“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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005 | 9:29 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
House Leader Tom DeLay, R-TX, has his regular pen-and-pad meeting with the media today at 1:55 pm, but more importantly in the DeLay saga, the House Ethics Committee meets today to attempt to start work.  The panel has been deadlocked due to Democrats' refusal to let the committee organize unless Republicans repeal earlier rules changes that were made to keep further possible heat off the thrice-admonished DeLay.  The panel's prospects for organizing today don't look so good. 

  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

NBC’s Mike Viqueira also reports that per a senior GOP House member, the GOP conference has not reached "a tipping point" that would signal a dramatic shift in support for DeLay.  This member says that when a leader is attacked, members first tend to get "sensitive and defensive," feel as though they are all being disparaged, and rush to support their attacked colleague.  But a survival instinct can also kick in, the member says, and if colleagues start to feel as though they are being threatened by a continuing scandal, then the tipping point may be at hand.  Once this juncture is reached, the scrutinized subject's days are numbered.  But, Viq says, this member hastens to add that the conference is not yet there with DeLay.

A sample of other events taking place in Washington, listed in rough order of how relevant the subject matter is to people outside of Washington:

America's middle class returns to the game today after about six months on the bench.  The House Democratic leadership devotes an event to the long-lost "squeeze" at 10:00 am as part of a larger effort to paint the GOP as middle-class-unfriendly.  And, as we reported yesterday, House Republicans hold a farm-themed event to tout a permanent estate tax rollback, which has repeatedly failed to pass the Senate and doesn't seem likely to pass this year.

Senate Democrats also plan to work something about their agenda for "strengthening the middle class," and something about Social Security, into their scheduled 10:45 am presser on the "Republicans' partisan power grab that threatens the rights and liberties of Americans across the country."  First Read spoke with a bipartisan pair of pollsters about the "next phase" in the Social Security fight; interviews below.  The anti-private accounts groups are up to some tricks today as well; details also below.

Earlier this morning, the Big Five -- Hastert, DeLay, Pelosi, Frist, and Reid -- visited the White House for another in their series of Wednesday breakfasts with President Bush.  At 11:10 am, House and Senate Republican leaders head back to the White House for another meeting with the President -- also one in a sporadic series.  The early read is that the meetings are meant to spotlight the GOP agenda, including its economic agenda. 

NBC's Viqueira also reports that Hastert only just got out of the Bethesda Naval Hospital yesterday, after he was supposed to recover from his surgery for kidney stones one week ago in time to get to Illinois by the weekend.  Viq says the official line is that Hastert was told not to fly, so he elected to stay at the hospital to rest (as opposed to going to his DC home?).  But per Hastert himself, who ran into Viq in the hallway yesterday, he had "some extra checks done" that required a longer stay.  Hastert has had kidney stones before and also has adult onset diabetes.  For the guy whose place in the world is next in line for the presidency after Cheney and, more pertinently these days, immediately ahead of Tom DeLay in the House leadership, this bears watching.

Lastly in this series (no offense to sports fans), the President takes part in photo ops with Presidents Cup team captains at the White House at 10:45 am and with the New England Patriots at 3:30 pm.

The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

Whither the GOP: DeLay
The Washington Post covers DeLay "imploring" Republican senators yesterday "to stick with him... as House Democrats unveiled plans to try to make ethics a defining issue for the year." 

The Chicago Tribune says DeLay's appeal was "extraordinary," and notes that moderate GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee told CQ Today that DeLay poses a problem for Republicans.  “‘We've got to uphold the highest standards of legality and ethics,’ said Chafee, who faces a challenging re-election campaign in 2006." 

The former chair of the House Ethics Committee and its current ranking member, in a Washington Post op-ed, call for a repeal of the earlier rules changes which were made to help DeLay and which are now the cause of the committee's deadlock. 

The Wall Street Journal has some new details in its long take on DeLay's travel, his ties to the conservative nonprofit National Center for Public Policy Research, and to lobbyist and NCPPR fundraiser Jack Abramoff. 

Pegged to today's Pelosi and Reid press conference "to tie DeLay and the burgeoning scandals around him to GOP efforts to ban Senate filibusters of judges and remake Social Security," the Boston Globe says Democrats are using Delay "to spark party fund-raising and election campaigns." 

Knight-Ridder notes that "the strategy has risks because it could tar Democrats as negative obstructionists -- a label that Republicans have used with some success in the past."

It's the economy
"House Democrats today will launch what they say is a long-term political offensive to highlight how GOP policies have hurt the middle class and put the nation deeper in the red," Roll Call says of the presser this morning.  They plan to use "tax-filing week as the kickoff for their latest initiative... to show in the coming days and months that they are the true 'party of reform' and that, despite the GOP rhetoric, Republicans have only made the tax system more complicated and unjust."  Among other efforts, Ways and Means Democrats have prepared a report alleging "five major failures of recent Republican tax policies." 

The Hill says the GOP's events today and in coming days, including the White House meetings this morning, are an effort to "shift the focus from DeLay to their agenda..., which includes passing bankruptcy-reform legislation and an energy bill and permanently repealing the estate tax."  And the story says Republicans are also expected to question Reid and Pelosi's "commitment to passing a comprehensive energy bill despite rising gasoline prices...  Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary John Snow is to discuss Social Security reform with members of the Republican Study Committee... this afternoon." 

The Washington Post suggests a reason behind the increasing mo' of the estate-tax repeal movement: "While repeal opponents bellowed that only the richest of the rich would ever pay the estate tax, proponents appealed to Americans' sense of fairness, that individuals have the natural right to pass on their wealth to their children." 

That said, the Los Angeles Times says some Republican leaders "fear their long-held goal remains out of reach despite significant GOP gains in the 2004 congressional elections.  As a result, a senior GOP senator has opened negotiations with Democrats on a possible compromise that would keep the tax in place but apply it only to very large estates...  The talks raise the prospect that Congress will summon a rare show of bipartisanship to end the uncertainty that has shadowed estate planning for many families." 

The Post also covers efforts by the House and Senate energy panels "to draft an energy bill that can attract widespread support." 

Whither the GOP: the judiciary
The Los Angeles Times is the latest to suggest that Frist doesn't have the votes to go nuclear. 

The New York Times has a Frist aide saying the “nuclear” trigger could possibly be pulled as early as sometime within the next two weeks. 

Ben Nelson, who alternately tops GOP target lists for 2006 and is their favorite Senate Democrat, depending on the day, told The Hill last week that "he believes that his party’s practice of blocking confirmation votes on controversial nominees has put him and fellow Democratic centrists in politically difficult positions."  Nelson is working toward a bipartisan agreement that would stave off use of the nuclear option, involving automatic committee discharge of judicial nominees and an easier means of bringing them to the floor for a vote. 

USA Today covers the House Approps SCOTUS budget hearing yesterday, featuring Justices Kennedy and Thomas, which "turned into an unusually wide-ranging discussion of the role of judges." 

Social Security
The Administration's Social Security sales pitch is now heading into phase two, the stage at which they offer more details about how they plan to address the program's solvency and the transition costs from private accounts.  And Democrats are starting to raise this question: If phase one -- according to public opinion polls -- hasn't been a big success, then how can phase two be more successful, as they start discussing the politically risky issues of raising taxes and the retirement age, lowering benefits, and/or increasing the size of the deficit?

"[Bush] should be at his pinnacle right now," Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux tells First Read, noting that the President has the bully pulpit, has defined this debate in his own terms, and hasn't yet addressed the more politically sensitive issues.  The rest of way, Molyneux says, "is going to be a very hard lift." 

Molyneux and Roger Hickey of the liberal Campaign for America's Future also answer some of the recent questions we've had for Democrats on Social Security:

FR: Is it a mistake for the Democrats not to have their own plan or framework right now?

A: "Democrats are doing the right thing," Hickey says, adding that the Republicans right now aren't addressing how to make Social Security solvent; instead, they're touching only on private accounts, which Democrats oppose.  Hickey also says, however, that Democrats are having their own debate about Social Security's solvency, and they've discovered, for example, that the public is supportive of raising the cap on payroll taxes.

FR: But by not offering a plan, do the Democrats risk being identified as the party of the status quo instead of the party of reform?

A: Hickey responds that it's not a risk to refuse to act on something the public rejects.  Meanwhile, he said, Republicans "run the risk of being known as the party that wants to cut Social Security benefits -- again."

FR: Even if the Republicans lose on this issue, can't they retreat, declare victory, and then use it to campaign against Democrats in 2006?

A: Molyneux says that assuming voters will blame Democrats for "blocking a plan with just 35% support is just ludicrous."

FR: Conversely, if the Republicans lose on this issue, can't they retreat and declare victory without paying a political price?

A: Molyneux replies that if you assume that a lame-duck Bush won't be able to accomplish much during his last two years in office, "[t]hey lost an enormous opportunity to accomplish some other goal."  He also argues that politicians usually pay some type of price for suffering a defeat on their top domestic priority.

That said, GOP pollster David Winston tells First Read that the first phase has been a success for the GOP, simply because Washington is now having a serious discussion about Social Security's problems and future solvency.  "Failure in phase one means we wouldn't have gotten to phase two."  Nevertheless, Winston concedes that a discussion about raising the retirement age or possibly even payroll taxes isn't going to be easy for any politician.  "This is all going to be very difficult."

The Washington Times has GOP Sen. Gordon Smith describing the prospects for private accounts in the Senate as "'a dog paddle at best,'" though other Republicans are less pessimistic.  Lindsey Graham thinks "Senate leaders should set a date for floor action on Social Security legislation."

Elderly voters in Iowa are receiving mysterious automated calls directing them to press a series of numbers on their phones to speak to Sen. Charles Grassley (R) and oppose private accounts, the Des Moines Register reports.  Grassley's office has received over 1,000 calls in a week, but when "confused Iowans wind up speaking with Grassley's office in Washington, they're often angry and feel harassed because they think the senator is the one who has called them, Grassley's aides say." 

The anti-private accounts Campaign for America’s Future holds a rally at 10:00 am today outside the Securities Industry Association's board meeting, drawing attention to the fact that financial institution CEOs only have to pay Social Security payroll taxes on their first $90,000 in income.  For example, according to the group, Wachovia's CEO pays all of his annual Social Security taxes by Jan. 3.

And anti-private accounts Americans United starts running a web cartoon today that shows Bush going door-to-door to sell his overhaul plan, with every door getting slammed in his face.  The ad ends with a frustrated Bush enlisting Ken Lay's help: "Kenny Boy, tell 'em about my privatization plan.  Use that Enron magic."  "This ad is designed to remind people that not only does the President's privatization plan include steep benefit cuts and a $5 trillion price tag, but it boasts the kind of false claims and Enron-type book keeping that would land a CEO in jail," says Americans United spokesperson Cara Morris.

Immigration
The issue continues to hang up the war supplemental.  Now, "Senate Democrats are threatening to bog down the... bill with a broad debate on immigration if [Frist] doesn't win a guarantee from House Republicans to drop driver's license limits from their chamber's version."  - Washington Times

The New York Times reports that Frist is urging his Senate colleagues not to address immigration or border security in the bill.  “House Republicans … said that negotiators in a conference last year promised that the provisions would be included in some ‘must-pass’ legislation, like the supplemental military spending bill. In negotiations with the Senate, House Republicans added, they were determined to keep the provisions in the final version of the bill.” 

"Two days after the end of the legislative session, state lawmakers are discovering something few were aware of: They voted to make English the official language of West Virginia," the AP reports. 

The Times also revisits the debate within the Sierra Club over whether to support or oppose curbs on immigration. 

Bush II
The Washington Post says of Bush's remarks at Fort Hood, "Bush delivered what has become a fairly standard speech about what the military is accomplishing in Iraq and why, he says, the effort will go down in history as a turning point in the twin campaigns to preemptively fight terrorism and spread democracy in the Middle East." 

Coverage of former State Department in-house intelligence chief Carl Ford's strikingly harsh criticism of Bolton yesterday:
USA Today
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
Chicago Tribune

Whither the Democrats
Kerry focuses on military families and his proposed "Military Families Bill of Rights" today in Senate floor remarks and a closed-press appearance before the House Democratic caucus.  He's proposing to allow military families to stay in military housing for one year after the death of a spouse, and enable military families to receive $500,000 in total death benefits when a loved one who is serving passes away.  Kerry aides say that his online request for personal stories from military families yielded over 2,000 responses, and that he plans to read from some of them on the floor.

A Kerry aide says that in his meeting with House Democrats, Kerry will thank them for their work on his campaign, "take the wood to DeLay Republicans and (the) Republican Congress for being out of touch with American people," and talk about his Kids First health care initiative and military family bill of rights.

Coincidentally, Evan Bayh's speech to the Butler County, OH Democratic dinner in early May wound up getting announced on the same day that Bayh put a hold on Rep. Rob Portman's nomination to be US trade rep.  Bayh hopes to exchange a release of Portman for a vote on his (ahem, pro-labor) trade proposal.

Edwards speaks at Harvard's Kennedy School today.

Roll Call looks at MoveOn's increasing acceptance by Hill Democrats in the face of GOP attacks on Democratic lawmakers for tying themselves to the liberal organization. 

The UK elections
Tony Blair "will remind voters today that he is fighting his last election as Prime Minister, asking for a third term to make Labour’s changes to the public services 'irreversible' and turn Britain into a 'genuine meritocracy.'"  Blair's preface to the "110-page, 23,000-word manifesto" is "highly personal.  It says: 'So now, I fight my last election as leader of my party and Prime Minister of our country...'"  Times Online

A Wall Street Journal op-ed predicts a Labour victory, noting the party's roughly 3-point edge in the polls, but more importantly, its "massive advantage... because of its dominance of all cities, including their depopulated and not yet redistricted hearts.  In order to put its new leader, Michael Howard, securely into Ten Downing Street, the Conservatives need an 11-point lead."  But the author closes with, "Many Labour activists have still not recovered from the discovery that their leader, too, can act decisively on his own, ignore his colleagues, his cabinet, his party members, his legal advisers, European allies, a million people in the street -- and still go to war in Iraq."

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