“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, March 2, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Voting bloc of the day: President Bush headlines the ceremony awarding a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Jackie Robinson at the Capitol at 2:00 pm.  Joining Bush at the event is John Kerry, who waged a "three-year, start-to-finish legislative crusade" to get Robinson the medal, a Kerry aide tells us.  Kerry will comment on Robinson's civil rights record, and we suspect Bush will, too.  The Kerry aide says Jesse Jackson also will be on hand.  Meanwhile, Bush does a conversation on job training at Anne Arundel College at 10:10 am, and the RNC is helpfully telling reporters where and how they can listen to Chairman Mehlman's interview with Tavis Smiley today.

  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
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

After the medal ceremony, Bush -- and Kerry -- have a 3:30 pm photo op with the Red Sox at the White House.

Two anniversaries today: It's been 169 years since Texas declared its independence from Mexico, and just slightly more relevantly, 30 days since the State of the Union.  That's 30 days since Bush laid out his Social Security plan for a national audience.  Today, a majority of Americans think the program is in some degree of trouble; interest groups are investing millions on either side of the private accounts fight; the Senate has taken the lead over the House on forging a bill; and the White House maybe needs to exert a little more control over the party's message coming off the Hill.  Beyond that, little is clear.  The headline this morning is that GOP leaders on the Hill don't know when a vote will occur.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," say White House aides.  The last time we heard that, Bush-Cheney '04 was having up days and down days, but won the day that mattered most.  One reason why this fight isn't like the presidential campaign, however: It's hard to control what happens on, and comes off the Hill.  Another reason: As one Texas Democrat (in honor of the holiday) points out, the Bush campaign won on terrorism and national security, but the Bush White House is trying to win on Social Security and the budget, a very different issue matrix.  Independents went Bush's way on the former, but won't necessarily on the latter. 

That said, one lesson from the campaign for the press and Democrats to bear in mind is not to underestimate Team Bush's ability to reframe the debate.  Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg tells First Read, "A month from now or two months from now, there may be a different standard for success."  Rothenberg likens the Social Security effort to a campaign "in one respect.  We start off very early with the CW on how well candidates have to do in key primary states, and at some point, that changes...  The big enchilada is, does he pass a bill.  But there are a number of smaller goals along the way where, if he achieves them, it will look OK.  Not great, but he could be OK."

NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that Tom DeLay yesterday disagreed with GOP colleagues who say that a decision on whether to proceed needs to be made quickly or not at all: "The press would like to write the story that we are running for the hills.  Nothing is further from the truth."  But, Viqueira notes, DeLay also said nothing will happen until Republicans are comfortable with the level of support for changing the system.  What's the bar?  "We'll know it when we know it." 

Democrat and affiliated interest group activity today: The House Democratic leadership holds a presser to describe "strong grassroots opposition" to private accounts at 10:00 am.  Senate Democrats have formally announced their tour on March 4-5, stopping in New York (featuring Senators Clinton and Kerry), Philadelphia, Phoenix and Las Vegas.  And Americans United to Protect Social Security, which opposes private accounts, holds a 1:30 pm press conference call today to prebut Bush's trip to New Jersey.

Dimple Gupta: NBC's Ken Strickland reports on Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter's efforts to both stave off and, just in case, prepare the Senate for employment of the nuclear option.  More on this below.  The Democratic Senate campaign committee is raising money off Frist's threat of going nuclear with an e-mail solicitation from Ted Kennedy.  People for the American Way e-mailed around the text of Senator Byrd's speech yesterday denouncing the nuclear option, in which Byrd invoked Nazi Germany; RNC chairman Ken Mehlman called that "reprehensible and beyond the pale."  

Social Security
A front-page New York Times analysis says Bush’s Social Security plan is in “trouble,” noting that Republicans have begun playing for time, that Democrats feel little need to come up with a plan of their own, and that members of Congress don’t feel that the public is demanding they confront the issue right now.  GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio "declared that Mr. Bush was losing the momentum he had picked up after making Social Security the centerpiece of his State of the Union address.  ‘The Democrats have certainly shot holes in it, but the Republicans have also been shooting holes.’”

The Washington Post on Bill Frist's assertion yesterday that a vote may not come for awhile: "That a politician as closely allied to the White House as Frist would even raise the possibility of putting off the proposal until next year -- possibly dooming it -- was an unexpected blow to the administration."

More on the House side from NBC's Viqueira: DeLay yesterday told reporters that although he thinks a bill can get done this year, "we are going to do this right and it is going to take time."  Nevertheless, the paucity of Republican town halls held during the work period didn't help, in DeLay's view.  Right as DeLay spoke, Viqueira says, a group of rank-and-file Democrats appeared on camera to report that the reaction back home to the President's plan was "overwhelmingly negative," and was greeted with "profound skepticism" and "grave concerns" whenever the issue was brought up at town halls.

Per Viqueira, the plan on the House side has been to move other heavy-lift legislation first and get to Social Security in the late spring/summer.  The first hearing on the program will be in Ways & Means next week, but will be more of a blue-sky, big-picture session than a nuts-and-bolts legislative one.  In the meantime, there's the budget, the war supplemental, the highway bill, the energy bill, bankruptcy reform, etc.  All on the front burner, while the PR campaign on Social Security is being waged by the White House, members, and interest groups.

While all that is happening on the floor, Viqueira says, Republicans in the House hope to continue to "crack the ice" around House Democrats who might be brought on board, banking on the fact that the Reid-Pelosi strategy of "no how/no way" won't withstand a sustained attack.  Once the polls show Americans are buying into the idea that something needs to be done, fence-sitting Democrats are going to have to come up with a plan of their own.  Then the game is on, or so the GOP thinking goes.

DeLay did rule out raising the $90,000 income cap yesterday, calling it a "tax increase" that could turn Social Security into a "welfare program."

The Hill reports from the Hill that "Bush’s potential Democratic allies are few at present, but those who are identifiable say that the administration’s outreach has not been meaningful, that it has sought to put them under pressure but has not included any policy specifics."  In another story, the paper also reports that Karl Rove and newly minted National Economic Council director Al Hubbard met with GOP lobbyists last week, but "declined to offer any new details of the president’s reform plan."  Instead, they "promised that President Bush remained committed to reform amid a spate of press reports that GOP lawmakers were beginning to waver."

Norm Ornstein writes in Roll Call, "It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.  The president, it appears, thought that this issue would be relatively easy" because he "comes to the table re-elected with a clear majority and with increased majorities in both houses."  However, "overhauling Social Security is different from cutting taxes.  Moreover, a second term is different from a first."  Plus, Democrats "were going to start out united on Social Security" and "were bound to be skeptical of any offer by President Bush to work with them, given their belief that he shafted them time after time in his first term."  That said, Ornstein believes there's "still a deal to be struck."

The AP covers the closed-door meeting between DNC chairman Dean and the AFL-CIO executive council to discuss how they will "thwart" Bush's Social Security plan. 

Judicial politics
NBC's Strickland says it's become apparent that Arlen Specter is trying everything he can to keep Bill Frist from going nuclear (Republicans prefer “constitutional option," Strickland notes) and, Specter fears, blowing up the Senate.  Hours after William Myers' second Judiciary hearing yesterday, Specter met with Harry Reid seeking, among other things, any type of compromise or deal that would end the Democratic blockade on Bush's judicial nominees.

En route to Reid's office, Specter told Strickland he also remains heavily engaged with the White House on nominees, specifically with White House counsel Harriet Miers.  She "called me twice on Saturday," Specter said -- and with his wry sense of humor, described their relationship as "bosom buddies."  A committee source says Specter's staff also does regular outreach with several conservative groups -- including some of the same groups who tried to deny him the committee chairmanship last year.

And in case the nuclear option is employed, Strickland says, Specter has hired a committee staffer who's well versed on the nuts and bolts of its execution.  Dimple Gupta co-authored a Harvard law review article with Marty Gold (a former Frist parliamentary guru) which has been widely circulated among Senate Republicans as a go-to book for the what, why, and how of this complicated maneuver.  Strickland suggests that Gupta's hiring should temper some criticism from conservative groups who were unhappy when Specter earlier hired a Democrat and former NAACP lawyer.  The committee source contends Gupta was not hired to appease the right, but says the former Justice Department official will work on nominations.

MSNBC.com covers Myers’ hearing, Specter's efforts, and Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar's refusal to play ball. 

Moral values
The Supreme Court today hears oral arguments "in two cases that test whether displays of the Commandments on public property are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.  The disputes come from Texas and Kentucky, where federal courts have issued conflicting rulings."  USA Today says the cases "have drawn intense interest from across the nation," evidenced by 60 amicus briefs and likely long lines outside the Court today.  "Some evangelical Christians are casting the debate... as a significant part of their increasingly aggressive efforts to have government recognize religion.  That's led to a backlash by the ACLU, Jewish organizations, atheists and others who say the efforts by evangelicals threaten America's secular heritage." 

The Washington Post on President Bush's remarks to the White House faith-based conference yesterday: "Bush aides hope the president's appearance... at a time when he has been consumed with Social Security and foreign policy would help quell the discontent among religious supporters who feel abandoned." 

The Washington Times reminds us that Bush told the paper "in an Oval Office interview in January that he would be 'rigorous' in trying to expand the faith-based programs." 

"Caulifornia"
After driving off from his press conference yesterday in a Humvee labeled "Reform 1," Governor Schwarzenegger does two events today for Citizens to Save California, the umbrella organization overseeing his ballot initiative campaigns.  He stops by Mexicali Restaurant in Bakersfield at 3:00 pm ET and stops at American Blinds and Draperies Inc. in Hayward at 5:30 pm ET.  CSC spokesperson Reed Dickens says the Governor will be shaking hands, pointing out the petition-gatherers wearing bright yellow T-shirts, and encouraging people to sign.  He'll do a similar set of events tomorrow.

Steve Maviglio, spokesman to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, tells First Read that two of the Governor's three targets, redistricting and pension reform, aren't pressing issues Californians care about.  What they do care about, he says, are issues such as education and health care.  He says Democrats plan to push their own initiatives, like on raising the minimum wage.  Maviglio also claims that Democrats have tried to meet with Schwarzenegger to discuss the reforms he is pushing, but he has rebuffed their overtures.  "He has to learn how to be a governor and stop campaigning," Maviglio said.

"Governor Davis' former spokesman may have actually found a job more difficult than his last one," Schwarzenegger communications/political director Rob Stutzman replies.  "The Speaker and the Pro Tem have had plenty of time with the Governor, including a five-hour flight back from DC last week.  The Speaker and Pro Tem have not offered any counter proposals to begin a negotiating process.  But to say they tried to see the Governor and couldn't isn't true."

First Read also caught up with Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State.  Hodson says it's not surprising that Schwarzenegger is using the threat of taking these measures straight to the public because it worked for him last year when he forced the legislature to overhaul state workers' comp.  "When something works, you go back and use it again," Hodson said.  "The difference is, these are... different issues -- some of which leave people scratching their heads."  He says that redistricting is inside baseball, the state pension system currently isn't in financial trouble, and few understand what merit-based pay for teachers has to do with a budget crisis.

Hodson goes on to explain, in fact, that there are some who believe these efforts are a way to distract voters from a $6 billion budget deficit.  "I do not think the... initiatives he's talking about are solely for smoke and mirrors.  But I think it's interesting the one initiative being talked about the least is the spending cap."  (Per the AP, while Schwarzenegger wants create a constitutional requirement to impose across-the-board spending cuts anytime state revenues fall short, yesterday he didn't endorse any of the initiatives being proposed to do this.) 

Indeed, one oft-repeated Democratic criticism of Schwarzenegger's efforts is that the reform measures are meant to distract Californians from the state's budget issues -- "picking fights instead of solving problems," says one party operative.

Hodson also believes that Schwarzenegger's newest crusade is a risk because he's butting heads with the state's powerful teachers unions, public unions, and nurses.  Hodson points out that it's quite possible that one or two -- or even all -- of these measures will go down to defeat in a stand-alone election.  "That would be a difficult thing to recover from," he said.

The Sacramento Bee notes that Schwarzenegger didn’t have initiatives to embrace regarding merit pay for teachers and state spending -- “two of the cornerstones of the overhaul plan he proposed in his January State of the State speech.” 

Whither the Democrats
Dean doesn't get mentioned in the coverage we've seen, but no mention of Vermont and the war can be made without him coming to mind anymore.  Vermont has one of the "highest per-capita rates of Iraq casualties and National Guard deployment," the Washington Post says, and yesterday, on town meeting day, 52 towns cast non-binding votes to bring US troops home and investigate the military's use of the Vermont Guard.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger covers Dean’s visit to Jackson, MS yesterday, where he said that Democrats can take back the South if they preach core values about health care and education.  “Dean… was constantly interrupted by applause during his speech."  However, the paper also publishes a cartoon of a Dean looking out from his car, saying: “Whoa, you mean all Southerners don’t all drive pickup trucks with Confederate flags on them?”

And the Mississippi Republican Party has announced that Tippah County Sheriff Brandon Vance has switched to the GOP, citing dissatisfaction with a Dean-led Democratic party.  "Howard Dean taking the chairmanship of the Democratic Party brought home to me that I was no longer comfortable in the Democratic Party," Vance said, according to the press release.

Yesterday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out their own release ridiculing Dean's visit to red-state Mississippi, and listing some of his "unplugged" statements about Republicans and gay marriage.  We notice that the NRSC has issued just two releases in the last two weeks -- and both have been about Dean.  "He's a great GOP recruitment tool," NRSC spokesman Brian Nick told First Read.

Roll Call reports that Dean will help endangered House incumbents with their fundraising as part of a stepped-up program by which the Democratic House campaign committee will require the incumbents to raise a certain amount of money to qualify for party assistance.

From the temporary House of Labor in Las Vegas, the New York Times notes that AFL-CIO president John Sweeney proposed a $15 million cut in dues to make more money available for organizing -- a cut far smaller than reformist union chiefs like the SEIU’s Andy Stern want.  The paper also reports on a fight between Stern and AFSCME chief Gerald McEntee over "which union should organize 45,000 child-care workers in the Midwest.”

The Washington Post Style section covers Democrats' melancholy tribute to Tom Daschle last night.

The Washington Times devotes most of a story about Barbara Boxer's new energy in criticizing the President to criticism and dismissals of Boxer.

And Roll Call also reports that, as First Read can attest, Kerry is getting pleas for contributions to help the DCCC dig out from under its debt of $10-plus million -- which is about the same amount that Kerry has left over from his presidential campaign, though no one's suggesting that he hand over all of it.  "Sources familiar with Kerry’s thinking say the Senator is willing to help Democratic Congressional candidates, but they add that he’s made no promises to the DCCC."

Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, and Kerry pen an op-ed in today's Boston Globe

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