“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, May 2, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
With Laura Bush lightening things up at the White House correspondents' dinner Saturday night, the combustible Senate out for the week, and the President and Vice President hitting the road to sell progressive indexing, there's some feeling of a temporary cease fire on Social Security, the filibuster, and Bolton.  That said, the gas price issue really hits home for Washington today: cabs are adding a $1.00 surcharge for the next four months.  And though the Senate is out, the House is in and the ethics committee is expected to start organizing.

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Cheney does Social Security today, while Bush does it tomorrow and Wednesday.  Cheney has a town hall at a high school in Smyrna, GA at 10:30 am, followed by remarks to students and staff at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, GA at 4:20 pm.  President Bush does Social Security events at a Nissan plant in Canton, MS on Tuesday and before a Latino audience in DC on Wednesday.  Today, he makes remarks at the "Preserve America" Presidential Awards at 10:50 am.

In addition to jumping on Bush for hurting the middle class, Democrats continue to refuse to consider progressive indexing until Bush takes private accounts off the table.  On the other hand, conservatives might be willing to support progressive indexing if private accounts remain part of any deal.  NBC's Mike Viqueira reports below on how, as of Friday, progressive indexing hadn't been rejected out of hand by some key conservatives or Democrats in the House, which in and of itself offers the White House some hope.

Elsewhere around the country, immigration is boiling up in various ways and becoming increasingly difficult for politicians to either overlook or gloss over; Kansas is bracing for more state board of education hearings on the teaching of evolution later this week; and a Chelan County, WA court judge holds a preliminary hearing today on the state GOP’s legal challenge to Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire’s 129-vote victory.  Chelan County leans Republican, and Gregoire's Republican opponent won it by a wide margin last November.

And on Thursday, by the time most Americans get to work that morning, the UK elections will be well under way.  Your UK election primer is below.

Social Security
NBC's Viqueira reported that as of Friday, progressive indexing hadn't been rejected out of hand by some key conservatives or Democrats in the House, which in and of itself offers the White House some hope.  When the House conservative caucus hosted chief progressive indexing proponent Robert Pozen last Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan, a House point person on the issue and a member of the caucus, said that members are willing to consider the idea.  Normally, Viqueira points out, House conservatives are not in favor of means testing, but as a caucus, they have decided to hold their fire for now -- though there may be individuals who stray.

Ryan told Viqueira he thinks that including the provision will help attract Democrats.  But he also made it clear that if conservatives are to support progressive indexing, there absolutely must be private accounts -- and not as an add-on.  The alternative is to have a reform bill that relies chiefly on Democratic support, and that just doesn't happen in the current atmosphere in the House.  That said, Viqueira notes that Democrats continue to stand firm against the accounts.

It's early, but House Republicans seem to think that the progressive indexing will win over enough Democrats to make up for the loss of some conservatives.  Conservatives may also go for what Ways and Means chief Bill Thomas is cooking up on "retirement incentives" for those who will see their Social Security benefits decrease as a result of means testing.  Put it all together, and you can almost see how the legislation is doable in the House, Viqueira says.  Before last Friday, it took a lot more imagination to see them succeeding.

The Wall Street Journal, based on talks with Pozen and the Social Security Administration, writes up how progressive indexing would work -- and that it's "unclear" whether it will help Bush make his sell.  "The president drew immediate pans from Democrats and some conservative Republicans."  But GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, "who has struggled for a bipartisan solution, took heart," saying that "Mr. Bush has disarmed 'free lunch' Republicans who want private accounts without benefit or tax changes for Social Security's solvency, and potentially reassured moderate Democrats who say solvency is their goal and oppose more federal debt."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page says that as "a policy matter, this at least challenges Democrats to honor their own principles," but fears that Bush is taking the political risk of falling into Democrats' "solvency trap."

The Los Angeles Times notes that Treasury Secretary Snow "has spent more than half of his time on Social Security...  Only Bush has been more prominent in promoting the plan."  But to what effect, ask critics, who "question Snow's willingness to devote so much time and attention to a single legislative priority when the economy appears to be hitting a soft patch, the budget and trade deficits have widened and several top-level Treasury Department positions remain unfilled."

In a USA Today op-ed, Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls Bush's Social Security effort "a place holder" that "blocks consideration of the real domestic crisis President Bush doesn't want to touch: the health care system."  Reich charges that the Administration "doesn't want to tackle" health care because "[d]oing so would require an active role for government, and they're ideologically opposed."

The Washington Post revisits the overall question of whether the 2004 election gave Bush a mandate: "With the president's poll numbers down, and the Republican majority ensnared in ethical controversy, things look much less like a once-a-generation realignment" than like a "happens-all-the-time phenomenon -- the mistaken assumption by politicians that an election won on narrow grounds is a mandate for something broad."  The story notes that Bush himself set the bar so high, particularly with Social Security, that his bankruptcy and class-action wins don't really measure up.

It's the economy
Last Friday, crude oil fell $2.05 to $49.72, its lowest close -- and first below $50 -- since February 18.  Analysts speculated "that while the era of expensive oil wasn't over, prices could fall some more in the coming weeks," says the Wall Street Journal, which calls the Friday dip below $50 a barrel "psychologically significant."

The Sunday Boston Globe looked at Administration efforts, using the courts and Congress, to centralize the regulation of US industry, taking authority away from the states.  The story notes that the effort has gone largely unnoticed because the regulation of social issues like abortion tends to get more attention than regs that affect the environment or the consumer.  "Policy makers in the administration and Congress say they are merely makingrules uniform and easier to follow," and that "it is unfair and impractical to expect industries to keep track of 50 different sets of regulations...  But critics see a powerful assertion of federal authority in those areas and others by a government controlled by one party."

USA Today gives play to corporate execs who leave their companies but not the payroll, earning lucrative "consulting fees" and perks which sometimes aren't properly disclosed to the SEC.

DeLay tells the Washington Times he has "'been watched and investigated probably more than even Bill Clinton,' he said.  'They can't find anything, so they're going back to my childhood, going to my family, going to things that happened eight years ago.  There's nothing there.'"

Noting the House’s successful passage of a budget bill last week, Bob Novak argues that DeLay -- despite all the controversy surrounding him -- is still effective.  “DeLay is at the peak of his powers...  That explains why, in the face of this onslaught, GOP House members have been firm in sticking with him.”

If it's Sunday, it's... another front-page Washington Post investigative story about Jack Abramoff, focusing on Abramoff's "brief and tumultuous time as owner of" a fleet of floating casinos.  The story has some details on how Abramoff used Washington contacts like DeLay and Rep. Bob Ney to close the deal.  A DeLay spokesperson says DeLay does not recall the events in which the Post describes him or his office as being involved.

Roll Call says a DeLay probe could start as early as this week; Ney could also wind up getting investigated.

Nancy Pelosi made a vague reference to her own travel issues yesterday, saying "those should not be confused or equated with larger ethical issues."  - Washington Post

The Senate and the judiciary
Bill Frist is in the Middle East all week.  But he gave a parting interview to USA Today, in which he said "he's 'running out of options'" in the filibuster fight.  "Although Frist acknowledged that he still has work to do with some of his own Republicans, he said he will have the votes to declare the filibuster of Bush's nominees unconstitutional.  He also said he's concerned about... Harry Reid's threats to retaliate by slowing down legislative activity...  But Frist predicted Democrats will cave to political pressure and end such blockade."

Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg is the latest to handicap Frist's chances of turning a successful tenure as majority leader (still TBD) into a successful presidential bid: "Frist’s challenge is to re-make himself and add a list of Capitol Hill victories to his résumé between now and early 2007 if he is to have any chance of winning the GOP nomination, let alone the White House."  Rothenberg notes that even if Frist pulls that off, he needs to work on his stump skills.

Progress for America, the 527 which lately has been focused on promoting private accounts for Social Security, now turns its attention to eliminating the filibuster for judicial nominees.  PFA holds a 10:00 am press conference to outline their strategy and grassroots efforts, which will include TV ads targeted at certain US senators.  The AP says PFA will spend almost $2 million on ads.

State legislatures around the country are considering "whether to grant driver's licenses and other benefits to people who entered the USA illegally," says USA Today.  "Some states are moving to restrict the rights of illegal immigrants, while some may expand them...  The proposed legislation comes amid rising concern over the impact of illegal immigration on the job market, schools, health care and other public services."  More than 30 states are considering the drivers license issue.

The Sunday Washington Post looks at how REAL ID -- the bill which would toughen federal restrictions on drivers licenses -- would also make one of the world's strictest asylum processes even stricter.  Proponents argue that the changes are needed to prevent terrorists from exploiting the process to enter the United States.

The Minutemen wrapped up their effort along the Arizona border over the weekend, encouraged by their success and pledging to launch similar efforts in other states bordering Mexico, as well as along parts of the Canadian border.  But residents in a Vermont county on the Canadian border say the Minutemen aren't welcome there because there simply isn't an immigration problem, reports the Burlington Free Press.

The Washington Times says the Friends of the Border Patrol, an "organization of citizens in California, created last year to support the U.S. Border Patrol, will begin its own Minuteman-style vigil in August, using volunteers to spot illegal aliens in areas around San Diego."

The Los Angeles Times says a flood of federal appellate court cases filed by immigrants fighting to stay in the United States are "creating huge backlogs and fundamentally changing the character of the second-highest courts in the nation.  The deluge reflects growing dissatisfaction with the nation's immigration courts, and attorneys representing asylum-seekers and others say they have little choice but to appeal to the federal judiciary.  The trend is nationwide, federal records show, but bearing the brunt of this sudden surge is the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals."

Base politics
Last week, First Read looked at how labor, pro-choice groups, and other traditional components of the Democratic base are suffering from attrition.  Now, four unions, amounting to one-third of the total AFL-CIO membership, have asked that their members be removed from the AFL's 13 million-household master list, used for political organizing.  The four are the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters, the Laborers, and Unite Here.  Their reasons seem proprietary -- an alleged failure by the AFL to share information.  – Washington Post

The Sunday Washington Post also writes up how national gun-control groups were caught off-guard by a new gun-rights bill which overwhelmingly passed the Florida legislature.  The bill would allow gun owners "to use deadly force even if they could have fled and says that prosecutors must automatically presume that would-be victims feared for their lives if attacked."

The Des Moines Register says that the debate over ending Iowa's 40-year ban on the death penalty could play a large role in its 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary, especially after the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young girl drove Republicans to consider endingto end the ban in the state legislature.  The Democratic field so far consists of two anti-death penalty candidates and one pro-.

USA Today considers some high-profile politicians' more centrist attitudes toward abortion lately.  "Almost no one suggests that either party is likely to change its absolutist stance on abortion.  But some strategists and officeholders, particularly among Democrats, say the tone and approach ought to be adjusted to acknowledge the ambivalence most Americans feel."

Meanwhile, after First Read considered last Friday whether there's room for a moderate to win the GOP presidential nomination, Pat Robertson said yesterday that Rudy Giuliani, despite their disagreements on social issues, would make "a good president."  - Los Angeles Times

The UK elections
By the time most Americans get to work on Thursday, the UK elections will be well under way.  Polls open at 2:00 am ET and close at 5:00 pm ET (7:00 am till 10:00 pm, locally).  Early returns usually start rolling in an hour after polls close, and winners are projected just a few hours after that (except for in Northern Ireland, which doesn’t begin counting until the next day.)  The last national elections were held in June 2001, when Blair and Labor won in a landslide.  This round is shaping up a bit differently.

Bear in mind that Blair technically is not on the ballot as prime minister, but as a member of Parliament (MP).  But he is the face of the Labor Party, and faces such intense criticism from his opponents for the Iraq war, along with general concern about general voter fatigue, that he is already promoting an anointed successor, Chancellor Gordon Brown, as the future head of the party should they elect him to one more term as prime minister.  If he wins a third consecutive term, Blair would become the first Labor leader to do so.

The UK’s constitutional monarchy has two main branches.  Under the executive branch, the Queen fills a largely ceremonial role, while the prime minister serves as the head of government.  This election will designate 646 new MPs in the House of Commons (down 13 from 2001 because of redistricting) and, indirectly, a prime minister.  Each MP represents one voting district and is elected by a “first-past-the-post” system, which means simply that whoever has the most votes, wins.  The leader of the party that captures the most MPs becomes the prime minister.  If no party wins a majority, some parties may form a coalition to reach a majority, then elect a leader.

While Blair and Labor currently hold a consistent lead over Michael Howard and the Conservative Party in the polls, with Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats trailing further back, that lead is narrow -- nothing like the comfortable margin they enjoyed in 2001.  The CW is that Labor will remain the majority party, but will lose some seats.  With Howard running an intensely negative campaign on the Iraq war, immigration, and attacks on Blair's character, Labor is concerned about a low turnout and about losing voters to the Liberal Democrats, either of which could benefit the Tories.  Turnout in 2001 was 59%, down from 71% in 1997.  Also, if Labor bleeds seats, Blair's role as head of the party could be endangered.

While the UK's electoral system differs from that of the United States, ballot problems appear to be universal.  Last week, election officials reported that thousands of invalid postal ballots were sent to voters in three districts.  According to The Guardian, people wishing to vote via mail must have two forms "marked with one serial number: the ballot paper and an identification form requiring a signature from the voter and a witness."  The faulty ballots sent out last week did not have matching serial numbers, which means "votes returned in the post would have been excluded in the final the count as 'null and void,'" disenfranchising thousands of voters.  While some hope that the winner secures a bigger margin than the number of faulty ballots, if the results are challenged, the House of Commons could order a recount.

After Thursday's election, the new Parliament will meet the following Wednesday to discuss legislative business, elect a new speaker, and inaugurate the newly elected MPs.  The official "state opening" of Parliament takes place on May 17.  If Blair is reelected as prime minister, there will be no inauguration or reconfirmation.

The Washington Post profiles Gordon Brown.

The Times reports on a document showing that Blair "privately committed Britain to war with Iraq and then set out to lure Saddam Hussein into providing the legal justification."

The Guardian calls "the battle for the progressive middle class now vital to the eventual outcome."

The Times also reports that Howard has decided to cease all attacks on Blair for the duration of the campaign.  That said, The Guardian reports Liberal Democrats leader Kennedy is picking up the slack, accusing Blair of being a lame duck who can't recover his authority.


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