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Tuesday, May 24, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Bill Hatfield

First glance
As we've said before, it's hot to be moderate in Washington right now. First a bunch of centrists and maverick Republicans undercut the Senate filibuster showdown in a dramatic 11th-hour deal, and now, they're expected to usher a stem-cell funding bill through the House -- both against the preferences of their party leadership and their president.

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With the nuclear option suddenly a moot point after so much time, money, and effort spent by both sides, Washington plays the usual game of winners and losers. A White House official tells NBC's Bob Kur that the deal, which gets some Bush nominees a floor vote, is a "positive development." Democrats cast it as a loss for Bush that seven of his US senators bucked his wishes and struck a deal. The Chattering Class sees a big defeat for aspiring presidential candidate Frist at the hands of aspiring presidential candidate McCain. Judiciary chair and moderate Arlen Specter wins in having made it through without being forced to reveal how he'd vote. The bases are deflated on both sides, though more so on the right. The press corps wins by getting a deal right when there was nothing left to say.

First Read's take: Everyone wins, in that had there been a vote, everyone would have lost. The deal comes as new Gallup data echoes the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in its gloomy news for Bush and its verdict that Congress doesn't share the public's priorities. The Senate meets at 9:45 am today, with the floor vote on Priscilla Owen expected around 11:00 am -- and with lots of committees getting busy on lots of legislation.

Even with the nuclear option off the table, though, it's worth noting what this fight says about the national abortion debate. Not long ago, the Terri Schiavo case had Washington immersed in debate over when life ends. Lately, Washington has gotten tied in knots over matters related to the question of when life begins. The judicial nominees' positions on abortion were a driving reason for the amassed Democratic and interest group opposition which inspired the GOP to seek an unprecedented Senate rules change. But this is just one way in which the debate on this issue has evolved and become even more complicated, as it is now also intertwined with the prospect of saving lives and with questions about American competitiveness in science at the global level.

Today, the House is expected to pass a bill, pushed by a coalition of GOP moderates and Democrats, extending NIH funding of stem cell research to unused embryos from fertility clinics. The House is also expected to pass an alternative version, pushed by the GOP leadership, which would expand funding for stem cells from umbilical cords. President Bush will speak out against the original bill in Rose Garden remarks at 2:10 pm; The Hill reports that he will appear with families who have adopted embryos, called "snowflake babies."

Also, yesterday, the US Supreme Court agreed to revisit abortion for the first time in six years by considering a lower federal court's ruling which struck down New Hampshire's parental notification law. Passed in 2003, the law blocks abortions for minors "until at least 48 hours after written notice of the pending abortion has been delivered" to the woman's parent or guardian, NBC's Pete Williams reports. The Court will hear this case in the coming term, probably in December -- further ratcheting up the stakes on Chief Justice Rehnquist's expected retirement and the resulting Court vacancy.

Thirty-three states require parental notification or consent before a minor can get an abortion, Williams notes, with most providing an exception when there's a health risk from waiting. Trend-setting California may vote on a parental notification initiative this fall if Governor Schwarzenegger calls a special election; more on this below.

Also today, likely to be quite overshadowed, is President Bush's conversation on Social Security in Rochester, NY at 10:45 am.

The Senate and the judiciary
The 14 who signed the MOU: Democrats Nelson (NE), Lieberman, Pryor, Byrd, Landrieu, Salazar, and Inouye; and Republicans McCain, DeWine, Collins, Graham, Chafee, Warner, and Snowe.

The tenets of the deal: The seven Democrats who signed the MOU will vote along with Republicans to end debate on nominees Owen, Brown and William Pryor, allowing them to get their up or down votes. Democrats retain the option of filibustering William Myers and Henry Saad. They also retain their right to filibuster future nominees "under extraordinary circumstances," with "extraordinary" being in the eye of the beholder. The Republicans who signed will vote with Democrats against the nuclear option if a vote is called. The MOU also encourages President Bush to consult with Republican and Democratic senators "prior to submitting a judicial nomination to the Senate for consideration." The text of the MOU:

"Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledged that some portions of [the MOU were] vague," Roll Call says, "particularly about what will happen should any of the Democrats in the next 18 months support a filibuster of a Bush judicial nominee."

Per the New York Times, “Democratic officials said an unwritten aspect of the pact was that two nominees not named in the deal - Brett M. Kavanaugh and William J. Haynes - would not be confirmed and would be turned aside either at the committee level or on the floor.”

"Twelve of the 14 negotiators beamed as they took the stage at the news conference, clearly relieved and even proud that they had pulled off such a feat," says the Washington Post, which notes how GOP old bull Warner was singled out "as particularly influential."

The Washington Times headline: "7 Republicans abandon GOP on filibuster."

"Several furious conservative activists accused Republican senators who supported the compromise of selling out [Frist], saying they wanted nothing short of guaranteed up-or-down votes on every judicial nominee," says the Los Angeles Times, which notes that liberals groups' "reaction to the deal was tempered by their fears that they might lose the showdown."

The Boston Globe reports on James Dobson's comment that the deal was '''a complete bailout' and a ''betrayal' by a 'cabal' of rogue Republicans."

On the deal, Frist "said it represented a concession by Democrats to rely less on filibuster tactics. But he warned that 'all options remain on the table,' including rewriting the Senate rules to ban filibusters against judges. [Reid] said the deal sent Bush 'an undeniable message: abuse of power will not be tolerated.'" - USA Today

On the whole, the AP points out that the deal "did little to diminish the political implications of the Senate's up-to-the-brink confrontation over President Bush's judicial nominations. It's still about the shape of the Supreme Court, the midterm election in 2006, the next presidential race and the future of comity in Congress. Only the dynamics changed..."

The Boston Globe writes that "both sides conceded that the deal could fall apart when the next Supreme Court vacancy arises, perhaps by this summer."

The Los Angeles Times reminds us, channeling the Democratic "abuse of power argument:" "This is not the first time that Republicans, flexing the muscle that comes from control of Congress and the White House, have been forced to pull back. House Republican leaders had to retreat this year from an effort to rewrite congressional ethics rules, an action seen by critics as an attempt to protect" DeLay.

And the Washington Post reports that business interests are tiring of the GOP's largely social agenda. "From Wall Street to Main Street, the small-government, pro-business mainstay of the Republican Party appears to be growing disaffected with a party it sees as focused on social issues at its expense."

Bush and congress
The new Gallup survey shows that "President Bush's approval ratings for handling the economy, Iraq and Social Security have fallen to the lowest levels of his White House tenure... Satisfaction with congressional Republicans also has sagged. By 47%-36%, those polled say the country would be better off if Democrats controlled Congress" -- "the best showing for Democrats since the GOP won control... in 1994... Americans express more concern about the price of gas than they do about the high-profile dispute over Democrats' filibuster of Bush's judicial nominations, the survey shows." Also: "There are red flags for Bush on two standard measures of a president's political health. The proportion that says he has 'the personality and leadership qualities a president should have' fell to a new low of 52%. A record 57% say they disagree with him on the issues that matter the most to them."

Also in USA Today, one of your First Read co-authors sees similarities between how some Wall Street execs and some members of Congress have experienced ethical lapses of varying degrees, knowingly or not, and how Congress may pay for this with seats in 2006 in the same way some corporate execs have paid for it with perp walks.

The values debate
The Washington Times on the two stem cell bills up for votes today: "Many lawmakers... are expected to vote for both bills. But for conservative pro-life members who strongly oppose Mr. Castle's bill" on embryonic stem cell research, Rep. Chris] Smith's measure on umbilical cord stem cells "will be a key opportunity to get out the message that they do support stem-cell research that has been successful without using embryos."

The Hill says the Castle bill is giving DeLay a chance to "thrust himself back into the national debate today as a vocal opponent." And the story notes that to "give the debate a human face," conservative GOP Rep. Joe Pitts’s office "has organized a morning press conference with families that have adopted embryos. Twenty-one of the 81 so-called 'snowflake babies' will be on the Hill with their parents... On the other side, primary co-sponsor Mike Castle "and his supporters are scheduled to hold a morning rally with key industry lobbyists."

The Washington Post on the alternative measure: "Are stem cells from umbilical cords reasonable substitutes for embryonic stem cells, which can give rise to all of the body's 200 or so cell types, including nerve, liver, skin, bone, heart muscle and the pancreas, the organ that goes awry in diabetes? Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have strongly implied the answer is yes... But several researchers said that statement stretches the truth of what is known about umbilical cord cells."

On parental notification, California will vote on such an initiative if Schwarzenegger does indeed call for a special election this fall; the measure has already qualified for the ballot. Schwarzenegger himself is not pushing the measure and has not taken a position on it, though he supports the concept of parental notification. The initiative would ban all abortions for minors until 48 hours after their parents have been notified in writing, although the minors don't have to receive permission in order to have the procedure. Parents who have been notified can waive the 48-hour delay, as can a doctor in a medical emergency. The Los Angeles Times has reported that per the latest polls, the initiative is an odds-on favorite to pass.

Also, DNC chairman Howard Dean had a lot to say about abortion on Meet the Press other day, but passed on a chance to weigh in on parental notification. NBC's Tim Russert: "...Governor, the problem for Democrats has been that many request abortion on demand. When there are attempts to say that there should be parental notification for children under 18 -- to be notified with a judicial bypass, if there's a spouse -- a parental abuse situation. Many Democrats oppose it. Third-trimester abortion, 'partial-birth' abortion, Democrats opposed it." Dean used his answer to address the last part of the question, late-term abortions.

California lawmakers are considering a bill similar to Oregon's (so far) unique assisted suicide law, the Los Angeles Times says in a lengthy look at how the two sides in California are taking their cues from their northern neighbor. In Oregon, "the worst-case scenarios cited by opponents - that people would move to Oregon from all over the country to die, that inheritance-hungry children would coerce elderly parents to take the lethal drugs - have not come to pass. But the law has continued to raise thorny issues."

It's the economy
The Wall Street Journal reports that "[e]ven if high oil prices ease, prospects for cheaper gasoline, diesel and jet fuel are likely to be limited for at least several years by a growing global problem: a severe crunch in refining capacity... Global demand is expected to grow by nearly two million barrels a day this year -- from 82.5 million barrels a day last year -- but the world's capacity to refine and process crude oil is expected to grow by less than half that."

The New York Times notes that “as tens of thousands of new graduates enter the labor market this month and next, corporate recruiters are snapping them up at a clip not seen since 2001 - before the cooling economy took a heavy toll on campus hiring.”

The Journal also reports on the imminent introduction of a Senate bill to fully repeal the AMT, which would "simplify taxes for an estimated 3.8 million taxpayers who pay the tax... But the bill's price tag is enormous, resulting in $611 billion in lost federal revenues over the next 10 years."

Former Bush US trade rep Robert Zoellick touts the languishing CAFTA in a Washington Post op-ed.

Washington state
Roll Call notes that failed (for now) Washington state gubernatorial nominee Dino Rossi (R) could have turned his 129-vote loss into momentum for a bid against Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell in 2006, as other Republicans have done recently with narrow losses, but instead chose to fight the outcome, and may be risking an otherwise bright political future.

On the first day of the trial on the race's outcome, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says, Republicans suffered a setback when the judge said a claim of vote fraud can't stand as a key to the party's legal challenge to Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire’s victory. “Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges' statement on the fraud claim is critical. Under Washington law,... Rossi most likely would need to establish fraud to get an election overturned, because simply showing the number of improper votes exceeded the margin of victory would not be enough. Without fraud, Rossi faces the much more difficult task of proving that Gregoire owes her win to illegal and improper votes or actions.”

The Seattle Times notes that “Republicans made clear from their opening statement yesterday that fraud in King County is now the central claim of their case… Republican attorney Dale Foreman conceded that Bridges' comments about fraud make it harder for Republicans to make their case. But he said they will continue to lay out allegations that King County's actions cost Rossi the race.”

Social Security
The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle says that while only a few (and most likely hand-picked) Rochester residents will get the chance to ask Bush a question on Social Security, these people have many questions about how Bush’s plan would work and whether everyone had the ability to manage their own private account.

Pegged to Bush's event this morning, AARP will hold a presser in Rochester at 1:00 pm to announce its opposition to Bush's plan and to launch a petition drive encouraging its 2.5 million New York members to send postcards to their members of Congress and to Bush.


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