“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, May 5, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
First the new pope, now Tony Blair. Once again, a foreign election stands to provide some cultural tea leaves for the United States. The papal conclave had pundits pondering the impact a new pontiff might have on the views of American Catholics toward the Church and hot-button social issues like birth control and stem cell research. This time, some of us will be hashing over how Britain's intense debate over illegal immigration and asylum shook out.

  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

No such questions will exist, however, about whether and how the Iraq war affected the outcome. To the extent that Labor loses ground, it will largely be due to the public backlash against Blair committing Britain to fight, and to questions about how he did it. This morning's apparent grenade attack on the British consulate in New York -- no casualties reported -- is yet another reminder of just how unpopular the war has been there.

Polls opened in the UK at 2:00 am ET and close this afternoon at 5:00 pm ET, or 10:00 pm local time. West Coast network news producers take note: Early returns usually start rolling in an hour after poll closing, with winners usually projected a few hours after that (except for in Northern Ireland, which doesn’t begin counting until the next day.) Similar to US presidential election polls and electoral votes, the UK national polls, which showed Labor with a healthy lead going into election day, aren't necessarily predictive of the kind of seat margin Labor ultimately will have in the House of Commons.

Also, Blair technically is on the ballot today as a member of Parliament -- it's his fellow MP's who in theory will re-elect him prime minister once the election is over, provided Labor remains the dominant party. Blair has already anointed his eventual successor as head of the party, Chancellor Gordon Brown.

After the election, the new Parliament will meet on 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. Assuming Blair is re-elected as prime minister, there will be no inauguration or reconfirmation.

Also similar to recent US presidential elections, reports of thousands of invalid postal ballots and alleged postal vote fraud may inspire challenges by candidates after today. The House of Commons can order recounts.

Another hot-button cultural issue in the spotlight is whether and how to combine the teaching of science and faith. Today brings the start of the Kansas board of education hearings on whether or not to include intelligent design and criticism of evolution in the public school curriculum. The state debated this issue in the 1990s, but the stakes are higher now that Kansas is investing $500 million in bolstering its bioscience industry. Critics who cast the issue as an economic/employment question say that the hearings send the wrong message to potential investors and could keep Kansas students from getting the education they need to enter the industry, which is supposed to create tens of thousands of new jobs.

A couple dozen proponents of intelligent design are expected to give their views at the hearings in Topeka, which run today and tomorrow and also next week, while proponents of evolution are expected to boycott them. An NBC News poll conducted in March showed 57% of those polled believing that the Biblical account is the explanation for the origin of human life; 33% said evolution.

Right about when we published, President Bush was scheduled to make remarks on the National Day of Prayer in the East Room. Later today, at 1:35 pm, he meets with the President of Nigeria.

The Senate remains out. The House meets at 10:00 am and may pass the war supplemental today. The latest on the DeLay and filibuster sagas is below.

The UK elections
The London Times notes that the first results of today's elections should start coming in around 6:30 pm ET. The paper says that "the result of today’s general election promises to be the most unpredictable since 1992, with signs that the Liberal Democrats could be gaining ground in several Conservative seats." And with a tight race underway, both parties broke from tradition of not campaigning on election day with words of encouragement to voters to push them to the polls.

Polls show Labor leading, but with a smaller margin than in elections past. The London Times: "Labor is on 37.9 per cent. This would be a drop of 4.1 points from the 2001 election and the lowest share of any victorious prime minister.”

"If Labor's majority shrinks significantly, it could badly damage Blair, who would wield less power than in his first two terms and lose standing within his party," the AP points out.

The London Times also touches on voter-fraud allegations. "Fifteen investigations involving eight police forces were under way last night into allegations of voting fraud and malpractice during the campaign. Ten of the police inquiries concern postal voting... The number of investigations is likely to rise sharply from today.”

It's the economy
Per the Wall Street Journal, yesterday marked the third best day of 2005, in both point and percentage terms, for the Dow, the S&P 500, and NASDAQ. One force driving the surge: Kirk Kerkorian's offer to buy a hunk -- between 5% and 9%, depending on which report you read -- of all available shares of struggling General Motors, which would make him the auto maker's third-largest shareholder.

The gains came despite the fact that crude oil broke the $50 per-barrel mark, climbing 1.27% to $50.13. Still, Reuters reports that the Department of Energy predicted yesterday that gas won't hit $2.35 per gallon in May, as previously forecast, and should continue to go down before the Memorial Day weekend.

An “unanticipated gush of tax payments” flowed into the Treasury before April 15, the Washington Post reports, resulting in a Treasury Department announcement that it will repay $42 billion in federal debt in the third April-to-June quarter, instead of borrowing $12 billion. “That prompted private forecasters to lower their deficit projections for the fiscal year that ends in September.” But: “Budget analysts inside and outside the government said the positive turn is likely to be short-lived. Indeed, after a four-year absence, the Treasury Department announced yesterday it is considering reissuing its 30-year Treasury bond to help finance long-term government debt.”

David Broder notes that while Republican leaders announced that the recently passed budget will reduce the deficit in half over the next four years, the fine print has the national debt “increasing by $683 billion next year; by $639 billion the second year; by $606 billion the third year; by $610 billion the fourth year; and by $605 billion the fifth year.” Broder also writes that the budget transfers nearly $150 billion of the surplus in Social Security to pay for government spending and finance the budget’s additional $106 billion in tax cuts.

Will baby boomers wallop the stock market in the same way they're going to lay Social Security low? The Wall Street Journal takes a long look at the debate over whether stocks will remain a solid investment for younger workers looking ahead to retirement. Some are warning that the flood of baby boomers "with trillions of dollars of assets to sell over the next 20 to 40 years threatens to crush stock and bond prices," and that "it will take a massive investment in U.S. stocks by people in India, China and other developing countries to prevent a market meltdown."

Social Security
The Wall Street Journal says the White House has released an internal analysis of Bush’s proposal, showing that “by 2050, middle-income retirees would be receiving about $1,532 a month in today's dollars… compared with the $1,208 that the system would actually be able to pay… Democratic critics scoffed at the analysis. They noted that the administration's comparison of its plan with payable benefits essentially assumes that Congress will do nothing to shore up the program's finances in the years leading up to Social Security's insolvency in 2041.”

With Bush’s Social Security proposals seeming to be in trouble, the Washington Post notes, Republicans have turned to “one of their least liked but most effective colleagues” -- House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas. “The California Republican saved President Bush's tax cut in 2003, has never lost a vote on the floor and… is poised once again to try to revive the president's proposal to add personal investment accounts to Social Security. Thomas's aggressive grab for control of Social Security legislation marks a major shift in legislative strategy. The White House and House leaders had wanted the Senate Finance Committee to craft legislation first” to attract more bipartisan support.

On a conference call with reporters yesterday, Latino Democratic members of Congress and left-leaning Latino organizations pushed back against Bush's Social Security speech, criticizing his support for private accounts and his proposed benefit cuts for working- and middle-class Latinos. Rep. Grace Napolitano, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said her office has received thousands of calls on Social Security. "Not one person said go ahead with privatization." Rep. Xavier Becerra added that the group Bush was speaking to -- the Latino Coalition -- is an organization formed just a few years ago by people "who have been largely supportive of the president;" in fact, he said the group is an offshoot of the Business Roundtable. Becerra noted that "you won't find" any of the Latino organizations with deep roots and deep support with the Latino community "who are supportive of the president's Social Security agenda."

Several papers report today that the Administration has warned the AFL-CIO not to use any of its pension fund to pay for its campaign against Bush's Social Security plan.

DeLay
NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that the House ethics committee successfully organized last night, but still must fill vacant staff positions before it can begin an investigation of DeLay (or anyone else, for that matter). Reporters without cameras were permitted rare access inside the committee room to witness what turned out to be a unanimous vote in favor of reverting back to the old rules. A few minutes later, Viqueira says, the committee chairman and ranking Democrat appeared on camera to announce that they were "up and running." They do not, however, have the staff necessary to begin an investigation. Both were eager to point out that they don't foresee a problem with eventually hiring the necessary people, but a process involving a "pool" of candidates put forward by both Republicans and Democrats must be initiated.

Regarding the reports that two Republican members of the committee -- Congressman Tom Cole and Lamar Smith -- will recuse themselves in any investigation of DeLay due to conflict-of-interest concerns (both have contributed to DeLay’s defense fund), Viqueira notes that according to one staffer, two new members could be drawn from a pool to serve temporary duty on any DeLay probe.

And Viqueira says that DeLay was warmly received yesterday at a gathering of high-tech industry reps and lobbyists in the Capitol, a fact that perhaps demonstrates his continuing viability among core GOP constituencies, which may have been the idea to begin with (Viqueira says his appearance was scheduled at the last minute).

Per Viqueira, some select quotes from DeLay's weekly pen and pad yesterday: He says that he has done everything "by the book" when it comes to travel, etc. On Democratic members Meehan and Emanuel calling for reform of House rules governing contacts with lobbyists: "I'm not interested in the water that they are carrying for some of these leftist groups... What I am interested in and have asked and will ask formally of the ethics committee is to look at the entire trip situation. I think it's confusing, other members find it confusing. I think there needs to be a better process..." Asked when he'll make his case to the ethics panel: "As soon as possible. As you know we have been trying to get before the ethics committee for a month."

And, on the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress' s call for corporations to halt their donations to DeLay's defense fund: "You really think a leftist group like that will have an impact on people that support me and support what I am trying to accomplish here? I don't think so."

The Washington Post writes that House GOP leaders are considering whether to tighten ethics rules on travel and possibly “grant amnesty for minor violations in order to preclude hundreds of potential investigations… Four aides close to the House GOP leadership said the ethics committee may be asked to issue a new set of rules and then announce that it will not investigate reporting errors made under the old system, such as failing to disclose a trip, erroneously reporting the funding for a trip or missing a filing deadline.” The aides stressed, the Post says, that any changes would not alter plans for the committee to investigate whether lobbyists paid for DeLay’s travel.

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, covers the proposals by Democrats Meehan and Emanuel, which “would require lawmakers to disclose more detailed itineraries of their trips and prohibit registered lobbyists from organizing junkets. It also would extend to two years the waiting period for former lawmakers to lobby Congress.”

Finally, the Washington Post reports that 12 current and former congressional leaders -- including DeLay, Roy Blunt, and Harry Reid -- have flown on corporate-owned jets at least 360 times from January 2001 to December 2004. “The use of these jets remains one of the last corporate-financed perquisites of elected office allowed under congressional ethics rules, which permit lawmakers to fly on them to fundraisers and other events despite a welter of laws meant to restrain the influence of corporations in politics.” The article adds that House leaders have often not given full reimbursements for this jet travel.

The Senate and the judiciary
The Hill reports that Frist’s chief of staff has told conservative activists and business leaders that he will deploy the nuclear option in less than a month. But social conservatives, who believe from talks with Frist’s staff that the trigger might be pulled next week, “are predicting a conservative backlash if Senate Republicans delay any longer.”

In the battle over judicial nominees, the 1968 filibuster of Abe Fortas has become the linchpin in the debate of whether or not filibusters against judicial nominees are unprecedented, as Republicans claim. Not surprisingly, conservative senators, interest groups, and blogs have tried to debunk this 1968 filibuster. They say Fortas didn't have "clear" majority support (since the cloture vote was 45-43, with 12 senators absent); they note that both Democrats and Republicans opposed Fortas; they highlight the ethical questions surrounding his nomination; and some -- namely, Sen. John Cornyn -- have questioned whether Fortas was truly filibustered, although others admit he was.

But we once again ask this question, first posed by congressional scholar Norm Ornstein: If Fortas didn't seem to have majority support, then why was he filibustered? Why didn't he receive an immediate up-or-down vote? Sean Rushton, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice, answers that the Republican senator who initiated the filibuster -- Robert Griffin of Michigan (whose son, ironically, is one of the blocked judicial nominees at the center of this debate) -- didn't know the vote count on the Democratic side. "The filibuster allowed them to slow things down and have a conservation about it," he tells First Read. But Ornstein replies that this filibuster, no matter how you slice it, helped defeat Fortas, and that debunks the GOP argument that judicial filibusters are unprecedented. "They are tying to call this pig a swan," Ornstein says.

The values debate
Steve Abrams, head of the Kansas State Board of Education, will preside over hearings that begin in Topeka today on the teaching of evolution in Kansas schools. The Kansas City Star notes that Abrams, who is associated with the GOP, is leading "the effort against evolution" and that "Kansas could end up with science standards that are friendlier to intelligent design than any in the nation." The article also says that "[t]he three days of testimony this week will provide the largest platform any state board ever has offered to proponents of intelligent design, a theory that contends the universe is too complex to be explained by natural causes alone."

The Johnson County Sun reports that hearings will run today through Saturday, and "[t]wenty-four witnesses from across the nation and another country will present oral arguments for the intelligent design side of the issue."

The Wichita Eagle writes that the "state board had set aside three days next week for evolution supporters to present their case," but that they don't plan on calling any witnesses and therefore [o]nly one day of hearings is planned next week."

Speaking of states seeking to beef up their bioscience industries, the New York Times looks at the pitched battle in California over the location of the HQ for its $3 billion stem cell initiative.

Immigration
The Wall Street Journal editorial page seizes on Bill Gates saying "immigration policies are threatening U.S. competitiveness like never before," singling out H1-B visa caps. Gates and the page agree that the caps, "combined with a U.S. education system that's not producing enough science and engineering talent, will inevitably affect domestic growth and global competitiveness in the technology sector." The page notes that "so much of the immigration debate" focuses on low-skilled workers, and that the current H1-B policy "won't keep U.S. innovators and entrepreneurs on the cutting edge," or "help us continue as the world's science and technology leader."

Meanwhile, the papers continue to focus on the REAL ID driver’s license provisions. USA Today says those provisions, attached to the Iraq supplemental bill, could pass the House today before the Senate votes on it next week. The act would require state motor vehicle offices to force applicants to produce four forms of identification to obtain driver's licenses.

The New York Times says that even in advance of the enactment of REAL ID, drivers' licenses are tricky prospects for illegal immigrants and can potentially land them in jail, and REAL ID critics say the legislation will exacerbate that process and offer illegal immigrants even less recourse.

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