“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, March 15, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
The wings of the GOP may be spreading despite the best efforts of its social conservative base.  Not only are the party's most popular figures not named Bush or Cheney pro-choice, but now California may join Massachusetts in allowing same-sex marriages -- meaning that the only two states to do so would both be governed by Republicans with big ambitions.  Governor Schwarzenegger said on MSNBC's Hardball last night that he doesn't believe in gay marriage, but would not seek to amend California's constitution if the state supreme court rules that a ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.

  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

Amidst the looming prospects of the Senate going nuclear and deadlocking, and of Tom DeLay's ethics problems distracting the House GOP, USA Today reports new Gallup data showing Congress with its lowest approval rating since September 1999: 37% approval, 53% disapproval.  DeLay is out and about today, keynoting a GOP House campaign committee (NRCC) conference on tax reform at the Washington Hilton at 12 noon.  He'll speak for about 20 minutes with no Q&A.  Beyond tax reform, he is expected to talk about the legislative agenda, including Social Security.  A coalition of good-government groups holds a presser at 10:00 am to denounce the House Ethics Committee stalemate.

The NRCC conference precedes the NRCC fundraising gala, also at the Hilton, which President Bush will address tonight at 7:05 pm.  Per the NRCC, over 3,000 people will attend and more than $7 million will be raised.  Patti LaBelle sings the national anthem, Peaches & Herb entertain (!), and Speaker Hastert introduces the President.  Prior to his speech, Bush's only other publicly scheduled event today is a meeting with the King of Jordan in the Oval Office at 11:25 am.  (Ambassador Hughes' attendance is TBD.)

With DeLay himself and Bush's proposed private accounts facing problems, we ask: Was the 2003 Texas redistricting really worth it?  It guaranteed House Republicans a net of a couple more seats in 2004.  But it cost them Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D), who actually supported private accounts.  Alleged corporate contributions helped the GOP gain control of the state legislature so they could embark on the redistricting.  But these contributions are now at the center of one ethical storm involving DeLay's associates and prompting media and Democratic scrutiny of DeLay Inc. 

As Social Security becomes a "political cannonball" in the budget fight, as one paper puts it, Alan Greenspan testifies in the Senate this morning on Social Security and the economics of retirement.  And as the GOP hammers Democrats for not putting forth their own plan, NBC's Ken Strickland offers collected thoughts from Hill Democrats on why they haven't: because they don't trust the President and think it's disingenuous of him to say he's open to ideas; because he's the one who called Social Security a "crisis" situation, so they think it's his task to solve it; because it could be political suicide for them to come forth with a plan that requires a tax increase or a benefits reduction; and because whereas tax cuts and the Medicare prescription-drug bill were efforts that yielded tangible benefits in the form of refunds or savings, there will be no immediate, tangible benefits from any changes to Social Security. 

To nuke or not to nuke: A flurry of activity by both sides of the nuclear option debate seems to be inspired by the expected committee vote on US circuit court nominee William Myers on Thursday.  The conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation team up for a panel discussion today; Sen. Robert Byrd (D) teams up with MoveOn for a speech against the option tomorrow.  The January NBC/Wall Street Journal poll tested whether the Senate should maintain or eliminate the filibuster: 48% said maintain, 39% said eliminate.

The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 9:00 am.

Social Security, the budget, and the Bush agenda
USA Today contemplates the nation's sketchy fiscal health and suggests that maybe Al Gore's lockbox should have become more than just SNL fodder.  "Social Security is just part of the looming fiscal challenge...  The pending fiscal issues are so daunting, however, that economists doubt the economy can accelerate fast enough to grow its way out of its problems.  While the long-term deficits are not, in the largest measure, caused by imbalances in Social Security, they will force painful choices on spending, taxes or borrowing to preserve current benefits that are the only income for 22% of the elderly...  The budget situation is further being fed by Bush's plans to extend expiring tax cuts, and the costly need to address the" AMT. 

USA Today says Bush's Social Security plan has become "a political cannonball" in the budget fight: "Democrats were ready with proposals making it harder for Congress to cut taxes or increase spending unless Social Security's long-term solvency has been assured.  Republicans wanted the Senate to go on record acknowledging the importance of fixing the program's ills, caused by the coming crunch of baby boomer retirements." 

In considering the prospects for the remainder of Bush's pro-business agenda, the Wall Street Journal suggests the Social Security and judicial nominee fights may ensure that the rest will be shelved.  That said, "Republican senators are planning to hold a news conference within the next month with major U.S. business lobbies to unveil a catalog of priorities including extension of the capital-gains and dividend-tax cuts, permanent repeal of estate taxes, energy and asbestos legislation, an overhaul of medical-malpractice laws and reduced trade barriers with Central American and Caribbean nations.  Mr. Bush's plan for private Social Security accounts also is viewed by some Wall Street interests as a potential boon for business."

Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta says, in a Washington Post op-ed promoting his think-tank's tax reform plan, that it seems "increasingly likely that the president's twin domestic goals of reforming Social Security and the tax system will merge by the summer." 

More Social Security
Despite its morning release yesterday, the Washington Post leads with its new Social Security poll showing progress for Bush on convincing Americans that the system is in trouble -- but weak support for private accounts: "58 percent of those polled this time said the more they hear about Bush's plan, the less they like it.  The latest polling, combined with detailed interviews last week, shows that Bush's drive to significantly alter the 70-year-old national insurance program has run into significant hurdles with every age cohort." 

The Los Angeles Times reports that "a group representing the nation's biggest financial companies," including American Express, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, "said Monday that it had decided not to renew its membership in a business coalition raising millions of dollars to back" private accounts.  "Financial services companies have come under particular pressure from opponents of private accounts, especially the AFL-CIO," which "charge that the companies stand to benefit from Bush's plan to let workers divert taxes into stocks and bonds that the companies would manage."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page touts GOP Sen. Robert Bennett's progressive indexing proposal.

Dr. Thomas Saving of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds and a proactive campaigner for private accounts, debates an AARP rep at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia at 7:00 pm.

Delay
Sticking fast to the storyline, the Washington Post covers DeLay returning to the Hill after a weekend of bad press.

The New York Times says DeLay's GOP colleagues “show no public sign of backing away” from him.  But: “Privately, some Republican lawmakers were much less supportive of Mr. DeLay, with one saying that if the steady drone of accusations persists, Mr. DeLay will be in trouble and could be forced to surrender his post.  ‘I don't know if it is tomorrow or next year, but it is inevitable,’ said one lawmaker who would not be named for fear of antagonizing the leadership." 

The Chicago Tribune says that, “[a]t a minimum, DeLay's troubles threaten to distract from the Republican agenda as lawmakers struggle to address complicated budget and Social Security legislation.  The feelings among House Republicans range from ill at ease to uncomfortable...  'One reason we came into the majority is that the other party was ethically challenged, and if we don't learn a lesson from that, we're pretty dumb,’ the congressman said.”  The Tribune also says the DNC today will announce a "DeLay's Dastardly Doings" page on its website. 

Values and the courts
The San Francisco Chronicle covers the California lower court ruling that the state’s 28-year-old law prohibiting same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  The ruling “will not take effect during appeals that are likely to wind up in the state Supreme Court sometime next year.” 

The Los Angeles Times says, "Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a leading conservative on social issues, said the ruling strengthened the case for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would take away the authority of states to set their own rules on marriage." 

USA Today has a breakdown of which states have laws defining marriage in some manner (43) and which don't (7).

On the nuclear option, as mentioned above, the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation co-host a discussion on the legitimacy of filibustering judicial nominees today.  Among the panelists are Sen. John Cornyn (R), George Will, conservative lawyer C. Boyden Gray, and Mark Agrast of the liberal Center for American Progress.  The discussion takes place at Heritage Foundation in DC at 10:00 am.

And Sen. Robert Byrd (D) joins forces with Move On: Byrd will rail against the nuclear option in a speech hosted by the liberal online organization tomorrow at the Washington Court Hotel at 12 noon.  "The rally will coincide with the launch of a new TV, radio, and print ad campaign on judicial nominations, as well as a national 'call-in day,'" per the press release.

Despite being "appalled by the way Senate Democrats have turned the filibuster from a last-resort means of making the Senate take another look at a bill or a nominee into a first-resort tactic of wholesale partisan obstructionism," two former Republican US Senators ask their colleagues not to go nuclear in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The Boston Globe says Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) seems "reluctant to take such a radical step, and as majority whip, "McConnell wields considerable power over the Republican caucus and members would be hesitant to proceed without his approval...  Supporters of the change say McConnell has argued in closed-door leadership meetings that there was not sufficient public clamor for the change.  Conservative leaders plan to pressure him while activists work to raise grass-roots anger at Democratic filibusters, procedural maneuvers that have blocked votes on 10 of Bush's most conservative nominees to federal appeals courts."  But a McConnell spokesperson says the Senator would back Frist if Frist decides to pull the trigger. 

Somewhat like the Wall Street Journal, which attributes it to both Social Security and judges, Knight-Ridder also notes that the "Senate is moving unusually fast on the business agenda largely because of Republican fears that Democratic objections to five men and two women whom Bush has nominated to appellate courts may shut it down."

The Washington Post's Milbank notices an increasingly media-friendly Justice Scalia, and suggests it could have something to do with "a looming vacancy in the office of chief justice."  Milbank also draws from one recent Scalia speech this "message to Democratic senators: Hold your filibuster.  The justice made a point of showing that he can be crosswise with conservatives, even on a matter involving sexual orientation."

With the BTK case off his plate for now, Kansas AG Phill Kline is refocusing on his effort to force two Kansas clinics to hand over medical records for more than 80 women in his effort to pursue cases of illegal late-terms abortions and statutory rape.  The Washington Post revisits the case.  "Kline's push for medical records, backed by a judicial subpoena, is the strongest move yet by a state law officer against providers of late-term abortions.  Abortion rights activists say Kansas heralds a growing risk to the rights of women seeking to terminate pregnancies without government interference."

Whither the Democrats
Donna Brazile in her Roll Call column predicts that a changing if the guard among some of the Democratic party's staunchest interest groups will yield less of "a circular firing squad" and more of "a major offensive to derail the conservative agenda before it’s set in stone."

Kerry's stop in Atlanta yesterday to push his kids' health care plan "had some of the trappings of a campaign stop, although Kerry said he is trying to enlist bipartisan support" notes the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  Yesterday's forum was the first of many to come as Kerry plans to criss-cross the country.  Kerry "also plans to write a book about what American families have at stake in issues such as health care and the environment."  And he also said he plans on sitting down with Howard Dean this week "to discuss the future of the party." 

The "media"
The AP covers the White House's defense of the use of VNRs yesterday.

Roll Call reports that Democratic Senators Kennedy and Lautenberg "are asking the White House to repudiate administration memos released Friday that give Cabinet agencies the go-ahead to produce and publicize potentially misleading video news releases."

Lautenberg also "will try to attach language to an appropriations bill to clarify that taxpayer money cannot be spent on such productions."  Washington Post

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