“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, June 9, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET

From Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, Ted Kresse, and Chris Donovan

First glance
After the recent arrests of Pakistani Americans who allegedly have ties to terrorist groups, President Bush makes remarks today on the Patriot Act in Columbus, OH at 11:20 am. Other news that’s out there today: Janice Rogers Brown’s successful confirmation, a dispute over staffing at the House Ethics Committee (which is keeping the committee closed for business), and more troubling polling numbers for Bush’s Social Security plan.

  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

But the political story we assume everyone will once again follow today is Howard Dean, who will appear at a Senate presser with Sens. Reid and Durbin at 10:45 am to discuss the Democrats’ reform agenda. Some of the criticism Dean has received for his recent controversial comments is valid; some of it might not be. But all of this didn’t become a story until members of his own party (some of them potential oh-eighters) criticized the chairman. And that raises a problem for the Democrats thats much larger than Dean: party discipline. While Republicans have plenty of problems of their own -- troublesome poll numbers on Iraq and the war on terrorism, Tom DeLay’s ethics woes, a seemingly stalled Social Security plan, and a less-than-roaring economy -- you don’t see them publicly rebuking their President, their congressional leadership, or their party leaders. Indeed, even the GOP’s reservations about Bush’s Social Security plans haven’t rivaled the circular firing squad we’ve seen over Dean’s remarks.

One Democratic strategist, who isn’t a Dean loyalist, says Democratic criticism of Dean is mostly counterproductive. “He’s not going to go away, so I don’t think it’s smart for people to be crapping on him.” Another Democratic operative, also not directly tied to Dean, says that the lack of disciple makes the party seem wavering or shaky. “In a post-9/11 world, it’s a dangerous [quality] to have.”

And as everyone continues to debate Dean’s comment that the GOP is “pretty much a white Christian party,” RNC chairman Ken Mehlman -- who himself is Jewish -- meets with Jewish business and community members in Pittsburgh, PA at 5:30 pm. The RNC tells First Read that this event was scheduled prior to Dean’s earlier remark.

As mentioned above, the Senate yesterday confirmed Brown to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in a nearly party-line vote. NBC’s Ken Strickland says that a confirmation vote on the last of the nominees that the Gang of 14 green-lighted -- William Pryor -- takes place today at 4:00 pm. The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

Finally, with Washington bracing itself for its first Supreme Court vacancy in more than 10 years, First Read today begins a weekly look at some of the leading candidates whom Bush might pick to fill this vacancy. We start with 10th Circuit Appeals Judge Michael McConnell, who seems to sit atop many of the speculative lists.

The Democrats
The Washington Post has Democrats both criticizing and defending Dean for his latest controversial comments. “Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), one of Dean's opponents in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, said the [“Christian party”] comment was ‘way over the top’ and said he will ask Dean to explain himself during a previously scheduled meeting with Senate Democrats today. ‘I'm sure I won't be the only one,’ Lieberman said.”

Nevertheless, the Boston Globe says today's meeting on the Hill will serve as a "public embrace of Dean.” But it also notes that Democrats and donors are worried that "Dean is jeopardizing the party's ability to reach beyond its traditional base to win close elections, particularly for the White House."

Stuart Rothenberg, in Roll Call, writes that Dean’s recent “inflammatory” comments aren’t smart for a chairman who’s trying to represent his party to the whole country. “Unfortunately for Democratic insiders, most of whom don’t like Dean’s choice of words, they can’t do much about him,” since he’s adored by the party’s left wing. Rothenberg also says Republicans would be unwise to make the ’06 elections about Dean. “Republicans should remember that elections are never about the chairman of one of the national party committees.”

The Boston Globe's Vennochi strongly defends Dean in her column, noting that former DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe was known for attacking Bush, once accusing him of going AWOL. "But Democrats never cared what McAuliffe said; all that mattered was the money he raised, compliments of his vaunted schmoozing skills. Now a few hot-shot donors are upset that Dean isn't stroking them as constantly as McAuliffe, and suddenly he's a failure."

Roll Call also notes a disturbing trend for down-ballot Democrats in the South: partisan voting is getting stronger, as Republicans vote only for Republicans and Democrats vote only for Democrats -- with little crossover. Said one former Alabama congressman, “‘In a “Brand X” federal race in the South, if you’re a Democrat, you’ve got to be a better candidate, run a better campaign and hope that your opponent screws up,’ he said. ‘If you don’t get those three things, your opponent is going to win.’”

John Kerry's PAC will launch a new ad on Monday in the hometowns of DeLay and Frist and other congressional leaders, urging them to support Kerry's "Kid's First" health-care initiative. Kerry sent an email message to supporters yesterday asking for help in funding the ad, which is called "Nightmare." A spokeswoman for the PAC, however, wouldn’t reveal how much money is behind the ad.

It's the economy
The AP covers the Administration’s slightly less optimistic economic forecast yesterday, which still predicts a solid increase in jobs. “The administration's figures - in line with many private economists' forecasts - represent a respectable pace of growth for the economy, analysts said. Some private economists have slightly lowered their projections for economic growth this year to reflect the toll of high energy prices.”

The Chicago Tribune also covers the forecast, which it says comes amid high gas prices, GM’s layoff announcement, and Bush’s low economic approval rating.

The New York Times: “Despite the revisions, the White House predicted that economic growth would be faster than normal, which could mean that in 2005, for the first time in four years, the federal budget deficit would be less than the previous year's."

Meanwhile, per the Wall Street Journal, the director of the Congressional Budget Office "is expected to tell a House panel today that the federal agency insuring private pension plans has a deficit that will likely more than triple to $71 billion in the next decade, creating more urgency for Congress to consider pension-overhaul legislation.”

Roll Call also writes that Republicans running for president in ’08, who support liability protections for manufacturers of MTBE in the energy bill, could find themselves in trouble in New Hampshire. “‘I think it will play big time in New Hampshire,’ said state Sen. Robert Letourneau (R-N.H.). ‘Anybody interested in running for president in the primary and supports [liability protection], if it doesn’t completely sink them it will damage them.’”

Social Security
The latest Washington Post/ABC poll numbers on Bush’s Social Security plan: More than 6 in 10 say it would not improve Social Security’s financial stability; 62% disagree with Bush’s handling of the issue; and fewer than half (48%) support his plan for private accounts. “More worrisome for the president is that support for personal accounts drops to 27 percent if it is coupled with a reduction in the growth of guaranteed Social Security benefits for future retirees, a provision the White House is considering.”

When it comes to Social Security and his other pet issues, USA Today says, Bush can often be a stubborn man. “Bush's stubbornness has served him well in the past. Charlie Black, a Republican strategist, notes that Bush's biggest legislative successes, such as tax cuts, education policy and creation of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, were the result of Bush ‘sticking to his guns.’ But there are signs his determination to do things his way is beginning to be counterproductive, and the stakes are high.”

The Washington Times says that Senate Republicans are "reaching the point of desperation and still can't agree on what to put in a bill and whether to move now or wait for Democratic support."

The Washington Post, in covering yesterday’s House Ways and Means Committee hearing on tax reform, notes that Washington might be looking past Social Security -- and instead towards the issue of tax reform. “‘It's pretty obvious Social Security is on its last legs,’ said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist with the National Center for Policy Analysis. Tax reform ‘will be an excuse to change the emphasis’ on Capitol Hill.”

Judicial politics
USA Today covers the Senate’s 56-43 vote yesterday to confirm Janice Rogers Brown to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. “Brown will add a strong conservative voice to the D.C. circuit, now almost evenly divided politically. Five of the judges were appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democrats. Brown will take one of three vacant seats.”

The Los Angeles Times notes that Brown’s confirmation gives Gov. Schwarzenegger his first opportunity to appoint someone to the California Supreme Court.

The Houston Chronicle says that Republicans, who have been trying to make inroads with African-American voters, “put a priority” on Brown’s nomination.

With the Senate spotlight on Pryor today, the Boston Globe says the debate over his nomination will not just focus on his judicial philosophy -- but also his ethics. "Senate aides said Democrats are also planning to attack Pryor's ethics, reviving unanswered questions about whether he solicited campaign funds from corporations subject to lawsuits by his office -- and whether he misled Congress about it in his 2003 confirmation hearing and in follow-up written testimony."

More Bush agenda
The AP previews Bush's trip to Ohio today to discuss the Patriot Act. But it notes that the visit might be overshadowed by an investment scandal involving Tom Noe, a Republican donor who invested $55 million of state money into coins, $10 to $12 million of which is now missing. This will be Bush’s 38th visit to Ohio since becoming president.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Bush’s nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration, Lester Crawford, has been cleared of allegations that he had an affair with a subordinate and helped her win a promotion. As a result, the Senate panel with jurisdiction over his nomination will schedule a vote on him. “But Crawford's fate remains unclear, because two prominent Democratic senators have pledged to block a vote by the full Senate. Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York want the FDA to issue a long-delayed decision on whether the "morning after" contraceptive pill can be sold over the counter.”

USA Today writes that the White House defended a White House’s aide editing climate-change reports, saying the reports were praised by scientists. “But some scientists reacted angrily. It's ‘par for the course from the administration, in terms of interfering with science for political ends,’ said Luke Warren of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has criticized the Bush administration's science policies.”

The New York Times says the Justice Department’s decision to seek $10 billion for a stop-smoking program in its suit against the tobacco companies -- instead of the $130 billion a witness recommended -- set off a "firestorm” yesterday.  “Several Democratic lawmakers with a longtime interest in smoking and health issues attacked the department for what they said was a politically motivated decision, as did public health groups.”

Ethics and institutions
NBC’s Mike Viqueira reports that Tom DeLay, in his pen and pad presser yesterday, accused Democrats of trying to stall an Ethics committee investigation of him until next year, an election year. At issue, Viqueira says, is the continuing stand-off at the committee over staffing: Democrats object to Chairman Doc Hastings’s (R) effort to place his own chief of staff to co-direct the committee, and they prefer instead a non-partisan person to fill this role. Said DeLay, "It's proof of what we said early on. The Democrats are playing politics. It's quite obvious that they're playing politics… They don't want an Ethics committee for several reasons, not the least of which is that one of their own has an ethics charge before the committee. Not the least of which is they would like to drag this out and have me and others before the ethics committee in an election year."

He continued, "If the committee is truly bipartisan as the Democrats have claimed it should be then it's up to the members to be bipartisan and has nothing to do with staff. Getting into staff … that is all politics and they're trying to drag this process out so the House can not perform its duties.”

A spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer counters, "This is very simple. The rules say you must have non-partisan staff. Democrats want to follow the rules, Republicans don't. It is their choice, Republican leaders can move the Committee forward … simply by following the bipartisan rules."

The Washington Post also covers the staffing dispute. “… Hastings has cited another provision of the rule that allows the chairman and ranking minority member to each name one staff member without the other side's concurrence.” The paper adds that DeLay’s “emerging strategy” to parry the ethics charges against him “is to argue that the ethics panel should not focus on him alone, but should conduct a broad investigation of members' compliance with travel rules, including the many Democrats who did not file required disclosure forms.”

Howard Dean, meanwhile, issued a statement calling for Hastings to recuse himself from any investigation into DeLay, due to Hastings’ reported ties to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "Chairman Hastings' personal ties to scandal-plagued lobbyist Jack Abramoff make it impossible for him to lead an impartial investigation into Tom DeLay's unethical behavior… Given the clear conflict of interest here, Chairman Hastings should immediately recuse himself from the Ethics Committee's investigation of Tom DeLay."

The Hill writes that on issues from budget reform to stem-cell research, DeLay is allying himself with House conservatives. “Conservatives have been DeLay’s staunchest defenders in recent controversies. Leaders of conservative groups such as the American Conservative Union met DeLay in March to pledge support. They also helped organize a dinner in his honor last month.”

The McConnell file
Potential SCOTUS nominee Michael McConnell, 50, currently serves on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. He clerked for Appeals Court Judge Skelly Wright and liberal SCOTUS Justice William Brennan before going to work in the Reagan Administration at the OMB and Justice Department. After leaving government in 1985, he spent the next 17 years as a provocative law professor, first at the University of Chicago Law School and then at the University of Utah. A constitutional scholar, his specialty was the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and he has written more than 50 law journal articles and argued 11 cases before the Supreme Court. He and his wife, Mary, reportedly home-schooled their three children.

President Bush nominated McConnell to his current position in May 2001, and he was granted a confirmation hearing in September 2002. While Senators raised questions about his opposition to abortion, he was easily confirmed to the seat by unanimous consent. National Review’sByron York theorized that his support from the academic community helped him win confirmation; indeed more than 300 law professors (including some liberals) supported his nomination. Moreover, he received the highest ABA rating for judicial nominees. Nevertheless, some liberal groups opposed him for his conservative views. People for the American Way suggested he might be the “most dangerous” of Bush’s judicial nominees.

If Bush selects him for the Supreme Court, the big fight -- as you might expect -- will be over abortion. In fact, McConnell’s law review articles, newspaper op-eds, speeches, and interviews all make it clear that he opposes abortion. In 1996, for example, he signed on to an article in First Things (also signed by James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and Ralph Reed) calling for a constitutional amendment “reversing the doctrines of Roe v. Wade and Casey.” Then, in 1998, he wrote an Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Roe v. Wade at 25: Still Illegitimate.” At his confirmation hearing in 2002, however, he repeatedly said that Roe v. Wade is "settled law."

In addition, McConnell has complained about “hostility” against religion and religious organizations. An Eagle Scout himself, McConnell also wrote the brief for the Boy Scouts in the organization’s Supreme Court case defending its ban of allowing gays to be scoutmasters. McConnell and his supporters claim he is not an ideologue, pointing to his opposition of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, his op-ed criticizing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore, and his opposition to government-sponsored prayer. Still, a look at his campaign contributions shows he has given money to Orrin Hatch, Rick Santorum, Rick Lazio (who ran against Hillary Clinton in 2000), and George W. Bush.


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