“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 16, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
President Bush faces the press at 10:15 am.  Social Security and the situation in the Senate are two of the many potential sources of news.  But there's word he will announce his recommendation of Defense Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank.

  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

"Progressive indexing" is means testing, but the Wall Street Journal editorial page has said it's OK.  The White House is warming to the Journal-endorsed idea of applying an income test to slow the growth of future benefits as a way of addressing Social Security's solvency, reports NBC's David Gregory, who notes that proponent Robert Pozen (D) met with Bush economic advisor Al Hubbard yesterday.  Hill Democrats are demanding that solvency be addressed in any deal, along with ditching private accounts.  Gregory says the White House hopes the plan might prompt some Democrats to come to the table. 

So the White House has now floated means testing and raising taxes (i.e., the income tax cap) as ways of fixing Social Security -- right before the Senate may all but officially close for business.  They'll spend the rest of this pre-recess time working on the budget, and when they return in April, both sides may go nuclear in their own respective ways.  Bill Frist is waiting for the moment to actually raise a constitutional point of order and move to deprive Democrats of their ability to filibuster.  Harry Reid and Democrats are ready to stop work on all Senate business except for bills to support the troops and keep the government running.  Things like Social Security probably wouldn't make that list. 

Democrats are obstructionist.  Republicans are drunk with power.  The former argument fits into the GOP's case that Democrats aren't putting forth alternatives on Social Security, and are the party of "no."  The latter fuels the case Democrats are trying to build, based on Tom DeLay's issues, that the GOP is not the party of reform.

The nuclear option is making for some awkward partnerships.  On the GOP side, we wonder which Senate Republicans -- the moderates or the old bulls? -- would get a pass.  On the Democratic side, Robert Byrd is teaming up with liberal, anti-war MoveOn.  We can see the NRSC press release now.  Byrd, up for re-election next year, denounces the nuclear option today at 12 noon at the Washington Court Hotel.  Byrd spokesperson Tom Gavin tells First Read that although MoveOn is hosting the event, it's just a small part of the Democratic coalition -- including the AFL-CIO, NAACP, and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights -- that opposes the nuclear option.  "We are happy to be joining with them," Gavin said.  "But they are not the end-all and be-all" of the party's effort.  Gavin also argues that the folks at the NRSC can say whatever they want -- "West Virginians can think for themselves." 

On the House side, NBC's Mike Viqueira reminds us that Republicans have been letting the Senate act first on many key Bush priorities lately -- class action, bankruptcy, energy -- because they're tired of having their ranks take tough votes on legislation, only to see it all languish on the other side of the Hill.  So far, this tactic has worked.  Viqueira suggests House Republicans might wonder why Frist can't wait until a few more bills clear the Senate before making his move.

Congress-watchers agree that Tom DeLay will truly be in trouble when key Republicans on the record start backing away, as one former longtime Democratic House aide says happened with key Democrats and Jim Wright in 1989.  And even as the press and Democrats circle DeLay, we remind ourselves that few Americans know who the guy is.  Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report tells First Read that the new Gallup numbers showing a 37-percent approval rating for Congress don't signal some kind of immediate danger for the GOP.  She explains that before 1994, when Republicans took over Congress, its approval rating hovered near 15% -- due in part to the banking and post office scandals, and to the Anita Hill hearings.  At that point, "I think athlete's foot was thought of better than Congress," she says.  "We are not at that point yet."

The Senate meets at 9:00 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.  President Bush today meets with the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch at the White House at 1:40 pm. 

Also today, First Read interviews the Democratic candidate for governor of a red state, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and considers the prospects for a Republican presidential candidate who runs a blue state, Mitt Romney, who returns home to Michigan tonight.  See below.

The Senate: DEFCON 2
Roll Call reports that "several GOP Senators suggested, privately and publicly, that they now have secured the 50 votes needed to alter the rules and that [Frist] would likely make the move in mid-to-late April."  Roll Call also says Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson officially came out against the option yesterday, after Trent Lott "quietly" worked "for weeks with Nelson to craft a compromise that would avert the judicial showdown."  A "PowerPoint presentation Democrats viewed at their weekly Tuesday luncheon began with a tutorial on 'Judges: Nuclear Option,' and then shifted to a page stating, 'Our goal is to reframe the issue.'"

The Washington Times notices that nine Senate Democrats were missing from the presser yesterday, including Mary Landrieu, whose "office said she opposes the nuclear option, but also wasn't eager to endorse Mr. Reid's proposal."  That said, "Sen. Ken Salazar, the Colorado Democrat who supported previous Bush [judicial] nominees, stood on the Senate steps but later refused to say whether he would help grind the Senate to a halt."   

MSNBC.com notes Lieberman's absence from the presser, too, and also says that GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee will vote against.

The New York Times mentions that MoveOn is buying $100,000 in airtime for a TV ad zeroing in on Dick Cheney’s possible role in eliminating the filibuster for judicial nominees.  The ad depicts “a giant hand using the dome of the Capitol as a rubber stamp, followed by an image of Vice President Dick Cheney with a crown on his head.” 

The House: Delay
Roll Call says DeLay's pen-and-pad, his rant against the Washington Post, and his open-press keynote speech at the GOP tax reform summit yesterday were all part of "a public and private counteroffensive to repair his image."

The Post, continuing to front-page its DeLay coverage, says his speech yesterday and his statement that "he wants Congress to find a way to help Terri Schiavo" were moves "to shore up his support with conservatives." 

The Los Angeles Times says that although DeLay is insisting this isn't distracting him from his work, "on Tuesday, he kept a room full of party faithful attending a conference on tax reform waiting nearly an hour so he could vote against an ethics measure put forward by the House Democratic leadership."

The Hill reports that former Ethics Committee chair Joel Hefley, ousted from that post by the House GOP leadership earlier this year, will co-sponsor the Mollohan (D) bill to repeal or revise the rules changes Republican leaders made to the committee's procedures earlier this year. 

The Dallas Morning News says the "political stakes for other Republicans are hard to gauge.  Watchdogs are hoping that voters give lawmakers an earful during the two-week Easter recess...  Democrats are trying to force potentially vulnerable Republicans to pay a price for party loyalty."

The Democratic House campaign committee hit GOP Rep. Chris Shays (of Shays-Meehan-McCain-Feingold fame) yesterday for allegedly going against his reformer image in refusing to support a Democratic proposal to appoint a bipartisan commission to deal with the ethics panel.  Shays does support the Mollohan bill.

Social Security
The New York Times previews the intense grassroots battle over Social Security that the groups plan to wage during the two-week recess.  “AARP… plans to start a nationwide campaign of radio and television commercials over the Congressional recess.  In one radio spot beginning this weekend, a plumber brings in a wrecking crew to fix a homeowner's clogged drain.  ‘If you had a problem with the kitchen sink, you wouldn't tear down the entire house,’ an announcer says…  ‘So why dismantle the Social Security system with private accounts when it can be fixed with moderate changes?’”  The article also says that pro-private accounts COMPASS will be taking aim at AARP with its own polling and ad campaign, while organized labor plans to conduct town halls and protests.

Alan Greenspan again yesterday offered a measured endorsement of private accounts, advising that the approach to resolving the looming shortfall be gradual enough to allow for course corrections if necessary, and inspiring a heated reply from Senator Clinton.

On the GOP realignment front, the Pew Hispanic Center will release a report this morning on Latinos' views on Social Security and their stake in the private accounts debate.  The center's director, Roberto Suro, will conduct a conference call on the report at 1:30 pm. 

And Americans United... (formerly AUPSS) holds a conference call at 9:30 am with Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D) of Ohio to respond to (read: reject) the claim that private accounts would benefit African-Americans.  The organization also sent out a memo yesterday -- the kind of memo such groups send out to make their donors happy -- with lots of facts and figures detailing all their state-by-state efforts this week.

A poll conducted for the pro-private accounts business coalition shows "[t]hree-fifths of people 55 and older think Social Security private accounts for younger workers are a good idea, as long as their own benefits remain untouched, according to a poll being released today by key supporters of President Bush's effort."  The Washington Times notes that the poll's "findings also could encourage House Republicans as they head home next week to sell the idea in their districts." 

The budget and the Bush agenda
"The effort in Congress to put together a belt-tightening budget was dealt several setbacks Tuesday as Senate moderates and House conservatives tugged the budget in opposite directions," says the Los Angeles Times.  "Failure to pass a budget... would be a serious blow to deficit control...  Without a budget, committees would be less likely to send spending-cut legislation to the House and Senate floors." 

The Washington Post reports that a "bipartisan coalition of senators is poised to restore $15 billion of Medicaid savings targeted in the Senate's 2006 budget blueprint, a move that could unravel much of President Bush's efforts to slow the explosive growth of entitlement spending."  The story adds that "the Medicaid cut may only be the first cut to be dropped." 

The Boston Globe points out that success in the Middle East is boosting Europe's approval of Bush, while at home, the Social Security debate is dampening it.  

"Caulifornia"
The Los Angeles Times lays out how "opponents of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are working in a loose but widening network to thwart his policy proposals.  They are deploying an aggressive blend of demonstrations, legal action and legislative maneuvers, forcing him to defend his agenda on multiple fronts...  A Schwarzenegger spokesman said Tuesday that the governor is not ruffled by the swelling opposition.  He has proposed huge changes in the state's political system, making a backlash inevitable." 

The AP covers the announcement yesterday by state Treasurer Phil Angelides (D) that he'll seek to unseat Schwarzenegger.  “The 51-year-old Angelides has made little secret of his intent to run for governor and has already raised about $12.5 million for the effort."  But AG Bill Lockyer (D) also plans to enter the race.

And the Chronicle reports that Lockyer’s comments to reporters in DC yesterday created a stir.  Lockyer “criticized Schwarzenegger's leadership style, saying ‘...it has a little bit of the sort of the odor of Austrian politics.  There's a sort of arrogance of power that bothers me.  You know, Arnold is still an Austrian citizen'...  Asked pointedly if he were referring to Nazi-era Austria, the attorney general replied, ‘I'm just talking about the culture,'’ he said, adding that there was a ‘long history from the Austria-Hungarian empire on, of sort of a more autocracy...'  Karen Hanretty, spokeswoman for the California Republican Party, quickly responded, calling Lockyer's statements appalling and outrageous." 

Whither the Democrats
The New York Times, channeling First Read from last week, covers the escalating tension between the Kerry and Edwards camps as both men lay the groundwork for a second presidential run.  “The image of these men heading down parallel tracks as they seek to recharge their political careers is the latest chapter in what many Democrats view as an uneasy relationship between the two party leaders.  Although the men went to great lengths in the campaign to present themselves as friends, associates of both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards quoted them as questioning each other's campaign performance.”

Roll Call notices Democratic Senators quoting the Bible on the floor and says "several Senators said they believe the president’s spending plan opens the door for them to contrast the GOP agenda with their own legislative goals."

In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) officially kicks off his gubernatorial bid today with a five-city fly-around, followed by an additional week-long tour.  State AG Jerry Kilgore (R) begins his own five-day kickoff tour on Monday.  Experts consider this race to be a toss-up; it gives Democrats a real chance to prove they can win in the South; it has two potential oh-eighters lurking in the background in outgoing Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Sen. George Allen (R); and it even offers a potential third-party spoiler in moderate GOP state Sen. Russ Potts.  And the battle lines are clear: Kaine is trying to turn the contest into a referendum on the popular Warner, while Kilgore is trying to paint Kaine as an out-of-touch liberal, in part based on Kaine's opposition to the death penalty.

Kaine sat down with First Read last week.  Highlights:
-- The key issue in the race will be fiscal responsibility and the contrast between the economic records of Warner and former GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore.  "Gilmore left the state in tatters," he said.  Kaine added his business record (he was the managing partner of a Richmond law firm) will also come into play.  “Jerry is a career government employee.  He hasn’t done economic development...  My message on Jerry is, ‘Look, you’re no leader.’”
-- Kaine will counter GOP charges that he's a liberal with talk about his faith and his former missionary work in Honduras.  “It’s a little hard to paint me as a Joe Hollywood when you hear my story,” he said.  “I’m a Catholic, and I’m not apologizing for thinking the death penalty and abortion are wrong.”
-- Asked what role his faith would play when carrying out death sentences, Kaine said he will only commute sentences when it's clear a person is innocent.  “It won’t be easy to sign a death warrant.  But I didn’t sign up for an easy job."
-- Is his success tied to Warner?  “That shouldn’t be enough to get me elected," he said.  Nevertheless, he added, the race will largely come down to this question: “Did you like the Gilmore Administration better, or the Warner Administration better?...  I know I’m going to take this state in a different direction than Jerry Kilgore is.”

Pre-butting Kaine's kickoff, the Kilgore camp on Monday issued a Kaine campaign "memo" parodying what it sees as the different messages Kaine will emphasize as he tours different parts of Virginia.  In conservative southwest Virginia: "We love guns.  We are pro-life.  We don’t like homosexual marriage.  And we hate taxes."  In more liberal Northern Virginia: "W. is NOT my President.  We hate guns.  We are pro-choice."  (First Read also hopes to sit down and chat with Kilgore.)

Oh-eight (R)
He's a GOP rising star with national ambitions and a blue-state governor -- or as he likes to say, "a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention."  But tonight, Gov. Mitt Romney will be in red-meat territory when he keynotes the Michigan Senate Republicans' $1,000-a-plate fundraiser.  For Romney, the visit has hefty political and personal overtones.  His attention to Michigan, an early primary state and a swing state, is key to a presidential run.  And on a personal level, Romney is returning home: He was born in Michigan, went to school there, and met and courted wife Ann there.  Dad George Romney was a three-term governor before he himself ran for president.

Of the two handfuls of Republicans who might run in 2008, Romney is fueling the most speculation right now, in part because his hometown press corps is simply transferring all their 2004 energy from Kerry onto him.  He carefully dodges questions about his future plans and may not announce whether he'll run for re-election until this fall.  In the meantime, his travel schedule, including trips to South Carolina and Missouri, has prompted critics and (/in) the press to suggest that he's focusing too much energy on a presidential run and not enough on his duties as governor.  Romney spokesperson Shawn Feddeman tells First Read that Romney's event today is his only out-of-state trip in the near future.  Feddeman adds that most of Romney's out-of-state travel is to DC, where he is lobbying for local issues.  The "governor is not going to apologize for advocating on behalf of the interests of Massachusetts," Feddeman says. 

Others argue that the Governor's full travel schedule is a consequence of his duties as RGA vice-chair.  But Philip Johnston of the Massachusetts Democratic Party doesn't buy it: "He's running for president and everyone knows it." 

While Romney may be focusing early on 2008, he's also running into potential problems early on, mainly involving conflicts between the tasks of governing a blue state which features prominently in some heated national debates on social issues, and of running in a GOP presidential primary in which social conservatives still hold sway.  He's taking heat in-state for his stances on stem cell research, abortion and gay marriage, in some cases being called a "flip-flopper."  But while his more conservative views don't fare well with the state's socially progressive electorate, his positions on stem cells and gay marriage would help him on the national front, notes Johnston. 

Romney's faith is also part of his delicate balancing act.  John Green of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron says Romney's nuanced positions on social issues like gay marriage and abortion may not sit well with fellow Mormons, who might think he is compromising on key values.  At the same time, Green says, many within the church may opt to support Romney because he's one of them.  Overall, though, Green argues that Romney's religion probably won't be as big an issue as some might think.  "His record in Massachusetts and the proposals he puts forward will be more important." 

The Boston Globe notes that Romney's trip today will be overshadowed by a conservative group calling Romney's views on abortion and same-sex marriage no different from Kennedy and Kerry's.

Meanwhile, Romney is taking some heat for heading to Michigan today while a problem brews with Boston's Big Dig project, says the Boston Herald.

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