“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 26, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Washington needs one of those massive Viking ranges today, because all of its favorites are on the front burner: Social Security comes back to the fore; the President gives Tom DeLay a lift; and while every paper but USA Today reports that talk of a possible deal on the filibuster is emanating from Capitol Hill, Karl Rove puts the kibosh on it in USA Today.

  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

First, Social Security.  The GOP theme, per a party spokesperson: Republicans are working toward solutions, Democrats are working toward obstruction.  The Democratic line, as Harry Reid said of President Bush's private accounts yesterday:  "Somebody has to drive it in to that man's head that it isn't going to work."

With the Senate taking the lead on the issue, the Finance Committee holds its first hearing on ways to fix the program at 10:00 am.  Among the witnesses: Robert Pozen, chief proponent of progressive indexing -- but apparently no one from the Administration.  Chairman Chuck Grassley has already indicated that he expects to draft a bill that's at least initially supported only by Republicans.

Bush stops in Galveston, TX on his way back from Crawford for a Social Security roundtable at 1:25 pm ET, but DeLay's presence will take up some of the national media's attention -- which is the White House's point.  NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that DeLay will be on hand even though Galveston isn't in his district, and will hitch a ride back to DC on Air Force One.  (For the Texas press' amusement, also present at the event will be Gov. Rick Perry and potential GOP primary rival Kay Bailey Hutchison.)  Bush arrives back at the White House at 5:50 pm.

And both Democratic Hill leaders have canceled their regular Tuesday stakeouts in order to march with their caucuses to a 1:00 pm rally organized by anti-private accounts Americans United.  Other organizations represented include the liberal Campaign for America's Future, National Council of Churches, NOW, the NAACP and LULAC, and AFSCME.

By the way, it's occurred to us that Arnold Schwarzenegger's political circumstances in California look awfully similar to Bush's on Social Security.   More on this below.

On judicial nominees and the filibuster, there's talk of a compromise on the Hill.  Reid told reporters yesterday that he always prefers to settle rather than go to court.  But Karl Rove, in a USA Today interview, dismisses the idea of a deal over some of the more controversial nominees.  RNC chairman Ken Mehlman delivers a poll memo on the issue to the Senate GOP policy committee today.  The most salient point from the survey, Mehlman will say, is that Americans believe Bush's judicial nominees deserve an up-or-down vote.  We'd note that other polls show that when you ask Americans if the filibuster should be preserved to give the minority an opportunity to disagree, they support that, too.

And First Read fact-checks some of the rhetoric being used in this debate, below.

Rove also staunchly defended UN ambassador pick Bolton in that interview.  NBC has picked up on some early indications yesterday that there might be some movement in his favor on Foreign Relations.

Suffice it to say, more on all of the above is below.

It's the economy
The morning take-outs on Bush's meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince yesterday all play up that the Saudis will produce more oil, but gas prices won't be going down anytime soon.  "Instead, Bush administration officials... touted long-range plans already offered by the Saudis to increase capacity and production by several million barrels per day by the end of the decade," says the Washington Times.

"Whatever the meeting lacked in new agreements, it provided some political reassurance that Mr. Bush, whose popularity has been damaged by the increase in gas prices, still has some control over the situation," says the Wall Street Journal.

Lehman Brothers' Washington Morning Report notes, "On Wednesday, the President will again address energy policy before the National Small Business Week conference.  With gas prices now over $2.20 nationwide, it remains to be seen if Congress can compromise on a comprehensive a reform bill."

In potentially big news on the health insurance front, the Los Angeles Times reports that the "number of Americans without health insurance - one of the most watched and worrisome indicators of economic well-being - may be overstated by as much as 20%, according to research conducted for the government.  That could mean 9 million fewer uninsured, reducing the total to 36 million...  The over-count... could have broad consequences for the healthcare debate," mainly in terms of government funding. 

Frist and the judiciary
Let's make a deal: Senators Lott and Nelson (NE) "are racing to round up support for an emerging bipartisan compromise" that would amount to a short-term fix, Roll Call reports.  "The plan would pave the way for votes on four nominees in exchange for Republicans’ withdrawing their threat to eliminate the filibuster...  Republicans would also agree not to pursue votes on the three remaining nominees being filibustered by Democrats - though it is unclear which nominees would be affected."

And USA Today reports that Reid "has indicated a willingness to allow confirmation of at least two of" the seven "controversial appeals court nominees, but only as part of a broader compromise requiring Republicans to abandon threats to ban judicial filibusters."  The two: Richard Griffin and David McKeague.

But -- but -- Karl Rove tells USA Today no dice.  "Rove said Bush tried to end the stalemate when he renominated just seven of the 10 nominees who had been blocked last year.  But 'I saw no change in tone' among Democrats, he said.

The Washington Post also notes that talk of a compromise “startled some liberal groups because Democratic leaders have said until now that all seven nominees were unacceptable because of their sharply conservative stands on women's issues, civil rights, the environment and other issues.”

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that a strong majority opposes any change in the rules governing the filibuster.

Reid made the rounds of media outlets yesterday, including the Monitor (formerly Sperling) breakfast and a conference call with liberal bloggers.  Among his remarks at the Monitor breakfast: "My concern" about Frist is that "his presidential aspirations may be getting in the way of his Senate leadership," Reid said.  (He also noted at another point how much he likes Frist personally.)  He repeated several times that a move to eliminate the filibuster would be "illegal."  And, asked if he's willing to deal, he said that as a former trial lawyer, he is always more willing to settle than go to court.

First Read is going to take a minute to look at the language being used in this debate.  At yesterday's Monitor breakfast, for example, Reid said several times that any effort to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees would be "illegal."  Such a move might not be fair or wise, but it's certainly not illegal.

Per congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, here's what the Republicans plan to do: Bill Frist will raise a constitutional point of order, arguing that a 60-vote requirement for judicial confirmations is unconstitutional.  Vice President Cheney, sitting in the chair, will say he agrees with that point of order.  The matter will be brought to a vote, in which a simple majority can affirm the chair's ruling.  Democrats can actually filibuster that, and the Senate parliamentarian would likely agree, but Cheney can overrule the parliamentarian and recognize a motion to table.  The Republicans will then vote, affirm the ruling of the chair, and pass the judicial nomination by a simple majority.

But Democrats aren't the only ones inflating their rhetoric here.  Republicans have said many times that filibusters against judicial nominees have been unprecedented until now.  Cheney last Friday: "Until recently, not once in the history of the United States had a group of senators ever used the filibuster to block a judicial nominee having majority support in the Senate."

In 1968, however, Republicans filibustered associate SCOTUS justice Abe Fortas' nomination to become chief justice, in part because they didn't want LBJ to make a SCOTUS change in an election year (which they would later win).  But as the Washington Post pointed out in March, the cloture vote on Fortas' nomination was 45-43, with 12 senators absent -- so it's unclear whether or not Fortas actually had majority support.  And as Ornstein has noted, if Fortas didn't have majority support, why did Republicans actually filibuster him?  Couldn't they have just blocked him in a simple up-or-down vote?  Republicans sometimes modify their rhetoric to say the Senate has never before used a filibuster to block a judicial nominee with "clear majority support" -- a more solid assertion.  Still, it's clear that Republicans have wielded the judicial filibuster before, and they've wielded it effectively.

RNC chairman Ken Mehlman sent supporters an e-mail calling Democrats "hypocrites" and claiming, "Despite Senate history and tradition, Democrats are aggressively trying to prevent qualified judges from receiving what's been afforded every judicial nominee for over 200 years."  The e-mail features nominee Janice Rogers Brown, who is African-American, and it directs recipients to call Reid's office.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Brown herself told a gathering of Roman Catholic legal professionals in Darien, CT on Sunday that "people of faith were embroiled in a 'war' against secular humanists who threatened to divorce America from its religious roots, according to a newspaper account of the speech...  Though unrelated to" the Family Research Council telecast, "Brown's remarks sounded similar themes."  No text of the speech is available.

We've observed before that conservative activists are a discerning bunch -- that you're either in the club and can't get kicked out no matter what you do, like Bush, or you're not in the club and you're trying to pass the initiation process over and over again, like Frist apparently will.  The Washington Times now reports: "Conservatives yesterday expressed anger at [Frist] for what they described as his swipe at [DeLay]...  Conservatives said Mr. Frist was courting the evangelical Christian vote while distancing himself from Mr. DeLay."

Social Security
The Washington Post reports that Grassley may not insist on private accounts.  “The official said that although Grassley would prefer the private accounts, his aim is to enact legislation that would restore the long-term solvency of Social Security."

The Chicago Tribune notes that the "decision to go ahead with hearings on specific Social Security proposals, with the prospect of an ultimate up-or-down vote, represents a strategic shift by the GOP and" Grassley.  "Not only would the new tactic highlight Democratic opposition -- which Republicans have characterized as obstructionism -- but also Republicans hoped it would narrow the nature of the debate by putting it in the legislative arena."  However, the article says, "the effort is shaping up as a major salvage operation by Republicans and something of a gamble by Grassley."

As Bush wraps up his 60-day push, Roll Call reports on additional GOP efforts this week, beyond the President's: "the GOP Conference will stage a roadblock-themed event to highlight Democrats’ alleged intransigence on the Social Security issue, complete with yellow police tape and orange traffic cones that read 'Democrat Obstruction Zone.'"  Also today, the pro-private accounts CoMPASS "will launch its 'Speak Up for Social Security Reform on Capitol Hill' effort."

Some congressional Republicans are pointing fingers at their conservative colleagues and like-minded outside groups for complicating the effort to achieve reform, The Hill says.

The RNC plans to go after Harry Reid today by resurrecting a bill Reid "sponsored when he was in the House more than 20 years ago that would have kept members of Congress out of the Social Security program," says The Hill.

Former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, praises Bush for tackling the issue but writes, "Borrowing against one's Social Security to invest in the markets is a risky strategy that would only make sense for certain high net-worth investors who can afford to lose their entire investment." 

The more Schwarzenegger's situation unfolds in California, the more similar it seems to Bush's on Social Security: the looming deadline for showing progress (by getting his initiatives onto the ballot); the energized Democrats who smell blood; Schwarzenegger's inability to centralize the process and control the message because of all the other players involved; the vast resources (both time and money) he has devoted to campaigning; and his arguable need for an exit strategy.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of USC sees the parallels, "even to the point where a 401K plan is arguably the villain," she says, in reference to Schwarzenegger's pension reform plan, which he's had to drop for 2005.  In fact, she says, "I think that Arnold began to suffer from the movement of public opinion against the President's" private accounts.

Jeffe asserts that the "arguments concerning the 'instability' of the Social Security reform and the uncertainty whether benefits would or would not have to be cut have not only eroded national public support; they have influenced the California pension reform debate (note that California pension reform opponents brought up the possibility of death benefits of law enforcement being threatened; fear and uncertainty are powerful political motivators), and contributed to the erosion of public support in this state for Arnold's plan."  She adds that since "California accounts for roughly 12% of the nation's population," then "any decrease in support for 401Ks here, if it translates BACK to a decline in Californians' support for the President's program -- and it has, though we never really supported it anyway -- has to influence the national ratings of Bush and his plan."

One difference between the state and national dynamics, she notes, might be that the fight over Social Security private accounts is a battle between Democratic lawmakers, helped by AARP and other interest groups, against Bush, whereas the "active political opposition to Schwarzenegger's plan began in earnest with powerful Democratic constituencies -- unions, nurses, teachers, etc.  This gave Democratic legislators the permission, guts, or need to oppose the Governor."

PoliticalMoneyLine has a new study out today showing that "Members of Congress have taken $16 million in privately financed trips since 2000, and more than half were sponsored by non-profit groups that don't have to disclose who is providing the money...  While ethics rules require lawmakers to try to find out and disclose who is paying for their trips, they often fail to do so."

The Washington Post reports that in wake of the DeLay controversy, many members of Congress have begun to amend their travel and campaign records -- and have even decided not to travel at all.

The Washington Times has Scott McClellan saying of DeLay's ride on Air Force One, "'We are glad to have Leader DeLay flying back with us from Galveston'...  The trip, however, is seen by many as a clear message to Republicans on Capitol Hill that Mr. Bush is standing firmly behind [DeLay] and is responding to a chorus of requests that he get behind Mr. DeLay more publicly."

Former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) is taking on DeLay in 2006, and DeLay's 2004 challenger has opted out, Roll Call reports.

The Des Moines Register talks to NBC's Tim Russert as he prepares to give a speech about the "reasons behind Congress' increasingly caustic tone" at Drake University's Knapp Center tonight.  Russert told the paper that the atmosphere in Washington is "poisonous" and he doesn't expect to get "better any time soon."

Bush II
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein lists Social Security and Bolton's nomination as two instances in which GOP moderates are showing more willingness to resist the President.  "A senior White House official said the recent discord reflected the issues Bush was pushing, rather than diminishing presidential clout...  To many observers, the second-term disputes within the GOP appear noteworthy largely in contrast to the party's unity during Bush's first term."

The Washington Times notices that the "White House is shifting debate away from" Bolton "and toward the scandal-plagued U.N. itself...  To underscore the point, the White House wants Mr. Bolton to meet with Sen. George V. Voinovich to assuage the Ohio Republican's concerns about the nominee's temperament, which some consider abrasive."

Has Voinovich grown more comfortable with Bolton's nomination?  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that per a Voinovich spokesperson. he's still undecided.  "Senator Voinovich is still reviewing Bolton's record," said the Senator's spokeswoman Marcie Ridgway, who added that Voinovich walked into that meeting last week as a "yes" vote supporting Bolton -- but didn't walk out as a "no."

Still, Move America Forward, a pro-Bolton group that had been airing ads against Voinovich, announced yesterday afternoon that they're suspending the ad campaign because they have "received reassurances from very reliable sources that Senator Voinovich has obtained a new and fair outlook on the Bolton nomination," per their release.  And NBC's Tammy Kupperman reports that Administration officials appear guardedly optimistic that Bolton's nomination will make it through Foreign Relations in the May 12 vote.  According to one senior official, Kupperman says, private conversations with senators such as Voinovich are going fairly well -- though the official acknowledges that work remains to be done.  This official also acknowledges they're in a worse position than they initially expected, but is optimistic because private conversations are going well.

That said, Harry Reid told reporters at the Monitor breakfast yesterday that Bolton's nomination "is in trouble," and said that Foreign Relations Democrats are getting calls from people saying they have additional complaints.

The New York Times notes that while most of the opposition towards Bolton has centered on a dispute related to Cuba, a top Democratic staffer on Foreign Relations has described the clash he had over Syrian weapons as perhaps the most serious example of Bolton trying to exaggerate the intelligence to fit his policy views.

Another thing Reid told reporters yesterday was that the Real ID Act, which would toughen restrictions on drivers' licenses, is likely to pass because Republicans "were pretty clever" in putting the legislation only in the House version of the war supplemental, suggesting that it wouldn't have passed the Senate.  Reid noted that filibustering the war supplemental would be politically perilous for Democrats, so they won't hold up the bill just for that.  He called the measure "a terrible piece of legislation" and said "you can't do piecemeal immigration."

The Wall Street Journal examines the conundrum faced by illegal immigrants who are "educated, but unable to get work because of their immigration status.  Their dilemma promises to be an increasing problem as more illegal immigrants attend U.S. colleges."


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