“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.

Thursday, March 10, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
At this writing, former President Clinton is in surgery at New York's Columbia Presbyterian.  Time of completion, and of the expected hospital briefing, are both TBD.  Senator Clinton is also at the hospital.  Again, 42 is expected to be hospitalized for three to 10 days.

  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

President Bush sets off on a Social Security road trip that differs from last week's in two respects.  One, the battle lines are more firmly drawn, with the White House willing to compromise so long as any compromise includes private accounts (as Bush's economic advisor reiterates in USA Today), and Hill Democrats willing to deal on tax increases and benefit cuts so long as private accounts are off the table.  And two, Republicans are sinking their teeth into the possibility that Democrats are taking a risk in not offering much by way of an alternative to the various GOP proposals while Bush travels around, potentially convincing more Americans that the program has real problems. 

An RNC e-mail yesterday showed "Dems vs. Dems" over whether or not they need a plan.  Though if the Dean-led DNC weren't still... in… transition, it could put out similarly sharp stuff depicting a still-fractured GOP.

Bush does conversations on Social Security in Louisville at 12 noon ET and at Auburn in Montgomery, AL at 4:50 pm ET, then goes on to Memphis for the night.  He does Social Security events in Memphis and Shreveport, LA tomorrow.  NBC’s Norah O’Donnell notes that, per White House officials, the focus of these talks will be to reassure seniors they won’t be affected by the President’s plan.

The final Senate vote on the bankruptcy bill wound up being held over until today due to a proposed amendment which would restrict investment banks from continuing to advise companies that declare bankruptcy, which Senate GOP leaders weren't sure House GOP leaders would swallow.  The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 2:00 pm.

More whither the Democrats: DNC chairman Dean and Harry Reid seek to whip up the MoveOn crowd on Social Security and judicial nominees in an 8:05 pm conference call tonight.  The running tiff between two of the party's prominent idea factories -- both with Clinton ties -- reared its head yesterday.  And AFSCME president Gerald McEntee did a wide-ranging Monitor breakfast yesterday, hitting on Social Security and the state of labor and of the Democratic Party.  More on all of this below.

And the Wall Street Journal reports that White House pool reports are now blogger fodder.

Social Security
The Washington Times says that Bush’s Social Security events today and tomorrow mark “a shift in strategy for the president, who kicked off his Social Security offensive last month by stumping in states where Democratic senators were considered receptive to pressure. Having failed to enlist the Democrats, Mr. Bush is seeking to shore up his Republican base."

The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Birmingham News preview Bush’s stops today in Kentucky and Alabama.

White House economic advisor Allan Hubbard tells USA Today in an interview that Bush is open to raising the wage cap above $90,000, and that private accounts must be part of any deal -- and not as an add-on.  The story also notes Ways & Means chairman Bill Thomas' comments yesterday that benefit cuts may be part of a deal.

Bob Novak writes that Republicans face a choice in the Social Security debate: Make a compromise that would likely be a “watered-down” version of what the White House wants to do, or concede defeat -- and take the issue to the public in the mid-term elections.

The Hill's first official Social Security hearing, held yesterday at Ways & Means, featured some witnesses warning members about private accounts, but also calling for an earlier rather than later effort to fix the system's problems.  The Washington Post says "House Republican leaders also received a new report from their consultants showing that focus groups had found 'great levels of concern about the financial risks associated' with such accounts, which would allow younger workers to invest part of their payroll taxes in tightly regulated stock and bond funds."

The Wall Street Journal takes this away from that hearing: "With President Bush struggling to get the public and Congress to embrace his top-priority proposal for private accounts within Social Security, fretful Republicans are increasingly critical of White House strategy but divided on how to proceed," noting that "prominent conservative activists Steve Moore and Larry Hunter, who favor privatizing Social Security, said Mr. Bush has made a mistake in opening the door to future benefit reductions and payroll-tax increases."

The Washington Post covers Bush's now constant reiteration that his plan would not affect the nation's current seniors, and notes that "White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the" anti-accounts "ad blitz has taken a toll."

But the New York Times writes that with retirees and near-retirees comprising a third of all voters, some Republicans have become increasingly concerned that the White House’s Social Security plan could put them at risk with these voters in the 2006 congressional elections.

Rep. Bill Jefferson and AUPSS hold an 11:00 am press conference call today to prebut Bush's stop in Shreveport. 

There seemed to be a semi-organized effort by foes of private accounts yesterday to discredit Thomas Saving, the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds trustee, who is actively working for private accounts and, yesterday, penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed and testified before Ways & Means.  An AUPSS release basically called Saving a shill for the Administration who is not showing the independence necessary to act as a trustee for the two programs.  The top government employees' union, AFGE, called on Saving to resign his trusteeship.

AFSCME president Gerald McEntee told reporters at the Monitor breakfast yesterday that his union has already put $1 million into opposing the President's plan, has 25 to 30 staffers assigned to it, and expects to raise a total of $30 million to spend on it.  He argued that there’s “a hole in the wall” in the GOP’s discipline on Social Security, and predicted that the eventual outcome will result in Democrats picking up House and Senate seats in 2006.  “I think he’s overplayed his hand.  It is one of the rare errors or mistakes they have made in strategy.”

Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich gets a bit hyperbolic in blasting private accounts in a USA Today op-ed: "the president's plan would break the bank, and also break Social Security's intergenerational compact.  And it would subject younger workers to the risk that they'll face retirement with nothing."  He also says, "I don't believe Social Security needs fixing anyway." 

The Wall Street Journal editorial page links continued immigration and Bush's guest-worker proposal to the solvency of Social Security.

USA Today profiles six key (but not so high-profile) figures in the Social Security debate.

Other Bush priorities
The Hill reports that House Budget Committee chairman Jim Nussle has opted to leave drilling in ANWR out of the House budget resolution for fear it would drag down the entire bill. 

But the Senate resolution does include it.  And the Wall Street Journal says both chambers' budget resolutions follow the President's lead by seeking "to slow the growth in government benefits ranging from Medicaid to education" -- but also previews some potential tussling over tax cuts.

Indeed, the New York Times reports that Senate Republican leaders are pushing for a budget resolution that provides only $70 billion of the White House’s desired $100 billion in tax cuts over the next five years. 

"Bush's bid to rewrite federal air pollution laws" -- his Clear Skies initiative -- "ground to a halt in Congress yesterday when Republicans were unable to overcome objections" in committee "that the bill would weaken the central pillars of the nation's environmental protection framework," the Washington Post reports.  "Republicans accused Democrats of obstructing effective and common-sense legislation to deny Bush an important environmental victory.  Democrats, joined by Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), said the negotiations were conducted in bad faith, that the pollution-control targets were too low and that the bill contained irresponsible loopholes."  - Washington Post

Following up on its report yesterday on an OMB-driven push for new pro-business regulations, the Wall Street Journal says: "The Bush administration put its weight behind private-sector efforts to repeal or modify 76 federal rules that businesses or consumer groups regard as outmoded, burdensome or ineffective...  Many of the targeted rules come from environmental or labor regulation."

Congresswoman-elect Doris Matsui (D) will be sworn in this morning.

In the Los Angeles mayoral race, it's Hahn-Villaraigosa II: Villaraigosa grabbed 33% of the primary vote, while incumbent Hahn squeaked into the second runoff slot with 24%.  When these two squared off in 2001, Villaraigosa also got more votes in the primary, but Hahn still went on to defeat him.  Will history repeat itself on May 17? 

Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College, isn't so sure.  He tells First Read that Villaraigosa now has a couple of advantages he didn't have in 2001, in that Hahn is now running as an incumbent who's not that popular and who has been besieged by ethics questions.  In addition, Hahn's support among African-Americans is unlikely to be as strong as it was in 2001.  "Four years ago, African Americans regarded Hahn as the son of [former Mayor] Kenneth Hahn.  Now a lot of African Americans regard him as the guy who got rid of [African-American police chief] Bernard Parks."

Does this mean Villaraigosa has this thing wrapped up?  Not necessarily, Pitney says.  "He probably has an advantage right now.  But Hahn -- despite being charismatically challenged -- is a tough campaigner."  One thing to watch for, Pitney adds, is whom third-place finisher Bob Hertzberg endorses.  If it's Hahn, that could really help the incumbent mayor.  But Pitney says this could be unlikely, since Hertzberg hammered Hahn hard in the primary.

The Los Angeles Times also notes that this run-off race is unlikely to be a replay of the 2001 one. 

So does the New York Times.  “Political analysts said that Mr. Hahn faced a more difficult challenge than he did four years ago. He is better known to the public, and less well liked… Mr. Villaraigosa is also better known to voters this time around, having served for the past four years on the City Council.”

“‘I just don't see how Hahn can win,’ said Fernando J. Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles. ‘The only way he can win is to completely and totally demonize Villaraigosa. He's capable of it, very much so.’”  - New York Times

Another LA Times article says that Hahn and Villaraigosa already began taking swipes at each other yesterday. 

Drip, drip, drip.  There's the ongoing Travis County, TX probe into illegal funding of the GOP's recent redistricting effort in the state, in which he is not a target, but his associates are.  There's the unceremonious replacement of the House Ethics Committee chair, which he engineered.  There's the investigation into DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff's defrauding Native American tribes, and his ties to Abramoff.  Now, the Washington Post reports that Tom DeLay was one of a group of House Republicans who "accepted an expense-paid trip to South Korea in 2001 from a registered foreign agent despite House rules that bar the acceptance of travel expenses from foreign agents...  DeLay's aides said yesterday that the congressman did not learn of the group's registration until this week."  A former RNC counsel says a House Ethics probe is likely to be in the cards.

Meanwhile, the New York Times notes that DeLay yesterday made “his most detailed public remarks to date on his involvement in the creation and fund-raising activities of” the political action committee under investigation in Texas.  “Discussing the committee's origins, Mr. DeLay said, ‘Yes, it was my idea, or it was our idea - those of us that wanted to enhance the Republicans who served in the House of Representatives in the Texas Legislature.’”

Whither the Democrats
In addition to his MoveOn conference call tonight, Roll Call reports that DNC chairman Dean will meet with about 100 lobbyists this morning, but a spokesperson says he has no agenda and would not make a direct pitch for contributions -- that the meeting is about Dean introducing himself.  The story notes the difficulty Dean and other Democratic leaders might face in fundraising due to the party's potential presidential candidates already soliciting contributions.

The following caught First Read's attention for two reasons.  First, because while Democrats regularly attack Republicans who vote in favor of industries that contribute to their campaigns, it's not usually a tactic Democrats use on each other.  And second, because there's more signs of tension between the party's two prominent policy shops -- the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the Center for American Progress, John Podesta's think tank.  Both of these groups have ties to the Clintons and believe they would play a big role in a Hillary Clinton presidential bid. 

Last night, CAP fellow David Sirota blasted centrist Democrats in the House for sending a letter "demanding passage of the credit card/commercial bank-backed bankruptcy bill," Sirota said in an e-mail which went to reporters.  "The letter undermines efforts of other Democrats in the House and Senate to stop passage of the bill."  He charges the centrist Democrats -- whom he calls the "DLC/New Dems" -- with pocketing "a combined $750,000 in their two-year campaigns for Congress in 2004," and then he lists the members and their contributions from the industries.  As a CAP fellow, Sirota says he was acting on his own, but CAP also opposed the bankruptcy bill and criticized the House Democrats on its website.

The DLC mention prompted us to dig up this quote from our recent interview with DLC chief Al From.  In talking about his organization as the party's "force for progress" because it takes on the left, From said, "with all due respect to Podesta, no one's talking about the fight between CAP and the left."

Along the same lines, at yesterday's Monitor breakfast, AFSCME’s McEntee spoke about the Democratic Party’s future and its problems in 2004 -- and took a swipe at SEIU chief Andy Stern.  Regarding last year’s presidential race, McEntee said, “We do believe the Democratic message could have been clearer, sharper, and more to the point on Iraq and on the economy.”  He added that the “wedge issues” of guns, gays, and abortion hurt the unions when they were trying to get their members to vote for Kerry.  “Same-sex marriage was devastating.”  He also argued that the GOP’s overall voter mobilization wasn’t as good as Democrats’, but said he was impressed with the GOP’s neighbor-to-neighbor strategy.

On the current state of the party, he said: “I think they’re up off the mat.  I think Dean will be tremendously helpful party-wise” by helping to build up state parties and trying to compete in the red states.  With Sweeney’s proposal to boost AFL political spending, McEntee noted the federation wants to increase its activities in the 2006 gubernatorial, House, and Senate races, and in the battle over Schwarzenegger’s initiatives.  

McEntee also commented about the split within the House of Labor: “This is probably the most lively and spirited debate we’ve had in the American labor movement in years and years.”  He disagreed with the proposal -- sponsored by the Teamsters, SEIU, and a few other unions -- to allow unions to receive back 50% of their AFL dues to make more money available for organizing.  He then singled out the SEIU’s Stern, saying that it “angered” him that Stern’s union is supporting the proposal.  McEntee charged that the SEIU was paying dues to the AFL-CIO for 1.35 million workers, when it actually has 1.8 million members -- saving the SEIU nearly $9 million in dues per year.  He called that “pure hypocrisy…  I think that’s awful.”

(While McEntee criticized the Teamsters-SEIU proposal, saying it would result in the AFL having to lay off 200 staffers, the Washington Times reports today that the federation has already decided to lay off between 80 and 100 staffers.)

Roll Call reports that Democrats are giving up on considering an Illinois remap in retaliation for the GOP's remap of Georgia, but DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel says the party may try to redistrict in other states where they control the process.  The paper also reports that Georgia Democrats are threatening to bring a Votings Rights Act-based lawsuit against the expected new GOP-drawn map in Georgia.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet says there’s a reason why Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) is considering redistricting.  “I think Emanuel's real goal, lost a bit in the last few days, is not to remap Illinois, Georgia or any other state. His objective is to put pressure on House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to get the Republicans to quit this mid-decade mapmaking altogether.”


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