“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 12, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
A lot of politically prominent feet left the ground yesterday, literally.  Amidst the mass evacuation over the misguided plane, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that Nancy Pelosi got lifted out of her shoes by a Capitol police officer, while another source tells Viqueira that the leaders of the CAFTA nations, visiting the Hill yesterday, were also literally picked up by their Secret Service escorts and moved toward the door.

  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 Read also happened to be on the Hill at the time.  Being evacuation virgins (whereas this was the third time around for Hill folks), we took the warning seriously and bolted.  Seeing our camera in-tow, one woman tried to convince us that it all had something to do with Nancy Reagan, who was also in town the last time this happened.  We saw a lot of women taking the phrase "run, just run" seriously, abandoning all footwear and taking off.  But Joan Rivers kept her stilettos on.

On a more serious note, Washington today continues to assess its vulnerability to a terrorist attack, but how about the already struggling economy?  The Wall Street Journal says stocks did "a gut-wrenching flop when the White House and Capitol were evacuated," though the markets recovered after things cleared up.  Which sort of got us thinking about the fallout from a Senate "nuclear" attack, and that Americans might start caring about the elimination of the filibuster when or if it affects them economically, rather than about the concept of Senate business not getting done.  More on this below.

Beyond "de plane," there was a lot going on here today already.  The President meets with the (now very psyched) leaders of CAFTA nations at the White House at 10:40 am, and makes remarks at 11:35 am.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee maybe votes on Bolton, maybe not -- depending on how Joe Biden feels about the State Department's response to his request for additional records.  If there is a vote, NBC's Ken Strickland says all eyes will be on George Voinovich, who appears to be the only committee Republican who remains genuinely undecided; other Republicans on the committee who had earlier expressed reservations about Bolton -- Chafee, Hagel, and Murkowski -- have at a minimum said they're inclined to support him.  Strickland says that if Voinovich were to vote against Bolton, leaving the panel in a 9-9 tie, the likely result would be the panel sending the nomination to the floor with no recommendation.

Also today, the busy Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the highly complex asbestos litigation reform bill; the Lehman Brothers political shop is telling its clients the bill has a <25% chance of reaching Bush's desk this year.  The committee also takes up a couple of previously filibustered judicial nominations.  The House takes another step toward making Social Security its own when Ways and Means does retirement security.  Senators McCain and Kennedy introduce guest-worker legislation.  And Tom DeLay gets his tribute dinner at the Capital Hilton.

First Read spoke yesterday with conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who said he isn't sure exactly who would win the vote if Frist pulls the nuclear trigger soon, but holds out the possibility that even if enough Senate moderates side with Democrats to defeat the move now, if Democrats then hold up a future Bush judicial nominee, some of those moderates might side with the Republicans on a later nuclear vote.  "We either pass it on the vote or after [the Democrats] abuse the hell out of the process," he tells First Read.  Norquist also tells us that Bush and the Republicans will have a difficult time passing any Social Security legislation this year or next, but holds out hope for after the midterm elections.  More from Norquist below.

The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

Bush II
With his committee vote looming, the Washington Post reviews: "The two main charges made by Democrats against Bolton... is that he politicized and cherry-picked intelligence to support his policy objectives, and that he acted as a bully against subordinates who displeased him.  Intelligence disputes were at the root of some of the conflicts, as Bolton on at least two occasions appears to have sought the reassignment of intelligence officials."

The New York Times front-pages that Bolton told the committee that a policymaker should have “the right to ‘state his own reading of the intelligence’ even when it differs from that of intelligence agencies.  Mr. Bolton's statement came in a written response to a written question from Senator John Kerry… and was disclosed by Democrats opposed to the nomination.  They said they would cite it as evidence that Mr. Bolton would adopt a loose standard for accuracy in making statements based on intelligence.”

USA Today and the AP asked for the White House sleepover list and found that about "a third of the 152 adult guests who slept at the White House or Camp David last year were fundraisers or donors to President Bush's campaigns, but at least half of those also are family or old friends."

It's the economy
The Los Angeles Times says CAFTA "faces serious trouble in Congress and could be defeated by [Bush's] fellow Republicans," noting how on trade, "local political imperatives often trump party loyalty."  Also: "A Bush loss on the pact would have repercussions far beyond trade with the six countries.  It could accelerate Bush's lame-duck status and perhaps weaken him politically to the point of impairing his ability to successfully push other controversial priorities."

The Washington Post says the United Airlines/Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. deal "marks the latest, and perhaps most spectacular, in a series of changes that are restructuring the relationship between American workers and large employers.  It also places severe new strains on the social safety net that has underpinned traditional private pensions since enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) in 1974."

Congress happens to be working on pension reform legislation that would make it tougher for companies to dump their pension responsibilities on the PBGC.  The Wall Street Journal looks at the balance Congress needs to strike between shoring "up the PBGC's finances" and avoiding "steps that could give companies another reason to abandon defined-benefit plans by making it even more costly to keep them afloat."  "More than two-thirds of large companies, typically those in unionized industries, offer defined-benefit pension plans...  Besides the airline and automotive companies, the PBGC is keeping a close watch on the retail sector...  Companies with the most well-funded plans are those in the computer, real-estate, biotechnology and financial-services sectors.  At the other end of the spectrum are the airline and steel industries," where "a few bankruptcies have had a domino effect."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page asks, on the heels of the United/PBGC deal, "Who's next?  And -- here's the one to really lose sleep over -- how much will the taxpayers eventually be forced to ante up?"  Beyond noting that "American, Continental, Delta and Northwest are all struggling and, facing a pension-free competitor in United... will have every incentive to follow a similar flight plan," the page frets about the auto industry.

While opinions are mixed about whether and how fast the economy is growing, all the latest news affecting the better-recognized underpinnings of the US economy has been pretty negative.  First GM and Ford, now United.  But when these icons have hit problems, they've made a splash, whereas perhaps the biggest casualty of a range of recent economic trends -- not just the flirting with a recession, but high gas prices, globalization/outsourcing/trade, and immigration -- is another American icon: what everyone thinks of as the traditional labor union.

Again, staple US industries employing lots of union members are struggling.  Beyond that, the US economy is shifting from manufacturing to high-tech and service-sector, which is fueling a rocky shift in the balance of power within the AFL-CIO as service-sector unions grow and some industrial unions wither.

The AFL already was limping.  It worked its heart out for Kerry in 2004 and lost.  Many member unions are shrinking due to attrition.  It's now being forced to lay off part of its own workforce because of financial issues.  And its president, John Sweeney, may face a challenger for his post at the organization's summer convention because of the internal disagreements over where it should be headed and how it should position itself to regain its footing and grow.

How can labor combat this loss of ground?  Service-sector members agitating for change within the AFL argue that it needs to reorganize and become more sector-oriented.  They point out that it's not like the pool of potential union members is shrinking -- health care workers and property service employees like janitors and security guards are potential pools for organizing.  A group of Democratic political strategists have been hired by unions to wage a campaign to get Wal-Mart to let employees organize and, if it works, they may try it on other companies.  Also, the AFL is targeting young people, and some manufacturers are investing in retraining programs even though they cost money.

But with organized labor tied in knots right now, it's unclear whether or when efforts will be made to compensate for the union's general decline.

On a brighter economic note, USA Today says the base-closing list expected to be released tomorrow could be "less devastating to military communities than originally feared."

The Senate and the judiciary
Beyond simply calling it potentially "dollar-negative," DC-based economic research firm ISI looks a little deeper into the potential economic impact of a Senate nuclear winter: "Having learned from the GOP government shutdowns of 1994-1995, Democrats don't want to appear obstructionist...  That argues more for a 'sand in the gears' approach to certain pieces of legislation.  This translates to refusing to agree to 'unanimous consent' requests that are routinely used in the Senate to expedite business.  So bills that might have taken a day or two might now take a week or more," which "leads to obvious kinds of Republican countermoves -- threatening to keep the Senate in nights and weekends, to shorten or eliminate recesses, and to pack lots of unrelated items into security" -- read: essential -- "bills."

(The prospect of longer business hours for the Senate prompts us to note that Harry Reid is already of the opinion that the Frist-run Senate doesn't work all that hard.  Reid told reporters at a breakfast last month that the Senate has been sticking to a "two and a half-day workweek" whereas when Democrats were in the majority, "we used to work five or six days a week.")

More from ISI: "The odds for a range of economic proposals will go down, but by how much and for how long we don't know yet."  On asbestos reform in particular: "If the judicial fight comes to a head next week, investor perceptions about prospects for the bill could turn decidedly negative."

In a statement yesterday, the AFL-CIO announced that union members had sent 80,000 emails and faxes to US senators, urging them not to eliminate the judicial filibuster.

The Washington Times reports, "Key Republicans said yesterday that although Democrats did a better job in the early fight over President Bush's judicial nominees, the GOP has achieved 'parity' in the public relations battle."

The Hill reports on a conference call Frist aides held with conservative activists to explain Frist's thinking on the timetable, noting that his aides "used a scrambling device" to keep the call from being recorded.

Roll Call focuses on how the elimination of the filibuster would likely involve Vice President Cheney, in his role as President of the Senate, overruling the Senate Parliamentarian, which "is a rare occurrence."

Social Security
USA Today says today's Ways and Means retirement security hearing "will focus largely on Social Security, including" progressive indexing.  "The first job for both committees is to find consensus among Republicans, who are deeply divided."  Then comes the work on Democrats.

Anti-private accounts Americans United hosts a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill at 12:30 pm with Ways and Means Democrats Charlie Rangel and Sander Levin, and also with constituents of GOP committee members Bill Thomas, Nancy Johnson, and Phil English.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist tells First Read that Bush and the Republicans will have a difficult time passing any Social Security legislation this year or next.  Noting that Republicans will need 60 Senate votes -- and thus essentially five Democrats joining Republicans -- to move any legislation, he says that if five Democrats don't try to help pass legislation during this Congress, then the GOP has the opportunity to defeat them in 2006 and replace them with enough Republicans to pass the legislation in the next Congress.  Bush, Norquist said, "is wise not to quit asking" to overhaul Social Security.

The Wall Street Journal's lead political story, at least online, is headlined, "Social Security May Cost Santorum His Job."  "Probably no Republican other than Mr. Bush has held more public events on the issue, though Mr. Santorum... has cut back after state-wide appearances in February drew protests...  And no one has privately pressed harder for wary Republicans in Congress to stick by the president and his private-accounts proposal -- and even to go for larger accounts."

Rep. John Sweeney (R), whose district includes the town where FDR lived, is facing criticism for not taking a position on Bush's Social Security plan, notes the Boston Globe.

DeLay's tribute dinner at the Capital Hilton starts at 7:00 pm.  Per the American Conservative Union-produced program, while the meal is served, video tributes to DeLay will be shown around the room and staffers will try to play matchmaker between prominent guests and the attending press corps.  Two-minute (in theory) speeches begin at 8:00 pm, per a draft program, including remarks by Bob Livingston, Phyllis Schlafly, former Rep. Bill McCollum, Morton Blackwell, Reps. Paul Ryan and Marsha Blackburn, and Paul Weyrich and Brent Bozell.  An eight-minute video is the build-up to DeLay's own remarks, which cap off the night.  Guests pay $250 to attend; about 900 people are expected.

As if to show that there's no getting away from Jack Abramoff for some people, the DNC is now distributing a more detailed version of the party's research document laying out the ties between the event organizers and the indicted lobbyist.  And the DNC is again banging the drum calling for the White House to release "all contacts administration officials have had with Jack Abramoff or his associates."

Nancy Pelosi, in a letter yesterday to Dennis Hastert, reiterated the Democrats' demands to have non-partisan staff serving on the Ethics Committee.  Previously, chair Doc Hastings (R) had planned to have his chief of staff serve as the committee's staff director.  "Briefly stated, the Committee... can function properly only when all Committee members can have confidence that the recommendations and analyses produced by the staff are based exclusively on their professional judgment, and are not tinged with any partisan considerations," Pelosi wrote.

"If the staffing issue is not resolved soon," Roll Call says, "it could postpone for several weeks the start of" a DeLay probe.  "The staffing controversy at ethics is already having an impact on the panel’s operations, and Republicans privately believe that Democrats are 'slow-walking' ethics matters to drag out the political pressure on DeLay and the GOP Conference."

On a FOX radio show yesterday, Hastert talked about his push to have the House ethics panel "give a written 'thumbs up or thumbs down' in advance to lawmakers who want to take a trip financed by companies or special interests." - AP

Stuart Rothenberg writes in his Roll Call column about risks for the GOP in 2006 on the ethics and gridlock fronts, but also notes, "Democratic strategists would be wise to keep their antenna up to search for signs of a more general anti-incumbent mood...  It is possible that another round of ethics finger pointing, combined with a messy fight over judges, followed by a period of gridlock could produce something close to the anti-politics, anti-Congress mood that existed during the early- to mid-1990s."

The lead prosecutor in the federal case against Sen. Hillary Clinton's former finance director kicked off his arguments in Los Angeles yesterday by emphasizing that Clinton "had nothing to do with a scheme to conceal hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions that were used to put on a star-studded fundraiser in Los Angeles for her 2000 Senate campaign...  If anything, said Justice Department lawyer Peter Zeidenberg, the New York Democrat was a victim of her campaign finance director's reckless ways."  -- Los Angeles Times

Schwarzenegger's education-reform coalition yesterday distributed a letter from teachers backing the Governor, and blasted California's teachers union for trying to raise an additional $180 from each member to finance a $54 million war chest to fight Schwarzenegger's proposals.  Addressing fellow teachers, they wrote, "[W]hile we strongly support collective bargaining, we are writing to you because we are very concerned that the teachers unions in California have become increasingly partisan and overtly political."

The Sacramento Bee writes that California county officials are griping about the costs of conducting a special election this year -- but none as vocally as Freddie Oakley, Yolo County's registrar.  “Convinced a November statewide election would waste scarce county money, she's threatening not to hold it unless ordered by a judge…  A special election, she said, would cost Yolo County $300,000 at a time it is already running a budget deficit.  Statewide, the estimated costs are about $70 million.”


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