“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 9, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Bill Clinton and his physicians say his elective surgery tomorrow to remove a rare but non-life threatening build-up of fluid and scar tissue from his chest is no biggie, but that doesn't mean this won't suck up most of the oxygen in the political world until the docs face the cameras on Thursday and tell us how it all went. 

  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

Meanwhile, Dan Rather's final CBS Evening News broadcast tonight is the focus of weirdly quiet anticipation (we haven't checked the blogs yet).

This is all probably just fine with a White House which doesn't like to gloat (much), but has to be happy with how the week is going so far, as the Democrats' gamble on not offering an alternative on Social Security gets more attention, Democratic concessions of Bush progress in the Middle East pop up, and the Bush business agenda comes together.  Bush touts his energy policy today, while the Senate gets ready to pass the bankruptcy bill, and the Wall Street Journal reports an OMB-driven effort to implement new, mostly environmental regulations that would boost the manufacturing sector.

Rolling out an unrealized pet project from his first term, Bush gives a speech tying his energy policy to national security in Columbus, OH at 1:55 pm.  Prior to the speech, he tours the energy-focused Battelle Memorial Institute at 1:15 pm.  We've gotten a couple of prebuttals to Bush's speech already.  A Kerry aide reminds us that Kerry has long talked about the links between energy policy and national security, and that drilling for oil in ANWR is "not the answer to our dangerous dependence" on foreign oil.  The Sierra Club also expects Bush to press "for more needless and destructive drilling in" ANWR, "instead of increasing America's investment in" hybrid cars and wind and solar power.

Bush also meets with the President of Romania at 10:55 am, and after returning from Ohio, does a photo op with Laura Bush and Ministers of Women’s Affairs from Afghanistan and Iraq at 4:35 pm. 

Following further Democratic efforts to offer amendments, a final Senate vote is expected on the bankruptcy bill today, with the final House vote likely to happen sometime next week or shortly after the Easter recess.  The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

On Social Security, Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas holds a 10:30 am hearing about the system's future featuring the GAO's David M. Walker, and two Social Security trustees.  Democrats and their affiliated interest groups have many events planned for today in advance of Bush's four-stop Social Security tour tomorrow.  Details below.

In Los Angeles, 2001 candidate Antonio Villaraigosa has claimed a runoff slot in the mayoral race; Mayor James Hahn is battling with Bob Hertzberg for the other slot.  Congresswoman-elect Doris Matsui holds a 9:15 am ET press conference at the Sacramento airport before heading to DC.  More on all of this below.

And 42 is scheduled to play with 41 and Greg Norman in a charity golf tournament in Florida today.  A press conference in scheduled for 10:15 am.  After his surgery tomorrow, the former President is expected to be hospitalized for three to 10 days.  Senator Clinton will spend tomorrow in New York, per press secretary Philippe Reines.  Her schedule is TBD but, like last time, may include an on-camera status report.  Today she has a full schedule in DC.

The Bush agenda
The Cleveland Plain Dealer previews Bush's visit to Columbus, where he will "tour Battelle Memorial Institute, which is working to develop clean coal technology, before delivering a speech at Franklin County's Veterans Memorial...  Ohio's stakes are high in both debates.  More than 80 percent of the state's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants that would be affected by Bush's 'Clear Skies' air pollution measure, as well as clean coal initiatives in the energy bill."

Senate Republicans are planning to use their budget resolution to avoid a filibuster on oil drilling in ANWR, the New York Times says.  “The move will reopen one of the most contentious and long-running energy debates in Washington at a time when the Senate, under a newly strengthened Republican majority, is pushing through a variety of bills that opponents say benefit big business.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Administration "is expected to launch a push for business-friendly regulation, possibly including streamlined and more flexible pollution standards, chemical-handling rules, and workers' medical-leave protections."  Although the "stated aim is to improve the overall climate for U.S. manufacturing," critics say the effort is "a new assault on anticompetitive rules that amounts to rewarding Mr. Bush's political supporters in the business world.  OMB is leading the effort, which may be launched as early as this week..."

The Los Angeles Times reminds us that the bankruptcy bill "is the second in a series of bills backed by Republicans that they say are necessary to end abuse of the legal system.  The first" was the class-action bill.  The story notes that there weren't enough Democratic votes to filibuster.  "Some said the party might resort to a filibuster for more important fights over Social Security, some judicial nominees and tax reform." 

(The Boston Globe has Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) arguing that "the fact that four Republican members defied their party leaders to vote for" his amendment seeking to prohibit pro-life demonstrators from skirting protest fines "was a signal that many in the GOP are uncomfortable with the party's position on abortion.)

The House and Senate budget panels today will unveil spending proposals that seek to balance the GOP urge to cut taxes with the President's demanded domestic spending cuts.  The Washington Post points out, "Offsetting tax breaks mostly for the affluent with spending cuts that could hurt the poor could be politically risky, particularly in the Senate, where moderate Republicans have already warned that the juxtaposition may be untenable."

The Washington Times covers the UN's endorsement of a human cloning ban as a victory for the Administration.  "The United States did not play a public role in promoting the statement.  But it had worked behind the scenes, hand in hand with U.S. pro-life groups, to obtain a call for a blanket ban on all cloning." 

The Administration plans to tell states that they must review cases of foreign-born inmates on death row who were not informed of their rights under international law, the Dallas Morning News reports.  “The surprising change in policy was announced last week without fanfare in a 'friend of the court' brief filed in the case of Texas death row inmate Jose Ernesto Medellin," who says he is allowed help from the Mexican government under international law. 

Some view that amicus brief as one of many increases in presidential power Bush has presided over during his tenure, the Morning News adds.  Experts told the paper they hadn’t seen this kind of presidential aggression since the Nixon Administration. 

And on Bush's speech yesterday, USA Today notes that it "stood in contrast to a more-defensive talk he made on Iraq 10 months ago in a visit to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa." 

And the Washington Times says, "Some of the harshest Democratic critics of President Bush's Iraq policy have grudgingly admitted that it has helped spark a growing desire for democracy in the Middle East." 

Social Security
Just when the White House seems to have gotten Hill Republicans in line, compromise-seeking GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham tells the Washington Post that "Republicans 'made a strategic mistake' by initially focusing on a proposal to create individual investment accounts."  More Graham: "'It's always been a sideshow, but we sold it as the main event.  [Critics are] attacking it as the undoing of Social Security.'" 

But the pro-private accounts PR effort continues full-blast.  Pro-accounts spokesperson and Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds trustee Thomas Saving ties the two entitlement programs together in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, and argues that "[a]ny reform that puts one program on a sounder footing helps the other.  Indeed, the strongest argument for the reform of Social Security is the existence of Medicare."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page tackles the "bipartisan gimmick" of private accounts as an add-on.

Roll Call reports that while there may not be a "concerted strategy... to stretch the Social Security battle into the election year, almost all" Democrats interviewed for the story "acknowledged that such a scenario would be a boon to their party."  Then, channeling First Read, the story notes, "Behind the apparent bravado of Democrats on the issue, however, are strains of concern that Bush has convinced the American people that Social Security is a problem that if not addressed soon will only grow worse.  The natural corollary of that assumption is that if Democrats do not develop a plan of their own to fix Social Security they could once again face the" obstructionist tag "that hurt them at the ballot box in the 2002 and 2004 elections."

At an 11:30 am event followed by a media avail, Harry Reid will receive over 2 million petitions opposing private accounts from Barbara Kennelly, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

The Congressional Black Caucus has scheduled an unofficial hearing for Monday on how private accounts could affect the African-American community.

And if you can't be in Montgomery, AL at 12 noon for the event, we suspect the very prolific, anti-private accounts AUPSS will gladly e-mail you a copy of their next specially prepared report today criticizing the affect of private accounts on Alabamians in advance of Bush's trip there tomorrow.  Ditto for the Kentucky report they're also releasing, also in advance of Bush's stop there tomorrow.

The Los Angeles Times looks at the various outside groups playing on the field and juxtaposes a $54,000 effort against a $2 million one, though the money seems to us to be roughly equally spread around.

A GOP realignment?
The Washington Post reports that the National Council of La Raza "embraced" AG Alberto Gonzales at a dinner last night, demonstrating an effort by the organization to "alter its image as a left-leaning organization," and to "show the Bush administration that it seeks to move to the center politically and gain more access to the White House."  The story adds, "La Raza is not the only Hispanic civil rights organization employing that strategy.  Another leading Hispanic rights organization, the League of United Latin American Citizens, strongly supports Gonzales."

With 60% of precincts reporting, the AP had Villaraigosa leading with 32% of the vote, Hahn at 25%, and Hertzberg at 21%.  “A substantial share of outstanding votes was in Hertzberg's home turf, the San Fernando Valley...  Returns from the precincts were unusually slow...  The estimated turnout would be typical for a mayoral primary, with about one-in-three of the city's 1.5 million registered voters casting ballots.”

The Los Angeles Times has the early-morning status report, and also manages to preview a tough runoff for Villaraigosa despite not knowing who he'll be facing.

In Sacramento, Doris Matsui (D) received a whopping 71% in the low-turnout special election to replace her late husband in Congress. – Sacramento Bee

The Los Angeles Times says protestors are starting to affect Governor Schwarzenegger's national campaign for his agenda, at least at the margins.  "Demonstrators are infiltrating public appearances.  And even when they're kept outside, they're getting heard.  He has been forced to alter his routine and to acknowledge the protesters in his stump speeches." 

While in DC yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, Schwarzenegger met briefly with Bush, Karl Rove, and three Cabinet members, but spent the remainder of his time “raising money from Washington lobbyists who represent drug companies, Wall Street investment firms and the entertainment industry.” 

During his first term as Texas governor, George W. Bush kept it simple, we recall.  He had just four goals -- education reform, tort reform, welfare reform, and toughening the state's juvenile justice system -- and he achieved them all, an accomplishment that helped him in his initial bid for the presidency.  But in California this year, Schwarzenegger is being far from simple.  He wants to change the way the state's legislative and congressional districts are drawn; he wants to tackle the state's budget problems; he wants to change the state's pension system; he wants to enact tougher tenure requirements for teachers; and now he wants to tackle steroid use.  And that's just for this year.

No one would ever accuse Schwarzenegger of being shy or unmotivated.  But why, after a relatively quiet and uncontroversial first year in office, is he now embarking on such a bold agenda?  GOP consultant Dan Schnur suggests that although he was popular during his first year, Schwarzenegger didn't accomplish much.  "Nobody builds you a statue for fixing worker compensation," he tells First Read.  If Schwarzenegger sees himself as a modern-day Hiram Johnson or Pat Brown, Schnur adds, "you might was well push all your chips on the table and go for broke."

Reagan biographer and journalist Lou Cannon, who also writes about Schwarzenegger, says that what is bold isn't the laundry list of things he wants to achieve -- it's the process. "His strategy is taking his case to the people.  In that sense, that is bold."  Cannon adds that Schwarzenegger can't use the initiative process forever -- because it might wear thin on the public, and because Schwarzenegger might not even run for re-election in 2006 -- and that is why he is trying to do so much this year.  "If he's going to take his case to the people, he's going to take his whole case to the people." 

Helped by the AFL-CIO and Families USA, among other groups, Kerry today rolls out a grassroots component to his kids' health care proposal at 12 noon.  He also announces the results of a related Internet initiative in which johnkerry.com subscribers were asked to call a hotline with stories of uninsured kids in their neighborhoods, as well as to sign up to support the health care proposal.  And he meets with the Communications Workers of America's legislative conference.

The Boston Herald reports that "Kerry huddled with his top fund-raisers Monday night in his Georgetown mansion, preparing a massive money push aimed at keeping the defeated presidential nominee's ambitions alive."

In the meantime, Teresa Heinz Kerry, speaking at a fundraiser in Seattle last weekend, "openly questioned the legitimacy of electronic vote counts, cited GOP dirty tricks and scolded the Catholic Church for assailing her husband's pro-choice views."  - Boston Herald

The New York Post reports that Peter Paul, who hosted a fraudulent fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, pleaded guilty yesterday to an unrelated charge of securities fraud.  “Despite his pending jail time, Paul vowed to testify against Clinton's former finance director [David Rosen], who was indicted for lying to authorities about the cost of a party Paul hosted for Clinton.” 

The Hill reports that a top Democratic strategist from Colorado, now a member of the DNC's primary commission, is pushing to create an early Western-states primary day which would force Democratic presidential candidates to pay more attention to that region. 

And while this is not typically something we report, in the time-honored post-campaign tradition, we note that several top 2004 strategists are making more permanent homes for themselves at DC firms -- from which they will no doubt take leaves of absence in mid-2008 to pitch in on the next race.  Kerry deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf, also a former longtime Gephardt chief of staff, and former RNC deputy chairman and close Bush advisor Jack Oliver are teaming up to form a lobbying shop at St. Louis-based law firm Bryan Cave.  And last week, top Bush campaign operatives Mark Wallace and Terry Nelson announced their new consulting partnership.  Happy nesting, guys.


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