Bush's appearances in talk-show-style settings."

Partisan warfare
GOP lawmakers in Georgia are set on redrawing the state's congressional district lines, though Roll Call predicts some conflict between state and Hill GOP officials now that three different maps have been produced, which would result in a varying number of Member-versus-Member match-ups.

Is there room on the Hill for an island of civility?  Reps. Steve Israel (D) and Tim Johnson (R) today announce the formation of the "Center Aisle Caucus," a bipartisan group that aims "to promote mutual respect and discourage personal attacks and achieving a more respectful and civil climate for conducting the nation's business."  Per spokespeople for Israel and Johnson, membership guidelines will be "strict" to prevent members from joining just to promote themselves or to portray a positive image to their constituents (details beyond that are TBD).  Also, they hope to assemble a bipartisan legislative agenda that includes Social Security and veterans' issues, among others.  One aide also says they also hope to change the atmosphere by approaching the Rules Committee and asking for more equitable speaking time on the House floor. 

Whither the Democrats
The new college campus arm of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta's think tank, hosts a 10:00 am panel today at Howard University titled "Beyond 2004: The Future of the Black Vote," featuring Al Sharpton, Gregory Moore of the NAACP -- and Armstrong Williams.  CAP notes in its announcement, "African-American turnout surged almost 25 percent as compared with 2000.  Eleven percent of the African-American vote went to President Bush, up from eight percent in 2000."  Among the questions to be asked of the panel: "Why are African-Americans... voting in somewhat larger numbers for the conservative presidential candidate?  Have the issues and values important to African-Americans changed?  Have progressives changed, or taken African-Americans for granted?"  

The party's DC consulting community has borne the brunt of Democratic frustrations over their November losses, with Bob Shrum leaving town and a couple of candidates for DNC chair blaming the community for the party's problems.  Now The Hill reports that leaders Reid and Pelosi want to "shake up" the community by bringing in more folks who are geographically located outside DC.

Presumably, one of the first things the Dean-N-C has done/will do is merge the Democracy for America and DNC e-mail lists.  Dean just e-mailed supporters on DNC "letterhead," saying of the 447 DNC members who elected him that "[t]hose 447 people were a good start, but make no mistake -- I know that this is also your party." 

Dean goes on to say, "The Republicans' biggest victory has been to convince many Democrats that we can only win by abandoning our values and doing what they say.  It's one of their favorite tactics -- just watch how right-wing pundits talk endlessly about the internal politics of our party.  They try to divide Democrats by ideology just as they divide all Americans by race or gender or faith."  Dean cites Bill Clinton's "strong and wrong" line, noting, "we become both weak and wrong when we abandon our core values for short-term political gain."

In the West Virginia governor race last year, Democrat Joe Manchin thrashed his GOP opponent, 63%-34% -- even as Kerry lost the state by 13 points.  First Read sat down with Manchin yesterday to get this thoughts about the party, Kerry, and Howard Dean.

Q: How do Democrats win in the South?  A: Manchin said for them to be themselves and realize that issues such as abortion, guns, and gay marriage are personal issues, not political ones.  Manchin said he was always asked how he -- as someone who opposes abortion -- could support Kerry.  His reply: Why did people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Giuliani, and George Pataki speak at Bush's convention?  "All three of the people they highlighted at the Republican convention were completely different philosophically than the President."

Q: Why do you think you outperformed Kerry?  A: "I think they got bogged down in the personal issues.  No one, I think, every had a clear understanding of what their message was...  My personal issues and my personal beliefs were right in line with a majority of West Virginians."

Q: Will Dean help the Democrats as chair?  A: Manchin said he thinks that Dean has learned from his past successes and failures.  He added that he and Dean have some similar views (on guns) and some not-so-similar ones (on abortion), but that supporting abortion "doesn't make you a good Democrat or a bad Democrat.  It makes you a person who is allowed to make a personal choice."

Q: West Virginia used to be a reliably Democratic state, but Gore lost the state in 2000 and Kerry lost it in 2004.  What is going on there?  A: Democrats, he said, have a 2-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans in the state.  "You better start asking Democrats.  Ask them why they didn't vote Democrat. It is about as simple as that."

The New York Times follows up on how some Democrats -- notably Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean -- are trying to rethink the party's position on abortion, and mentions that Democrats are trying to recruit two abortion opponents to run in key Senate races.  These moves, the paper notes, “are encountering a mixture of resistance and retreat from abortion rights advocates in their own party.”

The values debate
Senators Kennedy, Specter and Harkin are among those Hill lawmakers today introducing a bill "designed to expand the current federal funding policy for stem cell research," with a presser at 11:30 am. 

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Kennedy "yesterday blasted Governor Mitt Romney's proposal to ban the cloning of embryos for stem cell research, saying the governor's approach would rob Massachusetts of the benefits of one of the most promising areas of scientific research.  Romney, meanwhile, indicated he is open to new research as a compromise on the thorny ethical issue.  On Friday, he is scheduled to be briefed on a method of generating embryonic stem cells without creating embryos."

USA Today has a status report on the implementation of California's $3 billion stem cell funding plan: Still no application process for grants yet, much less the awarding of any.

And the paper also takes a long look at how states are risking "billions on controversial stem cell research to attract coveted biotech jobs," and "confronting an issue rare in job development: moral values...  Biotech, while small, looms as a big source of growth."  The story notes, "There is no guarantee that stem cell research will produce promised breakthroughs or jobs.  Supporters concede there have been none so far.  They say the work is just getting off the ground now that states are spending more."

HHS officials have objected to the use of the phrase "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" in the title of a talk they are funding on suicide prevention in Portland, OR, the San Francisco Chronicle says.  Ultimately, the title of the panel was changed to "Suicide Prevention Among Vulnerable Populations."  And that wasn't the only beef the agency had with the conference: "Another was to add a session on faith-based suicide prevention."

Gore, previewing his speech in Los Angeles tonight on global warming, said on a press conference call yesterday that the Administration has failed to show "moral courage" in addressing an environmental "crisis" by not participating in the Kyoto Protocol.  But Gore shot down a question about whether he plans on filling the "leadership vacuum," saying he has "no intention of being a candidate" and wants to focus on just the issues at hand.  In his speech tonight, Gore also will address the Clear Skies Initiative and how he plans to encourage auto makers in California to drop a pending lawsuit which would toughen up carbon dioxide emissions standards.

Kerry briefed defense reporters yesterday on his proposal to "add up to $8 billion a year to the White House's war-spending bill to pay for more troops than Bush wants and more generous support for families and businesses affected by the war...  The White House had no comment on the proposal."   - USA Today

The Los Angeles Times covers Kerry's proposal with this headline: "As Promised, Kerry Proposes Measure to Add 40,000 Troops."  Subhead: "Senator fulfills a pledge from his failed run for president..."

Before Bush sets of to Europe next week, Kerry was hoping to meet with him to talk foreign policy and Iraq.  The Boston Herald says the White House has yet to respond to Kerry's offer.

On the GOP side, on the heels on Edwards's recent visit to Manchester, NH, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will travel to the city on March 4 to speak at the Manchester Republican Committee's Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.

With Schwarzenegger and other California leaders arriving in DC tomorrow in a bipartisan effort to get more federal aid from Congress, the Sacramento Bee says that Democrats yesterday challenged the Governor to make good on his promise to be the “‘Collectinator.’”  The visit, the paper notes, comes amid partisan sniping over the state budget -- and also a likely Schwarzenegger bid for re-election in 2006.

In addition, the Bee covers Schwarzenegger's new coalition to support his controversial education reform plan, including merit-based pay for teachers.  “The Republican governor's proposals have taken a public relations beating in recent weeks, with a coalition of educators and Democrats attacking his ideas."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page points out that "the looming retirement of millions of baby boomers has repercussions at the state level, too...  Schwarzenegger has called for reforming California's public pension funds for teachers and other public employees."  He wants to convert "the current defined-benefit systems into 401(k)-style defined-contribution plans.  More than 60% of California residents like the idea... but it's raising hackles among union officials and people like Phil Angelides," the state treasurer who has bigger political ambitions. 

Roll Call notes that "[w]hile Democratic leaders in Sacramento have been critical of Schwarzenegger’s proposal to change California’s redistricting process and draw new lines for both the House of Representatives and the state Legislature in advance of the 2006 elections... their Democratic colleagues in the House delegation have kept notably mum...  The simple explanation may be that many Democrats have come to the conclusion that a bipartisan redistricting process... will not upset the partisan balance in the state’s huge Congressional delegation."

Media notes
A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that Time's Matthew Cooper and the New York Times's Judith Miller could be sentenced to prison if they continue to refuse to answer the grand jury's questions about their confidential conversations with government sources regarding the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. 

And speaking of Valerie Plame, the Gannon/Guckert saga, in case you thought we'd forget, has taken a turn for the gay-escort/indecent-photo worse.  Howard Kurtz says the latest developments have "deepened the debate over blogging and the tactics used to drive a conservative reporter from his job as White House correspondent for two Web sites owned by a Republican activist."


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