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Tuesday, May 31, 2005 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
President George W. Bush is expected to hold a news conference in the White House Rose Garden at 10:45 a.m. ET today.  Official topics will be “Strength of the economy, importance of passing the energy bill, importance of passing a responsible budget, CAFTA, (the Central America Free Trade Act) and Social security.”

  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

As for other goings on here in DC, remember earlier talk of a White House space initiative?  At this writing, President Bush is meeting with crew members and spouses of the International Space Station expeditions 7, 8, 9 and 10.  Which reminds us of the floated notion about nationally unifying presidential proposals like expanded space exploration.  Which in turn reminds us that as May gives way to June, Bush is still campaigning hard to accomplish the first big presidential priority of his second term: Social Security reform.  He's scheduled to visit Kentucky on Thursday for another retail event.

As one of us wrote on Sunday in the Washington Post, Bush uber operatives Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove have suggested that the press covers the White House and presidential initiatives like Social Security from a horse-race standpoint.  But the techniques of the campaign trail have become a staple of this White House's approach to pushing its legislative agenda.  Can you name the White House chief congressional liaison?  Probably not, but you probably can name the 527 and other groups on either side of the private accounts fight.

Bush headed into the Social Security debate without a natural edge in public opinion, Social Security being a traditionally Democratic issue.  He's also fighting the tendency for second-term presidents to see their influence wane.  The assets Bush possesses to try to tip the balance in his favor -- his own likeability and the tactics and tacticians that helped him win his second term -- are best showcased in a campaign environment.  In making an end run around Congress to build support among the public, the White House is legitimizing the perspective of viewing its progress through the polls.

But if the campaign-style approach has worked for Bush and Republicans in that a majority of Americans now see Social Security's solvency as a real problem, Democrats also have succeeded, at least to date, with their campaign to cast the debate as one over private accounts rather than solvency.  With the exception of Democratic members Wexler and Moran, and Teamsters president James Hoffa, the Democratic stonewall has pretty much held up.

The GOP-run Congress racked up some accomplishments between January and May, including class-action and bankruptcy reform, but to the public, Capitol Hill has appeared to be consumed by debates that have motivated the left and right -- over Terri Schievo, embryonic stem-cell research, Tom DeLay, and the judicial filibuster.  With polls showing public concerns that Washington's priorities are out of whack, Social Security and other economic and domestic measures may be back on the table once Congress returns next week.

The impact felt by the United States from France's "non" vote on the EU constitution may be mainly economic.  But the State Department will note that the immediate fallout has included the elevation of Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin to be France's new prime minister, and the Wall Street Journal points out that Villepin "is best known for his eloquent defense of the French stance against a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq."  The Netherlands are expected to reject the constitution in a non-binding vote tomorrow, after which EU officials will decide on next steps in Brussels on June 16-17.  In Germany, conservative opposition parties have named Angela Merkel as their challenger to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after Schroeder's Social Democratic Party was defeated for control of Germany's largest state in a recent election which turned on workers' economic concerns.

Far more knowledgeable correspondents than your First Read team explain below how Tony Blair's underwhelming re-election, Schroeder's recent defeat, and the two votes against the EU constitution are tied together with themes of struggling economies and concerns about immigration -- as well as about how the US economy may be affected by these events.

Whither the EU
Two "no" votes in four days on the EU constitution will have potential economic consequences for the United States.  USA Today notes that the EU "is the United States' largest trading partner and is jousting with the Bush administration over aircraft subsidies and fighting Microsoft in court over the company's market domination in Europe."

The Wall Street Journal said late last week, "For the global economy, a lamed Europe is an absent engine.  When debt-laden American consumers finally stop buying, Europeans can best fill the gap.  But growing fear about the future could make them even more tight-fisted than they already are.  The EU makes up the largest economy on earth, but far from the most vibrant.  Projected European growth for 2005 is 1.6%, compared to 3.6% for the U.S.  The European Central Bank in Frankfurt already frets about how to set interest rates for countries growing at significantly different speeds.  Now it worries that its strong currency problem against the dollar could reverse too quickly.  The euro has already fallen this week to a seven-month low as investors smell lost confidence in the political project."

The Journal today on the German and French votes: "Underlying both votes were deep worries about Europe's economy and growing hostility to immigration.  High unemployment and sluggish growth have fueled growing tensions over how the EU is incorporating 10 mainly low-wage countries whose citizens are competing for jobs.  Together with Italy disbanding and re-forming its government amid a deep recession there, and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair seeing his power eroded in his re-election last month, weakened leaders are at the helm of all four of Europe's largest economies."

Agence France-Press on tomorrow's Dutch vote: "The referendum will be the first in the Netherlands in more than 200 years, and many voters see it as their first opportunity to give their opinion about the development and pace of European integration.  The polls show a striking disparity between public opinion and that of elected politicians.  Some 80 percent of Dutch members of parliament support the text."

It's the economy
Amidst all the talk of a housing bubble and a potential burst, it is worth noting that back in early April, 80% of those surveyed in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said real estate was the safer investment, with 13% choosing stocks.

USA Today reports on increased drilling by US oil companies in efforts to try to take advantage of near-record oil prices.  "But for consumers, the increase in activity likely will do little to help ease the pain at the gasoline pump as the summer driving season gets underway.  The extra drilling will also do little to ease U.S. reliance on foreign-produced oil."

But the Chicago Tribune has a story saying that “gas prices are being greeted by many with a collective ‘So what?’   Forecasters expect record travel for Americans this summer, despite gasoline prices averaging almost $2.20 a gallon.”

The Commerce Secretary heads to Beijing later this week "amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China over an array of trade-related issues.  American policy makers are concerned about a surge of Chinese garments into the U.S. market following the end in January of a four-decade-old global quota system; China's refusal so far to revalue its currency, which many of its trading partners argue is undervalued; and widespread piracy by Chinese companies of U.S. products."

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tells the Boston Globe that he "wants to protect Massachusetts jobs.  If US schools don't produce more graduates who are skilled in the sciences, he argues, high-tech companies will decamp for Asian countries."  Of course, "Some political observers view Romney's interest in Asia through the prism of presidential politics.  Romney, like many governors, is short on foreign policy experience," and "speaking publicly and confidently about China might help him" pad his resume.  "Romney also tells the Globe that the US "should protect intellectual property rights, persuade China to float its currency, and push Beijing to eliminate trade barriers that block American products..."  - Boston Globe

First Read has covered the increase in states raising their minimum wages in the absence of a federal hike.  USA Today reports on the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: "About half of minimum-wage earners work at restaurants.  Millions more have wages that are influenced by the minimum.  Its buying power is at its lowest point since 1949...  Liberal activists say they're using the minimum wage to put Republicans on the defensive.  They hope to put minimum wage initiatives on the ballots next year in nine states, including Ohio, Michigan and Arizona..."

The New York Times profiles AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney and reports on the possible exodus of several major unions if he’s elected to a new four-year term this summer.

And the Washington Post profiles some of the numerous Democratic political strategists who are behind the anti-Wal-Mart campaign.

Social Security and the Bush agenda
The Washington Post does a "setbacks for Bush" piece: "The series of setbacks on the domestic front could signal that the president has weakened leverage over his party, a situation that could embolden the opposition...  Bush faces the potential of a summer of discontent when his capacity to muscle political Washington into following his lead seems to have diminished and few easy victories appear on the horizon."  Note that Newt Gingrich tells the Post that Bush should pare down his plan to just private investment accounts.

Meanwhile, the Post's Memorial Day status report on Social Security previewed Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas' potential "jettisoning" of "private investment accounts financed out of the existing payroll tax."  "Thomas's package could put intolerable pressure on Democrats to break with their leadership and come to the negotiating table..."

The Wall Street Journal looks at "a broader divide in the president's party that has been papered over in recent months" -- the divide between those who call "for reduced future benefits and increased payroll-tax revenue to ensure the solvency of the Social Security program even while private accounts are created to supplement it," and those who reject "tax and benefit changes and says private accounts are the only goal worth fighting for."  The story says "the rift is reopening and adding to [Bush's] problems."

A new Zogby poll conducted for the CATO Institute shows that "when voters understood the benefits of personal investment accounts, including a better financial rate of return than the current system, the Bush plan was supported by 52 percent of Americans and opposed by 40 percent."

The New York Times notes that the Cheneys' entire immediate family has benefited from serving in government and conservative politics.  “Like the Adamses, Roosevelts, Tafts, Kennedys, Gores and Bushes before them, they are a family act, a foursome fully immersed in conservative politics and public policy.  Like the Adamses, Roosevelts, Tafts, Kennedys, Gores and Bushes before them, they are a family act, a foursome fully immersed in conservative politics and public policy.”

Congressional ethics
The AP reports that scrutiny of DeLay's travel "has led to the belated disclosure of at least 198 previously unreported special-interest trips by House members and their aides, including eight years of travel by the second-ranking Democrat," Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.  "At least 43 House members and dozens of aides had failed to meet the one-month deadline in ethics rules for disclosing trips financed by organizations outside the U.S. government."

The Democrats
The first comprehensive look at the Clinton presidency has hit bookstores, and author John Harris of the Washington Post today looks at lessons from the past that Sen. Hillary Clinton may be applying toward her own potential future as a presidential candidate.  "As the skeptics see it, she could probably win a nomination by exciting Democratic partisans, but she remains too personally and ideologically polarizing a figure to win a general election.  Some members of her team... acknowledge that answering this skepticism is among her biggest challenges in the next two years."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein determines that "[g]rowing Republican dominance of Senate seats in states where George W. Bush has run best looms as the principal obstacle for Democrats hoping to retake the chamber in 2006...  Since 2000, both parties have gained Senate seats in the states they typically carry in presidential campaigns.  But this political partitioning provides a clear advantage for Republicans because so many more states backed Bush..."

USA Today looks closely at Democrats' "scramble" to reverse GOP gains among married parents, and, in another article, at the potential political influence of an active national parents' network.

Hill Democrats seem to be getting aggressive on national security.  Roll Call got hold of a memo in which Harry Reid, in his "most comprehensive statement on U.S. foreign policy matters since he was elected" leader, "expressed concern about U.S. ties to Kuwait and sharply criticized the Bush administration’s foreign policy decisions."  The memo did not mention the Bolton nomination.

And the paper also reports that the Democratic House campaign committee "began airing radio ads in a dozen Congressional districts over the Memorial Day weekend, accusing Republican incumbents of not putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to supporting U.S. troops.  The ad highlights the Members’ recent vote against a procedural motion that would have expanded a military health insurance program to members of the Reserves and National Guard.  Currently the TRICARE program is only available to those men and women on active duty in the armed forces."

At the same time, for better or for worse for such Democratic efforts, Ralph Nader also chooses to publicly hit Bush on national security, co-authoring an op-ed in the Boston Globe calling for consideration of impeaching Bush and Cheney over "'fixing' the intelligence to justify invading Iraq."

The values debate
The Washington Post looks at embryo adoption, noting that not only is it central to the political debate over embryonic stem-cell research, but it's also the focus of "a sharpening theological debate, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church.  Some Catholic theologians are encouraging married couples to adopt unwanted embryos from fertility clinics.  Others vehemently oppose the idea, calling it a grave violation of the principle that procreation should occur naturally."

The Boston Globe's Canellos writes of Bush's event with snowflake babies last week, "No one could question the joy of the White House scene, but people might wonder about the intended message...  Obviously, the president meant to underscore his view that leftover embryos are living things, children waiting to be born.  But it wasn't clear whether Bush meant to underscore all the implications of viewing frozen embryos as children for the purposes of future right-to-life battles...  With an antiabortion president whose reelection was due in part to a high turnout of religious conservatives, the United States is confronting a new frontier of antiabortion issues that had been avoided in the past...  The question of what to do with frozen embryos may yet create a new movement around the right to be born."

The Chicago Tribune reports on the growing number of Republicans and conservatives who support embryonic stem-cell research.  “‘Bush must be acting out of conviction [in threatening a veto] because the politics just don't add up,’ said Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar.  The vote ‘reflects the broad support for stem cell research, even among those who consider themselves pro-life.’”

The Los Angeles Times profiles the physician at the center of Kansas AG Phill Kline's pursuit of medical records on late-term abortions.

Pope Benedict XVI is endorsing calls for Italian voters "to boycott a referendum that would ease restrictions on artificial insemination and embryonic research."  The referendum will be held in two weeks.

Washington state
The Seattle Times takes it turn profiling John Bridges, the judge hearing the trial on the outcome of last year’s gubernatorial race.  And it notes, as other profiles have, his reputation for fairness -- and his earring.  “‘I always sort of figured he was a Republican," said [one local man], who was interviewed just before the start of the trial.  ‘But with that earring, I don't know.’”


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