“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 29, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
An 8.7 quake in tsunami-stricken territory, on top of the Easter holiday, the congressional recess, Michael Jackson, and Terri Schiavo, finally have the political press scratching in the dirt, pining for President Bush's return to the Social Security fray tomorrow and for Congress to come back with a (nuclear) bang next week.

  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

Few even preview Bush's Rose Garden remarks on freedom and democracy, scheduled for 11:10 am.

If there's a theme to be found in politics today, it is lawmakers and the courts grappling with the death penalty, and particularly the role faith plays in where to come down on the issue.  This boiled up yesterday -- and is an ongoing topic -- in the Virginia governor's race (see below); the Wall Street Journal today casts capital punishment as a possible area of common ground between the two sides of the Schiavo debate; the Colorado Supreme Court just threw out a death sentence in a rape-and-murder case because some jurors consulted the Bible and discussed verses like "an eye for an eye" during deliberations.  In addition, in California, Governor Schwarzenegger is being castigated by Episcopal bishops who are angry that he didn’t parole a convicted murderer who has been ordained as a deacon.

This isn't yet confirmed, but we may see Jesse Jackson speak outside Terri Schiavo's hospice this morning.  Check out what Jackson said about Schiavo during his radio show last Sunday: "I feel that personally she is being starved and dehydrated to death.  As a minister, I've been to many situations where people were in the last stage of their lives and they were -- they had these life support machines -- even members of my family who were in advanced states of cancer,... and then they shifted into a coma, and you could see the heart rate begin to slow down, and at that point, death had set in, and you could pull the plug...  In this case, they didn't pull the plug -- they pulled the tube...  This is cruel.  This is not about politics -- this is unethical, this is immoral.  This should never happen to anybody."

And on the GOP realignment front, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman joins Sen. Mel Martinez at an event in Orlando this morning where they'll discuss "the shared values and issues facing the Hispanic community and the Republican Party."  Mehlman also will do some radio hits.  His next minority outreach event is Thursday night at Howard University.

Schiavo politics
The Schindlers have authorized a conservative direct-mailing firm, Response Unlimited, to sell a list of their financial supporters, the New York Times reports.  “Privacy experts said the sale of the list was legal and even predictable, if ghoulish.”

Silence from the White House as protestors in DC yesterday questioned whether the federal law was "a political stunt" because Congress did not enforce the subpoena of Schiavo.  – USA Today

The Chicago Tribune examines Jeb Bush’s two-year involvement in the case, and says that his advisers warned him from the outset that he stood as much to gain as to lose from his involvement.  “But, as he made his first move in 2003 to keep Schiavo alive, Bush bluntly told a confidant: ‘This is who I am. I have to do this.’”

The Los Angeles Times neatly ties together Schiavo and Social Security as two challenges for Florida Republicans in the face of an open-seat gubernatorial race in 2006: "On both fronts, President Bush and his brother Gov. Jeb Bush are promoting positions that put fellow Republicans on the spot."

Speaking of which, that Social Security town hall with Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, and Mel Martinez which was scheduled for tomorrow in Tampa has been postponed for, well, obvious reasons.  (Though we can't figure out why Progress for America ever announced the event last week in the first place.  As if Frist needs another excuse to be charged with political motivations regarding Schiavo...)

When Congress returns, the Washington Post reports, "the staffs of Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) were planning to work on a bill that would require a federal court review when families have disputes about a patient who did not leave written instructions about end-of-life wishes.  But with polls showing heavy majorities opposed to the rare Palm Sunday intervention by Congress..., Republican congressional aides said the party does not plan to dwell on feeding-tube issues."

The values debate: capital punishment
The Wall Street Journal notes some prominent conservative lawmakers (Santorum, Brownback) rethinking their position on the death penalty in light of the GOP push for the Schiavo law, and says reducing cases of capital punishment and abortion might become an area of common ground for the two ideological sides in the Schiavo debate.  "Each party has juggled positions on such issues that the other regards as conflicting and hypocritical...  Activists on each side are essential elements of the major parties' bases.  But Republican and Democratic politicians lately have seen more incentives for striking a different tone."

A little brouhaha over faith and the death penalty boiled up yesterday in the Virginia gubernatorial race, in which, as mentioned here before, Jerry Kilgore (R) is trying to portray Tim Kaine (D) as an out-of-touch liberal who opposes the death penalty.  Kaine responds to this charge by invoking his Catholic faith -- yet still noting that he would carry out the state's death-penalty laws as governor.  In a conference call with reporters yesterday, however, Kaine blasted Kilgore for suggesting, per the Washington Examiner, that Kaine only began mentioning his Irish Catholicism when "it became politically popular."  Said an indignant Kaine: “I would never think to challenge Kilgore’s beliefs or the authenticity of his feelings."

The Kilgore camp responded by providing a transcript and audio of his Examiner interview, showing that he was misquoted.  Kilgore also told the Examiner: "I have never attacked his religion.  Ever."

Even with the corrected comments, a Kaine spokesperson said, "It is clear that Jerry Kilgore is questioning Tim Kaine’s sincerity when it comes to his religious beliefs."

In Colorado yesterday, the AP reports, the state supreme court "threw out the death penalty in a rape and murder case because jurors had studied Bible verses such as 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' during deliberations."  Jurors had sentenced a convicted rapist and murderer to die, "but defense attorneys discovered five of them had looked up Bible verses, copied them down and talked about them while deliberating a sentence behind closed doors."  There may be an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In California, Episcopal bishops are angry with Governor Schwarzenegger for not paroling a convicted murderer who has been ordained as an Episcopal deacon.  “‘Governors of California are good at executions,’ [Episcopal Bishop William] Swing told the 11 a.m. service at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral...  Although the state Board of Prison Terms approved [the] parole in October, the governor reversed the recommendation Friday, arguing that [his] release from state prison in Solano County ‘would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society at this time.’”  -- San Francisco Chronicle

Hearing oral arguments in Medellin v. Dretke yesterday, SCOTUS justices "seemed divided over how best to handle a dispute over the role of international law in U.S. death penalty cases," says the Washington Post.

Profiling an evangelical Christian family in Ohio who thinks "the president is 'a godly man' and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts is not," the Boston Globe looks at how religion plays into political choices.  "Such thinking is prompting many Democrats to rethink the party's message on religion and abortion, and how to reach out to voters for whom religion plays a critical, determining role."

Social Security
The Washington Post says Bush's private accounts proposal is "beginning to create controversy within the one group that has most forcefully embraced the idea in theory: the conservative intelligentsia."  More: "To be sure, the White House can tap a deep well of support among conservative academics."  But "others say the cracks in public support for the president's approach are only the surface manifestations of wider misgivings on the right."

The Des Moines Register previews visits to Iowa this week by both Bush and Edwards.  Bush heads to Cedar Rapids tomorrow to discuss Social Security, while Edwards plans on fundraising on Thursday and doing interviews on Friday (and, perhaps, bracketing Bush on Social Security).

Schwarzenegger now wants to eliminate two state holidays, saving the state $17.6 million annually, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.  “Employee unions believe they are being unfairly attacked with proposals that don't really solve the state's fiscal problems.”

The first debate of the Los Angeles mayoral runoff centered on character.  – Los Angeles Times

The rest
The Los Angeles Times pokes a large hole in the bankruptcy bill -- that while proponents of the overhaul say their aim is to ensure that Americans who enter bankruptcy pay the bills they can afford, "bankruptcy judges across the country warn that the measure would undermine the very section of the law under which debtors are now repaying more than $3 billion annually to their creditors."  Judges' discretion "to determine how much a debtor must pay to creditors and on what schedule... would be substantially curtailed."

The Washington Post reports that only 59 of the 435 congressional districts split their tickets in 2004.  "The steady decline in districts where voters pick different parties to represent them in the White House and Congress reflects in part the effects of the redistricting process," which is leading to fewer and fewer competitive districts.  "But the trend also underscores what political scientists and party strategists have known for several years, which is that party identification is now a powerful indicator of how someone votes in national elections."

Howard Kurtz covers a new study showing college professors "lean further to the left than even the most conspiratorial conservatives might have imagined."  The findings suggest a possible bias against conservatives in faculty hiring practices, but does not find "that personal views are having an impact on campus policies."

Cardinals who have passed their 80th birthday cannot vote in the papal conclave when a pope dies.  But in Washington, the upper echelons of the judicial and legislative branches government are filled with septuagenarians, notes the Washington Post, which says Rehnquist's illness has cast a new light "on the phenomenon of Geriatric Washington."


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