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Monday, May 23, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Bill Hatfield

First glance
It's a Monday of conflict and conflicting images. President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai hold a joint news conference at 11:00 am at which they'll tout Afghanistan as an example of a burgeoning democracy, despite anti-American protests. Laura Bush on TODAY downplayed getting heckled in the Mideast. And in Washington, lobbyists and Wall Street analysts are warning clients of a volatile but decisive week on the Hill, where the Memorial Day recess looms. Cue the filibuster and stem cells.

  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

The increasingly anticipated House vote to expand federal funding of stem cell research to unused embryos from fertility clinics, pushed by a group of GOP moderates, is scheduled for tomorrow. President Bush is scheduled to talk about bioethics tomorrow afternoon, when he'll probably repeat his threat to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Also expected tomorrow: Bill Frist's move to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominees -- unless the bipartisan group of compromise-seekers can reach an agreement before then. NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the group will reconvene their talks behind closed doors later this afternoon, while the Senate is expected to debate judges and the filibuster all night. One member of the group tells NBC's Erin Green that the momentum for a compromise is growing as the vote nears. Keep in mind that even if it comes to a vote, Frist may not have enough to pull this off. Strickland's primer on how the process would unfold is below.

Meanwhile, reminding us of what could be at stake here, the US Supreme Court meets today to issue opinions. NBC's Pete Williams reports that as of Friday, the court was slightly beyond the halfway mark on that front, having issued 40 opinions with 34 left to go. Also, DNC chair Howard Dean told Tim Russert yesterday that he doesn't trust Republicans to apply an elimination of the filibuster, if there is one, only to judicial nominees. And, the Des Moines Register reports that a group of influential Iowa Republicans and conservatives are warning potential GOP presidential candidates "that any GOP senator with presidential aspirations who doesn't support ending judicial filibusters will face consequences in the 2008 caucuses." In case you're thinking McCain might just skip Iowa again, conservatives in New Hampshire are issuing the same warning.

On the scheduling of the stem cell vote for Tuesday, the same day as the Senate showdown, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that the House GOP leadership insists they're not trying to bury this news beneath the Senate story. Viq suggests they're just trying to avoid another day of rallies and publicity around the issue. Again, the CW is that the bill will get around 250 votes -- enough to pass, but short of a veto-proof majority. Viq says there's no official whip count because the leadership isn't pressuring people one way or the other.

Bush announced his policy on funding embryonic stem cell research in August 2001 and stuck to it during the 2004 presidential campaign, though his position is, for him, unusually nuanced. While he has remained consistent, Bush changed his tone on the issue during the campaign as polls showed majority support for the research and Kerry made an issue of it. At that point, the Bush campaign emphasized that he was the first president to ever allow federal funding for stem-cell research at all (although the science was just being developed and Bush’s policy replaced more permissive guidelines drawn up by the Clinton Administration). Democrats regularly mischaracterized Bush's position as having banned stem cell research, or as having banned federal funding altogether.

The Senate meets at 11:30 am; the House meets at 12:30 pm. Frist and/or Reid may address the AIPAC conference tonight, schedules permitting. President Bush also helps swear in his new EPA administrator at 1:45 pm.

Also today, the Washington state trial on the 2004 gubernatorial vote begins in Wenatchee, WA, raising the question of how a sworn-in governor who has held office for five months could be forced to vacate that office if the court rules against her.

The Senate and the judiciary
NBC's Strickland reports that late Tuesday morning or in the early afternoon, the Senate will take what is essentially a "test vote" to show majority support for nominee Priscilla Owen. Shortly after the test vote, the process leading to the nuclear option will occur:
-- Frist will raise a "point of order" to the presiding officer -- most likely Cheney. He'll make the case the Owen's nomination has been debated long enough and that only a simple majority of 51, rather than a filibuster-proof 60 votes should be needed to confirm a nominee.
-- As the presiding officer, Cheney will rule in Frist's favor (potentially against the judgment of the Senate parliamentarian, with whom First has made it known they will not be consulting; Senate Democrats have argued that the parliamentarian opposes the move).
-- Democrats will "appeal" Cheney's ruling.
-- Republicans will ask for a vote to "table" or kill the Democrats' appeal. This is the vote that would change the rules -- the so-called nuclear option. Fifty-one votes are needed to kill the appeal; Cheney would break a tie in Frist's favor.
-- If Frist has enough votes to kill the Democrats' appeal, he would then call for a vote on Owen's confirmation. With the new rule in place, Strickland says, filibusters on judicial nominees would be prohibited; only 51 votes would be required for her confirmation. And with 55 Republican Senators, all of Bush's nominees would then most likely be confirmed.

Strickland adds that it's unclear if there would then be additional votes on other previously blocked judges. Frist has said that after dealing with this matter, he wants to move to the Bolton nomination.

The Dallas Morning News examines Priscilla Owen's emergence at the "the center of the political maelstrom."

The Wall Street Journal points out that the filibuster fight isn't just about the nominees' opinions -- it's "also about their destinations. The contentious choices would tip the balance in some evenly split appellate courts, or could challenge the prevailing views of other panels on issues such as civil rights or environmental policy." The story comes with an excellent graphic to illustrate this point.

Related event today: Harry Reid, Rep. Bob Menendez, and Latino community leaders hold a presser to denounce the nuclear option at 2:00 pm.

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein takes his turn focusing on the makeup of the compromise-seekers. "Nothing may be more remarkable about this Senate showdown than who is trying to defuse it," whom he calls "an assortment of mavericks, malcontents, back-benchers, gray eminences and ideological heretics."

The Sunday Los Angeles Times examined Bush and the White House's active, if behind-the-scenes participation in making sure there's a vote and in trying to ensure that it goes Frist and Bush's way.

Social conservative leaders are warning that "a failure to end judicial filibusters would leave rank-and-file activists dispirited after having worked to re-elect President Bush and expand Republican majorities in the House and Senate last year," Roll Call reports. "In fact, they suggest a loss in the judicial battle might be enough to drive these activists away from the polls in 2006 and perhaps in 2008, denying Republicans a loyal political base seen as vital to GOP victories."

USA Today takes its look at how activists on both the left and the right are holding US senators' feet to the fire to refrain from reaching a compromise.

Conversely, the Washington Post makes the point that Frist and Reid have few incentives to offer their colleagues to win them over. "With a hallowed Senate tradition at stake, lawmakers are threatening to vote their consciences, making them poor candidates for logrolling."

The values debate
With California's $3 billion stem cell research initiative spotlighted by South Korea's bombshell and US brain-drain concerns, the Los Angeles Times says the effort remains "mired in litigation that has delayed the sale of bonds and forced advocates to consider alternative funding sources. In addition, stem cell agency officials have expressed serious concerns about a constitutional amendment now being debated in Sacramento that would give state lawmakers some control over their operations."

It occurs to us that a debate over a SCOTUS nominee's potion on abortion could assume a different tone from previous battles, with Democrats and choice groups using it as an opportunity to reshape the public's view of where the party stands over abortion. Appearing on Meet the Press yesterday, Dean repeated his centrist, "no one supports abortion" comments, and 23 hours later, we haven't seen any criticisms or dry-heaving from the choice community -- unlike how they reacted to Sen. Hillary Clinton's centrist-sounding remarks on abortion a few months back. That said, it'll take a heck of a lot of coordination between the DNC, Democratic lawmakers, and the choice community to get on the same page for a fight as high-profile as a SCOTUS nominee battle.

The American Psychiatric Association is backing the legalization of gay marriage "'in the interest of maintaining and promoting mental health.'" – Washington Post

It's the economy
Bloomberg reports that economists expect to get word this week that "U.S. economic expansion was stronger in the first quarter than the government first estimated and increased consumer and business spending in April is lifting growth prospects for the current quarter."

The Sunday Washington Post front-paged a study saying that Lakeland, FL's economy is a microcosm of what the US economy will look like in 2025. "By 2025, boomers born in 1955 will be 70. Just less than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be younger than 15, slightly less than today... But the middle of the age spectrum will hollow out, while the number of those 65 and older will swell from 12.4 percent of the population to 18.2 percent." Although critics say the study is hardly scientific, it does offer a look at how the nation's aging population will affect the various components of the economy.

A brain-drain and outsourcing Catch-22: A new study shows that "enrollment in North American computer science and engineering programs has dropped four years straight... That's because good tech jobs have been hard to find, professors say... Ironically, that could lead to more offshoring. Many low-level programming jobs have already been sent to such countries as India and China. But high-level jobs combining technical and business skills are still in the USA. That could change if there's not enough workers to fill them." The story notes, "Shortages haven't been a problem yet... But the pool of trained tech workers could become problematic in about four years, if computer graduates decline while the U.S. tech industry grows." - USA Today

The Washington Post rounds up state and municipal legislative efforts to keep Wal-Mart out of the region. "The fight is taking on national significance. Wal-Mart, which has conquered rural America with more than 3,000 stores, desperately needs to break into the urban market to maintain its phenomenal growth. So far, it has been rebuffed in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and the retailer views Washington as an important frontier for expansion."

The governors
The two-week trial in Washington state on whether or not to overturn last year’s gubernatorial election, which Democrat Christine Gregoire won by just 129 votes, begins today in Chelan County Superior Court. The New York Times says the judge “has set a high bar before he will consider throwing out the November results and ordering a new election, or handing a victory to [Republican Dino] Rossi. The Republicans will have to prove that Mr. Rossi received more votes than Ms. Gregoire, after deducting hundreds of supposedly illegal votes, the judge has indicated.”

The Seattle Times looks at how national Democrats and Republicans have entered this political fight. “National Democrats want to exorcise demons left by the too-quick-to-quit Gore and show they can brawl with the best of Republicans… For Republicans, a Rossi win last November would have helped realign the state party and served the goal of Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove to build a permanent Republican majority.”

The AP profiles the highly regarded judge overseeing the trial, John Bridges. “ No one knows his political leanings. And no one knows -- or no one's telling -- the story behind the small diamond earring he wears in his left ear.”

Sunday’s Sacramento Bee reported that actor Warren Beatty used a commencement speech at Berkeley on Saturday to criticize Governor Schwarzenegger. “‘What is the sense... of running to Wall Street and borrowing $15 billion, raising the debt to over $30 billion, and then coming back here and trying to cut programs and obligations to nurses and to firemen and to teachers and to cops... and then denigrating these good people as special interests?’”

USA Today notes that 21 governors hail from the party that lost their state in the last presidential election. The story points out how these governors have found electoral success where their presidential candidates did not by focusing on jobs and steering clear of more ideological fights.

DeLay
The House Ethics Committee's efforts to get up and running remain stalled by the staffing issue -- basically, whether or not the panel's GOP chair will get to keep his own chief of staff on the committee, rather than the traditional nonpartisan CoS.

The New York Times front-pages the ties between embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff and prominent anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. “A Congressional committee investigating whether Mr. Abramoff defrauded Indian tribes has subpoenaed records from Mr. Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform… And Mr. Norquist's name appears over and over in newly disclosed documents outlining Mr. Abramoff's work in the Northern Mariana Islands.” Norquist denies any wrongdoing, and blames John McCain, chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, for the scrutiny he has received.”

USA Today pairs an editorial making the case for congressional ethics reform with an op-ed by Abramoff attorney Abbe Lowell.

ARMPAC, DeLay's primary PAC, "continued to file amended financial reports Friday as it sought to rectify accounting problems identified by an ongoing Federal Election Commission audit," Roll Call says. "Last Wednesday, ARMPAC filed 23 amended reports covering those two years. On Friday, the committee submitted six more amendments for parts of 2003, 2004 and 2005."

The Los Angeles Times leads its coverage of Dean on Meet the Press yesterday with his suggestion that DeLay may wind up in jail.

Social Security
President Bush has an event on Social Security in Rochester, NY tomorrow. This is the event outlined in a detailed White House memo covered last Friday by the Los Angeles Times, which "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.

In advance of that trip, the New York Times notes the state’s Republican congressmen, including NRCC chairman Thomas Reynolds, haven’t yet embraced Bush's plan.

The Sunday Washington Post reported that Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas is set on making enrollment in 401(k)s automatic unless employees opt out. "Thomas has suggested to life insurance interests that he would back incentives for employers to convert 401(k) balances to private annuities that would pay out slowly over a worker's retirement. In exchange, the life insurance industry would not work against a dramatic expansion of [IRA's], 401(k)s and tax incentives designed to expand... savings. Such government-supported savings vehicles tend to eat into the insurance companies' private annuities business."

Immigration
Coverage of illegal immigration is widespread in the Southwest and West, but yesterday brought a relatively rare immigration report in a New England state: The New Ispwich, NH police chief is arresting illegal immigrants on trespassing counts. "His initiative has made him a hero to critics of US immigration policy, who argue that ordinary citizens and police officers must step in to fill the gaps left by federal authorities unable or unwilling to enforce the laws consistently. But his actions have appalled immigrants' advocates, who say he is misusing the trespassing statute and is overstepping his authority." - Boston Globe

A new report being released today by congressional advocates of further immigration controls says that the "deployment of 36,000 National Guard troops or state militia on the U.S.-Mexico border would stop the illegal flow of foreigners into America," says the Washington Times. The report also "credits the Minuteman Project with proving that additional manpower could 'dramatically reduce if not virtually eliminate' illegal immigration." That said, the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows 54% opposing "private citizens conducting independent patrols of the United States' borders;" 40% support it.

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