“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 20, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Washington really focuses on the cost of gas today for the first time, starting with President Bush, who uses his scheduled address to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to talk about it.  Bush is likely to again use high gas prices to call for passage of his energy bill, though the bill would do nothing to alleviate the current situation.  The House also starts a two-day floor debate over the energy bill.  NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that House Democrats will tout an Energy Department report which they say proves that this energy bill would actually result in an increase in the price of gas.  On the Senate side, Kerry plans to talk about the cost of gas and the national security issues related to foreign oil on the floor around 9:30 am today, per a Kerry aide.

  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

And at this writing, DNC chairman Dean is addressing the Building and Construction Trades legislative conference about gas prices, among other issues.  This speech sounds like Dean's "second take" after his address to the California Democratic convention on Saturday night got lost in the ether.  DNC aides say that Dean is once again expected to talk about DeLay, Frist, and the nuclear option, though the rhetoric on the nuclear option is expected to be new.

DeLay almost certainly will keep himself in the news for another cycle with his weekly pen-and-pad at 1:25 pm.  The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

Republicans Senator Voinovich, whose doubts about UN ambassador nominee Bolton just led to at least a three-week delay on a committee vote, tells NBC's Ken Strickland that Bolton failed the Janet-and-George "kitchen table" test.  See below.

Kansas is debating the teaching of evolution and intelligent design -- again.  Raising the stakes for this debate now, however, as opposed to back in 1999, is that Kansas is in the midst of investing $500 million in bolstering its bioscience industry.  One proponent of the teaching of evolution tells First Read that this has become a workforce issue -- an argument which backers of embryonic stem cell research are also making to those who oppose the practice because it goes against their religious beliefs.  More on this also below.

RNC chairman Mehlman does a Lincoln Day Dinner later today in his hometown of Baltimore, where he may talk about his personal interest in seeing African-American Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) run for the state's open US Senate seat.

And, today also brings the Shad Planking, Virginia's big annual socio-political event named for the traditional smoking of thousands of shad on wooden planks.  Republicans may howl at this but, between the two gubernatorial contests of 2005, one seems basically over, barring unforeseen circumstances.  Sen. Jon Corzine (D) is expected to have a far easier time winning the New Jersey governorship this fall than he had in winning his Senate seat in 2000, when he spent $63 million to get 50% of the vote.  That leaves Virginia as the only hot contest this year -- which means that this toss-up race will be the sole focus of all the usual speculation over what the outcome means for the midterm elections, despite the fact that there probably won't be much to read into it.

First Read has been advised not to actually eat the shad.  We'll give you a verdict tomorrow.

It's the economy
The White House and Hill conservatives worry that the subsidies and tax breaks for oil and gas companies included in the House energy bill are excessive, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.  Per watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, "lawmakers added $35 billion in the last three weeks since the bill was introduced -- a total of $88.9 billion in subsidies to industry over 10 years in the bill."  Notably, the bill "also includes a new 'ultra-deepwater fund,' requested by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay,... which will collect $2 billion over 10 years to finance new oil and gas exploration research."

Democrats have a bunch of events on gas prices scheduled for today, including remarks by the party's House leadership at 10:00 am and a press conference call hosted by the Center for American Progress with other Democratic members, also at 10:00 am.

The AP says the bankruptcy bill Bush will sign today is "the biggest rewrite of the bankruptcy code in a quarter-century and was pushed for eight years by banks and credit card companies."

New developments in the Wal-Mart war: Page A13 of the New York Times carries a full-page ad from Wal-Mart Watch highlighting what the group calls the "Wal-Mart Tax," $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars -- or "corporate welfare" -- that Wal-Mart receives annually.  Wal-Mart Watch is one branch of the network of organizations formed to coordinate the various union and consumer interests doing battle with the retail giant.

By the way, the folks involved in the anti-Wal-Mart effort also point out a Tray.com report that Sen. Rick Santorum (R) didn't pay for his use of a Wal-Mart jet to fly to Florida back in March.  Santorum's official, scheduled event in Tampa got canceled because of Terri Schiavo, but he still went to raise money. Political Money Line

The Hill reports on a recent huddle of millionaires and billionaires, spearheaded by George Soros, who are looking for "long-term political and ideological yields from an expected massive investment in 'startup' progressive think tanks."

DeLay, etc.
This story doesn't mention how employment of the nuclear option could shut down the Senate, but it still raises the specter of both chambers of Congress deadlocking basically at the same time.  Roll Call says "the House could be moving toward what many Republican strategists fear is a political trap: a full-fledged ethics war...  According to this theory, if Congress grinds to a halt amid partisan bickering, the party in power will bear the brunt of the blame."

The Washington Post covers DeLay singling out Supreme Court Justice Kennedy for criticism on talk radio yesterday.

The New York Times notes that "DeLay said many Democratic members of Congress had quietly approached him to tell him that they believed he was being treated unfairly.  ‘Very many of them,’ he said.”

Trent Lott told The Hill that "he hasn’t called DeLay since DeLay’s troubles became daily front-page material for newspapers.  But he observed, 'If something is repeated often enough … people get jumpy'...  He said that, in DeLay’s case, 'The best strategy is to go at it aggressively, frontally.'  Lott called the charges against DeLay 'rehashed' while dismissing press reports about DeLay’s foreign travel and his use of campaign funds to employ his wife and daughter for a number of years.  'It’s not against the rules,' he said.  'It’s not illegal.  Lots of people do it.  Does it look bad?  Yeah.'"

Headline on USA Today's editorial: "Disclose family ties.  DeLay not alone in employing relatives, but that doesn't make it right."  But a USA Today op-ed says the media has done a good job of exposing this practice and that the lack of indictments means there's no real corruption problem here.

A taste of retribution to come?  The Washington Times reports, "Stephanie Tubbs Jones, an Ohio Democrat who sits on the House ethics committee, took a 2001 trip to Puerto Rico that was paid for by a registered lobbyist firm - an apparent violation of the chamber's ethics rules..."  A spokesperson called it "human error."

Bush II
If Bolton's nomination to be UN ambassador ultimately fails, as most Senate Democrats hope it will, it could be because Bolton failed one moderate Republican's "kitchen test," says NBC's Ken Strickland.  George Voinovich surprised Democrats and Republicans alike yesterday when he told the Foreign Relations Committee he thinks more time is needed to investigate new allegations against Bolton.  Voinovich's statement ignited enough doubt about Bolton being "favorably" reported out of committee that the committee agreed to postpone a vote for at least three weeks.  And the committee could decide to bring Bolton back for more questioning.

Voinovich's issue with Bolton arose from new allegations that the nominee intimidated and berated colleagues, Strickland says.  "It's the kitchen test," he said after the meeting.  "Would Janet (Voinovich) and George like to have him at home?  Are they the kind of person I'd like to have at my table?"  Voinovich told Strickland that he went into the hearing planning to vote for Bolton, but after hearing passionate pleas for more time from Democrats Biden, Dodd, and others, "All I know is that I just worried about my conscience...  That's what I try to do around this joint."

The Boston Globe details the latest allegations against Bolton by a foreign aid worker, who said "'Mr. Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel, throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and genuinely behaving like a madman...  I returned to my project in Kyrgyzstan to find that John Bolton had preceded me by two days... [t]o meet with every other AID team leader, as well as US Foreign Service officials, claiming that I was under investigation for misuse of funds and likely was facing jail time.  As USAID can confirm, nothing was further from the truth.'"

"A group called MoveAmericaForward.org, which supports Mr. Bolton's nomination and is critical of the U.N., immediately promised to run a radio-ad campaign against Mr. Voinovich in Ohio," says the Wall Street Journal.

The Los Angeles Times: "The delay, a victory for Senate Democrats, was the latest sign that Republican moderates in Congress might be starting to bridle at their party leadership's strong tilt to the right and insistence on party discipline."

USA Today notes that "Voinovich's surprise move relieved the pressure on Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., a Republican moderate who had been wavering on the nomination.  Chafee said after the meeting that he also would have voted for a Democratic motion to delay a vote to consider more information.  That would have meant a 10-8 loss for the Republicans."

They were buried by the Bolton frenzy, but the Washington Post covers Bush's remarks at the Lincoln library yesterday.

The Washington Post also covers Karl Rove's Monday night speech to a group of college students, mentioned here yesterday, in which Rove called the press not so much liberal as "oppositional."  "His indictment of the media... had four parts: that there's been an explosion in the number of media outlets; that these outlets have an insatiable demand for content; that these changes create enormous competitive pressure; and that journalists have increasingly adopted an antagonistic attitude toward public officials.  Beyond that, Rove argued that the press pays too much attention to polls and 'horse-race' politics, and covers governing as if it were a campaign."

And the New York Times reports that the GOP-run Utah legislature passed a bill yesterday ordering state officials to ignore No Child Left Behind provisions that conflict with the state’s education goals.  Utah’s governor plans to sign the legislation.  “Federal officials fear Utah's action could embolden other states to resist what many states consider intrusive or unfunded provisions of the federal law, known as No Child Left Behind.”

The values debate
The Washington Post considers how the Pope "often plays a significant role in the political, as well as the religious, life of millions of Americans, including prominent politicians...  Although Republicans and Democrats were quick to praise Benedict's election, the new pope's opposition to abortion, homosexuality, contraception and larger role for women in the church are certain to stir more debate in the United States."

AEI's Norman Ornstein, just back from a trip to Asia, writes in Roll Call that he's "growing increasingly alarmed" by "our blindness and obtuseness when it comes to our crown jewel: our overwhelming lead in basic research and our position as home to the best scientists in the world."  Among other examples, Ornstein says, "Our decisions to curtail much research on stem cells is creating opportunities elsewhere: Some of our best scientists are headed for Singapore."

Speaking of which, once again, Kansas is debating the teaching of creationism versus evolution in its public schools.  Back in 1999, the state board of education removed evolution from the official high school curriculum.  A few years later, it reversed itself.  Early next month, board members will meet in Topeka to consider including criticism of evolution and promotion of intelligent design in the school curriculum.

Kansas may be perpetually at the forefront of this debate, but a majority of Americans believe in creationism over evolution as the explanation for the origin of human life, per an NBC News survey conducted in March.  The survey showed 57% of those adults polled choosing the Biblical account of creation (either that God created the world in six days, or that God was a divine presence), whereas 33% said evolution is the explanation.

Raising the stakes for this debate now, however, as opposed to in 1999, is that Kansas is in the midst of investing $500 million in bolstering its bioscience industry.  In that effort, the state is not alone: The Biotechnology Industry Organization website says that 40 states are seeking to become more bioscience-friendly, recognizing the potential economic benefits.  But Kansas' investment is relatively large.

Lawrence, KS-based investor and "self-employed businessman" John Burch will convene a meeting in his hometown tomorrow to lay out a case that this revived debate over the teaching of intelligent design versus evolutionary biology not only sends the wrong message to potential investors in Kansas bioscience, but that phasing out the teaching of evolution will deprive Kansas students of the education they need to go work in that industry.

"It's not a religious issue, it's an economic issue," Burch tells First Read, noting that the initiative includes 40,000 new jobs.  He wants to see if "this age-old debate," as he calls it, "can be reframed as an economic workforce issue."  Burch seems to be trying to sidestep the actual evolution-vs.-intelligent design argument by saying that the teaching of creationism "has nothing to do with the needs of Kansas science students if they're going to be part of the workforce in the bioscience economy."

Burch's meeting tomorrow will feature speakers who favor the teaching of evolution, including the head of the Kansas science standards curriculum revision committee and a rep for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whereas the board of education hearings in Topeka in early May will feature experts who favor the teaching of intelligent design.  Supporters of evolution are boycotting those hearings.

Rutgers poli sci professor Ross Baker writes in USA Today that recent efforts by certain high-profile Democrats to move toward the center on abortion, or to "get closer to God," signals "a move on the part of Democrats away from their base.  Baker asks, "Why would a pro-choice woman, an important part of the Democratic Party's base, brave a snowstorm to vote for a candidate who waffled on an issue about which she cared deeply?"

The latest Quinnipiac University poll shows Santorum trailing Bob Casey Jr. (D) by five points (41% to 46%) in Pennsylvania’s 2006 Senate race -- and also notes that many voters in the state didn’t care for Santorum's role in the Schiavo case.  Only 14% of are more likely to vote for Santorum because of his highly visible role in the Schiavo case, the poll finds, while 34% say they are less likely for him and 47% say it doesn't make a difference.

Immigration
"In the first major vote on immigration policy in almost a decade, the Senate fell seven votes shy of the 60 required to proceed with the amendment, which would have offered the illegal immigrants a three-step path to citizenship.  A vote on a guest-worker program with no path to citizenship also failed, by an overwhelming margin."  That said, "[a] third amendment to raise the cap on temporary seasonal nonfarm workers passed."  - Washington Times

The vote was "a setback to those who advocate legalization as the key to immigration reform...  Legalization advocates said they hoped the debate over the measure, dubbed AgJobs, would persuade the White House that immigration reform enjoyed greater bipartisan support than did President Bush's plan for overhauling Social Security."  - Los Angeles Times

What did pass yesterday: "Amendments adopted last night would tap an estimated 140,000 unused employment visas for skilled workers from previous years to help cope with shortages now in nurses and engineers.  And in response to pressure from the lumber, tourism and fishing industries, rules governing temporary visas for lower-skilled guest workers would be relaxed to allow about 35,000 more employees into the U.S. this year."

The San Francisco Chronicle says congressional aides and lobbyists predict that the eventual House-Senate compromise on immigration in the military supplemental "will probably include a small expansion of temporary worker visas and a major crackdown on immigration enforcement."

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee reports that Governor Schwarzenegger told a group of newspaper executives yesterday “that the United States should ‘close’ its borders, calling existing enforcement against illegal immigration ‘lax.’  A governor's spokeswoman, however, rushed to clarify his remarks, saying that Schwarzenegger actually meant that the borders should be made less penetrable, not literally sealed.”

The UK elections
The Times has begun tracking, and finds that "immigration is a more important influence on the voting decisions of Conservatives than of any other group" -- and that Labour holds a 6-point lead.  Times Online

"The UN's body for refugees, the UNHCR, said yesterday that Conservative plans to curb immigration and withdraw from the Geneva convention on refugees would increase the number of asylum seekers.  The UNHCR has disclosed that it met the Conservative front bench twice in recent months to express its unease about the party's plans."  - The Guardian

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