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Friday, May 20, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

In Washington these days, it's hot to be moderate.

  1. Other political news of note
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Bill Frist has indicated that he'll call the vote to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominees sometime on Tuesday, NBC's Ken Strickland reports, while the bipartisan, largely centrist group trying to work out a compromise failed to reach one last night.  With many of them having returned home or going home today for the weekend, Strickland says talks will continue by phone until Monday.  Although they had wanted to achieve a compromise before the weekend, the group remains hopeful that one can be reached.

Meanwhile, as the House has toiled in recent weeks in the shadow of the potentially nuclear Senate, a political story that may well be of greater immediate interest to the public has brewed up there and, next week, will boil over.  On Wednesday or Thursday, sources tell First Read, the GOP-controlled House is expected to vote to loosen President Bush's restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.  The vote looms as South Korea's success in cloning human embryonic stem cells -- a double whammy of cloning and embryonic stem cell research -- continues to sink in, and it will mark the next stage in America's debate over science and the marketplace versus traditional values.

As of yesterday, the bill had over 200 co-sponsors and no apparent obstacles in its path.  Despite opposition from conservatives, Speaker Hastert is standing by his commitment to allow a floor vote.  The Senate, which may take up the bill in June, is also considered likely to pass it with the help of at least one anti-abortion Republican, Orrin Hatch, and probably others.  (Given Senate Democrats' support, it seems unlikely to get held up in a nuclear winter.)  Observers are increasingly betting that this measure, rather than the overloaded highway bill, will merit President Bush's first veto.

The measure splits the GOP down the middle once again on the question of when life begins and ends, an issue that so recently had House conservatives charging to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case.  But with some anti-abortion Republicans like Hatch supporting the measure, the dividing line is blurred.  Also different from the Schiavo case: This time, it's GOP moderates who have the momentum.  Ask yourself: When was the last time moderates -- who are, by definition, moderate -- got so excited about anything?

Although social conservatives may be trying to hold the House GOP leadership's feet to the fire on this and demand that they derail the vote, NBC's Mike Viqueira suggests that Hastert and DeLay see the writing on the wall.  Why not let the President deal this issue which so divides their ranks?  One prominent GOP moderate tells Viq that the leadership has been stalwart on keeping their word and allowing the bill to proceed.  Viq says the House bill could get 240-250 votes -- more than enough to pass, but short of veto-proof.

"It is not a life-abortion issue," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which is running ads in support of the bill.  "This is a science issue."  Resnick tells First Read, "We certainly hope it won't come to a veto...  We're not doing it against the President.  We are doing it on science."

At this writing, coincidentally, President Bush is speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.  He then meets with the presidents of Denmark and Greece at 10:55 am and 1:15 pm, respectively.

And once again, because it's Friday, First Read takes a peek at the developing oh-eight presidential race -- this time at the debate within the Democratic party over whether their nominating contest should begin in Iowa and New Hampshire, or somewhere else.

The Senate and the judiciary
The Washington Post notes the potential for the bipartisan, compromise-seeking group "to control the Senate's destiny without the explicit blessing of their leadership or their party's most important constituencies...  [T]hey have acted with the knowledge that, if they strike a compromise, they alone have the power to control events from here forward in the battle over judicial nominees and the change in Senate rules...  That, in the estimation of congressional analysts, has made their efforts almost without precedent in the legislative branch."

As the group works toward a deal, the Wall Street Journal says, "[o]utside activists ratcheted up their own plans to stiffen resolve for a final showdown Tuesday."

The Boston Globe notes how the fight has revealed not only a partisan split in the Senate, but a split between the old bulls who are generally less eager to change the rules, and the new guard.

The New York Times recaps yesterday’s events in the Senate, which included the Democrats invoking the "two-hour rule" to deny extending committee work, Santorum comparing the Democrats to Hitler, and the behind-the-scenes effort to broker a compromise.

Related event today: Former Republican US senators Coats, Fitzgerald, Grams and Hutchinson hold a presser in favor of up or down votes at the Capitol 11:00 am.

Looking ahead to a SCOTUS vacancy, the Washington Times says that although White House officials refuse to acknowledge that any preparation is underway for a vacancy, they really are preparing for one, "with at least one conservative legal organization having submitted its recommendations on who should sit on the nation's top court."  The story says "a short list is well into development."

The values debate
The Boston Globe says South Korea's "advances are likely to intensify another concern about the science: That the United States is falling increasingly behind."

USA Today notes that South Korea's "advances do not, however, change the reality at the heart of the highly publicized debate: the destruction of embryos to obtain the stem cells that are the body's master cells, capable of becoming many different kinds of tissue."

"The researchers, who published their work in the online edition of the journal Science, insisted that their progress in cloning human embryos would not make things easier for anyone attempting to create a cloned baby, which they believe is impossible in any event," reports the Los Angeles Times.

"Unknown at this point," the Washington Post says, "is whether the Korean advance will bolster the [House] bill's opponents -- who have painted the legislation as a step down a slippery slope that could lead to cloned babies -- or strengthen the bill's supporters by making the pending bill look relatively modest by comparison and by heightening concerns that the United States is falling behind in one of the hottest arenas of biomedical research."

The Wall Street Journal says that in the Senate, "a number of antiabortion lawmakers have concluded that the opportunity to combat disease trumps the ethical and religious issues."

In Massachusetts, the AP says, state lawmakers rejected GOP Gov. Mitt Romney’s amendments to a stem-cell research bill; the amendments would have banned cloned embryos for stem cells and defined the beginning of life as the moment of conception.

It's the economy
As our polling partner the Wall Street Journal points out today, 20% of those surveyed in the new NBC/Journal poll say the deficit is the most important economic issue facing the country, second only to unemployment and ahead of gas prices.  Also, only 15% say the Administration's policies for managing the federal budget are "working well;" 65% say they are not working well.

Thirty-three percent say they think the Democratic Party would do a better job dealing with the economy, 25% say the GOP would, and 30% say "both about the same."  The last time we asked a comparable, though not exactly similar question in December 2004, 39% chose the Democratic Party and 30% the GOP, with 20% saying both about the same.

USA Today's editorial page calls for reform of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.  "Current law allows employers to get away with lowballing pension contributions and obscuring shortfalls, knowing that if they have to they can dump it all on PBGC...  The PBGC, backed by the White House, is asking for long-overdue reforms...  Business interests claim that the reforms would cause more employers to drop pension plans altogether...  But that's better than a system that lets employers shuck promises they've made for years."

The Washington Times covers Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich's veto of the so-called "Wal-Mart bill," which would have "forced Wal-Mart to pay a mandatory amount of employee health insurance or potentially cancel plans for a distribution center with 1,000 jobs," and which Ehrlich called "'a tax bill disguised as a health bill'...  The legislation is being watched by lawmakers in other states aiming to crack down on Wal-Mart Stores Inc.  Similar bills have already been proposed in New Jersey and Pennsylvania."

The Washington Times also covers GOP discussion of how to take advantage of the split among organized labor.

Social Security
The Washington Post covers Bush stumping for his Social Security plan yesterday as "the 78th day of a 60-day roadshow...  Bush has effectively extended what was supposed to be a two-month barnstorming tour...  While hearings on Social Security resumed Thursday on Capitol Hill, Bush has found it difficult to build political momentum behind his plan and many GOP strategists privately believe he faces a potentially debilitating domestic defeat."  The story notes progressive indexing proponent Robert Pozen's opposition to private accounts.

The New York Times does its take on how the showdown over the judicial filibuster is overshadowing Bush’s campaign to overhaul Social Security.

The Los Angeles Times got hold of a memo "circulated this week among members of one group, Women Impacting Public Policy," which it says "illustrates the lengths to which the White House has gone to make sure the right points are made at the president's public appearances" on the issue.  The memo requests help for a Bush forum in Rochester, NY which has not yet been announced.  "White House spokesman Trent Duffy declined to discuss the group's e-mail..."

DeLay
The Houston Chronicle reports that an interim audit of DeLay’s primary PAC found that the group “engaged in some inappropriate accounting of receipts and expenditures, prompting it to revise all campaign reports for 2001 and 2002…  DeLay's aides have not detailed what ARMPAC did wrong in its filings to the Federal Election Commission or explained why the group made the revisions this week, before the commission's audit is completed.  A spokesman for DeLay, Dan Allen, said Thursday that he could not comment.”

The Washington Post does it, too.

Caulifornia
The Sacramento Bee previews Governor Schwarzenegger’s three-state fundraising tour, which he starts today, to Texas, Illinois, and Florida, where he’ll rake in an estimated $30 million for a special election.

The Democrats and Oh-eight
Two days before DNC chair Howard Dean does the full hour on Meet the Press, USA Today compares Dean's approach to his RNC counterpart Ken Mehlman's, noting how Mehlman is reaching out to voters who don't typically favor Republicans, including African-Americans, as well as to the growing Hispanic voting bloc, while Dean is tasked with shoring up his party.  "Some Democrats are frustrated by the contrast between the two approaches, even as they praise Dean's efforts to revitalize flagging state parties."

Presidential candidates running for their party's nomination know by heart the rule that Iowa and New Hampshire either make you or break you.  Kerry's victories there in 2004 enabled him to cruise to the nomination; Dean's criticism of the caucus process on an obscure Canadian TV show helped undermine his frontrunner status; and Clinton's strong showing in New Hampshire in 1992 turned him into the Comeback Kid.  Since the 1970s, Iowa and New Hampshire have been fixtures as the first states to vet both party's presidential candidates, and no candidate in that time has won the nomination without finishing at least second in one of them.

But will their first-in-the-nation status change on the Democratic side?  Last Saturday in Chicago, the DNC presidential nominating calendar commission met for the second time to consider various proposals on what to do about its nominating schedule.  Of the three major proposals discussed, two would keep Iowa and New Hampshire first -- yet would group subsequent primaries by region.  But the third, sponsored by Michigan's Democratic party, would scrap the Iowa/New Hampshire lock.

Although the idea of changing the nominating calendar isn't new, this formal review comes at an interesting time for Democrats.  The country's overall population is shifting away from the Northeast and Midwest and toward the South and West.  Neither Iowa (which is 94% white) nor New Hampshire (96%) reflect the racial diversity of today's Democratic Party.  There's also the question of whether states that haven't delivered for Democratic candidates in recent general elections -- Iowa in 2004 and New Hampshire in 2000 -- should continue playing an early role in picking the party's nominees.

New Hampshire Democratic chair Kathleen Sullivan acknowledges to First Read that New Hampshire and Iowa aren't as diverse as other states, and she notes that other states should play an important role in the primary process.  But Sullivan contends that New Hampshire should still retain its first-in-the-nation role: “I think that there’s a lot to be said for preserving some tradition in the process, and this is a tradition.  It's something that people pay attention to...  No one has made a compelling case to change the calendar."  She adds that small states like New Hampshire offer candidates one-on-one opportunities with voters there, forcing them to give real answers on issues.

But advocates for changing the calendar don't buy such arguments.  Michigan AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Tina Abbott, who presented the Michigan Democrats' plan, says that being a smaller state with more access or with more discerning voters is “not a good enough answer…  We want a process where there is no privileged person, group, [or] area.”

Democratic operative Mike Stratton, who is working with Democrats from the West on a regional primary there, says his group wants the Rocky Mountain states (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NM, NV, UT, and WY) to have a primary early in the nominating schedule.  “The rationale is that there is no region in the country where Democrats have done better in the recent couple of cycles in terms of making headway against Republicans,” he tells First Read.  That proposal, however, would still keep Iowa and New Hampshire first.  “We’re not trying to blow anybody up,” Stratton says.  "[But] this current blue state formula obviously has come up short in 2000 and 2004 for the Democrats.  We got to have some places where we can grow our votes.”

One DNC commission member tells First Read that no one plan has gained much traction so far, that more specific proposals are expected to be offered, and that some of the proposals discussed at the meeting, such as the western states primary, can be implemented without the DNC's help -- whereas a change to Iowa and New Hampshire's status cannot.

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