“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.

Friday, March 18, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Not only is there, indeed, crying in baseball, but an emotional Mark McGwire and the whole steroids frenzy on the Hill has obscured the dramatic last-ditch effort by some in Congress to stop the scheduled removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, which now includes subpoenas and the prospect of members returning next week from their scheduled recess.  Still missing from the coverage: whatever is driving GOP lawmakers -- with social conservatives presumably playing a part -- to favor interference in this case over favoring states' rights.

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On the House side, Hastert and DeLay announced in the wee hours that the government reform committee will issue subpoenas "which will require hospice administrators and attending physicians to preserve nutrition and hydration for Terri Schiavo to allow Congress to fully understand the procedures and practices that are currently keeping her alive.  The subpoena will be joined by a Senate investigation as well."  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that per the agreement struck in the Senate yesterday, there would be no roll call votes during recess, so anything voted on next week will be either by voice vote or unanimous consent.

This move comes after the effort to pass legislation stopping the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube not only failed, but got nasty, reports Strickland and NBC's Mike Viqueira, with some House Republicans accusing the Senate of "covering their asses" and US senators suggesting it was the fault of the House, which had left for recess by the time the Senate voted.  Some Republicans are comparing Schiavo's situation to Scott Peterson's.  More on this below. 

Meanwhile, an attorney for Schiavo's parents will ask a federal judge today to block the removal of the tube; the US Supreme Court turned down their emergency appeal yesterday.  The Florida legislature experienced similar problems to Congress' in passing a measure to block the removal, but may reach a compromise in time today. 

And the President weighed in by re-emphasizing his priority of creating "a culture of life:" "...[I]n instances like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life...  It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected -- and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities."

Another move lost amidst the steroids frenzy yesterday: Senate Majority Leader Frist plans to make Minority Leader Reid an offer on judicial nominees when they return from recess.  Democrats may interpret this as Frist not having the votes to go nuclear.  More on this below, too.

Getting the jump on Social Security recess activity, President Bush and the leading anti-private accounts group go at it in Florida.  Bush does a trio of events at a Pensacola junior college at 9:55 am, a senior center in Orlando at 1:10 pm, and a YMCA in Orlando at 2:00 pm.  In Pensacola, Americans United... gathered opponents of private accounts for a rally at the Best Buy next door to the junior college at 6:45 am.  The group stages more events around Florida later today. 

Giving more cover to GOP lawmakers holding Social Security events next week, on top of Bush's events in the Southwest, pro-private accounts Progress for America starts a $1 million ad campaign on Monday in 24 states.  The ad charges that while Bush tries to "rescue" the "hemorrhaging" Social Security program, "national Democrats have a simple plan - do nothing… but oppose President Bush."

Also today: Former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R) is expected to address the judge before he gets sentenced on a corruption charge today.  First Read looks at MoveOn's current awkward stage, below.  And today also brings the changing of the guard at the DNC as the McAuliffe Administration makes way for Dean's.  As a lot of people leave the building and head to bigger things (or to Costa Rica), the Political Unit wants to thank everyone there for all their help during the 2004 cycle.

The values debate
On the House-issued subpoenas in the Schiavo case, the AP reports, "It was not immediately known when the subpoenas would be delivered to Schiavo's hospice and doctors, or whether the Florida health care providers would recognize them.  A possible penalty for not recognizing the subpoena is to be held in contempt of Congress, a GOP leadership aide said."

The Washington Post editorial page says of the failed House-Senate legislative effort, "Both bills make a mockery of the professed conservative devotion to the sovereignty of states and the integrity of their courts.  There is no great constitutional question to litigate here."

The late effort to pass federal legislation stopping or delaying the scheduled removal of Schiavo's feeding tube today failed last night.  Although the Senate passed a bill that would address the situation, NBC's Mike Viqueira says it was not the same bill the House had passed the previous night.  A few Senate Democrats objected to the House version.  The Senate ended up voting for the proposal by Florida Senator Martinez (R), which the House had opposed.  And by the time they voted, the House had left for recess and wasn't around to vote on the Senate-passed version.

Once it became clear that Congress would be unable to pass a law allowing Schiavo's parents to seek relief in federal court, nasty statements of blame surfaced, says NBC's Ken Strickland.  House GOP leaders Hastert and Delay called it "unconscionable" that Senate Democrats would not allow House-passed legislation to move forward: "As Terri Schiavo lies helpless in Florida, one day away from the unthinkable and unforgivable, the Senate Democrats refused to join Republicans to act on her behalf."  Viqueira reports that House Republicans said, not for attribution, that after the Senate failed to pass the House bill, they decided to "cover their asses" and vote for something -- anything.  And after the Senate vote, with the House already gone, Senate Minority Leader Reid put out a hollow-sounding statement: "If the House Republicans refuse to pass our bipartisan bill, they bear responsibility for the consequences.”

Sen. Rick Santorum (R) issued a statement comparing Schiavo's situation to Scott Peterson's, noting that Peterson, "a convicted murderer, was sentenced to death, yet his constitutional rights were upheld to ensure the he received due process...  The Florida court has been trying to ultimately end the life of Terri Schiavo, who committed no crime, but is being penalized for not filing a living will."

The Los Angeles Times reports that "Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician, said that after reviewing videotapes of Schiavo, he was convinced that 'the facts upon which this case was based are inadequate.'  It was evident to him, he said, that Schiavo 'does respond' to outside stimulus.  'If we don't act, there's a good chance that a living human being would be starved to death in a matter of days,' Frist said." 

On another front in the debate over when life begins and ends, in South Dakota, Republican "Gov. Michael Rounds signed a series of antiabortion bills, including one that requires doctors to tell women that the procedure ends the lives of humans, his office announced Thursday."  - AP

Social Security
Previewing Bush's visit to Pensacola today, the Pensacola News Journal says Bush will speak for about 45 minutes on Social Security to a crowd already sold on the President's proposal.  The paper says Florida Governor Jeb Bush is also scheduled to attend the event.

Pegged to Bush’s stop in Orlando, the Orlando Sentinel notes that "even some Republicans usually loyal to Bush have been reluctant to commit to his proposal. In Florida, especially, with its large senior population, any talk of revamping Social Security could be dangerous ground for politicians."

"House Republicans brace for recess heat on Social Security," says the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire, which also notes, "Pressured by anti-Bush labor protestors, Charles Schwab Corp. hasn't endorsed White House private-accounts plan, a spokesman says."

The Washington Post notices that "outside groups working to build support for [Bush's] ideas are having to spend much of their money trying to buck up Republicans rather than converting Democrats."

USA Today covers Congress searching for the least politically painful ways to fix the program, and lists the downsides to all major options out there.

The New York Times, meanwhile, examines the private-accounts “laboratory” in Galveston, TX, where county officials in 1981 chose to opt out of Social Security and set up private accounts instead.  “Some prominent retired officials swear by the system, saying it has allowed them to retire richer than if they had stayed with Social Security… Others, mainly retirees with lower income, have found their small nest eggs eroded by inflation or gone altogether after choosing a lump-sum payment instead of monthly checks.

Social Security reform and immigration reform converged yesterday a press conference staged by a wide array of groups of varying political stripes that are pushing Congress to grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers.  Free Enterprise Fund president Stephen Moore, who supports private accounts, said implementing this kind of immigration reform would reduce Social Security's long-term deficit by nearly $1 trillion.  "That's not close to the entire gap, but it certainly helps," he said.  (After Moore said this, moderator Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum joked, "I want to thank Steve Moore for bringing up Social Security at a bipartisan forum.")

(Also at the press conference, conservative tax-cut guru Grover Norquist lashed out at Republicans like Rep. Tom Tancredo who oppose granting legal status to illegal immigrants.  Norquist said, for example, that Tancredo's views were a reason why he hasn't become governor or a U.S. senator.  "His policies are [not what it takes] when it comes to getting votes or winning support."  "The politics of reform is catching up with the common sense of reform," Norquist added.)

The budget and the Bush agenda
Speaking of trouble in reconciling Senate and House legislation, the Senate yesterday blew off the President and the House in passing "a $2.6 trillion budget erasing his plans for cutting Medicaid, community development and school aid.  The House approved its own fiscal outline relying on far deeper reductions in Medicaid and other domestic programs, setting up a battle with the Senate...  [T]op Republicans in the House of Representatives chided the other chamber for not clamping down more on spending at a time of massive federal deficits."  - AP

"With their deficit-reduction targets disappearing, Senate Republicans also nearly doubled the budget plan's tax cuts to $134 billion over five years," notes the Washington Post.

The New York Times says the Senate-House impasse over Medicaid “threatens “to prevent Congress from adopting a final budget this year.” 

The Chicago Tribune adds, “Failure to approve a joint budget resolution also could endanger the Senate's 51-49 vote Wednesday to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. If a joint resolution is not passed, legislation to authorize drilling in the Alaskan refuge could be subject to a filibuster when it comes up later this year.”

The Wall Street Journal puts it all in context: "While Mr. Bush has devoted more attention to his long-term Social Security agenda, big government deficits are a greater immediate political danger and, this year, a rare window.  The party is now at its strongest politically, coming off the November elections.  Second, this budget cycle could be the last when Republicans can focus on spending almost exclusively, without a huge fight on tax cuts."

The Senate: DefCon 2
Cue the computer voice from the ‘80s movie War Games: “Shall We Play a Game?”

By a 10-8 party-line vote yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of William G. Myers III to serve on the 9th Circuit, the New York Times reports.  That approval sets off the possibly that Democrats will filibuster Myers in a full Senate vote, and then Republicans might deploy the “nuclear option” by changing the rules for filibusters. 

However, Bill Frist said that after the Easter recess, he'll make an offer to Senate Democrats that he hopes will stave off his need to use the nuclear option, NBC's Strickland reports.  In a letter responding to Harry Reid's pledge to virtually shut down the Senate if Frist kills Democrats ability to block judges, Frist wrote to Reid, "I will offer a proposal that takes account of complaints both parties have had with the confirmation process."  Frist's and Reid's offices refuse to elaborate on what that offer might be, but the letter asked for Reid's assistance in securing an agreement and "restore fairness to a process gone awry."

Reid later released a statement saying he welcomes First's "pledge to me that he will not pursue the nuclear option if there are ‘reasonable alternatives.’"  He also asked that the Senate be allowed to vote on "non-controversial nominees" until a deal can be reached.

The Washington Post reports that Senate GOP claims that filibusters of judicial nominees are unprecedented don't hold water.

Whither the Democrats
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein covers Kerry's "rapid reemergence as a leading critic of Bush after the presidential contest," comparing him to the MIA Gore in early 2001.

Earlier this week, at a rally of enthusiastic partisans, eight Senate Democrats "promised" MoveOn they'll fight President Bush's efforts to appoint "extremist" judges to the bench, the group declared in a post-rally press release.  Procedural sage Robert Byrd excoriated the nuclear option in remarks.  Senators Kennedy and Clinton hovered nearby.  It was your standard Washington shotgun wedding between lawmakers looking for a ready-made audience, and that audience using lawmakers to reiterate their own importance.  In that back-scratching respect, MoveOn has arrived.

As at some shotgun weddings, however, some participants sought a little distance.  Byrd spokesperson Tom Gavin told First Read before the event that although MoveOn was hosting it, they are just a small part of a big Democratic coalition 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.  An aide to another senator who was present says his senator attended because Byrd asked -- that it wasn't about MoveOn, but because this senator felt strongly about the issue.

MoveOn, which is also playing in the Social Security fight, has existed as an issue-driven organization since its founding 1998 to urge Congress to "move on" from the Clinton impeachment.  It came to fame during the 2004 campaign, thanks to the convergence of the anti-war movement, the Internet, and Howard Dean.  The fame was unexpected and the group's efforts to capitalize on it were sometimes problematic, including an ad contest that got them into trouble over entries comparing Bush to Hitler.  It emerged from the campaign with a largely self-inflicted, extreme-liberal label, and critics among Democrats in Washington.  Also, after benefiting from association with Dean and his campaign, then Kerry’s, it's back to being self-propelled.

Longtime consultants on both sides knock the group.  “These guys might mature with age, but to this point they’re a real drag on the party.  They brightline every single conceivable negative stereotype of the left," offers one senior Democratic strategist, who suggests that they need to "break out of their own echo chamber and talk to swing voters instead of just their own donors and bloggers."  Republican strategist Mike Murphy suggests the group "should be on the RNC payroll" for all they do for the Democratic Party.  MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser rejects the characterization, saying that his members are "mostly not ideological people, not that dogmatic," and that a lot of them "politically identify as independents and disgruntled Republicans."

MoveOn's awkward stage puts Democrats' own issues in greater emphasis.  The group is one uncontrollable element of a party that isn't sure where to go, and thus MoveOn is especially unwelcome to many in the tight circle of lawmakers and strategists who are trying to figure it out.  Valued by this circle for its fundraising prowess and the megaphone it gives the online masses, but already characterized as liberal, it doesn't offer the party an acceptable ideological path to take.  It's also the only contingent within the party that seems to be growing -- with 250,000 new members since November, per a MoveOn spokesperson -- but some view the group as being in decline.  In Washington, which views the world in terms of winners and losers, Move On "lost" with Dean and then again with Kerry (as did, of course, the entire Democratic Establishment). 

These same circles are also skeptical of new approaches.  To them, MoveOn's fundraising was a plus, but their trying their hand at turnout was not.  Pariser claims Democrats' concerns are more because "the vote is being rocked by these new people coming into politics."  He adds, “There's certainly interest in the Democratic Establishment to keep controlling what has been a very insider-driven, tightly controlled party," he adds.

But is the vote really being rocked?  Pariser touts MoveOn's "extensive field campaign" in 2004, which he says included 1,000 precinct captains and over 70,000 volunteers in battleground states on Election Day, focusing on "voters who were unlikely to vote but would vote for Kerry."  He says they exceeded their turnout goal of 440,000 by at least 30,000 voters -- perhaps more -- based on how many voters checked in with MoveOn after going to the polls.  Democratic field operatives who worked key states challenge the group's claims that it boosted turnout.  "My quibble would be with the fact that 'they' turned them out," one says.  "They did raise money, but I don't believe online communities are turnout tools," says another.

So, how does MoveOn move on?  Internet-driven organizations seem to need intensity and opposition to drive them, but their association with Democrats fuels GOP charges that Democrats are "the party of no."  The group is opposing private accounts, but Social Security may not appeal to their demographic.  The 2008 presidential campaign will rev up very soon, producing a diffuse field of candidates who may make it tough for MoveOn to isolate and generate interest in a handful of issues.  And if they want to work with now-DNC chairman Dean, they may have to stand in line.


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