“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, April 12, 2005 | 9:250a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Having sent United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad unannounced, President Bush for the second day in a row clutches his good-luck charms of national security and burgeoning democracy in Iraq, delivering a speech on the WOT (war on terror) at Fort Hood at 11:20 am ET, meeting with the families of 30 fallen soldiers, and having lunch with US troops at 12:30 pm ET.  Beyond taxes, his Administration has said little in recent months about the economy in general, including the relative good news of a decrease in the unemployment rate from 5.4% in February to 5.2% in March.

  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

You know that empty feeling you've had for the past few days?  It's because you're missing all the traditional bells, whistles and rhetoric of Tax Week in Washington.  Neither the President nor his party nor the out party are talking taxes, tax cuts, or even the economy right now, due to bad news (R), no apparent message (D), and a bit of a walking/chewing gum problem for both sides, with the President's economic team tied up in selling Social Security and the Democrats engrossed in opposing it.  (Is it naive to suggest that if people felt better about the economy and the stock market, they might feel better about private accounts?)

For Bush and his party, news about rising gas prices and rising drug prices, on top of the deficit, the shaky state of the budget negotiations, and indeed, the real prospect that the GOP-run Congress once again might not pass a budget all make it hard to talk about making the 2001 tax cuts permanent, or any other tax-related or economic measures.  Per NBC's Mike Viqueira, House Republicans have just one Tax Week event planned, timed to their taking up an extension of the estate tax rollback tomorrow.  (It involves a fake farm scene.  Use of actual animals is TBD.)  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that there's nothing planned on the Senate side beyond staff work on the estate tax.  Like other first-round Bush tax cuts, this one is due to expire unless the Senate also passes an extension.

As for Democrats, they're busy honing their anti-nuclear/DeLay, "arrogant majority" argument and continuing their laser-like focus on Social Security and the whole judges ball of wax.  But you might think that Tax Week would provide them with an opportunity to come out in favor of something to help the seemingly forgotten middle class...?

On the DeLay saga, there's still no groundswell of intra-GOP criticism in sight, says NBC's Viqueira.  But a potential turning point will come tomorrow when the House Ethics Committee meets to try to work through its current procedural deadlock.  Remember that House Democrats have refused to go along with some committee rule changes that Republicans forced through in the aftermath of the DeLay "admonishments" by the committee earlier this year.  As it stands now, the House is basically operating without an ethics panel.  The panel is also the logical origin of any potentially serious problems for DeLay, because if it ever does manage to organize, it would almost certainly be presented with a complaint against DeLay's alleged lobbyist-sponsored travel.  Viq suggests that an operational ethics panel could be a linchpin for greater damage to DeLay.

And on judges, NBC's Strickland notes that the Senate confirmed its first judge of the session yesterday, albeit a non-controversial district court nominee, Paul Crotty.  And in a letter to President Bush, Senate Democrats are offering to help fill more judicial vacancies -- with some "consultation and advice."  Democrats say the President has only sent them one new judicial nomination this year, leaving 46 slots vacant and 28 without even nominees, Strick reports.  Other nominees were re-nominated from last year.  In the letter, Democrats Reid and Leahy offer to help Bush "select nominees who will generate strong, bipartisan support... with qualified, consensus nominees.  It is now imperative that we do so." 

The pair also invokes the specter of the increasingly autocratic Russian President Putin by reminding Bush of his comments during his Putin meeting -- that checks and balances and an independent judiciary are fundamental for democracy.  "We therefore urge you to make clear to Senate Republican leaders that you do not favor the so-called 'nuclear option.'"

The Senate meets at 9:45 am; the House first meets at 12:30 pm.

Whither the GOP
On the prospect of a GOP move to eliminate the filibuster, the Wall Street Journal reports that Frist doesn't have the votes to dump it because of ideological and attitudinal clashes between Republican old bulls and eager newbies. 

On DeLay, USA Today says he has come "under such intense attack that the White House issued a statement of support Monday," but that the lack of public criticism from fellow Republicans so far signals "good news" for him.  "But conservatives are worried enough that they're mounting an organized defense against what they say is an orchestrated campaign by Democrats and a liberal media." 

The AP writes up documents uncovered showing that DeLay's PAC attempted to pair companies with legislative items in an effort to solicit donations.  DeLay made "calls to round up some of the bigger donations, and referred to the delivery of at least two checks they collected directly to the House majority leader." 

USA Today's DeWayne Wickham invokes a comparison that has gotten surprising little play these days: differences between House Republicans in the "Contract with America" days and House Republicans now. 

Roll Call reports that "there is little sign of any movement that could allow the" Ethics Committee "to carry out its official duties."

The Washington Post, pegged not only to DeLay but also to Sandy Berger, front-pages how "hunkering down" in the face of scandal "can sometimes work just fine...  DeLay, who is facing questions about his connections to lobbyists, has taken a middle course.  His aides have responded to questions from reporters examining public records.  At the same time, he has gone on the offensive." 

The Hill reports that GOP Rep. Rob Simmons "issued a statement yesterday insulating himself from the ethics attacks against [DeLay] while simultaneously distancing himself from statements made by fellow Connecticut Republican Rep. Christopher Shays...  'I voted against Tom DeLay on changes to the House rules,' Simmons said in a release put out by his office...  The statement was released in response to Shays’s comments." 

USA Today takes its long look at the Coushatta/Abramoff saga. 

And the Washington Times profiles the head of the Heritage Foundation and the foundation's 25-year-old groundbreaking success. 

Bush II
The AP previews Bush's stop at Fort Hood today.  Bush last visited the base on Easter Sunday and was supposed to give the speech on Friday, but it was postponed because of the Pope's funeral.

The Washington Post says that yesterday on the Hill, UN ambassador pick "Bolton spent much of the day defending his own controversial statements...  Although Democrats complained that his answers were often evasive, Bolton appeared to survive the hearing with minor damage." 

The Post's Dana Milbank says most Foreign Relations "Republicans skipped the hearing, leaving Democrats largely unchallenged as they assailed Bolton's knack for making enemies and disparaging the very organization he would serve." 

The star witness against Bolton -- Carl W. Ford Jr., a former State Department official who clashed with Mr. Bolton in 2002 on Cuba -- is set to testify today.  – New York Times

The Hill covers moderate GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee's Bolton issue, noting that "Chafee has said he will probably vote for Bolton unless something in the hearings convinces him otherwise." 

Social Security
The Washington Times reports on new NAACP efforts to "tell the black community that President Bush's proposed private accounts would threaten a system they need," including a series of events around the country. 

The AP covers NAACP charges that the Administration is “‘playing the race card’” in promoting its Social Security overhaul plan.  “‘Don't use the fact that African-Americans have a lower life expectancy as an excuse for privatization,’ said Representative Elijah E. Cummings... a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.”  White House spokesman Trent Duffy: “‘The fact is that the current system penalizes some workers who don't reach retirement age, which is one of the many loopholes that can be fixed by bringing Social Security into the 21st century.’”

In response, the RNC also issued a release laying out how Bush's plan would benefit African-Americans.

Immigration
Efforts to add immigration measures to the war supplemental are bogging it down in the Senate, Roll Call reports, and any measures that do get added are likely to differ from what's in the House version, which includes tougher restrictions on drivers' licenses, potentially setting up an immigration debate among GOP lawmakers.

The values debate
The Wall Street Journal reports on a growing front in the biotech-vs.-faith debate: "some large companies in the U.S. are pursuing plans to study" embryonic stem cells.  "Big companies so far have been notably absent from the heated public debate...  But the recent moves show how the scientific -- and commercial -- appeal of embryonic stem-cell research is luring some companies into at least exploratory work."  That said: "For big, publicly traded companies, the decision whether or not to enter stem-cell research has prompted extraordinary internal deliberations, including by corporate boards and in town-hall-style meetings." 

Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing a bill "that would allow certain Massachusetts pharmacists to dispense the morning-after pill without a prescription and require hospitals to offer it to rape victims, setting up a debate... that could present problems for Governor Mitt Romney as he weighs a presidential bid...  The Legislature's Joint Public Health Committee will hold a hearing on the bill tomorrow and may vote as soon as May 4 to send it to the floor..."  - Boston Globe

With yesterday's Bush-Sharon summit still in the news, a new National Jewish Democratic Council survey being released today shows that in 2004, "President Bush made inroads with those" Jewish voters "who attend religious services most often."  Overall, the gains Bush has made among Jewish voters over the past two presidential elections have been marginal, the Los Angeles Times says, but the survey result "mimics a powerful trend among Catholics and Protestants.  Frequency of church attendance has become one of the strongest predictors of voting behavior."

Whither the Democrats
Senate Clinton said in a meeting with New York Daily News editors and reporters that Democrats must do a better job on national security issues or risk another four years of GOP rule.  “Without directly criticizing" Kerry, "Clinton argued that more Americans agree with Democratic values than with what she called the GOP's ‘extremist agenda.’  ‘If you can't persuade a majority of people that you're going to be strong and tough where we need to protect America and our [national] interests, you can't cross the [electoral] threshold,’ she added.” 

While the Senator was talking tough on national security, her husband was getting play for coming to her defense in blasting GOP strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who plans to finance a Swiftee-like ad campaign against the Senator.  The former president referenced an earlier report "that Mr. Finkelstein had married his male partner in a civil ceremony..., then he alluded to the Republican Party's use of the same-sex marriage issue to mobilize conservative voters...  'Either this guy believes his party is not serious and he's totally Machiavellian,’ Mr. Clinton said, or ‘he may be blinded by self-loathing'...  The spectacle of the former president coming to the defense of his wife, a tough politician in her own right, generated considerable buzz in political circles..."  - New York Times

The lead sentence from the New York Daily News: “Former President Bill Clinton wasn't about to let just anybody attack his wife - especially a gay Republican operative.”  The headline in the New York Post: “Bill ‘Sad’ Over Gay Big’s Hill Attack.” 

The Boston Globe's Canellos looks at the relationship between 42 and 43 while delving into the psyche of Clinton's need to be accepted.  Canellos says that "Clinton's friendship with the Bushes connects with all their personal and political desires...  Now, as tends to happen in politics, the personal friendship is paying political dividends for all parties."  Canellos also notes Clinton's defense of the speed of Bush's reaction to the tsunami and his boosting of Bush's reputation among European allies.

Roll Call reports that Kerry will meet with House Democrats tomorrow, "his first session with the Caucus since he lost his bid for the White House last fall...  One leadership aide noted that Kerry’s visit is timely, given the Democrats’ newly launched offensive against the GOP for going too far in the way it runs Congress." 

The UK elections
Yesterday, Conservative leader Michael Howard unveiled his party's ultra-domestic manifesto "to clean up hospitals, put more police on the streets, start to lower taxes, improve school discipline, control immigration, and improve government accountability...  But the Conservative leader is also trying to capitalise on the Prime Minister’s personal lack of popularity..." - Times Online

At the same time, Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown "unveiled Labour’s economic and education pledges... and launched a pre-emptive strike on the Conservative manifesto."  Brown claimed "that its first Budget would begin to undo everything Labour had achieved since 1997."  He and Blair announced six economic pledges. – Times Online

"Labour plans to win back voters disaffected by the Iraq war with a manifesto pledge for international action on HIV/Aids treatment, a treaty to control the arms trade and a timetable for phasing out export subsidies to the west's farmers." Party "officials admit that Iraq 'comes up regularly' on the doorstep," but they also "believe that there is a 'huge constituency' concerned about international development."  - The Guardian

With immigration control being a main Tory plank, Britain's race relations chief is warning "political leaders that they risk inflaming ugly tensions in the general election."  The head of race relations is a Labour supporter but "says that his comments are not party political."  - Times Online

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