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Wednesday, May 18, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
It's the beginning of the start of the looming moment we've all been waiting for. Not since the Clinton impeachment has C-SPAN had it this good.

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If it weren't for the fight over the filibuster, Washington would be chattering over whether or not the second-term president will cast his first-ever veto on the highway bill, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page today calls on him -- dares him? -- to do. The Senate wants to spend $11 billion more than Bush has said he'll tolerate. But with the bill now heading to conference, the Senate today turns to judges. Adding to the anticipation, reports are mixed on whether or not there's still a chance for a deal to avert the big vote and the subsequent legislative nuclear winter.

The Senate meets at 9:30 am and at some point will begin debating the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen. Having run Owen's record and bio on Monday, First Read provides the same on California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, whose nomination is proceeding basically in tandem with Owen's, below. (We also point out below how Republicans denied up-or-down votes to two Clinton judicial nominees, both of them women and one African-American, and neither of whom got a hearing, much less a vote.) The White House had Owen and Brown over for a visit yesterday, and Vice President Cheney is likely to be on hand in the chamber for the historic vote, if it occurs.

What exactly we're all waiting for: a Frist call for a point of order intended to end debate over one of the nominees, likely Owen, with whoever is in the chair, likely Cheney, ruling in Frist's favor. (The Washington Post reports that Frist does not plan to consult with the Senate parliamentarian in making the move. Senate Democrats have suggested that the parliamentarian opposes it. The parliamentarian is not giving interviews.) Democrats will appeal, Republicans will counter with a motion to table, and then will come The Vote.

Where's Congress' job approval rating these days, after weeks of focusing on process matters like this and Tom DeLay? Are President Bush and Congress concentrating on the issues that matter to Americans? The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gets released on NBC Nightly News at 6:30 pm.

Democrats have scheduled another bunch of preserve-the-filibuster events today, the headliner being a rally of both the party's House and Senate caucuses on the Senate steps at 2:30 pm. Per Reid spokesperson Jim Manley, the "main message of this event is: Democrats are fighting for the American people, and against the abuse of power in the House and the Senate."

But some party strategists might dispute the idea that Americans see Democrats as fighting for them. In briefing reporters on the UK election outcome yesterday, party pollster Stan Greenberg echoed a criticism we've heard other strategists make -- that the Democratic party (unlike Britain's Labor Party, was his context) is not acting like a reformist party. "Democrats should act like a party out of power," Greenberg said. Pointing to their fierce engagement with Republicans over judges and DeLay, he said, "I don't see any evidence that the party acts like an outsider party." Meanwhile, President Bush touted his party as the party of ideas at the RNC gala last night.

DNC chairman Howard Dean, once positioned as an outsider but now tasked with making red-meat speeches, gave a version of his now-standard stump at a Maryland state party event last night, focusing on DeLay, judges, President Bush, and gay rights. NBC's Michelle Jaconi reports on the event below.

Perhaps the best known reformer in the Democratic party is in DC today: New York AG and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer is here for a couple of events, including a speech at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress and a reception at the AFL-CIO which, though not an official fundraiser, could bring Spitzer around $100,000, a Spitzer consultant tells First Read. The consultant suggests that labor likes Spitzer because he takes on corporations successfully, while they're still figuring out how to do it.

President Bush today meets with the Egyptian prime minister at 10:30 am, participates in the ceremonial swearing-in of his new director and deputy director of national intelligence at 1:15 pm, and addresses the International Republican Institute Dinner -- probably about spreading democracy -- at 7:00 pm.

Finally, last night, Antonio Villaraigosa (D) because the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in over a century, ousting incumbent Mayor James Hahn (D) and spotlighting Latinos' growing clout not only in California but in the Sun Belt.

The Senate and the judiciary
The Washington Post offers its "nuclear option" primer.

Roll Call reviews the likely tenets of a deal:
"-- That four of the seven filibustered nominees would be approved for a vote, with [Brown] and two of those from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals potentially on the approval list;
-- That three would be rejected, with [Myers and Saad] possibly on the filibustered list;
-- That at least six Democrats would foreswear any other filibusters except in 'extraordinary circumstances';
-- That at least six Republicans would foreswear Frist’s effort to end filibusters by the parliamentary, party-line vote now known commonly as the nuclear option."

We'll dispense with the links, but saying a deal might still be in the works: The Post and the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times, Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe suggest a deal may be dead. The Los Angeles Times notes how conservative and liberal interest groups are making it hard to forge any type of compromise.

Republicans like to use the "up-or-down" line, which polls well for them. And they're using Owen and Brown as their examples of injustice, daring Democrats to take the position of opposing women and an African-American for these posts. So First Read has to point out that Republicans denied dozens of up-or-down votes to Clinton judicial nominees. Take, for example, Clinton 6th Circuit nominees Helene White and Kathleen McCree Lewis; Lewis would even have been the first African-American woman to serve on the 6th Circuit. But neither got a hearing, much less an up-or-down vote. And neither were controversial, as best we can tell, beyond the fact that White's husband is Democratic Sen. Carl Levin's cousin.

Indeed, the language Clinton used to protest the inaction on their nominations is remarkably similar to what we hear from Republicans today: "I think the Senate ought to give Helene White and Kathleen McCree Lewis hearings," Clinton said in a May 2000 speech. "Vote them up or down. Tell the American people how you stand. Let us hear from you. Don't hide behind having no hearing."

The folks at DC-based economic research firm ISI expect a Senate nuclear winter to "have a modest effect on the legislative agenda overall," but potentially a more serious effect on the prospects for "certain legislation, such as the energy bill and asbestos liability reform."

ISI categorizes the legislation potentially hanging in the balance. 1) "Routine business, including funding the government. The Democrats are not likely to block" approps bills. "However, the GOP budget includes cuts or tiny increases to many programs popular with Democrats, so they will offer opposition to many of these bills, but they won't try to block their consideration." 2) "Bills with Democratic support... The nuclear option is likely to have little impact on the highway bill (except perhaps for delaying its passage for a few weeks) or drug reimportation legislation." 3) "Controversial GOP legislation... [T]he Democrats will concentrate their fire on big GOP priorities," like the energy and asbestos reform bills. (That said, ISI and other interested observers already rated asbestos reform as having low odds of passage.) 4) "Other legislation," like pension reform. "The impact on these bills, which tend to be less driven by ideological or partisan passions, should be small." And 5) "Nominations. Another relatively easy way to retaliate against the GOP is to slow down other nominations, especially for the executive branch, including the already short-staffed Treasury Department."

The Washington Times says that the roots of the current situation are in "closed-door discussions more than three years ago between key Senate Democrats and outside interest groups."

The Los Angeles Times notes that MoveOn is launching a new TV ad comparing the grab for power by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in the new Star Wars movie to the rise of Bill Frist.

The Brown file
Brown, 56, was born to sharecropper parents living in Luverne, AL and attended segregated schools while growing up. By her teenage years, her father had joined the Air Force and, after moving around, the family settled in Sacramento. Brown raised a son as a single mother after her marriage ended and worked at a telephone company to put herself through Cal State. She earned a law degree from UCLA. Her second husband died of lung cancer in 1988; she is now married to a jazz musician. Brown worked at several levels of state government and at a law firm before going to work for Gov. Pete Wilson (R). After three years as his legal affairs secretary, Wilson appointed Brown to the state court of appeals in 1994, then elevated her again despite a “not qualified” rating from the screening committee. In May 1996, she became the first African-American woman to sit on the California Supreme Court.

In July 2003, President Bush nominated Brown to a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. She received a rating of “Qualified” from the ABA, with a minority voting “Not Qualified." After her confirmation hearings in October 2003, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of her nomination on a party-line vote, but Republicans failed to invoke cloture on the Democrats’ filibuster on November 14, 2003, one day after she appeared with Owen at a photo-op with Bush in the Oval Office. After Brown was renominated, the committee again approved her nomination on a party-line vote.

Senate Democrats have called Brown “extraordinarily intemperate,” “an out of the mainstream activist of the first order,” and “a conservative judicial activist.” The Los Angeles Times calls her a “bad fit” and the New York Times said she is an “extreme right wing ideologue” and a “consistent enemy of minorities and old people.” The NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus have been strong opponents. The NAACP said she had a “detrimental record against civil rights of African Americans;" the CBC accused her of “extreme conservative activism” and of being “unfit” and reportedly a “female Clarence Thomas.”

Among her written opinions that have drawn attention are ones in which she upheld the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, dissented in the court’s ruling knocking down a state parental consent law on abortion, and criticized the impact of age discrimination. Critics note that in addition to her written opinions, some of her speeches featured controversial language, including her reported comments saying we have become a “nation of whiners” and that politicians are “handing out new rights like lollipops in a dentist’s office.” Probably the most repeated of her quotes comes from a 2000 speech in Chicago in which she referred to the start of the New Deal in 1937 as “the triumph of our socialist revolution.” In her confirmation hearing, Brown explained that when giving a speech like that one, she often makes comments to “stir the pot,” and that she recognizes the different roles she has when giving a speech and writing a decision.

Proponents argue that the “out of the mainstream” argument doesn’t add up. Brown was re-elected statewide with 76% in 1998, the highest percentage of all four judges re-elected, and with the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle. Also, in the year before her nomination, she wrote more majority opinions than any other justice on the court. She also has been a strong proponent of Fourth Amendment rights, being the lone dissenter in a case she felt involved racial profiling. Wilson has strongly supported her nomination and has said that nominating her to the court was one of his greatest accomplishments as governor. Prominent conservatives have suggested that she is being targeted because she is a potential SCOTUS nominee.

If Brown is confirmed, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be able to appoint his first justice to the California high court.

It's the economy
The Bush Administration is warning China in a Treasury report to Congress to overhaul its currency soon or else face accusations that it is manipulating its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage over the United States. "Such a citation -- perhaps when the next Treasury report is due in October -- would force the administration to open negotiations with China over currency policy and could induce Congress to clamp down on Chinese exports to the U.S.," says the Wall Street Journal.

USA Today: "China has pegged the yuan... to the dollar at a fixed rate for 10 years. U.S. trade groups, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, have long argued the policy holds down the value of the yuan and gives Chinese producers an unfair advantage in world trade. If the yuan would rise in relation to other currencies, it would make Chinese exports more expensive abroad, perhaps aiding the sale of U.S. goods."

The move "helped spark a rally on Wall Street, where worries about a trade war are growing," says the Washington Times, which also notes, "A bipartisan bill to retaliate against the Chinese has gained critical momentum in Congress this year and could trigger a trade war that economists say could be destructive to the U.S. and global economies."

Another Journal story looks at the Administration's "complex balancing act" on China, as "anti-China sentiment rises in Washington." The Administration must bash "Beijing enough to appease critics in Congress and stir action -- without provoking a trans-Pacific backlash."

Caulifornia
The Los Angeles Times covers Villaraigosa’s 59%-41% victory over Hahn. “Villaraigosa's landslide represented a crowning symbol of Latinos' growing clout in California, after decades of population gains that failed to produce a commensurate rise in political power. L.A.'s last Latino mayor, Cristobal Aguilar, left office in 1872, when the now-sprawling metropolis was a frontier outpost of barely 6,000 people.”

The AP notes that the outcome "will have an impact even beyond Los Angeles. Villaraigosa's decisive victory immediately places him among the front rank of the nation's Latino political elite..."

DeLay
DeLay pen and pad: 1:55 pm. The anti-tax Free Enterprise Fund goes up in Houston and other markets today with a TV ad supporting DeLay by calling the media sharks at a feeding frenzy.

Roll Call reports on Democratic efforts to tie DeLay to Frist in an effort to damage Frist's presidential aspirations.

The Dallas Morning News says five House freshmen from Texas who won because of redistricting and who donated generously to DeLay are standing by him despite the ethics scandal.

Social Security and tax reform
USA Today covers yesterday's final public hearing held by the President's tax reform commission, which focused on the AMT. Commissioner warned that fixing the AMT "could require even more unpleasant tax changes, such as reducing deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions and health care costs... [E]liminating the tax would be expensive: It's projected to bring in $1.2 trillion over the next decade... That revenue would have to be replaced to avoid increasing the federal budget deficit. The tax panel... is under orders to neither raise nor lower overall tax revenue." And the story notes: "Bush has made overhauling Social Security his top priority. Unless that effort fails soon,... tax changes may have to wait until at least 2006."

The Washington Times covers Nancy Pelosi's efforts to hold the line of opposition on Social Security now that one of her ranks has put forth a plan.

The Democrats
NBC's Michelle Jaconi reports that DNC chairman Howard Dean's appearance at a Maryland state party event in North Bethesda last night was a who's who of state politics, including retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes, despite his recent illness, and those candidates and potential candidates to replace Sarbanes, all standing on stage behind Dean as he spoke. Dean delivered his new stump speech, Jaconi says, minus his recent line about sending Tom DeLay to jail. He referred to DeLay by saying he is tired about being lectured on moral values by people who take trips paid for by lobbyists and who rob our Social Security. Other Dean charges: Democrats do not need to change positions; they need to change the way they talk. Democrats are now the centrists because the country has moved so far to the right. He knows no one who is pro-abortion, and abortions have risen under President Bush's watch. There is corruption at the highest level of government, and DeLay's problems are tied to the filibuster fights.

Dean also repeated what he said about gay marriage at the Massachusetts party convention last weekend -- that it's not right to pit Americans against each other to win elections. He talked about an 82-year-old veteran he met on the campaign trail, who thanked Dean for signing the Vermont civil unions law. Dean told the crowd that it sickened him that the veteran gave his life for this country and is now being condemned by people who never served.

Dean addresses the Young Democrats in Phoenix today. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has voiced his concern over remarks Dean made over the weekend about sending DeLay to jail. – Boston Herald

Jaconi adds that state political legend William Donald Schaefer also spoke at the event, making disjointed remarks that had organizers sweating. He started yelling mid-speech at an attendee who was chewing gum while he was speaking. Schaefer announced to the crowd how much he hated that -- and called the man onto the stage.

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