“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.  To bookmark First Read, click here.

Thursday, May 26, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
NBC's Ken Strickland reports that at about 6:00 pm, the Senate will vote on whether to end debate and proceed to the Bolton confirmation vote.  Mustering the 60 votes needed to stop debate will require Republicans to get some Democratic support.  Strickland says that if Democrats remained united, the vote would likely be pushed back to the week of June 6 at the earliest, after the Senate returns from recess.  Senate Democrats are trying to delay the vote as a way to pressure the Administration to turn over documents, including top-secret NSA intercepts, which they say are critical to Bolton's possible confirmation.  The New York Times says GOP Sen. John Thune is subtly warning that he may vote against Bolton unless South Dakota's Ellsworth AFB drops off the Pentagon base-closing list.

  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

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush and President Mahmoud Abbas hold a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at 11:25 am, where NBC's Norah O'Donnell says Bush will announce millions in direct US aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Haven't been paying much attention to the asbestos bill?  It may be time to start.  Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee could vote out the very complex bill, the second part of Bush's desired three-part tort reform plan (class-action reform having been signed into law, and med mal reform being the third).  The folks at Lehman Brothers tell clients that the bill "has holes in it that will complicate floor action."

With the Senate being the center of action these days, it's not surprising that Democrats in that chamber seem to be driving the message for the entire party.  Harry Reid today will give a high-noon speech at the National Press Club in which he'll tout Democrats as being focused on reforming Washington and on the people's business, and criticize the GOP as being on a power kick.  Per excerpts, Reid will say that Democrats will "make sure that everyday Americans and their concerns get back on the Congressional calendar," including national defense, the economy, health care, energy, and retirement security.  He'll charge that "the Republican Congress has put all this and more on hold."

First Read will note, as we have before, that there's been nothing stopping Democrats from talking about these issues during all the months when they were so focused on defeating Bush on Social Security and judges, and on hanging Tom DeLay around the GOP's neck.

While Senate Democrats' tone-setting for the party is not surprising, what is surprising is how muscular Chuck Schumer is being about communicating the party's overall message, playing a far bigger role than recent chairs of the Democratic Senate campaign committee (DSCC).  The committee also seems to be taking over broader communications duties, regularly firing off press releases attacking Senate Republicans who aren't up in 2006.  One Senate Democratic leadership aide tells First Read that the theory behind using the DSCC is that other Senate Democrats "generally don't engage in throwing the kinds of elbows" that the committee can throw because they have to work with colleagues across the aisle.

This aide also suggests that Schumer's committee assignments, on top of his DSCC role, position him particularly well as a messenger.  His Finance Committee slot allows him to address Social Security.  Ditto his Judiciary slot and judges.  Several Democratic strategists involved in party communications say it's all being done in close coordination with Reid et al.  Still, we ask, is a liberal from a blue state an effective national messenger?  The answer is TBD.

Schumer did the Monitor breakfast yesterday and talked about turning the GOP's "obstructionist" argument against them.  On the judges compromise, he said he thinks Senate Democrats are more supportive of it than Republicans are.  On issue after issue, Schumer alleged that the Republicans are too concerned with ideology.  "There's a whiff of extremism in the air that is beginning to be reminiscent of 1994 or 1993... where the incumbent party is out of touch and not doing the people's work."  The liberal Campaign for America's Future tells First Read that they'll release polling data today basically echoing this argument; more on this below.

The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

Can congressional supporters of expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research win over enough House members, having already lost a surprising number of House Democrats, to override a presidential veto?  More below.

And RNC chairman Ken Mehlman travels to Virginia today to endorse GOP gubernatorial nominee-in-waiting Jerry Kilgore in Richmond at 1:30 pm.  Mehlman also will do an ed board at the Richmond Free Press, an African-American paper.

The Senate and the judiciary
With June looming, NBC's Pete Williams says that SCOTUS retirement announcements basically happen however the retiring justices want them to.  There's no pattern or standard practice here.  Williams notes that among SCOTUS retirements over during the past two decades, most retiring justices did not tell either the White House or their Court colleagues in advance.

The Washington Times covers Owen's confirmation vote, with Republican Chafee voting against and Democrats Byrd and Landrieu voting in favor, and Democrat Salazar, per the paper, looking he was getting pushed around by some of his female colleagues.

The New York Times says Bill Frist plans to bring up the nomination of William G. Myers III, who was not guaranteed a vote in Monday’s compromise.  Such a move “could provide a more strenuous test of the agreement, which bars use of filibusters against judicial nominees except in ‘extraordinary’ cases.”

Judiciary Committee member Schumer talked at length about the judges deal at the Monitor breakfast yesterday.  On whether the agreed-to floor votes of nominees Owen, Brown, and Pryor mean that ideology doesn't fall under "extraordinary circumstances," Schumer said, "That is not the view of Democrats."  He said the agreement by the Gang of 14 makes clear that the meaning of "extraordinary circumstances" is up to the discretion of each member.  However, he maintained that the agreement's provision opposing any rule change in the filibuster doesn't have such a qualification -- and therefore is more ironclad.  "The nuclear option, we believe, is off the table.  That was the most important thing in this."  Indeed, even though he believes that Owen, Brown, and Pryor all fall into the "extraordinary circumstances" category, Schumer said that accepting them was part of a compromise to keep the nuclear option off the table.

Schumer also suggested that Democrats generally seem much more supportive of the agreement than Republicans do.  He noted that six of the seven Democrats in the Gang of 14 consulted regularly with him, with Durbin, and with Reid, and although he can't speak for the Republicans, he said he doubted that McCain was in as much contact with Frist.

Asked what his own test is for judicial nominees, Schumer took the opportunity to say, "It is not any one issue" like abortion, and that his requirement is that they interpret the law rather than make law.  And he tossed out that "had the nuclear option been invoked, the inclination to filibuster Bolton would have been greater."

Bush and the GOP congress
The Washington Post points out that amidst the filibuster frenzy, "a little-noticed fact about modern politics...: Republicans have already changed how the business of government gets done, in ways both profound and lasting...  The common theme is to consolidate influence in a small circle of Republicans and to marginalize dissenting voices that would try to impede a conservative agenda...  The transformation started in the House in the 1990s and intensified with Bush's 2000 election.  The result has been a stronger president working with a compliant and streamlined Congress to push the country, and the courts, in a more conservative direction, according to historians, government scholars, and current and former federal officials."

The Houston Chronicle writes about the difficulties the Bush White House is experiencing: “So far this week, President Bush has faced mutiny within his party over stem cell research and Social Security, received the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and was forced to accept a compromise on judicial appointments.  And it's not even Friday yet…  Asked Wednesday whether Bush feared the onset of lame duck status, McClellan called the suggestion ‘cynical...  We have made significant progress in the first four months or so of this Congress,’ McClellan said.”

Roll Call looks at how busy Speaker Hastert has been putting out fires among his own ranks.  "Hastert told the weekly Conference meeting Wednesday that the stem-cell debate was the hallmark of a 'mature majority' in which both conservatives and moderates made valuable contributions."  Hastert said that "Republicans have mostly been able to keep their differences in-house," with an exception of the stem-cell vote.

The values debate
One GOP operative working on the effort to turn the House embryonic stem cell research bill into law tells First Read that pro-research forces are now going "full bore" in the Senate.  His understanding, he says, that Hatch is going to take the lead on the legislation for the Republicans to take the burden off an already burdened Specter.  Also, asked whether pro-research forces can whip up an additional 50 or so votes in the House to overturn a Bush veto, the operative says, interestingly, that having 12 House Democrats vote against the bill was more than they'd expected, so they hope to rope in a few of those.  "That gives us some more wiggle room."  Also, the pro-research Republican Main Street Partnership will meet on Monday with lead House sponsor Mike Castle and with key Senators to map out a strategy.

House Rules Committee chair David Dreier says he's looking for a compromise on the research "so President Bush will not have to use his first veto on a measure that appears to be popular in polls" -- even as Bush himself "reiterated his determination to prevent taxpayer funding for projects that involve destroying embryos."  Bill Frist's office tells the Washington Post he hasn't decided how to proceed.

This could be another issue on which Frist's Senate colleagues have to go along with his 2008-infused operating decisions.  The Los Angeles Times notes, "The push for a vote puts Frist, a physician who opposes abortion and has been mentioned as a presidential contender for 2008, in an awkward position.  If he blocks the bill from coming to the floor, senators can still seek to attach it as an amendment to must-pass legislation.  If he allows it to come to the floor, he risks enraging socially conservative groups whose support will be vital in the GOP presidential race.  And if he is unable to block a vote and the measure passes, Frist will have put Bush in the politically uncomfortable position of having to cast the first veto of his presidency."

"...[T]he issue is another major headache for Frist, who is still coping with the fallout from the Senate's compromise over judicial appointments, a deal in which seven members of his own party bucked his leadership."  - Boston Globe

Roll Call questions whether Senate supporters of the bill have the votes to sustain a filibuster, with Specter saying they do, and also notes that per Rick Santorum, leaders in the social conservative movement "understand the Senate leadership may be unable to prevent the bill from advancing."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page complains that supporters of expanded research make it sound as though no progress has been made since 2001, and suggests that "maybe the system has stumbled toward a compromise that is more sensible than the debate makes it appear...  [I]f embryonic stem-cell researchers can get this far within the regime Mr. Bush imposed in 2001, then surely they can go further without additional federal help."

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved the gunmakers' immunity bill.  That said, the roadblock has always been the Senate.  – Washington Times

It's the economy
USA Today reports that state government revenues" are soaring again," to a record $600 billion, "ending a period of budget shortfalls and prompting proposals for tax cuts and new spending initiatives for the first time since 2000...  The most immediate effects of improving state finances across the USA are college tuition hikes that were smaller than expected, pay raises for government workers and less borrowing.  The big decisions - tax cuts vs. major new spending - are starting to brew in most legislatures but won't be decided until late this year or early 2006."  An accompanying article looks at how the states are using the extra money.

Catholic organizations are opposing CAFTA on moral grounds: Catholics for a Faithful Citizenship has issued a release outlining its objections and noting similar objections by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.  And Roll Call reports that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, except for its five members from Texas, plans to announce its opposition today.

The Wall Street Journal spotlights another looming pension issue: amidst all the attention paid to United Airlines, "big problems in many multiemployer plans have been largely overlooked.  Lawmakers say they recognized only recently that Congress also must address financial turmoil in this separate segment of government-backed pension plans, which covers about 10 million workers in several industries.  Meanwhile, industry and union coalitions pushing Congress to take action are fighting among themselves over how far lawmakers should go to shore up the plans."  Also: "While House and Senate staff says pension-overhaul bills will address multiemployer-plan problems, the PBGC is more concerned about the alarming number of single-employer plans it has taken over recently, including plans from United..."

Problems are plaguing the establishment of the Enron-inspired, SEC-mandated investor education program.

The governors
The Sacramento Bee reports that about 10,000 nurses, teachers, firefighters, and other union members (organizers claimed more than 20,000) yesterday protested Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s agenda and proposed ballot initiatives.   And the paper also writes up a new PPI poll showing that Californians aren’t clamoring for a special election.  “The Public Policy Institute of California survey found 62 percent of likely voters said it would be better to wait until the next scheduled statewide election in June 2006.  Secretary of State Bruce McPherson has estimated the special election would cost about $80 million.”

Reporting on Day Three of the trial on the Washington state gubernatorial race outcome, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that yesterday’s testimony by Nicole Way, a King County elections official who admitted to producing a falsified ballot report, left Democratic lawyers smiling.  “Way… helped prepare an absentee-ballot report that amounts to fraud, GOP lawyer Dale Foreman said Monday in his opening statement...  But after Way's testimony, a lawyer for the Democrats, Kevin Hamilton, said, ‘I think she definitely answered the question about fraud: There isn't any.’”

Meanwhile, the Seattle Times focuses on the GOP’s argument about discrepancies in absentee-ballot counts from 11 King County precincts.

Social Security
The Washington Times notes that the judges deal allows the Senate to get back to business and has "the effect of keeping alive Mr. Bush's effort to reform Social Security.  'Anything that gives the Senate more time to focus on Social Security is a good thing,' presidential assistant Allan Hubbard told The Washington Times.  'We want them to not lose focus on Social Security.'"

Noting the "huge" stature he has gained within the Democratic party "for presiding over the national finances during the Clinton boom years," The Hill reports that former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin told House Democrats yesterday to "continue to 'hold firm'" in their opposition to Bush on Social Security, and "advised the Democrats not to introduce their own plan."  Rubin "counseled congressional Democrats against engaging Republicans on specifics.  He urged them instead to cast the debate in terms of principles, with opposition to deficit spending as their guiding conviction."

Teamsters President James Hoffa, on the other hand, "breaking his estrangement from the White House, praised President Bush on Tuesday for attempting to fix Social Security and said Democrats were wrong to oppose any discussion until Mr. Bush drops his personal retirement accounts plan."  - Washington Times

The Democrats
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and Campaign for America’s Future Co-director Robert Borosage release a new poll today "on the dramatic shift in political attitudes since the last election," per the release announcing the 10:00 am National Press Club event.  "Borosage will discuss the challenge and opportunities the shift poses to Democrats and to the independent progressive movement that is on the rise across the country."  CAF also will outline the schedule of its annual conference in DC next Wednesday.  First Read is told that Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, DNC chairman Howard Dean, John Edwards, the Rev. Jim Wallis, and Bill Moyers will address the conference.

Per the poll, 70% say partisan bickering has gotten worse in recent years; voters (by 41%-30%) blame Republicans and Bush for the current political climate; and 57% say Congress has the wrong priorities and isn't working on issues that matter to them.  "Americans have turned against Washington," CAF communications director Toby Chaudhuri tells First Read.

Meanwhile, Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg looks at how the party's gubernatorial nominee in Virginia is running far to the right.

And the federal jury starts deliberating this morning in the trial of former Hillary Clinton 2000 Senate campaign finance director David Rosen. – Boston Herald


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