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Monday, May 16, 2005 | 9:50 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
After months of escalating debate, millions of dollars raised and spent, and dozens of ads aired and e-mailed, the moment appears to be at hand.  The Senate is expected to get the highway bill off its plate tomorrow, then turn on Wednesday to two previously filibustered and renominated Bush judicial picks.  Assuming Senate Democrats filibuster them again, Bill Frist is expected to call a vote to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominees.  Both picks are women state supreme court justices, Priscilla Owen of Texas and Janice Rogers Brown of California, who is also African-American.  Since indications have been that Frist will make Owen in particular the poster child for this move, First Read provides Owen's bio and record below.

  1. Other political news of note
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      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

Frist himself previews the vote with a USA Today op-ed in which he calls it "a basic question of fairness" and lays out the deal he offered Senate Democrats, which they rejected; Senate Democrats also have suggested possible compromises which Frist has rejected.  The latest Time poll shows a majority of the public opposed to the move, though as we've noted before, public opinion on this matter can depend on how the question is phrased: If you ask whether the President's nominees should get a floor vote, people tend to say yes.  If you ask whether the minority party should have the ability to filibuster them, people tend to say yes.

Two additional details worth mentioning.  First, after calling a vote to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominees, Frist is then expected to hold a vote on UN ambassador pick Bolton.  Second, even if Frist calls the vote and the effort fails, as conservative activist Grover Norquist suggested to First Read last week, Frist could try it again later on.  In other words, the prospect could loom over the Senate all year, and a few crucial votes in opposition to the move now could change at any time depending on the course of Senate business.

The Senate meets at 2:00 pm; the House meets at 12:30 pm.

President Bush has embarked on a week-long effort to draw attention to improving aspects of the US economy and to push for passage of key aspects of his economic agenda -- all of which could fall victim to a Senate nuclear winter.  He visits a biodiesel refinery in West Point, VA to talk about energy today, after calling on the Senate to pass his energy bill in his Saturday radio address.  Tomorrow he holds a swearing-in ceremony for his new US trade rep, at which he'll push for passage of CAFTA.  And on Thursday, he has a Social Security event in Milwaukee.

Despite his events this week, there's no indication that Bush will try to get out in front of the looming pension issue which could accomplish what problems with Medicare have not -- prompt Americans to ask that Bush address a more pressing retirement-related concern than Social Security.  Now that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. has agreed to cover United Airlines' pension plan in the biggest such deal ever, the spotlight has turned to the shakiness of the nation's retirement system and the shift from employer to employee-based responsibility.  Were organized labor not so tied up in knots debating its direction, it might be better positioned to defend itself against -- if not take political advantage of -- this situation.

And tomorrow brings the Los Angeles mayoral run-off, a race which has gotten national attention for the coalition of Latinos and African-Americans being forged by challenger Antonio Villaraigosa (D), who holds a seemingly insurmountable lead over incumbent Mayor James Hahn (D).  (Due to the different makeup of its Democratic primary field, the same dynamic isn't happening -- yet -- in New York, which is hosting the other hot mayoral race this year.)  Villaraigosa stands to become the first Latino mayor of the city in over a century.

It's the economy
The Sunday Washington Post: "The safety net big companies wove for" older generations "has been giving way for so long that its unraveling is mere background accompaniment to Washington's noisy debate over Social Security.  But in the lives of most middle-class families, it stays in the foreground, inseparable from the Social Security discussion...  The president is counting on the Ownership Society to do for the Republican Party what the New Deal did for the Democrats," i.e., "make it the nation's majority party," but right now. "it is easier to measure what has been lost in security than has been gained in opportunity."

USA Today: "The United pension default - the largest in U.S. history - comes atop a string of bankruptcies and retirement plan meltdowns in the steel, retail and other industries in the past several years that have directly affected the retirement security of millions of Americans and prompted millions more to worry whether they're next."  The story does note that although "pension plans at some large companies are seriously underfunded, several other businesses have bolstered their bottom lines."

The Sunday Los Angeles Times looks at how "a broadening swath of corporate America is retreating from the safety-net business and is shifting responsibility to employees."  Even "healthy firms are seeking to copy" the United/Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. deal "in one fashion or another."

But it's not just corporations who are examining their pension systems and seeking to shift responsibility onto the employee.  The Boston Globe says the governors of Alaska, California, Illinois and Rhode Island are considering raising the age at which state employees can draw pensions.  "Like the current debate on Social Security, the fight over pensions revolves around a basic question: How much does society want to spend to support retirees?  But some governors insist there is a fairness issue involved, too.  At a time when fewer employees in the private sector have traditional pensions and retiree health insurance, most workers in the public sector have both."

DC-based economic research firm ISI compares the potential economic significance of labor's problems today to the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike, noting that the 1981 tussle "came near the beginning of a political cycle that emphasized breaking the inflation of the late 1970s.  Reagan had a mandate to address the economy and generally won support for his program of limiting government and union power."  Now, on the other hand, "[w]ith inflation having subsided as a general concern..., sympathy for labor and for more government activism has gone up."

ISI points to data which basically shows that since the 2001 recession, the growth in corporate profits has outpaced the growth in wages and salaries as a share of the national income, which could explain why "voters haven't felt as good about the economy as the aggregate figures would historically suggest."  ISI suggests "this is a result of the combination of the increase in productivity and the emergence of China and India -- for now the benefits of higher productivity are accruing to capital rather than to workers because of the slack in the labor market."

Among the "various kinds of political implications" of this, ISI finds a link to Social Security: "More discontent with the economy...  More support for government actions to boost wages.  Polls find notable resistance to freer trade, outsourcing, and immigration, along with support for a higher minimum wage and expanded health care coverage by the government."  And, "More risk aversion by workers.  That's one reason Bush's proposal for personal accounts hasn't caught on.  Seeing United Airline workers losing some of their defined pension benefits probably reinforces risk aversion by many workers."

All that being said, ISI notes that these "trends have not been the dominant influence in politics."  Pointing to 2004 exit poll data among the white working class, ISI says "arguably that's a good proxy for the workers who have borne the brunt of long-standing economic changes (free trade, immigration, deregulation, outsourcing)...  Republicans may not be able to push as much of their economic agenda as they would like, but politics these days is driven much more by social issues, not economic ones."

The Washington Post says labor's opposition to Bush's Social Security plan comes "out of a sense of self-preservation," noting that unions have been using their pension plans, "which own hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate securities, to compel boards of directors to do what they want."  Bush's proposal would hurt organized labor in two ways.  It "would speed the demise of the unions' preferred type of pension -- the kind that gives unions the most clout in the corporate world -- called defined-benefit funds."  And, "private accounts would flood the markets with money controlled by individuals, not organized labor.  That would tend to dilute labor's voting strength on shareholder issues in general."

The Virginian Pilot previews Bush's West Point, VA stop at new diesel plant which is the "first of its kind on the East Coast...  By the end of the year, the small refinery scheduled to host President Bush today will be producing 2.5 million gallons of the fuel annually."

USA Today notes that some Senate Republicans, including a few who are up for re-election in 2006, are banding together with Democrats to demand that their bases be removed from the BRAC list.

The Senate and the judiciary
USA Today looks at how both sides in the debate claim to have enough votes to win, even though neither seems to have won over the few crucial undecided Republicans.

The Wall Street Journal says Frist is now using Memorial Day as his backstop for both the elimination of the filibuster and for Bolton, and that Frist's "mentor and fellow Tennessean former Senate Majority Leader" Howard Baker, at a private reception at the Capitol last Thursday, "warned against damaging the character of the Senate."

The Journal's editorial page already presumes that this "will not be the world's greatest deliberative body's greatest moment, and the only thing we know for sure about what will happen next is that the reputation of the Senate will suffer...  But at this point it would be worse if Republicans let a willful minority deny the President's nominees a vote on the Senate floor...  This is at its core a political fight, and elections ought to mean something."

Bob Novak reports that Democratic operatives have requested financial information on 30 appellate judges who might be potential Supreme Court candidates.  “This intelligence raid is financed by the abortion lobby, but it looks to Republicans like a front for Reid and other senators who will consider President Bush's appointments for Supreme Court nominations.”

The Owen file
Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, a 50-year-old Texas native, earned her law degree from Baylor University in 1977, scoring the highest grade of all who took the Texas bar that year.  Before joining the court, she was a partner at a Houston law firm for 17 years practicing commercial litigation, primarily oil and gas.  She was first elected to her court seat in 1994 with the help of paid consultant Karl Rove and a reported $8,600 contribution from Enron.  She calls George W. Bush a “friend” and contributed $1,000 to his presidential exploratory committee in 1999.  She sits on the board of advisors for local chapters of the Federalist Society and is active in her Episcopal church, teaching Sunday school.

Four years ago this month, President Bush nominated Owen to a vacancy on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  (The seat has been vacant since January 1997 and Democrats note that Republicans blocked two different Clinton nominees for this post.)  Two weeks later, GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords switched parties and Democrats took over the Judiciary Committee.  In July 2002, Owen appeared in the Oval Office for a photo-op with Bush, and a week later had her confirmation hearing, after which her nomination was rejected on a party-line vote.  Bush called it “shameful” and the GOP made Owen's defeated nomination an issue in the 2002 midterms.  Owen was renominated by Bush and approved by the GOP-run Judiciary panel on a party-line vote in March 2003, after which Democrats filibustered and held off four GOP attempts at cloture.  Bush renominated Owen again in February 2005, and she was approved by the committee on a party-line vote on April 21.

Senate Democrats argue that Owen is a “judicial activist” “too extreme even in the context of the very conservative Texas Supreme Court,” and that she “obviously fails to approach cases fairly and with an open mind.”  Per the Dallas Morning News, “They contend that through her rulings in Texas, she has demonstrated a pro-business, anti-consumer, anti-abortion bent at odds with legal precedent.”   Along with People for the American Way and NARAL, environmental groups criticize her for “elevating the rights of polluters over the rights of neighbors.”

Attention also has been paid to Owen's opinions in cases involving whether or not to allow a judicial bypass to exempt girls from a parental notification law when having abortions.  She did vote to allow a bypass in at least one case, but also wrote in another that such a girl “…should also indicate to the court that she is aware of and has considered that there are philosophic, social, moral, and religious arguments that can be brought to bear when considering abortion.”  It’s the “religious” aspect that she was questioned about, which she defended by citing a Supreme Court ruling.

Supporters, including over a dozen past presidents of the Texas bar (some of them Democrats) and former Democratic Texas Supreme Court Justice John Hill, have argued that Owen has received the ABA’s highest rating of “Well Qualified” and has been treated unfairly.  Former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray has been a vocal defender.  To calm concerns about her abortion record, even pro-choice GOP Sen. Arlen Specter has argued that: “A close reading of her opinions demonstrates that she is not hostile to Roe v. Wade, and her rulings on judicial bypass reflect careful judicial craftsmanship.”  The Washington Post in a July 2002 editorial argued that she was “indisputably well qualified” and should be confirmed.

The New York Times mentions that AG Alberto Gonzales actually preferred another choice for the federal bench instead of Owen, and that his comment that Owen had engaged in “judicial activism” on the Texas Supreme Court was indeed directed at her.  “But he has been repeatedly pressed by conservatives to declare that he did not mean her."

Social Security
Republicans are touting an apparent split among Democratic lawmakers, with Rep. Robert Wexler (D) -- notably, from Florida -- set to introduce a Social Security proposal in his district today which would raise the payroll tax on upper-income Americans.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page (not necessarily an ally Wexler would want to claim when he seeks re-election) gives him "full marks for honesty...  To anyone paying attention, a payroll tax hike has long been the preferred policy of most Democrats and AARP, though they'd rather not have to say so in public. Mr. Wexler has the courage of their convictions."

Roll Call says "White House officials have not met with any of the Democratic Senators considered potential swing votes... since President Bush’s primetime news conference last month...  Senate Democrats suggest that the pace of outreach is slow and is a sign that the White House is trying to win the public relations battle rather than develop a substantive - and bipartisan - proposal to restructure the retirement system;" a White House spokesperson rejects this argument.

DeLay
The Washington Times says that when the House ethics panel resumes work, "the first member to face the panel won't be [DeLay,] but rather Democrat Jim McDermott of Washington," who has "been under investigation by the panel since last year over his role nearly nine years ago in the illegal taping and distribution of a phone conversation involving then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich."

In his address to the Massachusetts Democratic convention on Saturday, DNC chair Howard Dean said DeLay should head back to Houston to serve jail time, to which Rep. Barney Frank (D), who is "one of DeLay's harshest critics," responded, "'That's just wrong...  The man has not been indicted.  I don't like him, I disagree with some of what he does, but I don't think you, in a political speech, talk about a man as a criminal or his jail sentence.'"  - Boston Globe

In light of revelations that many House members the same kinds of travel issues as DeLay, Howard Kurtz asks in the Washington Post "why journalists have been slow to discover such seamy behavior across Capitol Hill."

The values debate
In advance of tomorrow's one-year anniversary of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, a national poll conducted for the Boston Globe shows the country split on whether or not their states should recognize those gay marriages.  "Overall, the poll suggested, attitudes toward gays and lesbians may be softening, and there are indications that support of gay marriage will grow as older people, who are more likely to oppose gay marriage, pass away.  Americans older than 65, Republicans, Protestants, regular churchgoers, and Southerners were most likely to oppose gay marriage."

The Sunday Los Angeles Times front-pages how "faith is finding a growing presence in corporations that for years have been resistant to religious expression, including" industry icons "AOL Inc., Intel Corp., American Express Co., American Airlines Inc. and Ford Motor Co.  But it is an uneasy, risk-prone experiment...  There are no across-the-board rules saying private employers must forbid or allow religious affinity groups...  The result has been a patchwork of policies that sometimes appears to defy logic."

The AP reports that the Kansas school board hearings on evolution "weren't limited to how the theory should be taught in public schools.  The board is considering redefining science itself.  Advocates of 'intelligent design' are pushing the board to reject a definition limiting science to natural explanations for what's observed in the world.  Instead, they want to define it as 'a systematic method of continuing investigation,' without specifying what kind of answer is being sought."

The Republican Main Street Partnership says that today it will begin rolling out a seven-figure TV ad campaign promoting stem-cell research.  The ad features a 2-year-old boy suffering from spinal muscular atrophy.

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