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Thursday, May 19, 2005 | 10:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
A floor debate featuring rhetoric like "kill" and "assassinate," a federal judge whose husband and mother actually were murdered, the ongoing prospect of an 11th-hour deal, and the first hint of what a legislative nuclear winter would be like, all give the press enough to work with while staring at C-SPAN or sitting in the gallery waiting, waiting, waiting.

  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

Bill Frist's opening floor speech, Judge Joan Lefkow's decrying of those who have criticized the federal bench, and the McCain-Nelson negotiations are getting plenty of play. A deal may be in the offing to secure floor votes on some of the previously filibustered nominees, including Owen and Brown, in exchange for more consultation by President Bush with all US senators before making future nominations. Less noticed was Harry Reid opting not to waive the "two-hour rule" which limits committee meetings while the Senate is in session. NBC's Chip Reid says this was partly an effort to take the high road and show that at a time like this, senators should be focused on the floor debate -- and partly an effort to give Republicans a taste of what wintry life will be like. Several bills got hung up as a result. The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the forgotten House meets at 9:00 am.

Congress has been almost entirely wrapped up in the filibuster, Tom DeLay, and the party-line stalemate over Social Security all spring, while Americans have contended with a struggling economy and high gas prices. The disconnect shows. The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (May 12-16; 1,005 adults, MOE +/- 3.1%) has Congress' job disapproval rating at 51%, its highest since May 1994, along with a sharp increase in pessimism about the economy since January. Compounding the problem for the GOP, as NBC/Journal pollster Peter Hart puts it, is that "the biggest decline has come out of the Republican party." Hart notes that "who controls Congress, we know, doesn't manifest vote for vote," but that back in 1994, the year Democrats bled seats, it was the "one indicator giving us signs that the Congress was moving away from" them.

President Bush has focused mainly on Social Security and on spreading democracy around the world in the face of Americans' other concerns, which also is reflected in the results. Bush's job ratings haven't really changed since our April survey. But as our colleague John Harwood at the Journal concisely puts it, by a margin of 49%-12%, those polled say Bush and his Administration are placing “too much emphasis” on Iraq, whereas by margins of 65%-1% and 64%-9%, they say Bush is placing “too little emphasis” on the economy and gas prices, respectively. Also listed as top issues Bush is viewed as overlooking: health care, education, and immigration.

Bush travels to Milwaukee today to talk about Social Security, with events at 11:40 am and 12:15 pm. Despite his months of hard campaigning, the poll shows no real increase in public support for private accounts: 36% call them a good idea now; 35% did so in April.

When asked whether the economy has gotten better or worse over the past year, 42% say the economy has gotten worse -- a 14-point increase from 28% who said as much in January. Sixty-one percent say that the next year will be "a time to hold back and save because harder times are ahead" -- a 10-point increase from January.

Such results would seem to indicate an opening for Democrats. Forty-seven percent now say they prefer a Democrat-controlled Congress; 40% prefer a GOP-run Congress. In late October 2004, responses were split at 44%-43%. One senior GOP operative tells First Read, looking ahead to the 2006 midterms, that "the environment is not where it needs to be for our candidates," though "there's a long time to go between now and then." He notes, "Democrats would be smart to create an anti-incumbent" climate. However, as NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff points out, the poll doesn't suggest that Democrats are offering the public much of an alternative. "There's a difference between dissatisfaction and being a viable option," he says, and "that latter step certainly has not happened yet."

Which brings us to our non-judges focus for today: how Democrats are, and are not talking about the economy, with some speaking to the New Economy and some speaking to the Old. Below: Eliot Spitzer on reforming the marketplace; Blair/Labor Party/Clinton pollsters Greenberg and Penn on what Democrats aren't saying well; and Ted Kennedy on the minimum wage.

The Senate and the judiciary
USA Today offers its primer.

Links to comprehensive coverage:
Washington Post
Los Angeles Times
Boston Globe

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein on the potential political repercussions: "Few strategists expect any of the arguments over the GOP's bid to thwart Senate filibusters to sway many voters in the 2006 elections. But many analysts believe the conflict could increase and solidify the public antagonism toward Washington surfacing in polls - especially if the dispute, as is likely, deepens Capitol Hill's partisan acrimony and impedes action on problems more tangible to voters..." And Brownstein raises the possibility of more extensive Republican damage because of their majorities.

The New York Times looks at the White House’s role in the debate, noting that although it has refrained from “strong-arm lobbying” of GOP senators, it is working closely with the RNC and interest groups to strategize, whip up grassroots support, and portray the Democrats as obstructionist.

Politicians always try and tinker with the rules to gain advantage, the Dallas Morning News writes. What’s different in this battle, congressional experts say, “is the take-no-prisoners nature of the fight; the combatants' intensity both on and off Capitol Hill; and the likelihood of a snowball effect in the Senate, which historically has zealously guarded minority rights.”

Related events today include a pair of racially themed pressers: Frist joins a group of African-American clergy in an event at 3:00 pm, while African-American clergy who oppose the elimination of the filibuster will argue that it threatens civil rights at an event at 12 noon. A group of veteran GOP senators holds a press conference at 2:00 pm, while a group of freshman GOP senators holds one at 12 noon. Also, Progress for America, which used to focus on advocating private accounts for Social Security, holds a press conference call at 2:00 pm to discuss a new TV ad about Owen and the need for an up or down vote.

Choose your roots. Yesterday, the Washington Times said the whole thing was hatched in closed meetings and memos between Senate Democrats and affiliated interest groups. Today, the Washington Post says the idea was born in -- among other moments -- a 2003 outburst by GOP Sen. Ted Stevens.

It's the economy
In the news this morning, President Bush now has two openings to fill on the Fed, plus the chair slot. The Post notes that Greenspan may stay on past January 31, when his term expires.

But the Wall Street Journal says Greenspan has told colleagues that he'll retire at the end of his term.

Speaking of Greenspan, the new NBC/Journal poll shows 43% of those polled rating him positively and 12% rating him negatively. Not much change since he was last tested in March 2004 and came up 45% positive, 14% negative. What's interesting, if not necessarily surprising, is that Greenspan is rated most positively among those in the top income and occupational brackets -- who also tend to be the most familiar with him. Among those polled who make more than $75,000 a year, 56% rate Greenspan positively; among those who make less than $30,000 a year, 33% rate him positively. Among those polled who are professionals or managers, 55% rate him positively; among blue-collar workers, 32% rate him positively. But it's not so much that blue-collar and low-income workers rate Greenspan negatively -- it's that they are likelier to say they don't know how they feel about him.

"For the third time in a week, the Bush administration increased economic pressure on Beijing, moving to impose more restrictions on imports of Chinese-made textiles and apparel," says the Wall Street Journal.

Republicans are "scouring" the House for Democratic votes in favor of CAFTA, says The Hill.

And USA Today spotlights hedge funds and "recent rumors of steep hedge fund losses circulating on Wall Street," which "have pushed this elite, ultra-secretive fraternity out of the shadows... Some analysts fear the explosive growth and growing clout of hedge funds is morphing into a bubble like the dot-com mania that could end in a similar meltdown... With nearly 9,000 funds and assets under management doubling over the past five years to roughly $1 trillion," the funds "have been blamed for everything from sky-high oil prices to the slumping dollar to speculating in gold and commodities, knocking those markets out of equilibrium."

As for how Democrats are, and are not talking about the economy these days:

Instance #1. New York AG and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer (D) gave a speech yesterday at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. The speech was billed as an economic address. In reality, it was a version of Spitzer's stump about his view of the role government should play in the marketplace, so some adjusting may need to be done -- more focus on jobs and the middle-class, maybe -- before he officially hits the campaign trail. That said, Spitzer's approach is both reformist and New Economy, rhetoric which the Democratic party is otherwise is offering little of these days.

Basically, Spitzer says that the Reagan years spawned a worldview that government was too big and too involved in the business world, prompting a "massive withdrawal" of federal power in the marketplace. Agencies became so "beaten down," Spitzer says, that they were both incapable of, and disinterested in pursuing their mandate. He then launched into his trademark riff about an ethical race to the bottom -- that corporation after corporation (he used Morgan Stanley, Glaxo SmithKline, and the banking industry as examples) abused the system or took advantage of consumers under the premise that others were doing it, too, while the federal agencies "are not out there ensuring that there's integrity in the marketplace."

During the Q&A, Spitzer touched briefly on CEO compensation compared to workers' comp, and said that in the increasingly global economy, "the pressures on the middle class will become tougher." Asked about United Airlines shifting its pension responsibilities to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., Spitzer said he needs to look more closely at the issue but noted that the shift of pensions from the private to public sector "is the business model of the future" and "one of the waves that's going to hit us down the road." He added about United that "it makes you wonder what sort of stewardship there has been."

Instance #2. As Queen Elizabeth II formally opened Parliament on Tuesday, Blair pollster Mark Penn and Labor Party pollster Stan Greenberg met with US political reporters (at, coincidentally, the Center for American Progress) to suggest lessons for the Democratic party in the UK election outcome. Although they got into values some, and addressed Iraq almost as an afterthought, they focused mainly on Democrats' failure in recent years, in their view, to talk about the economy. That's not too surprising for two pollsters to the party's last US president, who oversaw a degree of economic growth not seen since his administration -- the president who first ran on "it's the economy, stupid," and won.

Another caveat: the incumbent Blair was well-positioned to talk about economic successes, as the pollsters noted, whereas the out-party Democrats here are charging Bush with economic failures -- but arguably not too effectively. Per Greenberg, Labor ran on its economic successes and the failure of past Conservative economic policies. He also argued that Labor effectively marginalized Conservatives in that the results showed no support for a revival of the "Thatcher/Reagan" tax cuts as an economic growth policy. He declared, "The economy is the main voting issue in almost every election we have."

Penn noted the difficulty in keeping the economy front-and-center for voters when things are going well. But while the economy hasn't fared so well under Bush, he said, the public has no sense that Democrats have a clear plan to deal with it. Both pollsters suggested that values was the default issue in 2004 because Kerry didn't focus on the economy. But Penn noted that if one views the US electorate as split between economic, security, and values voters, that the economic voters' slice of the pie has shrunk over time -- that Democrats' inability to talk about the economy stretches back to the Gore campaign.

Both pollsters agree that, as Greenberg says, "There is a very big critique of the character of this economy and the kind of life people lead" to be made by the Democratic party.

Instance #3. Earlier this week, First Read noted that seven states have moved to raise their minimum wage in the past two years, and that 16 states plus DC now set a minimum wage that's higher than the federal wage of $5.15 per hour. Proponents of raising the wage say it's a fairness issue -- that the federal minimum wage has not gone up since 1997. Until yesterday, the last Democratic lawmaker to propose raising the federal minimum wage was Ted Kennedy, who tried to attach an increase to the bankruptcy bill and failed. Now, as part of a Democratic effort to show attentiveness to the concerns of average Americans amidst the filibuster fight, Kennedy is trying again, proposing a three-step hike to $7.25 per hour. Senator Clinton is co-sponsoring. The AFL-CIO statement applauding the move notes, "As real wages continue to deteriorate for workers and companies like Wal-Mart refuse to pay workers above the minimum wage, the Administration and Congress must make this issue a priority..."

Speaking of Wal-Mart, Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) is scheduled to veto the so-called "Wal-Mart bill" today, which the retail giant's critics say would guarantee health care to its employees in Maryland. Ehrlich, who says the bill is bad for business, may be joined at the veto ceremony by the Wal-Mart COO. Wal-Mart's union-funded foes are crying foul.

And in another instance of union pressure on the private sector over benefits, the AFL-CIO is seeking to pressure Charles Schwab to withdraw from the business coalitions backing Social Security private accounts and Governor Schwarzenegger's "pension privatization" plan in California. Per the release, hundreds of Schwab clients, retirees and local workers will rally outside the Schwab annual meeting in San Francisco at 3:00 pm ET.

DeLay
The new NBC/Journal poll shows 52% saying Congress should investigate DeLay's travel and ties to lobbyists. A majority of Americans still don't know who he is, but those who do rate him negatively by 2-1.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Ronnie Earle, the Texas prosecutor who has denied any partisan motives in his investigation of a DeLay-founded political group, was the featured speaker last week at a Democratic fundraiser where he spoke about DeLay. “Earle said Wednesday he knew the group that met in Dallas was raising money for Democrats, but that it was not his reason for speaking. ‘I'd make the same speech to any group, Republican or Democrat, as long as the group was interested in honest, open government,’ Earle said in a telephone interview.”  But: “Political analysts said Earle's appearance left him open to questions about his motives.”

USA Today does a "congressional travel by the numbers" and runs a debate between two partisan pundits over the depth of DeLay's problems and problems for other members who have travel issues.

Caulifornia
The Los Angeles Times runs through its mayoral runoff exit poll, which shows that Villaraigosa's victory wasn't due only to strong support among Latinos but to broad "support across the city among voters of every stripe." That said: "For the first time in modern Los Angeles, the Times Poll found, the Latino share of the city's electorate reached 25% - up from 22% in the Villaraigosa-Hahn contest four years ago, and up from a mere 10% in the 1993 mayoral race... Among the survey's more striking findings was its confirmation of Hahn's loss of support among African Americans and Valley voters, the once-sturdy coalition that drove his 2001 triumph over Villaraigosa."

The paper also says that the Mayor-elect "had to scrap plans to focus on school reform Wednesday afternoon at a Woodland Hills high school when the campus was disrupted by a fight." - Los Angeles Times

Following up on Villaraigosa’s landslide victory, the New York Times examines whether the Hispanic/African-American coalition that propelled him to victory is applicable to other races, including New York’s mayoral race. Their conclusion (as we wrote earlier this week): not so much.

The values debate
The Hill reports that House GOP leaders, under pressure from conservatives, will offer their own proposal to expand federal funding of stem cell research. Conservatives are unhappy about Speaker Hastert's commitment to bring a proposal pushed by House GOP moderates to the floor. "The bills are not in direct conflict, but several members say the second may deflect support from" the original, which had been "widely expected to pass."

Exacerbating the split, the centrist House Republicans commissioned polling on stem-cell funding in pro-life colleagues' districts "in an effort to boost support" for their effort, but didn't warn their colleagues, causing a rift on the Hill. – Washington Times

And the AP reports that Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore will not attend Rudy Giuliani’s commencement address tomorrow at Loyola College of Maryland. “His spokesman did not elaborate on the decision, but confirmed it was because of Giuliani's abortion stance… Earlier this week, New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, also a Catholic, canceled his speech to graduates of St. Elizabeth's College of Nursing after learning a bishop opposed his appearance.”

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