“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.

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

First glance
President Bush tours a Shell service station in D.C., while the energy bill gets a committee mark-up in the suddenly, if only temporarily, kinder and gentler Senate. 

  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

An era of good feeling it isn't, and the pundits who are contemplating the long-term ability of Senate moderates to retain their influence generally doubt it will last.  But however brief it may be, the Senate is playing nice after what could have been a political near-death experience, based on polls showing the public thinking Congress' priorities are out of whack. 

Priscilla Owen is expected to get her confirmation vote this morning.  The Senate meets at 9:30 am; Senators Reid, Durbin and Schumer hold a pen-and-pad at 11:45 am.

Also potentially getting his vote soon is U.N. ambassador nominee John Bolton, now that Senator Boxer has lifted her hold on the nomination.  That doesn't mean the debate won't be heated when it starts, possibly as early as this afternoon.  But Foreign Relations Democrats said yesterday that resistance to allowing a floor vote has crumbled in the aftermath of the filibuster agreement, reports NBC's Andrea Mitchell.  Mitchell says there's little appetite for courting criticism by blocking a vote.  One leading US senator told Mitchell that even if they try to block Bolton, the president would give him a recess appointment next week, something Democrats want to avoid.

Still, NBC's Ken Strickland notes that GOP Senator Voinovich sent a letter to his colleagues expressing his concern that Bolton's nomination "sends a negative message to the world community and contradicts the President's efforts" to strengthen international relations.  Voinovich asked his colleagues to "set aside our partisan agenda and let our consciences and our shared commitment to our nation's best interest guide us." 

Also coming out of the post-nuclear gate with potentially improved prospects: the asbestos litigation reform bill.  If you've been wondering what Judiciary chair Arlen Specter has been up to while keeping mum during the nuclear option debate, this is it.  He's jointly pushing the bill with Judiciary ranking member Pat Leahy.  The bill is given 50-50 odds of making it out of committee, and low odds for passage, by investment and economic research firms.  A source close to Specter, however, suggests the bill now has a better than even chance of at least making it out of committee given the new climate in the Senate.

As for stem cells, not only did the House pass -- or per many headlines today, "defy" the President on -- a bill to extend federal funding to stem cell research using embryos from fertility clinics, but also yesterday, backers of an identical Senate bill sent Bill Frist a letter urging him to schedule a vote on their legislation.  Co-authors Specter and Tom Harkin, along with Specter's fellow Republicans Hatch and Smith, will appear at a presser today at 12:30 pm.  As Harkin aide Allison Dobson tells First Read, "The momentum is with us, the American people are with us, and we have the votes.  If Bush is going to threaten a veto, we are going to make him use it."  Dobson says the Senate bill will have "more than 60" supporters whenever Frist schedules a vote.

Will the GOP eventually need to recalibrate its language on opposing embryonic stem cell research in the same way Democrats are adjusting their rhetoric in support of a woman's right to choose?  After all, most polls indicate that the public supports expanded embryonic stem cell research, and as we've said before, there are interstate and international pressures to lure the professionals and the funding associated with this research.  Given these dynamics, and given the images of Americans struggling with debilitating diseases, is the GOP in political danger of being cast as against expanding science and searching for cures, in the same way Democrats have been cast as favoring abortion?  This may be why Bush and conservative GOP lawmakers are stressing the potential of research using alternative stem cells, either from adults or from umbilical cords.  But is that enough?  Much more on stem cells below.

After his energy event today, Bush meets with the President of Indonesia at 3:00 pm and makes remarks at the Celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Presentation of the President’s Volunteer Service Awards at 4:00 pm.

Senate and the judiciary
Is it us, or is the White House being a bit more muscular about a replacement for Rehnquist now that the elimination of the filibuster is at least temporarily off the table?  The Washington Post has current and former White House officials declaring that "Bush is prepared to name a committed conservative regardless of Democratic opposition." 

"If the president chooses a polarizing figure for the high court, the seven Democrats would face enormous pressure to support a filibuster - and that would pressure the seven Republicans to reverse direction and back the filibuster ban," says the Los Angeles Times

The Boston Globe: "Democrats and Republicans yesterday offered vastly different interpretations of the settlement, reflecting its tenuous hold on the signatories.  Democrats insisted that Republicans have guaranteed they won't try to ban filibusters for the rest of the 2005-2006 Senate term, but Republicans said that promise depends on whether the Democrats stick to the deal." 

The Wall Street Journal editorial page excoriates the Gang of 14: "This ballyhooed 'compromise' is all about saving the Senators themselves, not the Constitution.  Its main point is to shield the group of 14 from the consequences of having to cast difficult, public votes in a filibuster showdown." 

The Washington Post says, "Outside analysts took a more measured view of the terms of the" deal, contending "that social and religious conservatives may have done better than they are willing to acknowledge, including the likely approval of three of Bush's most controversial appellate court nominees...  But leading voices among social conservatives sharply disagreed."  The story adds, "Frist drew no direct criticism from social conservatives, and he could claim a measure of credit if Bush succeeds in placing more conservatives on the appellate courts and on the Supreme Court."  And: "Some Democrats privately fretted that others in their party had been too quick to claim victory..." 

Roll Call covers Senate Democrats' reiteration yesterday, between a Schumer statement and a letter to Bush, that Bush needs to consult with them on future judicial nominees in order to avoid having them filibustered, and also notes that Trent Lott "said he was whipping votes in the event the deal falls apart and Republican leaders feel a need to" make another attempt to eliminate the filibuster. 

The Washington Post notes in its coverage of the deal that Frist, "having lost control of the issue, responded cautiously and avoided praise that might antagonize conservative groups angry over GOP concessions." 

The Washington Times covers roiling anger, or at least severe dissatisfaction, among base groups on both sides. 

The Alliance for Justice, a lead pressure group opposed to the nuclear option, happens to have scheduled its 2005 Champions of Justice luncheon for today, when it will salute Senators Durbin and Schumer.  A spokesperson for the group tells First Read that the pair will be making among their first public statements about the judges situation, and says the group is now focusing on next steps -- presumably, preparing for a SCOTUS nomination fight.

The Hill speculates on how the deal could help and/or hurt the presidential ambitions of those GOP senators who were (McCain), and were not (Frist, Hagel, Allen) involved in the compromise. 

And the Wall Street Journal, like First Read, notes what all this means for UN ambassador nominee Bolton's prospects for confirmation: "Among Republicans, [Voinovich] remains outspoken in his opposition, but party moderates who joined in the compromise will be reluctant to go against their leadership so quickly.  Democrats acknowledge the steam has gone out of their caucus as well...  Mr. Bolton's position illustrates how the bipartisan agreement has changed the political landscape in the Senate...  Senate Republicans hope to seize the chance to switch the subject away from polarizing social issues and toward bread-and-butter matters important to voters." 

Bush and Congress
AEI's Norm Ornstein echoes First Read in his Roll Call column today in highlighting moderates' successes in heading off a nuclear winter and passing the stem cell funding bill.  But Ornstein says he's "not optimistic" that they'll be able to stay empowered, suggesting they'll have a hard time retaining their dominance on fiscal and trade issues.  

The Hill considers the potential for the Gang of 14, including Social Security compromise-seeker Lindsey Graham, to apply their influence to the Social Security debate. 

USA Today says "even the compromise's fans wondered whether the trust it is based on can help settle other fights in a sharply divided Senate: Social Security, tax reform, energy policy, immigration and stem cell research." 

"Two recent appropriations bills passed by the Republican-controlled House," on homeland security and energy and water appropriations, "include language scolding the Bush administration for its lack of responsiveness to repeated Congressional requests for information - an unusual sign of tension within the typically united Republican ranks," says Roll Call. 

The values debate
Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism does a 1:00 pm press conference call today on the filibuster and stem cell research.  The release says the call is being held because the "debates surrounding the filibuster of judicial nominations and stem cell research have been framed largely by the views of people of faith."

The New York Times says yesterday’s White House event opposing the House stem cell bill “demonstrated just how far Mr. Bush is willing to assert himself on policy that goes to what he considers the moral heart of his presidency.  In another sign of how important the issue is to conservatives, [DeLay] managed the opposition to the bill, also casting it in stark moral terms.”  

The Washington Post on the House stem cell bill: "Several of the Republicans voting 'yes' acknowledged they were breaking voting records they described as 'pro-life' and said they were doing so because of their interest in pursuing potential cures for diabetes, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries and other ailments..."

The Los Angeles Times: "The House vote put Bush in a predicament.  Social conservatives who are a core part of the Republican base object to the research because it destroys human embryos.  Bush has said he would use the first-ever veto of his presidency to ensure limits on the research are not eased.  But a veto might have repercussions at the polls.  Many patient groups and scientists say that the research has the potential to cure diseases, and a recent Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans find it morally acceptable." 

The San Francisco Chronicle: “Whatever the outcome, Tuesday's House vote signals growing acceptance among conservatives of stem cell research involving human embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures.” 

The Wall Street Journal notes, "The chairman of California's new $3 billion stem-cell research effort, Robert Klein II, praised the House vote, but added that the state's effort still will be important even if the federal bill somehow avoids a presidential veto...  While the federal measure would allow research only on embryos discarded from in-vitro fertilization efforts, California will provide funding for the creation of new stem-cell lines via somatic cell nuclear transfer, a form of research cloning that can yield deliberately altered lines of stem cells for use in possible therapies and studies of the mechanisms of disease.  The state prohibits research into reproductive cloning that could result in the birth of cloned babies." 

The Boston Globe covers Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's "hint" to USA Today that he might be shifting to the right on abortion.  "Yesterday Julie Teer, the governor's spokeswoman, refused to explain how Romney's position has changed, saying only that it has 'evolved over time.'" 

It's the economy
USA Today covers fears "that the housing market is overheated," since the "median price of a previously owned home in the USA topped $200,000 for the first time in April, soaring 15% from a year earlier," and sales "show no signs of slowing." 

The Washington Post says the news comes "four days after... Greenspan warned in his strongest language yet that housing prices have climbed to 'unsustainable' levels in many markets.  Greenspan and other Fed officials have said for a while that home-price appreciation should slow in coming months as interest rates rise, most likely in a gradual manner that will not harm the overall economy.  But that process has not even begun... 

Meanwhile, the hot real estate market is supporting the nation's overall economic growth by giving consumers more money at a time of lackluster wage growth and high energy costs, analysts said."  The New York Times also looks at the possibility of a real-estate decline: “A growing number of economists worry that real estate is to this decade what technology stocks were to the 1990's, with many people assuming that home values will rise forever." 

Amid recent reports that Wal-Mart is stepping up its Washington outreach (read: lobbying and giving), DC-based economic research firm ISI tells its investor clients that "unions have launched a comprehensive campaign against Wal-Mart, which helps explain why it gets so much bad publicity and is increasingly a target of government actions," including local zoning laws and the Maryland bill which would have required Wal-Mart to cough up for employee health care or face a special tax, which the GOP governor vetoed.  "We don't expect any efforts targeting Wal-Mart to succeed at the federal level, but investors should expect the company to continue to get an uncanny amount of bad press and to be the subject of countless legislative proposals at the state and local level."

Washington state
On the second day of the trial over the 2004 Washington state gubernatorial race outcome, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that the GOP lawyers wanting to overturn the election tried to demonstrate “the unholy mess” of ballots in King County compared with the orderly precision in other counties.  “The Republicans' strategy is twofold: Identify as many illegal votes as they can, in hopes that Judge John Bridges will adopt a GOP method for deducting them from the candidates' totals and thus swing the election to Rossi; and try to show fraud or misdeeds by elections officials serious enough so that Bridges can apply a different standard under state law, allowing him to toss out the election without determining that Rossi actually won.”  

Meanwhile, the Seattle Times says that taking the stand today will be the King County elections employee who admitted to producing a falsified ballot report. 

Social security
House Democratic leaders will talk about Social Security at their regular stakeout at 10:00 am.  Roll Call says that former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin "will meet privately with House Democrats today to discuss the ongoing battle" over the issue. 

The AP writes about Bush’s pitch to moderate GOP House members during his Social Security trip to Rochester, NY yesterday.  “Moderate Republicans like those Bush targeted here in New York could end up being the swing votes he needs to get Congress to approve his ideas for addressing the system's solvency problems and let younger workers set up their own retirement accounts.” 

USA Today looks at the very campaign-like opposition tactics being used by critics of Bush's proposals.  "Analysts say the opposition's ability to counter the Bush message is contributing to the trouble Bush is having in winning support for his plan." 

The Democrats
DNC chairman Dean headlines a fundraiser at the Essex House Hotel in New York tonight at 6:30 pm.  The DNC says Dean’s remarks about his vision for the Democratic party will be similar to what he said on Meet the Press. 

John Edwards, on the other hand, is giving new remarks on foreign policy, specifically the "global challenges facing the United States and Europe," at the London School of Economic today.

Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign finance director David Rosen, on trial for underreporting the cost of a fundraising gala, testified in Los Angeles yesterday that "he had no history to help him gauge how much such a high-flying event should cost.  Following the custom in fundraising, Rosen testified, he simply took the words of the hosts -- and only much later, he insisted, learned they had understated their expenses by $800,000." 

One of the three charges against Rosen was thrown out yesterday, with the judge saying that "the Justice Department failed to show that Rosen was involved in the preparation of" the false report. 

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