“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.

Friday, May 13, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
To the general public today, "B" is for BRAC.

  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

The Pentagon announces Rumsfeld's proposed list of military base closures and realignments -- fewer than had previously been expected, Rumsfeld said yesterday -- at 10:30 am.  Per NBC's Scott Foster, after the announcement, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission has until September 8 to forward its recommendation to the President, who has until September 23 to either endorse it or reject it as a whole.  If Bush accepts it, Congress then has 45 days to review the list before it becomes final.  Lists to have handy for cross-referencing purposes: the 2004 presidential results, broken down by state and district; US senators and governors up for re-election in 2006; House members in competitive districts; and the latest state unemployment data.

At this writing, Senators Clinton and Schumer have scheduled a press conference call to talk about the BRAC at 12:45 pm.  They won't be the only ones.  Governor Schwarzenegger has a big day scheduled, releasing his revised budget proposal in Sacramento at 4:00 pm, but expect him to have something to say about the BRAC list, too.

In Washington, with Sunday shows looming, "B" is also for Bolton.  Bush's nominee for UN ambassador goes to the Senate floor without a recommendation from the Foreign Relations Committee -- and with a serious rhetorical spanking from George Voinovich, who ultimately found that Bolton does not pass the George and Janet Voinovich kitchen-table test.  A senior White House official tells NBC's David Gregory that the White House believes they have the votes to get Bolton confirmed, and that they were warned earlier of what Voinovich would do.  This official said of Voinovich, however: "We didn't expect him to sit up there and read the DNC talking points."

NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the floor vote may not happen for a few days to allow more time for debate.  Although it's rare for nominees to get confirmed without committee recommendations, Strickland notes that Clarence Thomas was reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 without one, and was approved by the full Senate, 52-48.  But there's also the prospect of a Democratic filibuster.  And given the timing of a Bolton floor vote, it could happen right around the same time that Bill Frist decides to hold a vote to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations.  (Per the New York Times, however, Frist’s chief staff notes that it could come after the vote on the filibuster.  See below.)  Remember that Senate Republicans have insisted that the move to eliminate the filibuster would only apply to judicial nominees, but some Democrats have suggested Republicans would apply it to other issues, as well.

The Senate meets at 10:00 am; the House is not in session.

President Bush addresses the National Association of Realtors in DC at 10:10 am.  He then makes remarks to the 2004 NCAA Spring and Fall Sports Champions at the White House at 2:15 pm.  Vice President Cheney gives the commencement address at Auburn in Alabama at 10:00 am.

The DeLay tribute last night gets little coverage today because of its timing and the tons of other news yesterday.  Yet the coverage that is out there seems to have different themes -- that DeLay was combative, or that the event was used to soften his image, or that few members of Congress actually showed up.

And finally, because it's Friday, First Read takes another look at the great oh-eight presidential race -- this time we examine the power of Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge and the impact it will have on the battle for the GOP nomination.

Bush II
Outside the Foreign Relations committee room yesterday, Senator Boxer said that "'we always have in the back' the option of a filibuster, a parliamentary maneuver to prevent a vote."  - USA Today

"Administration officials and GOP lawmakers said they were confident Bolton would win approval from the GOP-controlled Senate, where they said few if any Republicans would join Voinovich in opposition.  The embattled nominee may also pick up as many as three Democratic votes, they added."  - Washington Post

The New York Times has Frist’s chief of staff saying a full Senate vote on Bolton’s nomination will occur after lawmakers resolved their dispute over judges and the filibuster.

Another New York Times article and also the Wall Street Journal use the clash over Bolton to look at moderates in Congress.

A Los Angeles Times news analysis notes that yesterday’s vote on Bolton was emblematic of the entire Bush presidency.  “Like so many of Bush's initiatives, the nomination of the blustery Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations energized conservatives, outraged Democrats and squeezed moderates in both parties. And, as he has many times before, Bush won the legislative fight by the narrowest of margins… The vote demonstrated again Bush's willingness to live on the political edge - to accept achingly narrow margins in Congress and at the ballot box to pursue ambitious changes that sharply divide the country.”

The AP wonders about Bush's waning power as members of his "own party are giving him an increasingly hard time over everything from Social Security to a free-trade pact for Central America to his plan to ease immigration laws.  It may be an early lame-duck warning for his presidency."

It's the economy
A USA Today editorial reminds soon-to-be-panicked lawmakers and local business leaders that "[e]arlier this month, Congress' bipartisan Government Accountability Office reported on four previous rounds of base closings.  Overall, communities were able to replace 85% of the lost civilian jobs.  Many found innovative new uses for shuttered facilities."  The page's point: Chill out, base closings don't wind up being as damaging as many fear.

The San Francisco Chronicle examines the possible politics behind which bases get closed.  Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California “said she was nervous California might face more than its share of closures because it is a ‘blue state’ that voted heavily for Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, in last year's election.  ‘I have heard one of the senators from Georgia reassure people that because they were a big George Bush state, they wouldn't be hit as hard,’ Tauscher said. ‘If we use past performance as our guide, I am worried that it is going to be more politically tinged to color maps than it is about anything else.’”

A drop in oil prices yesterday means oil prices "may have peaked for the year," the Washington Times.  "The development suggests that the record high oil and gasoline prices driven by China's oil binge in the last year may have been influenced greatly by the artificially low fuel prices maintained by the Chinese government."

The Wall Street Journal's latest survey of economists shows that the "'soft patch' that the economy entered early this year will continue to sap growth through midyear."

The Washington Post notes how Bush pushed his "floundering" CAFTA yesterday "as key to his broader stated mission of spreading democracy throughout the world."

The AFL-CIO, announcing an anti-CAFTA tour yesterday, which features a presser in New York on Sunday, calls CAFTA "the Wal-Mart of trade deals that serves to grease the corporate race to the bottom on wages and jobs and worsen conditions for workers in the U.S. and Central America."

The AFL is also joining in on the burgeoning Democratic effort to tie progressive indexing of Social Security to business and the federal government's growing pension issues.  AFL president John Sweeney said in a written statement on the Ways and Means retirement security hearing yesterday that "legislation that would cut guaranteed benefits drastically for millions of middle-class working families... is inconceivable at a time when half the private workforce has no retirement plan on the job and companies are systematically eliminating pensions."

The Merrill Lynch research department seems to have picked up on the same line, pointing clients yesterday to "[a]rticles in the papers this morning about [United Airlines] ditching its pension liabilities - and Congress scrambling to protect against other companies following suit to saddle the taxpayer with the same.  There’s no good way out of this - the combination of promises and demographics means supporting retirees will cost more and more ahead, and it's just a matter of how those costs get distributed ahead.  Interesting, though, that the government is being pressed into covering private sector pensions while trying to ditch its own obligations via Social Security reforms."

And as the President prepares to address the National Association of Realtors, the association is in the process of trying to head off a federal antitrust lawsuit by drafting a deal that would allow homebuyers to "use lower-cost Internet sites" to "view as many home listings as those who use traditional brokers' Web sites."  - USA Today

The Senate and the judiciary
The Washington Post covers the Judiciary Committee's party-line vote to send William Pryor's nomination to the floor yesterday; Harry Reid's offer to Bill Frist "to allow confirmation votes on four stalled nominees without demanding GOP concessions in return;" and Frist's rejection of that offer, "saying another stalled nominee -- Priscilla Richman Owen of Texas... -- is more deserving of a prompt vote after waiting more than four years.  A Democratic activist with close ties to senators said Reid's strategy is 'simply to make Frist look rigid and extreme and unwilling to deal on any level.'"

The Washington Times notes how Reid's citation of judicial nominee Henry Saad’s FBI file yesterday has caused an uproar among conservatives.  “Furious Saad supporters said they had never heard about the previous committee leak and called Mr. Reid's remarks an 'unfounded smear' indicative of how nasty the debate over judges has become."

In a conference call with approximately 3,000 Democratic activists, sponsored by the DNC, Sen. Ted Kennedy said yesterday that a vote on the filibuster would likely come in the middle of next week; that the Democrats have 49 "hard votes" on their side (including four Republicans); and that to win, Democrats would need to convince just two more undecided Republicans to join them.  "The tide is generally in our favor," he said.  Also in the call, Kennedy complained that the Republicans' desire to change the filibuster is a power grab.  "They feel they are entitled to the judiciary," he said.  "The Republican radical right believes they don't have to play by the rules."

Social Security
USA Today leads with Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas' proposal to boost savings by having Americans enroll "automatically in savings plans with an option to opt out - the reverse of the usual practice."

The Washington Post saw in the hearing the same "fissures" over raising revenue or cutting benefits that once split the Bush White House.  "White House aides have been trying to put the public dispute to rest for months, if not years. But their failure to do so has left the GOP looking divided, next to united Democrats, who say they will not negotiate until Bush puts aside his call for private accounts financed through Social Security taxes."  In the kicker, a Democratic policy expert notes that "Bush's economic honesty has played to the Democrats' favor."

The Senate Democratic Policy Committee holds a hearing on private accounts today at 10:00 am.  Per the release, "The hearing will examine the impact of the President’s new proposals, which include steep benefit cuts for workers earning more than $20,000 per year, and a second benefit cut - sometimes known as a 'privatization tax' that experts say could exceed 70% of the value of their account, and which would be deducted from their Social Security benefits."  The release notes that both "proponents and opponents of the President’s plan to privatize Social Security are scheduled to testify at the hearing."

The Houston Chronicle on last night’s tribute dinner for DeLay: “The evening had the fired-up atmosphere of a political rally, with festive interludes of country music… People sported ‘Hooray for DeLay’ stickers on their lapels, and white-frosted cakes for dessert had pink hammers on top, inspired by DeLay's nickname, ‘The Hammer.’”

The New York Times sums up DeLay’s speech last night this way: “Under siege from Democrats over accusations of ethical impropriety, Representative Tom DeLay did what he does best on Thursday night at an elaborate tribute in his honor: He went on the offensive.”  The article notes that there were several no-shows, including Grover Norquist and one member of Congress who was scheduled to speak.  “When one speaker, Bob Livingston, a former representative from Louisiana, asked current and former member of Congress to stand up, the showing was relatively sparse, perhaps two dozen.”

But the Los Angeles Times says, “Despite the tough talk, a significant portion of the evening, … was designed to present a softer impression of DeLay, whose tactics earned him the nickname ‘the Hammer.’  A video and several speakers praised DeLay's religious faith, his generosity and his willingness to take in foster children, including several troubled teens.”

The New York Times also notes that a federal grand jury has subpoenaed the files of a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and another Democratic political consultant in a criminal investigation of Jack Abramoff.  “The subpoena to [the Democrats] is a reminder that Mr. Abramoff … also sought help from Democrats on behalf of his lobbying clients.”  These Democrats, however, deny knowing that Abramoff was ever involved in their own lobbying efforts.

The values debate
In Nebraska yesterday, a federal judge declared the state's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, a decision which allows plaintiffs to lobby for protections.  "Forty states have laws barring same-sex marriages," the AP says, "but Nebraska's ban is the only one that prevented homosexuals who work for the state or its university system from sharing health insurance and other benefits with their partners."

Reminder: DNC chair Howard Dean addresses the Massachusetts Democratic party convention tomorrow, intending not to take a position -- beyond a states' rights one -- on the pro-gay marriage plank the party is adding to its platform.

Gov. Schwarzenegger unveils his revised budget proposal today in Sacramento at 4:00 pm ET.  The Los Angeles Times says it will include a $174 million plan to reduce class size in the state’s lowest-ranked schools.  “It is part of an effort by his administration to shift the education debate away from how much money the state is spending on schools. Officials want to focus it instead on ideas that could boost academic performance without increasing costs by billions of dollars.”

Oh-eight (R)
Today's GOP, as any political observer knows, has a passion for cutting taxes.  Ditto for opposing any kind of tax increase.  And the person who's perhaps most responsible for that is Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.  Since 1986, Norquist has asked Republicans to literally take a pledge not to raise taxes, and to also oppose reducing tax deductions unless they're offset by further tax cuts.  They have obliged: Norquist says 222 congressmen, 46 US senators, and six governors have all taken the pledge.  (All Republicans, except for three Democratic congressmen.)

The pledge also extends to the party's presidential candidates.  In 2000, all of them took it, and as president, Bush has certainly followed through on that promise, becoming the only US president since the Civil War not to raise taxes during wartime.  In fact, Norquist tells First Read that only two GOP presidential candidates haven't taken the pledge: Bob Dole (in 1988) and Pat Robertson.  Norquist argues that Dole's refusal "cost him the nomination" on his first effort and that he reversed course and took the pledge in 1996.  Norquist also likes to point out that breaking the pledge, as Bush 41 did in 1990, also has consequences.  "Everybody knows now that when you take it, you mean to keep it or you'll lose the next election," he told the Washington Times in 1999.

In the party's 2008 field, almost all of the potential candidates out there have taken the pledge already: George Allen, Sam Brownback, Bill Frist, John McCain, Mark Sanford, and Rick Santorum.  Among the exceptions are Rudy Giuliani (who, Norquist says, has informed him about his tax-cutting ways as New York mayor), Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney.  Norquist notes that Romney didn't take the pledge when he ran for Massachusetts governor in 2002, and Norquist didn't endorse him.  "That said," Norquist tells First Read, "should he run for president, I would bet you a nickel he would take the pledge."  And on Huckabee, Norquist doubts that the Arkansas governor would ever get his support, since Huckabee has raised taxes.  "He would have a serious problem."

Indeed, Norquist contends that it's virtually impossible for any GOP candidate to grab the nomination without taking the pledge.  The reason: "There is not a tax-increase wing of the Republican party," he says, adding that pledge-taking candidates would successfully pummel those who haven't refused to increase taxes.

Nevertheless, we asked, in today's more challenging fiscal environment -- with deficits once again as far as the eye can see and with politicians now clamoring to address Social Security's solvency -- wouldn't a no-taxes pledge limit some of these candidates' policy options?  Without raising income taxes, for instance, the only way to cut the projected deficits and the trillions in public debt is to rely on a humming economy to bring in more tax revenues. Without raising payroll taxes, the only way to address Social Security's solvency is by cutting benefits (as Bush has proposed to do) or raising the retirement age.  And assuming that a deficit exists in 2007 and 2008, how would these no-new-taxes candidates propose increasing defense, education, health-care, and transportation spending without further bloating the deficit?

But Norquist contends that pledging not to increase taxes actually encourages responsible governing, since it forces politicians to trim government spending and reform costly government programs. "Without the commitment not to raise taxes, elected officials often never get around to governing."  But someone like Huckabee has a different vision of what it means to govern.  In an interview with reporters earlier this month, Huckabee defended his tax increases, noting that one was tied to environmental conservation and another was court-ordered to finance schools.  He also pointed that he has cut taxes in Arkansas.  But he said, "You do what you got to do to govern and lead" -- even if that means raising taxes.

Can someone with Huckabee's vision win the GOP nomination for president?  Norquist says no, but if Huckabee throws his hat into the ring, we might find out once and for all whether Norquist is right.


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