“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 22, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
President Bush, in Brussels, has already breakfasted with Tony Blair and met with the President of Ukraine, the NATO-Ukraine Commission, and the Prime Minister of Italy.  So far, "the mother of all photo ops" but little news, according to the witty pool reports.  After Bush's remarks on Russia yesterday fueled anticipation of his Thursday meeting with President Putin, all ears are now open for discussion of Syria and Iran.  Still on tap for Bush today: a couple of press avails and meetings with EU leaders.

  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

A week in Europe for Bush is a week not spent flacking his Social Security plan, but members of Congress are holding hundreds of town halls during the work period.  House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is prodding Washington reporters to attend his town hall today with the DC director of Rock the Vote in LaPlata, MD at 11:00 am.  Meanwhile, the Washington Post covers GOP Rep. Paul Ryan making very slow progress in his Wisconsin district

And after key Republicans and conservative activists blew off Bush's floater last week on perhaps raising the payroll tax ceiling, NBC's Rosiland Jordan reports that per an aide to compromise-seeking GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, Graham is willing to raise the cap from $90,000 to $200,000 in order to raise about $1 trillion for transition costs.  Jordan says Graham is reworking the language of his bill and hopes to reintroduce it within the next two weeks.  Imitating ESPN’s Lee Corso, the Wall Street Journal also says “not so fast, my friend” to those who assume the idea of raising the cap is DOA among Republicans.  More on all of this below.

The US Supreme Court resumes hearing oral arguments today -- without, as expected, Chief Justice Rehnquist, who was last seen in public at Bush's inauguration.  NBC's Pete Williams notes that Rehnquist has been going regularly to his chambers at the court and attends the closed-door conferences with the other justices to discuss cases.  The New York Times says the “working assumption” among court watchers is that Rehnquist will do his best to serve out the remaining term that ends in June before retiring.  And the paper floats the name of a possible successor whose stock has soared at the White House: the 10th Circuit’s Michael W. McConnell.

SCOTUS will announce today whether it will hear the Bush Administration's challenge to Oregon's assisted suicide rule; the AP says the Administration argues that it should be allowed "to punish Oregon doctors who prescribe drugs to terminally ill patients, as is permitted under state law."

And for those already focusing on 2008, the New York Times notes how Hillary Clinton’s statewide -- but not necessarily nationwide -- approval rating has soared, while the Boston Globe covers Mitt Romney’s well-received speech in South Carolina yesterday on gay marriage and stem-cell research.

Bush in Europe
USA Today, setting up Bush's Thursday meeting with Putin, covers Bush's insistence yesterday that Russia "renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law," as well as another USA Today story on the Administration's overall charm offensive.

The Los Angeles Times, leading with Bush's "chiding" remarks on Russia, notes that the "strong rhetoric... came as a surprise because excerpts of his speech released by the White House on Sunday night did not include criticism of Moscow."  The story adds, "In lecturing other countries about their shortcomings on democracy and human rights, Bush sought to soften his tone by mentioning the U.S. experience."

The Wall Street Journal doesn't sound optimistic about Putin's reaction: "In the past, Mr. Putin and other Russian officials have angrily rejected Western critiques of Russian democracy...  Indeed, analysts said that given the growing antigovernment feelings in Russia in the wake of an unpopular welfare-benefit cutback, it is more likely Mr. Putin will step up efforts to crush dissent."

The Los Angeles Times also says nonproliferation and "the continuing vulnerability of Russia and other former Soviet states to inadvertent loss of weapons and nuclear material" will be tops on Bush's agenda when he sits down with Putin on Thursday.

The New York Times is surprised Bush’s speech yesterday didn’t say more about partnership with the European Union.  “White House officials had promoted the speech as a major embrace of European unity, and had released excerpts on Sunday night suggesting that the president would extensively support the idea of the 25-member European Union as a partner rather as a rival to the United States.”

“But he did not devote more than a few sentences to those ideas, and cast his support for a new European unity in the context of his goal of advancing liberty.”

Moreover, the Washington Post points out overall that "even as the president sought a closer working relationship with Europe, there was little indication of any U.S. movement on the policies that soured relations between the longtime allies.  Instead, U.S. officials said they saw Europeans slowly being won over to their view."

The Boston Globe says that as Bush meets with NATO and EU leaders, a senior administration official says "the White House hopes tomorrow to get some commitment from all NATO members to help out in Iraq, either with troops or with training or financial assistance."

The New York Post says Bush and Chirac “ended their big chill last night by breaking bread - and munching french fries - to celebrate a better French connection… It was a warm start to Bush's European charm offensive, following a few weeks after a well-received European swing to do the groundwork by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is accompanying Bush this week.”

And the New York Daily News highlights Bush’s reference to “French” fries, instead of “Freedom” fries.  But the paper reminds us French fries, ironically, were created in Belgium.

Social Security
An aide to GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham tells NBC's Rosiland Jordan that Graham is "happy" that the President is willing to negotiate on some of the tough issues regarding Social Security: "He's glad the president has left this on the table."  As mentioned above, Graham himself is willing to raise payroll tax cap from the current $90,000 to $200,000 in order to raise about $1 trillion for transition costs, the aide says.  He doesn't believe that raising the cap will do fix the long-term solvency problem, as AARP has suggested it could do.  Regarding transition costs: "You can't borrow all of the costs, but you can borrow some, and you gotta be willing to pay for some of this upfront."

Graham staffers say they see a positive sign about the payroll tax ceiling debate: They didn't hear DeLay saying, "Not over my dead body."  The Graham aide suggests to Jordan that if raising the ceiling winds up being the only detail about the private accounts that no one likes, it won't be the deal-breaker.  (In fact, when asked, the Graham aide predicted that Bush would sign a bill with this provision if that's what it takes to get private accounts.) 

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal says "Mr. Bush's refusal last week to rule out lifting the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes reflects the shifting tenor of debate within his party...  [O]pen discussion of the possibility represents a shift in recent weeks amid pressure over Social Security and Mr. Bush's goal of cutting the budget deficit in half within five years."  And despite seemingly firm opposition among GOP House conservatives, "some conservative activists say they would be willing to accept a tax increase in return for achieving such longtime conservative aims as overhauling Social Security..."

Overall, the Graham aide notes to Jordan that Social Security, after being on autopilot for so long, is now the subject of increasingly better questions among Americans as part of a lengthy educational process which starts with members of Congress, and then will move to the general public.

On that note, one sharp-eyed Republican analyst based in DC says the problem for Bush right now is not so much with the public as with lawmakers inside the Beltway "lacking the courage to do what Bush suggests.”  But at the same time, he notes, the White House doesn't seem to be playing genuine hardball on Social Security (yet).  The President has been pretty open on saying he's not going to advocate a specific fix, the analyst points out -- and in the end, if things don't progress, Bush will say he "tried to get Congress to fix it."

This analyst agrees that Bush's use of the term "crisis" hasn't worked -- that people believe there is a problem, but that the system is not about to fall apart.  "Bush needs to do a whole lot more of convincing people something has to be done, but he is going in the right direction."  Questions about his priorities could become an issue, the analyst says.  "If it doesn't happen this year, I don't think it will happen."

The Washington Post, covering GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's district-wide effort to sell his constituents on the President's proposals, says, "Strategists in the House and Senate said that what lawmakers hear during the Presidents' Day recess could determine whether leaders pursue passage of the centerpiece of Bush's second-term domestic agenda or conclude that voters don't have the appetite for rewriting the Social Security Act...  Administration officials and Republican congressional leaders acknowledge that Bush's plan has yet to gain traction.  Although they say they are at the beginning of a long education process, there are reasons for them to worry."

Knight-Ridder notes how congressional Republicans are heading home to their districts armed with a scripted 30-page briefing, while Democrats have their own Internet-based calculators to show their constituents how much they might lose under Bush's proposal.

The New York Times profiles Rep. Jim McCrery, the head of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Social Security panel, and it says “people in Washington, from reporters to lobbyists to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, are hanging on his words.”  The paper adds although McCrery had earlier raised some questions about Bush’s Social Security plan, “he cannot afford to lose the White House. He has aspirations to become Ways and Means chairman, … and he knows that his future could hinge on the Social Security debate.”

Roll Call reminds us that despite all the back and forth, there's still no bill, and it invokes Senate Finance chair Chuck Grassley's suggestion that "the educational campaign President Bush has recently embarked on could take so long that Congress’ Social Security debate could drag on into next year...  With the timing of the legislative battle uncertain, the absence of a detailed White House plan doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal to those in Congress who have been tasked with carrying water for the president."

Another event with Rock the Vote: The Center for Economic and Policy Research, The Century Foundation, Institute for Women's Policy Research, and Rock the Vote hold a press conference today launch their "online benefits calculator" at the National Press Club at 9:00 am.

And NBC's Jordan reports that the Free Enterprise Fund, which backs Bush's Social Security plan and is currently working off cell phones in temporary space on K Street, plans to soon churn out op-eds, a syndicated column, and print and TV ads.  Jordan says the group is hoping to become more of a think tank, shaping the debate on a range of fiscal issues including Social Security, rather than just become another outside group formed to run ads.

The Washington Post documents the birth and development of private accounts, saying its linchpin status today is due to "the persistence of conservative operatives, the explosive growth of the stock market in the 1990s and the eventual adoption of the idea by big business."

Demographics and districts
USA Today reports on Census Bureau data being released today showing that immigrants to the United States are increasingly better educated.  "Tracking the success of immigrants and their children is critical at a time when U.S. immigration is at a record high.  More than 34 million people in the USA, or almost one in eight, were born in another country, according to the government's survey of 62,500 households in March 2004.  About 6 million arrived since 2000, 59% of them from Latin America and 23% from Asia.  If the pace continues, immigration could hit more than 14 million this decade, up from the previous high of 12 million in the 1990s."

RNC chairman Ken Mehlman has two more town halls marking Black History Month scheduled for late February: one on Thursday in Newark, NJ with the Black Chamber of Commerce, and one at Howard University on Monday. 

In the Los Angeles, the AP says "[o]utrage over accusations of police brutality" and its impact on the African-American vote could "determine whether Mayor James Hahn wins a second term."  The Los Angeles Times says Hahn "has turned increasingly to African Americans to propel his candidacy as he heads into the frantic two weeks before election day."

Roll Call reports that House Democrats, threatening payback for the likely GOP-engineered redistricting in Georgia, "believe their best opportunities lie in Illinois, New Mexico and Louisiana, where Democrats have seized control of all the levers of state government... since the 2001 reapportionment and redistricting...  At least a few D.C.-based Republicans privately acknowledge they are concerned about the possibility of Democratic retribution over the maneuvers in Georgia, but are not in a position to change the situation."

The Washington Post editorial page calls on Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) to follow his colleague Arnold Schwarzenegger's lead and hand redistricting over to a nonpartisan commission.

And due in part to the controversy over the disputed Washington State gubernatorial race, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes, a state GOP senator is sponsoring a bill that would ask President Bush to create a 51st state, dividing Eastern Washington (which is heavily Republican) from Western Washington (which is heavily Democratic).  “‘It's not sour grapes,’ [the senator] said. ‘It's common sense. People who think alike should be united.’”

Only one day left in the legislature to propose new legislation. – Los Angeles Times

Governor Schwarzenegger has a 12 noon event at the Los Angeles Air Force Base with two of the state's members of Congress, House Approps chair Jerry Lewis and Rep. Jane Harman, to "tout the strategic importance of California's military facilities."  After the tour of LAAFB, they will tour a Northrop Grumman manufacturing plant and make remarks.

The Monday Los Angeles Times pitted Schwarzenegger's reformist rhetoric against efforts by Schwarzenegger and his allies to raise an unprecedented amount of money for his proposed initiatives and his likely re-election bid.  The story also points out that the special election he hopes to call this year could cost taxpayers up to $70 million.

The values debate
With the British Parliament having cleared the way for civil unions starting in December, the Washington Times updates the status of efforts to ban same-sex marriage at the state level.  Although, the Washington Times also reports,  "only one state - Kansas - is likely to have a public vote on a marriage amendment this year," on April 5, there's a lot going on in legislatures and in the courts.


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