“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 17, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Someone please show the sportswriters where the Speaker's Lobby is.

  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

On the Hill today: Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro, for the steroids hearing.

The President, for the St. Patrick's Day luncheon.

The Judiciary panel vote on US circuit court nominee William Myers, who is expected to clear the committee and trigger the nuclear option when the full Senate takes up his nomination in April.

Reverberations of the Senate ANWR vote, while not the final verdict, as the latest measure of the beefed-up GOP majority and the latest score for Bush's pro-business agenda.

And, the dramatic late push to stop doctors from removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tube at tomorrow, after a Florida courted granted Schiavo's husband the right to remove it.  NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that GOP leaders are looking for a way to quickly pass a measure sponsored by Florida Republicans Mel Martinez and Dave Weldon that is narrowly tailored to address the Schiavo situation.  The House last night passed a version which would move the case to a federal court.

But, NBC's Ken Strickland reports, the House bill is different from what Senator Martinez wants, so we'll see what happens in that chamber today.  Per Strickland, Martinez says he's optimistic that Congress will get this done, and also says that about a dozen Senate Democrats are looking favorably upon the proposal, including Lieberman and Harkin.  Staffers for Majority Leader, oh-eighter, and Dr. Bill Frist also tell Strickland that this must get done -- a life is at stake.  Asked yesterday about getting the measure to the floor today or tomorrow, Frist said he is "hopeful," Strickland reports.  The Florida legislature is also expected to vote today in an effort to block the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube.

The Senate meets at 9:00 am; the House meets at 2:00 pm.

With votes looming, Democrats are taking after Bush on what's (not) in the budget.  Kerry gives a speech sponsored by the Center for National Policy at the Hyatt on Capitol Hill at 9:30 am.  A Kerry aide says with flourish that Kerry will "take on Washington because Washington (under one-party control) isn't working for Americans," and that Kerry will "contrast this dishonest, irresponsible, opportunity-destroying budget with his Senate agenda."  And he might break some new ground on the risks of foreign debt.  More Democratic swipes are below.

President Bush has added Social Security events to his schedule for Monday in Tucson and Denver and for Tuesday in Albuquerque -- not Republican areas.  That said, press coverage of the President's news conference yesterday and of Hill Republicans' expected efforts on Social Security during the recess show a President who isn't putting forth a plan and GOP lawmakers who are a bit nervous about getting out there after what happened on the last go-round.

Lastly, the President also announces his US trade rep at the White House at 9:30 am.  And a note: During his first term, Bush didn't do enough news conferences, per the press corps.  Since November, he has done five, and this one has gotten the least coverage yet.

There's no crying in baseball
Jose Canseco, interviewed by The Hill while working out yesterday, told the paper he is "frustrated with the politics of Capitol Hill and the legal setbacks he had just been dealt" after the House Government Reform Committee "rejected Canseco’s request for immunity and told him that he could not invoke his right against self-incrimination on every question asked."

Because the House committee refused to grant Canseco immunity, his lawyer said he won’t be able to answer any questions that incriminate him, per the AP.

Roll Call covers lobbyists on both sides "working together in meetings and conference calls, trying to shield both the league and players from the potential public relations and legal nightmare of having to answer too many questions under oath about allegations of widespread steroid use by the game’s biggest stars."

The Wall Street Journal says that "while the House panel is certain to scold the witnesses and prod the sport to investigate its recent past, the likelihood of legislative action growing from these hearings is slim."

Social Security
The Chicago Tribune covers Bush as stepping back from his Social Security proposal in his news conference yesterday: “‘I have not laid out a plan yet, intentionally,’ said Bush, acknowledging that members of Congress want him to advance a plan.  ‘I'm sure they do.  The first bill on the hill always is dead on arrival.  I'm interested in coming up with a permanent solution.'"

But, as the Wall Street Journal points out, "there is no legislative movement evident in Congress nearly two months after he proposed it."  The Journal also covers Bush's new support for progressive indexing, a/k/a means testing, as first reported by NBC's David Gregory.

The Washington Post's Milbank covers the "brown 1935 Ford three-window Coupe" rolled out by House Republicans yesterday to illustrate Social Security's need for a fix -- and also covers the car's protective owner arguing that his wheels are "in very good shape for a 1935.'"  Therein lies the metaphor for the whole debate, Milbank says.

The Hill has "top Republican strategists" saying "President Bush and the GOP-led Congress must redirect the debate by stressing that their plan includes a crucial safety-net protection."

With the two-week recess and lots more Social Security town halls coming up, USA Today reports that "GOP leaders are urging lawmakers to hold lower-profile events this time" to avoid the loud protests that got a lot of play during the last recess.  "Republican leaders" are also "urging their party's lawmakers to take the spotlight off themselves by convening panels of experts from the Social Security Administration, conservative think tanks, local colleges and like-minded interest groups to answer questions about the federal retirement program."

Roll Call previews Social Security activity on both sides during the congressional recess.

The Orlando Sentinel and the Pensacola News Journal preview Bush's visits there tomorrow.

The Florida chapter of Americans United... will hold a press conference in Pensacola at 12 noon today in advance of the President's visit there tomorrow.  The group will call on GOP Rep. Jeff Miller "to sign a pledge promising to protect Social Security and to denounce the President’s scheme to privatize Social Security...  The Pledge states that Congress should only consider changes that strengthen the system’s finances."  And the group also holds a 3:00 pm presser in Orlando, where it will do the same thing to GOP Rep. Ric Keller.

In a conference call yesterday hosted by Americans United..., Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D) of Ohio countered the White House claims that private accounts would benefit African-Americans.  If Republicans believe that Social Security currently cheats African-Americans from benefits because they don't live as long as other racial groups, she said, "why not focus on improving health care so African Americans live longer?"

The budget and the Bush agenda
The Washington Times covers Senate Democrats' failure, even when joined by five Republicans, "to make it harder for Mr. Bush to win extension of his tax cuts.  On a 50-50 vote, they failed to change budget rules that require only a simple majority to pass tax cuts beyond what's called for in the budget.  Increases in spending beyond what the budget specifies require 60 votes to pass."

Blue Dog Democrat Jim Cooper has a Roll Call op-ed calling Bush "MIA" on the budget, arguing that "[m]ost Americans can name the president’s top four policy priorities: tax cuts, war in Iraq, Social Security reform and Medicare drug legislation," but "[w]hat Americans don’t know is that these were either omitted from, or low-balled in, the president’s own budget and in his $82 billion supplemental request.  It’s as if Bush had budgeted for someone else’s presidency."

Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, previously not heard from since he dropped out of the DNC chair race, yesterday released a memo to Democratic leaders asking them to maintain their opposition to the Administration's fiscal policies.  "It is the Democratic Party’s obligation to the American people to block proposals that will ultimately weaken the nation.  The President’s Social Security plan is one of those.  The current Republican budget plan is one of those.  We can and must say no.  They are unacceptable, and further demonstrate the Republicans’ remarkable and reckless lack of understanding of modern global capitalism."

"And what should Democrats be for?" the memo continued.  "We should support proposals that will restore the fiscal and economic integrity of the nation, limit the tax burden of the middle class, fix the health care crisis, invest in the basic factors that drive long-term growth, and ensure that globalization works for average people and not just for large corporations and those with capital."

USA Today gives big play to the fiscal problems facing Medicare, lost in the Social Security shuffle.  "The national health program for Americans 65 and older faces all the demographic difficulties that have made Social Security the president's No. 1 domestic priority."  But while "Social Security's fiscal problems escalate in about 2018, when it is projected to begin paying out more in benefits than it receives in taxes; Medicare reached that milestone last year."  The story notes that "[n]o one in Congress is willing to take" on the "politically perilous" steps to fix the system.

The Wall Street Journal on the budgetarily protected ANWR vote: "Seven new Republican freshmen supported keeping the drilling initiative in the budget, spelling the difference between yesterday's outcome and the defeat of a similar proposal two years ago.  Looking beyond Alaska, oil companies hope the vote signals a greater willingness by Congress to open more government acreage to exploration, such as areas off the Florida and California coasts, and in the Rocky Mountains."

NBC's Strickland reports that busy Senator Martinez made the political “play of the day” yesterday and helped Senate Republicans secure the ANWR deal.  Just short of calling it a quid pro quo, in exchange for Martinez's support for ANWR drilling, the Administration promised to extend a moratorium on offshore drilling off Florida's coast by an additional five years.  A nice score for the freshman Martinez to tout at home.

Among the three Senate Democrats who voted with Republicans in the 51-49 vote were Hawaii's two, Daniels Akaka and Inouye.  Why would Hawaii Democrats be interested in drilling in Alaska?  In a floor speech, Akaka put it down to his support of Alaska's natives: "To me, ANWR is really about whether or not the indigenous people who are directly impacted have a voice about the use of their lands…  For me, this is an issue about economic self-determination."  Inouye's office wouldn't return our call, but a Democratic aide tells First Read that Inouye joined with the Republicans due to his friendship with fellow Senate Approps member Ted Stevens of Alaska (R), who desperately wants ANWR drilling to occur.  (Sen. Mary Landrieu from oil-rich Louisiana was the other Democrat who voted with the Republicans.)

The House: Delay
The Senate Finance Committee yesterday started its investigation "into allegations that lobbyist Jack Abramoff used nonprofit organizations to pay for a variety of improper activities, including" overseas travel for Tom DeLay, reports the Washington Post.

The bulk of the New York Times coverage of Bush's news conference focuses on Bush’s stated confidence in DeLay.    “The support for Mr. DeLay … is crucial for his political survival as House Republicans nervously watch how he handles the scrutiny of his legal troubles. Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, was deposed as majority leader after Mr. Bush criticized him for racially charged comments that Mr. Lott made in 2002.”

As Democrats on the Hill continue their efforts to make DeLay the face of an unethical, institutionalized GOP, Roll Call reports that new House ethics chair Doc Hastings "announced Wednesday that his panel will seek to create an 'ethical culture' in the chamber through increased education and outreach for both Members and staff."

Meanwhile, the paper also says that earlier this week, "Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) pledged 'to go after every ethically challenged Republican out there.'"  And the Democratic campaign committees "are digging into their archives for photos of Republican officeholders and candidates with DeLay, as well as compiling lists of candidates who received help either directly from the Majority Leader or from his leadership PAC."  The story has a "high-level Republican strategist" saying "the Democrats’ case remains incomplete."

The Hill says the DCCC is looking "for squeaky-clean congressional candidates - even if they’re long shots - to challenge prominent GOP incumbents who have been tainted by news reports of their allegedly unseemly connection to lobbyists."  Their first target: Bob Ney, tainted by the Abramoff scandal.

DeLay hosts a big fundraiser for GOP House candidates tonight.  – The Hill

"Caulifornia"
Noting that Governor Schwarzenegger "has spent nearly three months out of the state since being inaugurated," the Los Angeles Times reports that a GOP state senator is pushing a bill to allow Schwarzenegger to retain the ability to govern even when out of state.

The San Francisco Chronicle says that in the 10 weeks since Schwarzenegger threatened to bypass the legislature and take his agenda straight to the people, he has spent just 18 full days -- and seven partial days -- in Sacramento.  “‘He seems to have made a decision this year to go over the heads of the Legislature right from the start,' said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.

Schwarzenegger headlines a signature-gathering event, takes a tour and talks about his ballot initiatives at a local business in Burbank at 2:00 pm ET.

Oh-eight and the values debate
Senator Clinton and Minority Leader Reid, who is pro-life, team up today to announce a bill touted by NARAL as a series of proposals to encourage prevention of unwanted pregnancies as a means of curbing abortions.

Oh-eighter and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist "yesterday vowed to pass legislation this year to protect the Boy Scouts of America from attacks by liberal groups challenging federal support for the Scouts because the organization administers a religious oath," the Washington Times reports.  The bill "is a direct response" to an ongoing ACLU lawsuit "that says federal support of the group... violates the Constitution's provision mandating separation of church and state."

Covering Gov. Mitt Romney's keynote at a Michigan fundraiser last night, the Boston Globe noticed the Governor changing his tone on gay marriage, "adding language to his stump speech about the need to respect modern families that come in many forms."  The language seemed aimed "at conservative Republicans who vote in GOP presidential primaries."

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