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Tuesday, May 17, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First Glance
The Senate should get the highway bill off its plate today, clearing the way for the long, slow showdown over Bush judicial nominees Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown, both of whom may appear on Capitol Hill today.  NBC's Ken Strickland advises us to expect continuous floor debate of both nominations from Wednesday through Friday, with a vote to eliminate the filibuster more likely coming early next week rather than this week -- potentially meaning yet another round of Sunday shows hashing through What It All Means.

  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

Will there be a dramatic, last-minute deal?  Strickland reports that Harry Reid told the press yesterday -- again -- that his negotiations with Bill Frist are over.  What that may indicate, Strickland suggests, is that any compromise reached to avert a vote will be orchestrated outside of the Senate leadership.  Over the past week or so, Democrat Ben Nelson and Republican John McCain have been working toward such a deal.  Frist released a statement last night saying, "...I hope Senator Reid and others knows our door is always open to reasonable proposals for fair up or down votes for judicial nominees.”

Some of the many related events today: GOP Senators Hutchison and Cornyn of Texas, along with a group "of Texas jurists, officials and friends of" Owen, gather for a press conference at 10:30 am "to provide an informed view of Justice Owen’s qualifications and judicial expertise," per the release.  An involved source says that after the presser, Owen will have about seven to 10 meetings with "on the fence" senators of both parties.  (Asked about similar efforts for Brown, the source tells First Read, "One step at a time.")  Senate Republicans have their weekly policy luncheon today at 12:15 pm, with a stakeout before that.  And a group of Senate Democrats holds a presser on this at 10:00 am.

Also, keep Bolton's looming confirmation vote in mind, since it's entirely possible that Frist, now that he is well down the road on courting conservatives, will come under pressure from some of them to eliminate the filibuster on his nomination.  Democrats haven't yet decided whether to use the procedure to block a Bolton vote.  The White House might be thinking that new revelations of corruption in the oil-for-food program will bolster the "reformer" Bolton's chances of confirmation, but news that the US government dropped the ball on some of the program's problems might get in the way.

The Senate meets at 9:45 am; the House meets at 9:00 am.

President Bush pushes CAFTA -- trade legislation that already was facing long odds even before the prospect of a Senate nuclear winter -- at the swearing-in of his new US trade rep at 2:20 pm.  After that, Bush headlines the RNC presidential gala, which this year doesn't include dinner.  Picture a business-attire cocktail party for 1,500 people at the Grand Hyatt.  An RNC source says the dinner is expected to raise $15 million or more.  RNC chairman Ken Mehlman will introduce Bush, who speaks at 7:00 pm; the Spinners and Ricky Skaggs entertain.

Tom DeLay addresses the International Automobile Dealers Association before heading over to the RNC gala, NBC's Mike Viqueira notes.

DNC chairman Howard Dean headlines a fundraiser for the Maryland Democratic party tonight at 5:30 pm in North Bethesda.  Unclear whether Dean will repeat his remarks from Saturday about DeLay going home to Houston and going to jail.

The House Ways and Means panel holds a hearing specifically on Social Security.  Chair Bill Thomas told a Gannett editorial board yesterday that private accounts "should not be the major focus of the debate on fixing Social Security.  And he broke with some Republican leaders by saying he would consider subjecting more of Americans' incomes to payroll taxes."

Also, today brings the one-year anniversary of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, the only state where such marriages are legal.  And the first major political contest of 2005, the Los Angeles mayoral race, gets decided today as incumbent Jim Hahn competes in a run-off against challenger Antonio Villaraigosa, a repeat of their matchup from four years ago.  This time, however, Villaraigosa seems to have a leg up on Hahn: Last week's Los Angeles Times poll showed Villaraigosa with an 11-point lead -- but that margin is smaller than the 18-point advantage he had back in April.  If Villaraigosa wins, he will become city's first Latino mayor since the 19th century.  In the March 8 primary, Villaraigosa took 33% of the vote, while Hahn scraped through with 24%.  Polls open today at 10:00 am and close at 11:00 pm ET.  More on the race below.

The Senate and the judiciary
Roll Call covers the blame game that went on yesterday after Reid told reporters there would be no deal.  "One Democratic aide suggested that ending the Frist-Reid talks Monday would strengthen the hand of Nelson and McCain to reach a compromise, while Frist’s office put out a statement that suggested he was open to further talks with McCain, Nelson and others."

The Hill says, "Even as leaders approached the brink, senators have pushed a number of last-minute efforts to find a way to stop the filibuster short of that action...  As described by one Senate GOP aide Friday, one option includes changing the Senate’s standing orders, which have virtually the same effect of rules.  Another possibility would be to work out an agreement by unanimous consent, or even to pass a law.  Leaders could also simply reach a 'formal understanding.'  Or the Senate simply could invoke cloture to cut off debate on nominations."

The Washington Post covers the grassroots efforts on the left and right and the Pew survey showing that 35% of Americans don't have an opinion on this, but among those who do, a majority leans against eliminating the filibuster.

USA Today says the effort to make the US appellate courts more conservative began with Reagan and continued under the GOP Senate majority during most of the Clinton Administration.

Republican pollster and Hill advisor David Winston tells GOP ranks in a Roll Call column to come up with a plan to clear "the 'hedgerows' of base politics, which have drawn media attention away from their legislative accomplishments.  That’s not to say either the Republican base or the hedgerow issues are unimportant," but the "fight has become intensely ideological...  Once out of the hedgerows, Hill Republicans must break out fast with a forward-looking, positive issue agenda that particularly appeals to Americans in the Big Middle - the centrist/'solutionist' voters."

The Washington Post Style section takes a tongue-in-cheek look at GOP efforts to avoid using the term "nuclear option."

It's the economy
The Senate energy committee starts looking at some of the less controversial aspects of the energy bill today.  At his energy event in Virginia yesterday, Bush "said high gas prices were 'decades in the making.'  He called for expanded use of fuels such as ethanol, which can be made from corn, and biodiesel, which the plant here makes from soybeans.  In 25 years, Bush said, such fuels could power a fifth of America's transportation needs."  - USA Today

The United Airlines pension bailout "provides a stark reminder that many workers in other sectors could be facing a precarious retirement because their pension plans are neither fully funded nor insured by the federal government," says the Wall Street Journal.  "Many workers in health care and human services and at many small companies don't have their defined-benefit plan backed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp...  Nor do hundreds of thousands of railroad workers, although those workers are considered less vulnerable because they have a private retirement system that is established by law and well-funded."

We reported in this space yesterday on some economic analysts seeing some sympathy for labor out there, including greater support for wage hikes and greater resistance to freer trade, outsourcing, and immigration than a few decades ago.  At the same time, organized labor is split, roughly between the shrinking industrial unions and the growing service-sector unions, over what direction to take to try to reverse the decline in membership.

Moving one step closer to coming up with a candidate to challenge AFL-CIO president John Sweeney at the organization's July convention, a group of labor unions including the SEIU, Teamsters, Laborers, and Unite Here (and the UFCW, unofficially) has come up with a platform for that candidate.  The unions distributed the platform yesterday.

We noticed that it's rather Wal-Mart-centric -- a testimony to how large the retail giant looms for labor as a potential source of new members.  Among the platform's tenets: "Make the AFL-CIO the center for a permanent campaign to take on powerful anti-worker employers and help workers unite their strength in new growth sectors.  The assault on the American dream is being led by huge nonunion global corporations like Wal-Mart...  Well-funded, movement-wide campaigns are required to make low-road employers respect their workers’ freedom to form unions."  The unions want to devote "$25 million out of the current AFL-CIO to finance large, multi-union movement-wide campaigns directed at reversing the Wal-Marting of our jobs and our communities by large low-road employers."

Also: "The central thrust of AFL-CIO work in international affairs must be developing united strategies and actions by AFL-CIO affiliates and unions around the world to ensure that global corporations respect workers’ freedom to form unions...  Wal-Martization is a global phenomenon, and a global approach is required."

The New York Times, meanwhile, emphasizes SEIU president Andy Stern’s warning that his union, the nation’s largest, could quit the AFL-CIO if its current chief John Sweeney is re-elected.  “Mr. Stern's statement was the most direct challenge to Mr. Sweeney since he became the federation's president in 1995. The challenge follows months of growing discontent among several large unions in the federation… Mr. Sweeney … has said he has the votes to win a new four-year term at the federation's convention in July.”

On another labor-related note, boosters of an increase in the minimum wage are hailing Minnesota's passage of a hike last week, which they say makes the state the seventh in two years to raise its minimum wage.  Sixteen states plus DC now set a minimum wage that's higher than the federal wage of $5.15 per hour.  Tim McFeeley of the nonpartisan Center for Policy Alternatives, which works with state legislators on issues the group finds Congress slow to tackle, gives First Read a couple of possible reasons why the public seems so open to a raise.  One is fairness.  The federal minimum wage has not been raised since 1997, McFeeley notes.  "It's not tied to inflation."  The last time the issue was brought up in Congress, Ted Kennedy proposed a federal hike as an amendment to the bankruptcy bill, which failed.

The argument against raising the minimum wage is that it hurts small businesses and thus hurts the economy.  McFeeley concedes that the issue is problematic for states because when the federal government doesn't act, states get into a competition in which it becomes "more costly to do business in one state or the other."  But despite that dynamic, he says, states are raising the minimum wage, and "as more states pass an increase, it becomes easier for others," and puts pressure on the federal government "to raise it so there is equity nationwide."

The media
The Wall Street Journal looks at how the Newsweek brouhaha is roiling an already brewing debate over the time-honored use of unnamed sources.

The Journal editorial page is discomforted by "the magazine's contention that the story is a routine error," and suggests Newsweek suffered from "a basic media mistrust of the military that goes back to Vietnam and has shown itself with a vengeance during the Iraq conflict and the war on terror."

Caulifornia
The LA mayoral contest has a few compelling storylines:
-- In the primary, according to exit polls, African-American voters who helped elect Hahn in 2001 abandoned him, in part because Hahn ousted African-American police chief Bernard Parks.  Now, many of LA's most prominent African-Americans (Parks, Magic Johnson, and Rep. Maxine Waters) have endorsed Villaraigosa.  Can Villaraigosa do the almost unthinkable: receive support from both Latinos and African Americas in a local race?  Or can Hahn bring African Americans back into the fold?
-- Also in 2001, Hahn greatly benefited from the negative ads he ran against Villaraigosa, including one that attackedhim for trying to seek the pardon of a convicted crack cocaine dealer.  Once again, Hahn has launched some tough ads that hammer Villaraigosa for that pardon, for voting against a bill cracking down on child abusers (Villaraigosa says he voted for a tougher bill), and for taking thousands of dollars from Florida donors and then doing favors for them.  Can it work for Hahn the same way it did in 2001?
-- Just who will be voting in this election?  Los Angeles, after all, isn't your most politically engaged city, and it's quite likely that all the negative ads saturating the airwaves could dissuade voters from heading to the polls.  "It all comes down to who votes.  A lot of people are being turned off by the negative stuff," Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell tells First Read.
-- And finally, can Villaraigosa hold onto his lead?  Or can Hahn, who has never lost a citywide election before, come from behind?  "At the moment, it still seems that Villaraigosa has the edge," says Claremont McKenna College government professor Jack Pitney.  "It would still be an upset if Hahn won."

The Los Angeles Times covers the last day of campaigning by Hahn and Villaraigosa, and it says city election officials estimate turnout at no more than one in three registered voters.

The San Francisco Chronicle notes that Gov. Schwarzenegger will travel to five states (including Florida and Texas) to raise millions for a special election, and that he might support a “paycheck protection” initiative that’s intended to drop-kick organized labor.

Social Security
Roll Call reports that the leading anti-private accounts group, Americans United to Protect Social Security, which has accrued a large staff, "has not received a single large-dollar donation from an individual since it was formed in February," and "is subsisting largely on contributions from organized labor, which has exceeded its expected level of giving, and other liberal interest groups."  The story suggests that the judges fight is sucking up some resources, and that the group may also be "be a victim of its own apparent success, as wealthy donors privately calculate the anti-privatization forces have already won the battle."

The Washington Times writes about Democrat RobertWexler’s Social Security plan, which would slap a payroll tax on income above the current $90,000 cap.  Wexler "said he also has spoken privately with several of his Democratic colleagues about moving forward with plans and that 'there's a lot more support for this kind of action than people might believe.'"

Immigration
The Wall Street Journal looks at how immigration, with "its implications for the nation's economy, security and its social fabric [pitting] Republican constituencies against one another,... could imperil the [GOP] more than anything Democrats could do on their own."  That said, "Democrats face potentially dangerous internal splits as well.  Their dominant bloc of affluent, well-educated liberals embraces immigration as part of cultural diversity...  But some poor Democrats, including many African-Americans who look askance at the swelling economic and political clout of Hispanics, view rising immigration negatively."

The Washington Times sits down with conservative Pat Buchanan, who speaks for one side in the GOP debate over immigration.  “‘The president is in trouble,’ [Buchanan] explains. ‘He's on the defensive, because he is not going to get his guest-workers program.  He's going to get a House that tries to impose upon him the obligation to do his duty and defend this country from the invasion from Mexico, which he has refused to do.’”

The values debate
The Washington Post front-pages its look at how Bush is funneling more money to church groups while cutting funding for traditional social programs.  "The result is that many small church- and community-based social service programs are slowly assuming the lead role in the war on poverty once held by long-established community development organizations.  Administration officials say that faith-based groups are often less expensive and more effective in helping the needy, a contention that traditional service providers challenge."

The Washington Times reports on a new Gallup poll out yesterday showing that "77 percent of Americans think the country's moral values are on the decline -- a figure that has risen 10 points in three years.  There is a partisan gap, however.  The number stands at 82 percent among Republican respondents and 72 percent among Democrats."

The Hill says that the bill to expand federal stem-cell research funding has 199 co-sponsors and seems likely to pass when brought up for a vote, as promised by the House leadership, later this month.  The story raises the prospect of a presidential veto.

The Chicago Tribune notes that supporters of the legislation say they have more than 230 votes, well over the 218 needed for passage.

And today in sleepy Dover, PA, the New York Times says, seven school board seats are up for grabs that are currently held by supporters of intelligent design.  “Though Tuesday's election is only a primary, it is viewed as an important referendum on the policy. Almost all of the candidates will appear on both the Republican and Democratic ballots, meaning one slate could oust the other, allowing it to run virtually uncontested in November's general election.”

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