“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 25, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN, talked about respecting the three branches of government in his videotaped remarks to the Family Research Council telecast last night.  Still, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, says Frist has the votes to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominees.  Congress has a lot on its plate this week -- including the first Senate hearing on Social Security, consideration of Bush's pick for US trade rep, asbestos litigation reform, transportation funding, the budget, etc. -- and a move by Frist isn't expected until May.

  1. Other political news of note
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      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

With all the Hill leadership's focus on social conservatives lately, less attention has been paid to the other half of the GOP equation: business.  If Frist moves to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominees and Senate Democrats stop all non-essential work, as threatened, what exactly would get hung up?  Answer: Legislation that business wants.

US Chamber of Commerce chief Thomas Donohue, asked at the Monitor breakfast last Friday whether the Chamber supports the GOP effort to eliminate the filibuster, at first joked: "I was hoping no one would ask that question."  He then went on to say that he believes the President has a right to nominate the judges he wants, and that the Senate plays an advise-and-consent role -- but that the Chamber is not going to get involved in this debate.  He worries that such a move could tie up bills business cares about on health-care, trade, transportation, and asbestos litigation.

(Speaking of business, outsourcing is also making something of a comeback in the political arena.  See below.)

Meanwhile, Democrats hold firm both the filibuster and on Social Security, despite the risk of getting blamed if nothing gets done on either front.  Harry Reid kicks off what spokesperson Jim Manley tells First Read will be "a series of coordinated events" in opposition to an effort to eliminate the filibuster, doing the Monitor breakfast this morning.  Manley charges, "If Frist breaks the rules to change the rules," Democrats will use "all existing rules and precedents to prevent another partisan power grab and use them to push an agenda that meets the needs of average Americans, such as lowering gas prices, reducing the cost of health care and helping veterans."  But we have to ask, what's stopping Democrats from pushing that agenda now?

Today President Bush welcomes the Saudi Crown Prince to the Crawford ranch at 11:40 am ET and sits down with him shortly afterward.  No mention on the schedule of a joint press avail.

And it's a big week for Social Security, as the President heads into the final stretch of his 60-day tour and the Senate Finance Committee prepares to hold a hearing tomorrow -- the first stage on Chuck Grassley's effort to draft a bill, which as he said last week, may only have GOP support at the start.  Bush has a Social Security event in Galveston, TX tomorrow, timed to the Senate Finance hearing.  He has a second Social Security event on Friday in the Virginia suburbs of DC.  And Democrats and their affiliated interest groups hold a big rally on the Hill tomorrow; details below.

The jury's out on how big a ripple will come from the Sunday Washington Post report that Jack Abramoff and another lobbyist paid directly for Tom DeLay's trip to London and Scotland in 2000.  As the Post notes, House ethics rules bar lawmakers from accepting travel and related expenses from registered lobbyists...

The Senate meets at 2:00 pm; the House meets at 12 noon.

It's the economy
On the agenda for the Bush-Abdullah meeting in Crawford, per the AP: oil prices, terrorism, democracy in the Middle East, "Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip, Syria's role in Lebanon and a U.S.-Saudi economic agreement that would speed the kingdom's entry into the World Trade Organization."  Also: "There were hints the two oil men also may address a complaint by Bush's critics that his energy bill does little to promote alternative energy approaches."  - USA Today

The Dallas Morning News also previews today’s meeting, and it notes that Cheney and Bush 41 met with Abdullah yesterday.

The New York Times points out, however, that Bush’s meeting today is unlikely to result any significant breakthroughs on gas prices.  “When it comes to oil, the Saudis have less ability to drive down global prices by increasing output than at many times in the past, because they are already pumping closer to their maximum sustainable capacity than during past price spikes.”

Remember outsourcing?  In the 2004 campaign, Kerry and the Democrats made it one of their central attacks on Bush.  Kerry vowed to eliminate tax breaks for US companies that created jobs overseas, while Democrat-affiliated 527s ran ads saying things like, "During the past three years, it's true George W. Bush has created more jobs.  Unfortunately, they were created in places like China."  Of course Democrats used the issue to win over union members.  But in the nearly six months since Kerry's loss, we've heard almost nothing from Democrats about outsourcing.  Has the issue faded?

Not necessarily.  For starters, some of the same consultants who served up those anti-outsourcing ads during the campaign are now working for the anti-Wal-Mart effort, and they bring you another full-page newspaper ad this morning -- this time in a paper Wal-Mart customers may be more likely to see, USA Today, rather than the New York Times.  Per one strategist involved in the effort, the ad refers to the company's 1980s-era "Buy American" program "that has unceremoniously fallen by the wayside, how the company now sells products overwhelmingly manufactured in China, and how American jobs are lost as a result."  The strategist says "we will follow the national ad with targeted local advertising in cities affected by outsourcing."

Also, at the Monitor breakfast last Friday, the US Chamber's Donohue noted to reporters that 22 different states have proposed legislation to curb outsourcing, but he said business groups have effectively made the argument that more jobs are being "in-sourced" rather than outsourced.  Nevertheless, Donohue said, the issue hasn't died.  "It's coming back again... because of the heated trade debates going on right now."

Indeed, Democratic businessman Leo Hindery -- a top Democratic donor and, briefly, a candidate for DNC chair earlier this year -- spoke last week at John Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, where he talked about the problems associated with outsourcing (which he called "off-shoring").  He contended that at least 2 million jobs have been lost to outsourcing in the past four years, which he said is harming America's middle class.  To solve this, Hindery proposed 1) enforcing existing trade agreements, and 2) eliminating the tax incentives that encourage companies to relocate overseas.  "Left unchecked, American [companies] would off-shore everything but consumption," Hindery argued.

The heart of the matter, he pointed out, is that most CEOs and businessmen believe their only stakeholders are shareholders.  "I disagree violently," he said, noting that stakeholders also include employees, customers, and the community.  (A Hindery spokesperson tells First Read that he will be honcho-ing an upcoming economic summit in Washington, and will joining with several other top CEOs -- in something tentatively called the CEO Council -- to engage with legislators and regulators on key economic issues.)

US Chamber chief Donohue also said at the Monitor breakfast:
-- that the economy is better shape than the press describes.  Inflation is up, but only moderately (due to higher energy prices).  Productivity is high, and so is manufacturing output.  "To declare that the economy is in trouble is to be in need of a headline."
-- that reports he cautioned Bush not to move on Social Security this year are incorrect.  What he said was that Bush would be best served having a conversation about Social Security, while grabbing as much "low-hanging fruit" (like class-action and bankruptcy reform) as possible -- something he thinks Bush has accomplished.  Donohue added that the Chamber is very supportive of Bush addressing Social Security, and he said he's "hopeful" there will be a bill this year.  "I do believe we will have a bill."
-- that on tax overhaul, "I see a whole lot of things I want to get to first," he said, citing the permanent repeal of the estate tax as an example.
-- and, that he's in favor of permanently repealing the estate tax -- but he also contended that the very wealthiest of Americans shouldn't be able to "duck" an estate tax.  In fact, he predicted that the estate tax would be permanently repealed, but not for the very wealthiest.  "It's not going to be eliminated for all."

Frist and the judiciary
In his videotaped remarks to the Family Research Council event last night, Frist "made no overt mention of religion...  Instead, Frist seemed intent on steering clear of the views expressed by [DeLay] and other conservatives... who have urged investigations and even possible impeachment of judges they describe as activists."  He said "'we must also be clear that the balance of power among all three branches requires respect - not retaliation.'"  Key Senate Democrats yesterday suggested they were open to some kind of compromise on Bush's current nominees.  – USA Today

Per the Washington Post, sponsors said the event "reached 61 million households," and "Frist's comments were more moderate than those of several religious leaders" also participating.

Roll Call says a group of House GOP conservatives "is wading into the fight..., hoping to refine their party’s message."  The effort "will include special order and one-minute speeches on the House floor as well as press conferences aimed at educating voters on the issue."  Meanwhile, "The RNC is expected to begin a stepped-up outreach program to its grass-roots supporters today, a move that will include a letter-to-the-editor campaign aimed at swaying public opinion."  And Frist gives a speech today in New York and will have "a more aggressive appearance schedule on talk radio and television this week."

Even Democrats admit that any Senate vote on ending filibusters for judicial nominees will be tight, the Boston Globe says.

USA Today runs the latest explainer on the Senate rules in question.

The Sunday Los Angeles Times also covered Donohue at the Monitor breakfast on Friday, reporting that business interests have notified "senior Republicans" that they would not support a Frist move to eliminate the filibuster because of concerns about "a shutdown of Senate action on long-awaited priorities."  The story notes, "The lack of support from business presents a dilemma for Frist, who wants to build ties with the Republican base ahead of his likely 2008 presidential bid but now must balance competing demands from two pillars of Republican politics: evangelicals, who can marshal millions of voters, and businesses, which donate millions of dollars."

The Wall Street Journal also touches on the “significant political risks” from Frist’s appearance last night.  “Business leaders, an important Republican constituency, complain the tug-of-war is creating a rift that could derail their legislative priorities. Progressive and moderate religious leaders, including one who, like Mr. Frist, is a Presbyterian, said the majority leader declined to see them last week when they sought a meeting to ask him not to take part in the program.”

More related events today, in addition to those mentioned above: After Reid does the Monitor breakfast, Senator Durbin will hold a pen and pad with reporters at 3:15 to discuss details, then will come speeches on the Senate floor by Durbin, Reid, and others.

Also, the Center for American Progress, John Podesta's progressive think-tank, hosts a panel with Senator Byrd, Norm Ornstein, and other scholars to lay out the pro-filibuster case at 9:30 am.  And Chuck Schumer, in his role as chair of the Democratic Senate campaign committee (DSCC), hosts a conference call at 1:30 pm "to discuss how the GOP’s effort to do away with the filibuster in order to confirm a handful of the President’s most radical judicial nominees will impact the 2006 Senate races," per the DSCC release.

The Washington Times focuses on another interesting aspect of the SCOTUS justices forum moderated by NBC's Tim Russert last week: the debate amongst them over the role of international law and foreign judges in US court decisions, a pet topic amongst conservatives.

The Sunday Washington Post reported that Jack Abramoff and another lobbyist paid directly for DeLay's trip to London and Scotland in 2000.  "House ethics rules bar lawmakers from accepting travel and related expenses from registered lobbyists.  DeLay... has said that his expenses on this trip were paid by a nonprofit organization and that the financial arrangements for it were proper.  He has also said he had no way of knowing that any lobbyist might have financially supported the trip, either directly or through reimbursements to the nonprofit organization."  DeLay's attorney says that "DeLay was unaware of the 'logistics' of bill payments, and that DeLay 'continues to understand his expenses' were properly paid by" the nonprofit, on whose board Abramoff sat.

Roll Call says the House is such a powder keg that "senior Members from both sides of the aisle are cautiously exploring ways to defuse the rapidly escalating conflict over the chamber’s ethics rules...  Officials from both parties agreed that the tensions between Hastert and Pelosi over the ethics issue had escalated to the point where it might be necessary for each leader to name a trusted emissary to look for common ground."

Roll Call reports that the DeLay fuss is masking a split in the House Democratic caucus between "a growing and emboldened centrist faction and the traditionally dominant liberal wing."

In contrast, the Washington Post says Democrats have achieved notable unity on the filibuster, Bolton, and Social Security.  "The 109th Congress is still young, and Republicans have plenty of time to recover from their early setbacks. But for now, even some Republicans give the Democrats grudging credit for sticking together and staying on message."

Social Security
USA Today: "As he nears the end of a 60-day cross-country campaign, President Bush appears to be further from achieving his signature goal of transforming Social Security than when he began."  The story notes the possibility for gridlock in both the Senate and the House because of judges and DeLay.

Pegged to Bush’s visit to Galveston, TX tomorrow, the Galveston's Daily News reported over the weekend that per the White House Media Affairs office, "the president would take no questions from the press and local residents had to be invited to attend.  It was unclear Friday how the invitations were being made and to whom... President Bush’s visit will mark the fourth time a U.S. president has visited the island."

The Washington Times reports that some conservative House Republicans are asking that their chamber take the lead on the issue, not the Senate.

While the Los Angeles Times examines Bush’s personal, behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to sell his Social Security plan to GOP lawmakers.  “The lobbying effort - less visible than his high-profile 60-day campaign to promote his Social Security plan around the country - has had Bush more personally and deeply engaged with lawmakers than at any other time in his presidency… Still, the fact that Bush has had to mount such a full-court press even within his own party is a measure of just how difficult a political task he faces - and how much the dynamic between the White House and Congress has changed in his second term.”

Related events today and tomorrow: As mentioned above, both Democratic Hill leaders have canceled their regular Tuesday stakeouts and agreed to assemble their caucuses to march to a rally organized by anti-private accounts Americans United and dubbed the "National Day of Unity to Protect Social Security and Stop Privatization."  The rally will start in Upper Senate Park at 1:00 pm.  State branches of Americans United have organized some 35 simultaneous events around the country.  Americans United holds a briefing today at 2:30 pm to preview the rally and release a new poll on voter attitudes toward Social Security.

Also, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights holds a briefing at 9:00 am on their new campaign against private accounts and benefit cuts, casting Social Security as a civil rights issue.  LCCR leaders will be joined by reps from the NAACP, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Partnership for Women & Families, and the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL).

The newsmagazines and Sunday talk shows were full of Bolton tidbits, though still no silver bullet.  USA Today wraps up some of the latest allegations.

Bob Novak, meanwhile, criticizes Republicans for not doing a better job to get Bolton confirmed.  “The White House and Republican Senate leaders have a little better than two weeks to save John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations… All that can be promised is that their efforts on Bolton's behalf will be tougher and better organized than they have been so far. That should not be difficult because they could hardly be worse.

However, a senior Administration official tells NBC’s Rosiland Jordan that the White House is mounting a "full-court press" to get Bolton to the UN, which includes more public comments from Bush, Cheney, and Rice, as well as from GOP surrogates on the Hill.  The official adds that the White House is giving Sen. George Voinovich lots of background material on Bolton's record, and they believe they can pull Voinovich back into the pro-Bolton fold.

The UK elections
The elections are a week from Thursday.  The Sunday New York Times picked up on what a hot issue immigration has become in the Blair-Howard fight.  "The fiery debate challenges Britain's self-image as a land of refuge."

Today’s New York Times writes that Bill Clinton, via video hookup, endorsed Blair at a Labor Party rally on Sunday.  “Mr. Clinton's remarks seemed intended to support a drive by Mr. Blair to ensure that his supporters cast their ballots on May 5, because a low turnout could harm his Labor Party and help rivals. Mr. Blair unveiled a new campaign slogan on Saturday: ‘If you value it, vote for it.’”

Blair's rivals have stepped up their attacks on him over Iraq.  He is accusing them "of bringing up the issue... only because they had nothing serious to offer voters for the future of Britain...  Mr Blair... asked people to conduct the debate on whether the judgment to go to war was right or not "rather than attacks on my conduct and integrity.'"  - Times Online


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