“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.

Friday, June 10, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET

From Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
Nearly lost in this week’s intense scrutiny of Howard Dean was this piece of political news: Per the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, just 50% approve of Bush’s job in the US campaign against terrorism -- equaling his lowest mark on an issue that’s considered by many to be his greatest strength. It was a drop of six points since April, and 11 points since the beginning of the year. Moreover, there’s today’s front-page news of the Justice Department IG report suggesting failures and missteps by the FBI to detect the 9/11 plot.

  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

This is the context in which Bush talks for the second day in a row about the need to reauthorize the Patriot Act. Today, he speaks at 10:15 am at the National Counterterrorism Center in Tysons Corner, VA. Cheney’s focus today also appears to be on national security. He’s in Tampa FL, where he presents medals and delivers brief remarks at MacDill Air Force Base at 2:00 pm, and then speaks at the closing ceremonies of SOCOM's International Special Forces Week at 3:05 pm.

Both the Senate and House aren’t in session today. Yesterday, the Senate confirmed another three of Bush’s judicial nominees -- including William Pryor, the last of the controversial nominees the Gang of 14 agreed to give an up-or-down vote to. The energy bill and John Bolton are next on the Senate’s agenda, but there’s still the looming possibility of another judicial showdown. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, a House subcommittee yesterday cut the federal government’s support of public broadcasting. More on all of this below.

On the Democratic side, there’s still tons of ink about Howard Dean. Also, the centrist Progressive Policy Institute (D) holds a forum at 9:30 am to discuss the relevance of Clintonism for the next generation of Democrats. The talk features the Washington Post’s John Harris (who has just written a new book on Clinton), author and Democratic speechwriter Andrei Cherny, and the Hotline’s Chuck Todd.

Finally, because it’s Friday, First Read takes a look at the great oh-eight race. But this time we change it up a bit -- we look at changes in election reform that could impact the 2008 election. Will election reform actually get worse before it gets better?

Bush agenda
USA Today covers Bush’s remarks on the Patriot Act yesterday. “… Bush's target audience wasn't the cops in the room; it was members of Congress who are deciding now whether to extend and expand the law that was passed hurriedly by big margins weeks after 9/11 to give law enforcement more power to pursue terrorists.”

The Washington Times says Bush gave his speech on the Patriot Act in Ohio, “because that's where law-enforcement officials used provisions of the act to prosecute a Columbus truck driver named Iyman Faris for plotting terrorist attacks after meeting with Osama bin Laden."

The Washington Post says its most recent poll shows that the public strongly backs Bush’s position. “Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said the act should be renewed, while 39 percent said it should not. Support turned to opposition, however, when people were asked whether the FBI should be permitted to demand records without first getting the approval of a judge or prosecutor, which Bush and some lawmakers favor.”

Also in his speech yesterday, “Bush said that since Sept. 11, ‘federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted,’” the Los Angeles Times says. But the ACLU has challenged those figures. “Citing a study by Syracuse University, Lisa Graves, an ACLU senior counsel, said in a written statement that the ‘vast majority’ of the 400 cases Bush mentioned were for ‘minor, non-terrorism offenses. These individuals posed such little threat to national security that most served no jail time.’”

It's the economy
The New York Times: "Low mortgage rates have lifted the nation's long housing boom to a new level, creating jobs and wealth but also worries that some local markets have turned into bubbles.”

The Wall Street Journal covers Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan telling the Joint Economic Committee to look for a continued rise in interest rates. "The Fed's job has been complicated by the unusual decline in long-term interest rates since last June, the opposite of what normally happens when the Fed is raising rates. Some analysts say the decline points to a coming slowdown in the economy."

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank also listened to Greenspan’s testimony on the Hill yesterday, and he heard some warnings from the Fed chairman -- that the deficit, income inequality, the state of education, and foreign ownership of domestic production are all problems. “But instead of a real scream, Greenspan's hedging and dodging, delivered in avuncular and academic tones, left his listeners to take what they wanted from his testimony.”

The Wall Street Journal also explains that how the United Auto Workers union handles the challenge of dealing with rising gas prices and the popularity of Japanese cars is vital to whether GM and other US automakers can "pull out of their recent financial crises." The union is meeting in Detroit for Day Two of a meeting to discuss all of this.

Social Security
Yesterday, Senate Finance chair Grassley outlined suggestions on Social Security, which include raising the retirement age and limiting future benefits for upper-income Americans. The AP notes that Grassley did not mention private accounts or the progressive indexing proposal Bush favors. Still, “Republicans acknowledged that without Democratic support, they confront a daunting political challenge, according to officials in attendance.”

With this news of private accounts missing from Grassley’s suggestions, anti-private accounts Americans United put out a statement warning of the possibility of a “bait and switch,” noting that the White House still maintains that these accounts must be a part of any Social Security deal.

The New York Times talks to Republicans who seem unsure that Bush’s Social Security proposal will make it through Congress this year. Sen. Orrin Hatch says, “‘I don't think we're going to get it... We can't get even one Democrat, and some Republicans won't go along either.’”

Judicial politics
Owen, Brown, and Pryor have now all been confirmed -- along with Richard A. Griffin and David W. McKeague (who weren’t as controversial). The Washington Post says that after this full week of judges, Frist and the Senate will now turn to an energy bill and the contested nomination of John R. Bolton to be U.N. ambassador.

It only gets "trickier" from here, the New York Times says. The judicial fight has rendered Democrats virtually powerless this week, "leaving Republicans to revel in their new judicial successes... Democrats concede that the past few days have belonged to President Bush and the Republicans. But they say they will benefit in the long run by the compromise that preserved their ability to filibuster future nominees if they choose... If there is another filibuster fight in the Senate's future, it is at least a few weeks away.”

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, wonders what will happen with the William Myers and Henry Saad judicial nominations. “The Senate Judiciary Committee has moved Myers' nomination out of committee, but Frist has not indicated whether he will bring it to the Senate floor for a vote. Also unknown is how the moderates will gauge the nominations of Terrence W. Boyle to the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., and Brett Kavanaugh to the District of Columbia appellate court. Both are still before the Judiciary Committee.”

Bolton
NBC’s Ken Strickland reports that Senate Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, in an effort to break the standoff over John Bolton's nomination to be UN ambassador, say they’re prepared to drop their request to see the names on the NSA intercepts that were shown to Mr. Bolton and his staff. As detailed in a letter from Democratic Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd to the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Democrats are instead offering to submit a list of about three dozen "names of concern," and then have them cross-checked against the 19 names of US individuals Bolton and his staff were privy to.

The letter, Strickland says, implies that if there is no overlap on the names, there’s no problem. If there are some overlaps, however, the Democrats would ask the Senate Intel leaders to determine if there was any "inappropriate use" of the names. This appears to be a slight change to the offer Dodd submitted to John Negroponte last week, which was rejected. Still, both Republicans and Democrats involved here have privately acknowledged some progress in their talks.

Meanwhile, Per NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Biden told Hill reporters yesterday that, after the Memorial Day recess, his Democratic colleagues feel much more strongly against Bolton than he had expected. (Previously, Biden had suggested that Bolton would be confirmed this week.) When he and his fellow Democrats traveled to their states, they found their constituents were either saying "Keep it up" or were neutral. Biden said the reason Democrats are holding up Bolton’s nomination is institutional -- they’re upholding the Senate's prerogative to demand information from the Administration, or at least get an explanation as to why the information is being withheld.

The Democrats
The Los Angeles Times reports that at yesterday’s private meeting with Dean, Senate Democrats warned the DNC chair “that he had been going overboard and needed to choose his words more carefully.” The paper also notes the critical comments from Rep. Harold Ford and VA Gov. Mark Warner. “Ford, who plans a Senate run next year, said on the Don Imus radio show that if Dean could not ‘temper his comments, it may get to the point where the party may need to look elsewhere for leadership, because he does not speak for me.’”

Per NBC’s Mitchell, Biden also said this about Dean: "I happen to disagree with the political statements made recently by Howard Dean. I don't think they are helpful… Furthermore, I don't think his statements are even accurate. The chairman does have to be a lightning rod to a certain extent, but he's at the beginning of a learning process. He is used to being a governor and a presidential candidate and speaking what's on his mind. My guess is you'll see him be a little more careful in how he phrases things. Has there been long-term damage? No, but if these comments became a regular diet for the next three years, yes.”

The Washington Post Style section reports on the media throng that descended on the Dean-Reid-Durbin presser in the Senate yesterday, and it notes the triumvirate sidestepped all the questions about Dean’s controversial comments. “The resulting spectacle offered yet another distillation of why so many people believe that politicians and the media deserve each other.”

For another ’04 flashback moment: Yesterday, in response to this week’s news of the release of Kerry’s full military and medical records (which the Boston Globe said contained no new substantive documents), we received this statement from John O’Neill of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. “Sadly,” it said, “the recent fourth ‘complete’ release of military records by Senator John Kerry appears to be as incomplete as his prior ‘complete’ releases. I am unaware of any new document conflicting in any way with Unfit For Command.” O’Neill goes on to list some examples of things the Swiftees think are missing from the document release. And the statement concludes with this line, "For most of the Swiftees, unlike Senator Kerry, we have moved on.”

Jenny Backus, a consultant working for Kerry’s PAC, tells First Read: "John O'Neill is a crackpot whose lies have been disproven again and again… Senator Kerry has released his full and complete naval record, and it is a record of heroic service to our country. Mr. O'Neill obviously loves the limelight, but his fifteen minutes of fame are now over.”

On this same subject, a Boston Globe editorial says the release of Kerry's Navy records this week should finally put to rest the claims that the he did not serve honorably in Vietnam. "The documents should put to rest claims that Kerry misrepresented his military record in the presidential race. But Kerry's failure to respond to the smear campaign launched against him last summer lent credibility to its real objective: to impugn his equally honorable opposition to the war."

Ethics and institutions
The controversy over staffing at the House Ethics Committee continues. Yesterday, Roll Call reports, Minority Leader Pelosi offered a privileged resolution mandating that the committee adopt non-partisan staff immediately. The resolution was rejected along a party-line vote of 219-199. “Both sides blame the other for the staffing stalemate, now in its sixth week, and charge that it is an attempt by their political opponents to gain partisan advantage.”

“Caulifornia”
Three days before he likely calls for a special election to be held this November, Gov. Schwarzenegger participates in the launch of the California Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports at 1:30 pm.

USA Today interviews Schwarzenegger, as he prepares for that special election, and the paper describes him as a “celebrity with little self-doubt and even less to lose, even if the initiatives are defeated. ‘What is going to happen if everything fails? Life goes on,’ Schwarzenegger said... ‘What do you think, I'm worried about that? I'm only thinking of one thing: victory for the people of California. ... I've done my trip to glorify myself, to do all my things, and to shine. I'm doing this because it gives me a chance to give something back.’”

The values debate
The latest Westhill Partners/Hotline poll conducted by Ed Reilly (D) and Ed Rollins (R) notes the differences in how Democratic and Republican voters view moral issues. According to the poll, 61% of Republicans believe the government should promote traditional values, while 75% of Democrats oppose this. In addition, when asked what comes to mind when they think of “moral values” today, 20% of Republicans cited the general decline in morality, compared with just 8% of Democrats. (Meanwhile, 25% of Democrats and 21% of Republicans cited traditional/family values, and 13% of Democrats and 15% of Republicans defined it as how people live their lives.) Finally, a whopping 61% of Republicans said federal judges are too liberal, while only 24% of Democrats believe that.

The media
A House subcommittee voted yesterday to cut the federal government’s support of public broadcasting, the Washington Post writes. “In addition, the subcommittee acted to eliminate within two years all federal money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting … starting with a 25 percent reduction in CPB's budget for next year, from $400 million to $300 million… Expressing alarm, public broadcasters and their supporters in Congress interpreted the move as an escalation of a Republican-led campaign against a perceived liberal bias in their programming.”

NBC’s Mike Viqueira adds that the Republicans defended the cut, saying room had to be made for a $1 billion increase in Pell Grants and also more money for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit that kicks in next year. Viq also notes that this is the beginning of a process that will last into the fall, and that the Senate may not go along.

Oh-eight
When the Help America Vote Act was enacted in 2002, many hoped that recounts and voting machine problems would become a thing of the past. Well, you know how that prediction turned out. Although last year’s election didn’t compare to the nightmare in 2000, there still were plenty of complaints, such as long lines and faulty machines, and the seven-month ordeal in Washington State.

Given those problems, the new question is: Can the country be ready for 2008? Indeed, even though Congress is no longer paying attention to election reform, state legislators and election officials are already worrying about a number of mandated changes that could disrupt the elections in 2006 and 2008.

First, the federal Election Assistance Commission says that states have until January 1, 2006 to establish statewide voter registration databases, which they hope will cut down on the number of provisional ballots. EAC chair Gracia Hillman tells First Read that while there may be glitches with the databases in the beginning, she’s optimistic that they will make a “tremendous difference” by 2008. But a report by ElectionLine.org, a think tank that monitors election reform, says “that no two statewide databases will be alike. The language of federal reform, while seemingly specific on its face, nonetheless left states considerable room for interpretation.”

Also by January 1, 2006, states must replace their punch card and lever machines. But there are mixed opinions about which machines are the best, and there is confusion among state and local officials about which machines to purchase. Doug Chapin, the director of ElectionLine.org, says that states are confused about what to do. “They don’t know who to listen to. If you talk to state and local officials, they are really frustrated.”

Perhaps the biggest problem for 2008, Chapin says, will be voter identification. With the passage of the Real ID act, Chapin says the ID war is raging in places like Georgia, Indiana, Arizona, and Wisconsin -- where you have “legislators squaring off with executives trying to impose ID requirements. That could change the game yet again. I wouldn’t be surprised if ID was a big issue in 2008."

Chapin says Congress isn’t tuned into election reform right now, and that the next few years are important to see if the issue “fades into the background.”  Indeed, DeForest “Buster” Soaries, who resigned from the EAC earlier this year, recently told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “election reform is not a matter of great urgency in Congress among Democrats or Republicans.” But Hillman has more faith. “Congress did hear us last year… We're on a roll now. I think Congress hears very clearly that to break this momentum would be a real travesty… I think 2008 is going to be a watershed year where voters are going to feel really, really good about the ability of the [states] … to improve the process.”

But a lot can change between now and 2008. As Chapin says, “Change is internal breeding ground for error." 

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