“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 31, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
With his slide in the polls attributed around Washington to a lack of support for his domestic policies, President Bush again turns his focus to national security -- even bad news about national security, in the form of a highly critical assessment of US intelligence leading up to the Iraq war.  Given how quiet Democrats have been about Iraq since the January 30 election, we wonder whether any of them will take advantage of this opening.  (Like, where oh where is Howard Dean?)  Bush has a 9:15 am meeting with the WMD intel commission, then gives a statement at 11:40 am.  After he speaks, the panel co-chairs will hold a press conference.

  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

Tomorrow will mark two weeks since Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed; last night marked two weeks since the House first passed a bill in the congressional effort to get the tube replaced.  Also last night, the US Supreme Court rejected what the Schindlers' attorney says was their final legal effort to have the tube replaced.  Much attention has been paid to the 11th Circuit's majority opinion yesterday, written by an appointee of Bush 41, who asserts in a rare countercharge from the much-criticized court system that the White House and Congress "have acted in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers' blueprint for the governance of a free people - our Constitution."

Following the "free people" thread, after a long hearing last night that featured a lot of heated rhetoric over civil liberties, the Portland, OR city council temporarily postponed action on a resolution that would have threatened to pull the city out of its local/state/federal anti-terrorism joint task force, NBC's George Lewis reports.  Nationwide, there are about 100 such task forces, and Portland is the first city to get serious about withdrawing.  Mayor Tom Potter wants the same access to the task force's classified dealings that the local police receives.  Lewis reports that the feds are saying there's room to deal.  Lewis also notes that a long parade of witnesses showed up to denounce the FBI, the Bush Administration and the Patriot Act.  One witness said, "I'm proud to live in the bluest city in the bluest state on the left coast."

And following the moral values thread, the Massachusetts House today is expected to pass the embryonic stem cell research funding bill, which includes therapeutic cloning, and which passed the Senate yesterday.  Governor Romney (R) opposes therapeutic cloning and is expected to veto the bill.  Unclear whether backers have the votes to override.  Remember that Congress is expected to consider easing Bush's federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research at some point this year.

On Social Security, the White House is once again facing a deadline -- this time self-imposed, but now being reinforced by the media, as more and more coverage is given to the fact that Bush is midway through his 60-day effort.

Tom DeLay is dismissing his liberal interest group critics as "nothing but a bunch of leftists" and is challenging them to "bring it on" if they think they can take him down, reports NBC's Mike Viqueira.  Local reporters caught up with DeLay in Houston yesterday, and an audiotape made the rounds in the Capitol.  DeLay also says that any suggestion of similarities between his late father's situation and Schiavo's "is sick."

As the Democratic Party hits Republicans on all nearly cylinders, but without a cohesive message or a messenger, we do wonder, as we suggest above: Where is DNC chairman Dean?  He appears to have been banished from Washington, albeit of his own accord.  On MSNBC's Hardball on Tuesday, guest host David Gregory asked Rick Santorum if he's worried about Dean.  Santorum (who has plenty to worry about): "Ah, well I think the Democrats should worry more about Howard Dean than me."

Meanwhile, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman holds a previously postponed (due to snow) town hall with students at largely African-American Howard University tonight at 7:00 pm.  The theme of the event is “Empowering A New Generation.”

Schiavo politics
After noticing that Kerry had not commented on the Schiavo case, "in contrast to that of fellow Bay Stater U.S. Rep. Barney Frank who helped lead the Democratic response to the conservative-dominated coalition seeking to keep Schiavo alive," the Boston Herald checked with Kerry's office.  Senior adviser David Wade responded: "This is a terribly difficult personal tragedy for this family to experience, and elected officials and journalists should respect their privacy and stop treating it like a political circus... "  (Which might be just what Kerry watchers, who are familiar with Kerry's awkwardness at reconciling his positions on life and death issues with his Catholic faith, would expect the office to say.)  - Boston Herald

Social Security
The Washington Times on Bush's trip to Iowa yesterday: "Bush yesterday pledged to 'keep pounding the issue' of Social Security reform in the face of Democrats in Congress who are determined to stop him and Republicans who want to scale back his plan."

The New York Times: “27 days after opening a highly publicized campaign to sell the public on the idea of creating individual retirement accounts, Mr. Bush offered little evidence that he was moving the question ahead or making progress moving legislation forward.  He has not offered a detailed plan.  Almost every Democrat in Congress has rejected the idea of" private accounts.  "And at Kirkwood Community College here, as is often the case these days, Mr. Bush was joined by only Republican members of Congress, not the bipartisan showing of support he has said he seeks.”

The Washington Post focuses in on Iowa Republicans Chuck Grassley and Jim Leach's skepticism about the prospects for private accounts.  "Undercutting the chief political argument Bush is using to prod skeptical Republicans, Grassley also said, 'It's far from an open-and-shut case that if Congress does not deal with this, there would be a price to pay' with voters.  Still, the president's initiative is far from dead, and Grassley intends to begin committee hearings in July."

The Washington Times, tailing an SSA official as he stumps around the country touting the need to fix Social Security, notes, "The idea of Social Security personal accounts - which President Bush is pushing - is being presented as one possible solution, along with several others."  Rep. Jim Ryun (R) of Kansas is quoted saying the accounts are not "'the only solution.'"

The Los Angeles Times: "In his appearances across the country, Bush is attempting to deliver two basic messages: Current retirees and those nearing retirement would not be affected by his restructuring plan, and personal accounts would help younger workers accumulate a nest egg to offset inevitable cuts in traditional Social Security benefits."

Another New York Times article notes a contradiction between the Administration’s prediction that economic growth will slow to 1.9% when the baby boomers reach retirement, and its belief that private accounts will yield a return of 6.5% or more.  “The statistical battle is politically important.  If investment returns are just one percentage point lower each year than predicted, a person would end up with 35 percent less money than she expected after 30 years of saving.”

After briefly criticizing the AFL-CIO for the pressure it's putting on corporations to withdraw from the business coalition backing private accounts, the Wall Street Journal devotes most of an editorial to "the way the AFL-CIO and its friends are now using pension funds to advance their political agenda."  The Journal says labor leaders who sit on company boards use those roles to threaten those companies and the financial services firms who serve them.

An attorney representing the three people who were removed from Bush's Social Security event in Denver held a press conference call yesterday, announcing that he's sending AG Alberto Gonzales a letter demanding to know the identity of the alleged Republican staffer -- acting as a Secret Service agent -- who turned his clients away from the event.  "If this person was acting within the scope of  his employment and instructed to remove people for this kind of thing, then this staff person and the Republican Party have violated my clients' constitutional rights," said attorney Dan Recht.  Recht noted that the Denver head of the Secret Service told him the impersonator was a GOP staffer, but wouldn't divulge this person's actual identity.

Delay
USA Today says all the various Democratic and liberal groups' efforts against DeLay are, in part, an attempt "to use him to invigorate themselves and raise money...  The tactic of using a controversial opposition figure as a lightning rod is common in politics.  Republicans often raise money by invoking the names of Democrats they see as polarizing figures, such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy."

"Conservative leaders say defending [DeLay] is a litmus test for any Republican lawmaker seeking their support," and that "the attacks against Mr. DeLay are against the broader conservative movement," says the Washington Times.

The Washington Post says DeLay's top supporters "have talked about holding a salute or tribute dinner for DeLay.  They said the proceeds would benefit a children's charity not associated with the majority leader."

More on the values debate
The Massachusetts Senate vote in overwhelming favor of state funding for embryonic stem cell research, including cloning of embryos for that purpose, "comes as several states and other countries are competing to attract and establish life sciences research centers, while trying to address ethical concerns that led the Bush administration in 2001 to restrict federal funding for studies of stem cell lines in existence at the time," says the Washington Post.

The Boston Globe: "Proponents of the bill say that Romney is muddying the issue when he says therapeutic cloning is the creation of human life."

In Maryland, where a bill passed the state house earlier this week, the state senate president says he won't allow the bill to come to the floor "unless supporters show they have enough votes to break a threatened filibuster."  - Washington Post

Bob Novak writes that Speaker Hastert has allowed moderate Republicans, led by Rep. Mike Castle (R), to get a vote on stem-cell research -- in exchange for Castle’s vote on the contentious House budget debate.  “The stem cell swap changes the climate on an issue menacing Republican solidarity.  With Hastert removing the House roadblock, legislation funding human embryos for medical research could pass both the House and Senate despite opposition from Republican leaders and the White House.  Bush almost certainly would have to cast his first veto.”

The Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, a men-only organization being formed by the Roman Catholic Church and run by a priest who has been active in rallying support for the Schindlers, will focus exclusively on "fighting euthanasia and abortion."  The group "will be housed in a vacant Catholic high school and dormitory on the grounds of the Diocese of Amarillo" in Amarillo, TX.  "The order will have a decidedly political bent, and will be active rather than contemplative...  Its priests will be trained to conduct voter-registration drives, use the media to get out their antiabortion message and lobby lawmakers to restrict abortion rights.  They also will learn to lead demonstrations outside offices where abortions and family-planning services are provided."  The regional Planned Parenthood branch "expressed concerns that the society could attract extremists who might resort to violence to further the antiabortion cause."  - Los Angeles Times

Judicial politics
MSNBC.com notes that unlike other potential Democratic White House contenders (especially Hillary Clinton), Sen. Russ Feingold sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will give him an opportunity to be in the spotlight in the upcoming battle over judicial nominations.  "Picture a weeks-long nomination battle in the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Feingold serves, broadcast live on cable news channels.  It would be a priceless platform for Feingold to offer Americans a contrast of his views on the Constitution with the nominee’s."

MSNBC.com also takes a deeper look at both the People for the American Way's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" ad and the looming Senate showdown over judicial nominations.

Bush II
The Washington Times lead, based on Gallup data: "Bush's record-low approval ratings are a result primarily of public dissatisfaction with his handling of domestic issues that loom larger than foreign policy in his second term."

A day after news broke that Mary Cheney has inked a nearly $1 million book deal, there’s more Cheney family news: Bush has nominated Cheney’s son-in-law, Philip J. Perry, as general counsel of DHS.  – New York Times

The Washington Post front-pages how Bush "is requiring Cabinet members to spend several hours a week at the White House compound, a move top aides say eases coordination with government agencies..."  One critic suggests the practice "'confirms how little the domestic Cabinet secretaries have to do with making policy'...  The new requirement coincides with a series of top personnel moves seen as increasing White House control over the government and minimizing dissent, but also, critics say, means the president does not have the benefit of the widest range of opinion."

The Wall Street Journal says employees of the federal whistleblower protection office are blowing the whistle on its chief, Bush appointee Scott Bloch, over his hiring and firing practices.  "Mr. Bloch rejects the charges and in an interview promised 'full and fair justice' for each complaint found to have merit."

"Caulifornia"
The Sacramento Bee once again mentions that many Democrats in the legislature -- whom Schwarzenegger has criticized for not working on his agenda -- are happy to note that Schwarzenegger has left the state about 106 days so far out of the nearly 500 since he took office.

The New York Times says Maria Shriver “is on her way to becoming California's most influential first lady ever…  ‘It's common knowledge that her office is the go-to place for a lot of Democrats,’ said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant in San Francisco.  And in telling her husband when his message is getting lost and bringing together polarized politicians, Ms. Shriver is writing her own script, neither Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Nancy Reagan in approach.”

The Washington Post's Broder endorses Schwarzenegger's redistricting plan.

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