“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, April 21, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Fueling anticipation of an imminent move by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN, to eliminate the filibuster, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote to send two more judicial nominees to the floor today, state supreme court justices Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen, both of whom have been filibustered before.  But Frist will probably wait until after his Sunday telecast to Christian conservatives to pull the trigger.

  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 the House Ethics Committee meets at 4:00 pm to try to work through the latest developments -- namely, House Republicans offering a deal yesterday in which DeLay would be investigated under the new rules which Democrats oppose; Democrats seeing and denouncing that move as a PR gambit; and Republicans decrying Democrats' unwillingness to deal.  NBC's Mike Viqueira says it seems unlikely that this will result in a committee probe of DeLay.

Meanwhile, the Dow hovers around 10,000 after its lowest close of the year yesterday, and inflation is up -- news which, as we've suggested before, neither party seems too focused on, though they did make an effort on gas prices yesterday.

The House could pass its version of the energy bill today, giving the President something to tout as an effort to tackle future, if not current, high gas prices.  The bill contains $8.1 billion in tax breaks, mostly for oil and energy companies.  And as Bush prepares to address a group of insurance agents and brokers about Social Security reform, his hoped-for big achievement of his second term, Senate GOP Social Security point man Chuck Grassley tells USA Today that he has to start off by crafting a plan supported only by his fellow Republicans due to a dearth of Democratic support.  Also, one of the big achievements of Bush's first term, No Child Left Behind, is under assault by state governments and the national teachers' unions.

When First Read got back from Virginia's big annual retail political event yesterday (more on that in a minute), our inboxes were loaded up with two sorts of e-mail: sharp partisan exchanges about Tom DeLay and the House GOP's offer of a deal on an investigation, and announcements from various Democratic and affiliated entities about events and ads against the nuclear option.

As for the Virginia shad planking, well, smoked shad is gefilte fish for Southerners, in our view -- a strong taste appreciated by the enlightened.  The event certainly wasn't short on color.  What was missing, however, was any mention of the social issues that have so far dominated the state's gubernatorial race.  Perhaps that was because the candidates were asked to keep things light.  But as one GOP consultant told First Read yesterday, national Democrats see their candidate here as a test case of whether Democratic candidates who talk strongly about their faith can succeed in red states.  Much more on the event below.

Frist and the judiciary
The Hill reports that Rick Santorum, "a leading advocate of the 'nuclear option'... is privately arguing for a delay in the face of adverse internal party polls...  Santorum and other Senate sources concede that, while a majority of Americans oppose the filibuster, the figures show that most also accept the Democratic message that Republicans are trying to destroy the tradition of debate in the Senate." 

Bob Novak repeats the GOP message that Democrats opposed wielding the filibuster when they controlled Congress.

The Los Angeles Times reviews how closely Frist's nuclear efforts are tied to his presidential prospects, and says that for all his courting of social conservatives, "[s]trategists say social conservatives don't fully trust Frist and are more favorably inclined toward three GOP Senate colleagues seen as potential presidential contenders:" Santorum, Brownback and Allen.  "Frist's aides deny that his presidential aspirations are influencing his decisions in the dispute over judicial filibusters."

A couple of related Democratic events today: Kerry will e-mail supporters this morning with a recorded message about how, "every day, Republican leaders are crossing lines that should never be crossed."  The Boston Herald covers Kerry's remarks about values to a group of Massachusetts residents who were visiting the Capitol yesterday: "We're talking about values?  You show me where in the New Testament Jesus ever talked about the value of having taxes and taking money from poor people to give to the rich people in this country.'"

Also, Senators Durbin, Kennedy, Lieberman and Schumer, and Father Robert Drinan of Georgetown Law, headline an anti-nuclear event at which members of the legal community will present letters to the senators announcing their opposition to the elimination of the filibuster.  The event takes place at Georgetown Law School at 12:15 pm.  And the DNC posts a new web ad today on the nuclear option.  The ad is called "Agree," and it will be e-mailed to activists around the country to encourage them to attend events in support of the filibuster.

The Boston Globe reports that "multiple GOP political advocacy groups are about to launch ad campaigns to support" the changing of filibuster rules.  The ads will be "sympathetic biographies" of local Supreme Court judges Democrats have blocked.

It's the economy
The Washington Post front-pages Washington's fixation with matters unrelated to the economy, which "has helped send President Bush's approval ratings on the economy down, while breeding discontent with Congress.  The problem has yet to grow into a political wave..., but both parties face risks if they fail to pivot their attention to economic issues."  The story suggests that one cause of the disconnect could be "the media's preoccupation with other news...  Another may be the degree to which partisanship rather than the actual state of the economy shapes attitudes toward Bush's performance.  Republican pollster Bill McInturff said that attitudes about Bush are generally fixed."

The Washington Times on Bush's energy speech yesterday: "Bush warned... that even if Congress passes an energy bill, gasoline prices might continue to soar because of America's long-term addiction to foreign oil...  High gasoline prices generally are blamed for the president's recent slump in job approval ratings."

Just a note about the corporate ethics climate.  The resignation of Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who supervised high-profile prosecutions of corporate execs such as the case against Martha Stewart, comes close on the heels of the resignation of the SEC's chief enforcer.  And the Wall Street Journal reports today that the US Chamber of Commerce, through an amicus brief, "is challenging the Justice Department's efforts to secure long prison terms for five individuals convicted of conspiracy and fraud in the EnronCorp. scandal...  The Chamber's brief is an example, observers say, of a feeling within the business community that the government's crackdown on corporate behavior may have gone too far in the wake of the scandals at Enron and other big companies."

As NBC's Mike Viqueira observes, the initial coverage yesterday left the lingering impression that the House ethics committee has agreed to investigate DeLay.  This is not the case.  Republicans on the committee have offered a deal to their Democratic counterparts: Go along with rule changes that Republicans made earlier this year, and then they will move forward with an investigation of their leader.

Democrats, via ranking committee member Alan Mollohan, said no deal.  They have refused to go along with the rules changes -- instituted by Speaker Hastert after DeLay was admonished three times late last year -- that would effectively make it more difficult to find anyone in violation of House ethics rules.  The new rules, in Democrats' view, mean that anyone, including DeLay, who is either investigated or could be investigated could be exonerated on a tied party-line vote (the committee is evenly split between R's and D's).  Before the rule change, a tie had meant that an investigation would go forward.

In DeLay's case, Viqueira notes, a lot of short-term pain -- the proposed investigation -- would probably result in long-term gain -- what he might proclaim to be a clean bill of ethical health -- if this scenario were to play out.  That's why Democrats regard the GOP proposal as a PR gambit.  Viqueira reminds us that earlier this year, after the DeLay admonishments, GOP leaders replaced two members of the committee, including the chair, with two others generally regarded as more loyal.

The New York Times examines DeLay’s children’s charity, the DeLay Foundation for Kids, noting it has been underwritten by some of America’s largest companies.  “There is no accusation of illegality in the corporate donations to the DeLay Foundation, one of several charities that members of Congress have established in recent years for worthy causes."  But, the paper says, “the DeLay Foundation is also an important fund-raising operation for Mr. DeLay and allows corporate lobbyists and executives to curry favor with him in a way that skirts campaign finance laws.”

The Hill reports that Democratic Reps. Rahm Emanuel, chair of the party's House campaign committee, and Marty Meehan, co-sponsor of the House campaign finance reform bill, will propose legislation as early as next week "to address issues raised in the investigations into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  The proposals... would require lobbyists to say how private groups pay for congressional travel, force lawmakers to disclose their ties to nonprofit groups and double the time that retiring lawmakers and staff would have to wait before lobbying, to two years."

Roll Call reports, "Organizations headed by two of the best-known figures in conservative political circles, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, have been subpoenaed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in its long-running probe of GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff...  The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, one of Abramoff’s former clients, is expected to be the focus of that hearing..."  (Remember that Reed is currently running for the LG post in Georgia.)

Armed Services member Neil Abercrombie (D) "took a two-day trip to Boston in June 2001 that was paid for by a lobbying firm with business before the committee, according to House travel records," and has now "requested a review of the trip by the House ethics committee."

Also from DeLay's pen-and-pad yesterday, Viqueira reports that per DeLay, it's the fact that SCOTUS Justice Kennedy used the Internet to look up foreign precedents in law that has him upset, not the use of the Internet in and of itself.  DeLay criticized Kennedy on talk-radio on Monday for using the Internet as a research tool.  "I was told by a Member that was sitting in the room in the session over in the Supreme Court that Justice Kennedy made references to, referring to foreign law on his Internet," DeLay said.  "It's the foreign law," he reiterated.

At this point, GOP Rep. Joe Barton, who was sitting in on the session as a special guest because he's chair of the energy panel and the energy bill is being debated on the floor and all, shared his view on Kennedy's foreign law citation: "You base your decision on the record that is put before the Court.  You don't go out and do additional research, wherever...  You don't introduce new evidence from whatever source."

Social Security
The Census Bureau is projecting that the "elderly population in every state will grow faster than the total population, and seniors will outnumber school-age children in 10 states in the next 25 years...  The boom in the number of elderly portends dramatic shifts in political dynamics as competition intensifies for tax dollars to finance programs for the old and the young."  - USA Today

USA Today covers the "mounting" financial woes of Medicare, reminding us, "Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and other budget experts say Medicare is a bigger looming crisis than Social Security."

The New York Times does its take on how the dip in the stock market might be complicating Bush selling private accounts to a skeptical public.

Chuck Grassley tells USA Today that "he will try to craft a plan for overhauling Social Security that has only Republican support...  The Finance Committee is holding a long-awaited hearing Tuesday on various Social Security proposals.  Grassley has not invited an administration official to testify about the president's proposal.  He said he hopes to put together a comprehensive plan, possibly drawing from Bush's ideas as well as others."

The Washington Times says that as Bush "inches out on that precarious branch with specific ideas of reform, he is finding few friends willing to join him."

"Although Republicans have been publicly hammering Democrats for refusing to 'come to the table'" on Social Security, Roll Call says, "many moderate Senate Democrats have been meeting privately with White House officials to talk about what they may or may not be able to support...  Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), indicated that the Democratic centrists’ resistance... is less about party loyalty and more about the substance of the president’s proposal and the campaign-style tactics he has used to push the issue."

Bush II
USA Today covers the National Education Association's federal lawsuit against the Administration over No Child Left Behind.  The NEA is asking that school districts be exempted "from any requirements" of the law "that aren't paid for by the federal government."

The Wall Street Journal covers the White House's reiteration of support for Bolton yesterday: "Despite unease in some Republican circles, Bush aides portrayed the Democratic efforts as a smear campaign and predicted that Mr. Bolton will be vindicated and go on to be confirmed."

The Journal editorial page says that "what's going on here isn't 'advise and consent' but character assassination...  Look closely at Mr. Bolton's accusers, and you can see through the agendas...  As for the White House, we trust Mr. Bush's advisers are waking up to the fact that if Mr. Bolton loses so does the President."

The values debate
The New York Times focuses squarely on the impact Pope Benedict XVI will have on US politics.  “Catholic voters, long overwhelmingly Democratic, have become a critical swing vote.  Republicans have become increasingly successful at winning the support of more traditional Catholics by appealing to what President Bush calls the ‘culture of life’ issues, including abortion, euthanasia and research on embryonic stem cells.”

The Connecticut Senate passed the civil unions bill yesterday.  Opponents "worry" the new law "will bolster legal arguments by same-sex couples that extending the same rights to two classes of people under different names - civil union vs. marriage - is discriminatory." – Harford Courant

The Washington Post leads with DC Mayor Anthony Williams' concern that "a move to recognize gay marriages in the nation's capital" through the joint filing of tax returns "would trigger a sharp backlash from Congress," which could "jeopardize its budget agenda and domestic partner benefits."

Yesterday we wrote about scientific advances being cast as jobs and workforce issues to get around objections by concerned people of faith.  Today, a bipartisan group of US senators -- Feinstein, Hatch, Kennedy and Specter -- hold a 2:00 pm press conference to "discuss legislation to make the cloning of a human being a crime, while allowing other promising medical research which may lead to cures of some of the most deadly and debilitating diseases to proceed," per the release.  The proposals "would allow embryonic stem cell research... to proceed under strict oversight from the federal government.  At the same time, the legislation would ban human reproductive cloning and establish strict penalties... for anyone convicted of violating the ban."  That's two senators from biotech-dependent states...

The Burlington Free Press covers Senator Jeffords' newser yesterday at which he announced his retirement because he and his wife are both suffering from physical ailments.  On the Democratic/Independent side, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I) is expected to run and clear the field.  Republicans are waiting to see whether the state's GOP governor will go for it.

Yes, First Read witnessed the shad planking, Virginia's annual retail political event in (very) rural Wakefield, VA, which featured lots and lots of shad cooked on wooden boards -- and gubernatorial candidates Tim Kaine (D) and Jerry Kilgore (R), who are locked in the best political race of 2005.  The road to Wakefield was plastered with thousands of Kaine and Kilgore signs, some of which blasted Kilgore for refusing to agree so far to Kaine's debate challenge ("Why Did the Duck Cross the Road?" asked one sign.  "To Avoid Debates," said the next).  The event itself boasted a couple thousand participants, free beer, the fragrance of smoked shad, and a middle-aged cover band called Bustin' Loose.  "It's a big country fair without the smelly animals," said the Cook Political Report's Jennifer Duffy, who was also present.

Yesterday marked the first time that Kaine and Kilgore have shared the same stage since Kaine issued his debate challenge, and both candidates traded barbs and poked fun at each other.  Kilgore, who spoke first, made fun of the Kaine supporters in attendance whom he alleged were from New York, New Jersey, and other blue states.  He also poked fun at Kaine's Kansas City roots.  "He thinks it's going to help him be photographed [on stage] with a genuine rural Virginian," Kilgore said, adding that he himself will probably benefit from a picture with Kaine the next time he visits Kansas.  Kilgore also mocked Democratic Gov. Mark Warner's possible presidential bid in 2008, noting that Warner was "probably windsurfing off the coast of Massachusetts with John Kerry."

Kaine, speaking second, quickly noted that despite his Kansas City roots, he had raised more in-state money than Kilgore.  He then proclaimed his campaign had won the sign war at the event.  (His campaign confirmed that they spent nearly $30,000 on signs.)   And he teased Kilgore for not agreeing to more debates: "I hope this isn't the last time that we appear on stage together in Virginia."  To hammer home that point, the Kaine campaign hired a plane to circle the event with a banner reading, "Jerry -- Real Leaders Don't Duck Debates."

Missing from the exchange, however, was any mention of the social issues that have so far dominated this race.  Indeed, Kilgore has emphasized Kaine's opposition to the death penalty; Kaine attributes this to his strong Catholic faith.  Kaine also often mentions his past missionary work in Honduras.  Virginia-based GOP consultant Chris LaCivitatold First Read that national Democrats see Kaine as a test case of how successful Democratic candidates who talk strongly about their faith can perform in red states like Virginia.  (LaCivita then headed for Independent gubernatorial candidate Russ Potts's tent, saying "Let's get some of Russ Potts's beer.")

Oh, and about the shad -- it tastes like a roasted, salty sardine, with bones in every bite.  Stick to the regular fried fish.


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