“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.

Monday, April 11, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Looming over the returning Congress and all it has on its plate -- the war supplemental and the budget; a couple of controversial Bush nominees, starting with UN ambassador pick Bolton today; energy legislation; Social Security, etc. -- is the prospect that Bill Frist will try to go nuclear, eliminating the filibuster and prompting Senate Democrats to stop work all non-essential business.  Whether or not Frist has the votes to do so remains TBD.

  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

President Bush begins a two-day focus on national security with his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon at the Crawford ranch at 10:50 am ET, with a joint press avail at 12:55 pm.  Tomorrow, he addresses US troops at Fort Hood.  His next Social Security event comes on Friday.

Placing an increasingly close second in the overshadowing department is conservative GOP lawmakers' war against the judiciary, which may soon progress from rhetoric to actual proposals being batted around.  That Capitol tour which Frist has scheduled with Christian conservative activist David Barton, who advocates the impeachment of federal judges, is scheduled for tonight.

Less obstructive to congressional business, but causing increasing debate on the House side is the DeLay brouhaha.  Rep. Chris Shays is the latest Republican to flat-out criticize DeLay, calling on him to give up his leadership post.  However, in the pantheon of voices that matter within the party, Shays isn't exactly the Wall Street Journal editorial page.  He's more like his campaign finance reform partner McCain, though without the national platform or influence, in that he is quickly becoming a favorite go-to Republican for reporters looking for a dissenting quote.  Shays' opinion isn't likely to carry a lot of weight among the ranks of conservative members whose support for DeLay is a much more accurate measure of his fate.  Along those lines, Santorum's comments yesterday that DeLay should be forthcoming about his ethics issues are more notable.

Back to all the talk of retribution against judges.  We wondered whether or not Congress actually can impeach judges over decisions it doesn't agree with.  The constitutional scholars we talked with don't think so.  Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman cites the 1804 impeachment -- and acquittal one year later -- of US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who Ackerman says was accused, with some justification, of partisanship and serious judicial mistakes.  "Just making legal mistakes is not ground for impeachment," he says.  "We've had this argument before."

Ackerman adds that this doesn't mean the debate can't take place again -- but that overturning such a precedent would be "a wrench in a 200-year tradition."  (He notes that judges who commit high crimes and misdemeanors, like corruption, can be impeached.)  Rehnquist made a similar point in a 2003 speech: "The significance of the outcome of the Chase trial cannot be overstated...  [I]t represented a judgment that impeachment should not be used to remove a judge for conduct in the exercise of his judicial duties.  The political precedent set by Chase's acquittal has governed that day to this: a judge's judicial acts may not serve as a basis for impeachment."

Neal Katyal, a law professor at Georgetown University, argues that there has to be some remedy or check for extreme judicial errors.  Nevertheless, he says, "We've had a number of what I think many would consider terrible decisions by the courts over the years, and you don't go running to the impeachment tool every time one of them comes to a decision you don't like."

House Judiciary Committee spokesman Jeff Lungren tells First Read that the committee's counsels "agree that we don't impeach for bad opinions."  He adds, however, that it would be wrong to think that the federal judiciary is completely independent or immune to congressional oversight -- noting that Congress sets judges' salaries, that it can impeach them for crimes and misdemeanors, and that it can pass laws switching jurisdiction from state courts to federal ones (as it did with its recent legislation regulating class-action lawsuits).

The Senate meets at 2:00 pm; the House is not in session.

Whither the GOP
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein says Bush may be comfortable operating with his current, relatively low job approval rating, because the White House believes the key is for the GOP base to stay motivated, but that this approach may come "at the cost of widening the country's political divisions.  Bush's electoral strategy makes him inherently less sensitive than most presidents to the concerns of voters outside his core coalition."  And, Brownstein says, this may all backfire when it comes to the nuclear option.

The Washington Times notes that Santorum yesterday said he would not support the impeachment of SCOTUS Justice Anthony M. Kennedy "for his decision in the Schiavo case," and that GOP Senator Cornyn, former Texas AG, "added that no member of Congress has suggested impeaching Justice Kennedy, but agreed that Senate oversight of the judiciary is needed."

The New York Daily News covers McCain’s comments on “Face the Nation” that the GOP effort to ban the filibuster on judicial nominations could easily extend to other legislative matters.  McCain, the Daily News reminds us, opposes the change to the filibuster.

The Washington Post points out that contrary to all the rhetoric about Democratic obstructionism when it comes to judicial nominees, the Senate is expected to confirm Paul Crotty for a US district court slot in New York later today.  "After Crotty's presumed approval today, the tally will be 205 judges confirmed since Bush was elected in 2000, with 10 not confirmed."

Congressional Democrats will hold a news conference on Wednesday to kick off their effort to "paint Republicans as an out-of-control ruling party that’s willing to flaunt its privileged status to appease the GOP base and protect itself from ethical scrutiny," Roll Call reports.  "The Democratic strategy is to knit several different issues together in an effort to present a pattern of abuses by Congressional Republicans.  Republicans... dismissed the Democratic plan, charging the minority party of engaging in partisan politics, not legislative solutions."

Stuart Rothenberg says that although Democratic efforts to make DeLay an issue during the 2004 campaign didn't work, renewed efforts might succeed this time, since the volume already seems to be higher and "it’s hard not to wonder if more bad news isn’t yet to come."  Rothenberg also points out that DeLay may have trouble winning re-election.

The Washington Post covers the Santorum and Shays comments re: DeLay -- but doesn't front-page them.

The New York Times front-pages a profile of lobbyist "Casino Jack" Abramoff, who is being investigated for corruption and is linked to DeLay and a handful of other Republicans.  “Government investigators say the Justice Department is leading a task force that is trying to determine if Mr. Abramoff and a business partner, Michael Scanlon, a former spokesman for Mr. DeLay, bilked the Indian tribes, in part by having them make extravagant gifts to members of Congress, as well as to their favorite charities and political action committees...  Mr. DeLay has said that ‘if anybody is trading on my name to get clients or to make money, that is wrong and they should stop it immediately.’"

Roll Call covers GOP Sen. Conrad Burns' Abramoff-related issues.

Bob Novak suggests that the New York Times tried to get former GOP Rep. Bob Livingston to write an op-ed about DeLay arguing that DeLay should step aside.  “Livingston in effect declined by responding that if he wrote anything for the Times, it would be pro-DeLay.  But this remarkable case of that august newspaper fishing for an op-ed piece makes it appear part of a calculated campaign to bring down the single most powerful Republican in Congress..."

Bush II
The Los Angeles Times previews the Bush-Sharon sit-down and the increasingly complicated domestic politics for both men.  For Bush, "some of the same conservative Jews and Christians who helped spur Bush's reelection last year are increasingly skeptical of what the Bush-Sharon partnership is reaping for Israel - most notably the Sharon-designed pullout of Gaza that the president has embraced.  The result is that the rapport between Bush and a group of new Republican voters could be strained..."

The Washington Post front-pages its Bolton hearings preview, and notes in a separate story that a California-based conservative group will run an ad supporting Bolton in Rhode Island in an effort to sway moderate GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee, even though Chafee already told his hometown paper that he will vote for Bolton.

The Wall Street Journal, in its look at proliferating advocacy ads on TV ("The new spots are helping define bitter political divisions and a seemingly permanent state of political campaigning"), points out the groups running ads supporting and opposing Bolton's nomination are "using the same old clips of Mr. Bolton, videotaped at a seminar 11 years ago stating, 'There is no such thing as the United Nations' and musing that if the U.N.'s New York headquarters lost '10 stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.'"

The New York Times previews John Negroponte’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, and wonders whether he envisions the role of national intelligence director as an assertive leader or a behind-the-scenes overseer.

Social Security
Roll Call reports that the White House and Hill Republicans are picking up the pace on Social Security and that by May, the President "is likely to begin the second phase of his effort, sending Congressional leaders more specific details of his vision of how to create private investment accounts..., how he would like to pay for any transition costs and how to keep the program solvent beyond 2041..."  One "Senate Republican leadership aide noted that the White House has been frank with Congressional Republican leaders in saying that Bush has planned 'no exit strategy' even if public opinion polls continue to show the president’s proposal sinking rapidly."

Although some companies and financial services firms have left the pro-private accounts coalition, largely due to threats by the AFL-CIO, the Los Angeles Times points out that business and industry trade associations are signing up, with considerable coordinating being done by the RNC.

The San Francisco Chronicle says that the Social Security overhaul hasn't been killed by the AARP, the GOP, or congressional Democrats -- but by Monica Lewinsky: “Clinton convened a White House summit to reach "historic bipartisan legislation to save Social Security for the 21st century.’  Eleven days later, the House, with Republicans in the majority, voted to impeach him...  'We were very close, in my opinion, and would have gotten it done had it not been for a momentary lapse of judgment on the part of the president,’ said Charles Stenholm, a former Democratic congressman from Texas who was deeply involved in the discussions.”

Whither the Democrats
The Boston Globe notes how a united Democratic front creating a wall of "opposition to major items on the leadership agenda has succeeded in turning Republicans against themselves."  Democrats "say their new level of party discipline is forcing Republicans to wrestle with their own divisions over judicial confirmations, foreign affairs, and taxing and spending...  Democrats acknowledge the strategy carries the risk that members will be viewed as obstructionists, focused on what they can stop instead of what they can accomplish.  Republicans hope to use Democratic opposition as a weapon in 2006 elections, and Bush still has time in his second term to guide his priorities into law."

The New York Times says Democrats’ accusation that the Republicans are “drunk with power” is a page out of Newt Gingrich’s old playbook.  “Mr. Gingrich… voiced a grudging respect for the Democrats.  ‘I think they're trying to learn how to be an effective opposition party, and they've got half of it down pretty well,’ he said.  But he asserted that the Democrats had yet to offer a positive message that goes beyond ousting the party in power.  ‘We had a set of big ideas,’ he said, alluding to the Republican agenda candidates ran on in 1994.  ‘The “Contract With America” was overwhelmingly positive.’”

The Wall Street Journal editorial page runs a former Lieberman aide's criticism of Frank Rich as epitomizing "the arrogance and narrow-mindedness that typifies the cultural thinking of" Democratic elites.  The former aide, Dan Gerstein, adds that Hillary Clinton "is making the progressive case for cultural responsibility better than anyone."

The New York Post covers Clinton’s “red-hot speech” on Saturday in Minnesota.  “After a standing ovation by 2,000 Dems who paid $100-a-head to see her speak, Clinton slammed Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress - and never contradicted her introduction. Clinton's Republican shredding - calling GOP lawmakers ‘extras in the movie “I, Robot”’ and President Bush's push for an ownership society a ‘you're-on-your-own society’ - was just what the party here wanted.”

The AP follows up on the New York Times reports on the New York GOP's "Stop Hillary Now" campaign to "thwart" her 2006 reelection bid.

The values debate
The Los Angeles Times profiles Kansas AG Phill Kline, "no ordinary attorney general.  He travels the state preaching from church pulpits, with a firebrand charisma that has earned him a reputation as the state's best orator."  The profile focuses on Kline's efforts to curb abortion and promote creationism.

Immigration
The AP reports that "advocates of cutting immigration are" once again causing a split within the Sierra Club, "arguing that the conservation group can best protect the environment by reducing population growth.  The club's 750,000 members are voting this month on whether the... organization should push for tighter restrictions on immigration and on five seats on the 15-member board of directors..."

The Washington Times reports "a significant increase in the number of foreigners crossing into the United States at Douglas... and at Nogales," located east and west of the Minuteman-patrolled stretch of the border, though overall, the project seems to have discouraged some illegal immigrants.

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