“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 16, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, Ted Krese and Chris Donovan

First glance
In politics, it’s always easier to oppose something than sell it. Indeed, as AP political writer Ron Fournier wrote yesterday, Bush’s second-term troubles largely stem from the fact that he has no one to run against -- which has turned everything into a referendum on him. And that might explain why he unloaded on Democrats Tuesday night for opposing his Social Security proposal, his judicial nominees, and his nomination of John Bolton to the UN. 

  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

The same dynamic seems to be playing out in California. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor because he -- and a majority of state voters -- opposed Gray Davis. But now he’s finding it harder as he tries to govern and also sell his ambitious (and contentious) initiatives on the state budget, redistricting, and teacher tenure. And that probably explains why Schwarzenegger, in his first two days of campaigning since calling for the special election, has spent more time railing against Democrats (who he says are trying to raise taxes) than actually selling his three reform measures. More on this below.

Today, at 1:15 pm, Bush talks about another issue that’s been a hard sell of sorts: the Medicare prescription-drug benefit he signed into law in 2003. In his speech here in DC, he will be launching a Medicare Covers America campaign to help educate seniors enrolling in this benefit program. Before that, at 8:30 am, he speaks at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast. 

On the Hill, NBC’s Ken Strickland advises that a vote to end the Democratic blockade on Bolton’s nomination could come as early as today. If that happens, Republicans would need 60 votes -- and thus at least five Democrats -- to stop debate and move to a final confirmation vote. Republicans, Strickland reminds us, were unsuccessful in an identical effort last month, and no additional Democrats have announced their intentions to defect; in fact, the Democrats seem to have picked up one of their members who sided with the Republicans last month: Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor. The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

There’s plenty of other news out there, including the analysis of Terri Schiavo’s autopsy, the latest step in prominent labor unions breaking away from the AFL-CIO, the possibility that Republicans are now looking for an exit strategy on Social Security, and GOP worries about Iraq. In addition, on the same day that Bush does the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, the liberal Alliance for Justice holds a conference call at 11:00 am to announce the launching of a new Hispanic Judicial Advocacy Project, which seeks to engage the Latino community in any future judicial nomination fight -- especially one that might involve a Latino nominee.

Speaking of judicial fights, the conservative 527 group Progress for America says it will spend up to $18 million on a Supreme Court battle. And First Read takes another look at another person Bush might nominate to fill a SCOTUS vacancy. This week, we examine 4th Circuit appeals judge J. Michael Luttig, who a recent Washington Times article said is “one of the most conservative judges on the federal bench.”

Bush agenda
Here’s Fournier’s AP article we mentioned above: “As funny as this may sound, President Bush misses John Kerry. In the 2004 campaign, Bush sought to make the election a referendum on the Democratic senator's character and leadership skills rather than his own record as president. Now that he has nobody to run against, every day is a referendum on Bush. And it's taking a toll.”

USA Today notes that Bush’s recent attacks against “obstructionist” Democrats seem to be “driven by the fact that, five months into his second term, he has little to show for the ‘political capital’ he says he won in November's election.” That said, White House counselor Dan Bartlett says that Bush will begin to sharpen focus on two important issues: the economy and the war. “As June 28, the first anniversary of Iraqis' regaining sovereignty, approaches, Bush will talk about progress in Iraq and the necessity of the war. He'll also focus on issues such as the federal budget deficit.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post says that Hill Republicans are looking for an exit strategy on Social Security. “Senate GOP leaders, in discussions with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and political officials, have made it clear they are stuck in a deep rut and suggested it is time for an exit strategy… House Republican leaders believe House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) could put together broad retirement legislation that could clear his committee with private accounts. But aides and GOP lawmakers say House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has told his members he remains averse to a floor vote on such a plan if the Senate cannot act.”

The Washington Times also talks to House Republicans, who say their leaders probably won't push for a vote on Bush's Social Security. They cite a lack of support and lost momentum.

Speaking of exit strategies, Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R) -- who suggested using the name "freedom fries" instead of "french fries" -- will join a group of bipartisan lawmakers today calling on the Bush Administration to create an exit strategy for Iraq within the next 30 days. Writes the Boston Globe: "The political maneuvers are being made amid continuing violence in Iraq and the recent controversy over a British government memo that called into question the Bush administration's motives for going to war. Some prominent Republicans seem worried that if Republicans vote for the bipartisan bill in substantial numbers … it would be embarrassing for the administration and would undermine Bush's authority.”

“Such comments by Republicans would have been heresy before last November's election, because no one in the party wanted to weaken President Bush. But now, with 2006 midterm elections approaching, members of Congress are hearing from constituents who are growing uneasy about the war,” the New York Times says.

The Wall Street Journal: "Administration officials say that despite the setbacks, Mr. Bush is unlikely to change his strategy on Iraq. Perhaps inevitably, this has invited parallels to public and political pressures during the Vietnam War. In the Pew poll, about 35% of Americans said they saw similarities between Iraq and the Vietnam conflict, which badly split the Democratic Party in the 1960s."

The AP covers yesterday’s House vote to block the federal government from using the Patriot Act to search library and bookstore records. “The Senate has yet to act on the measure, and GOP leaders often drop provisions offensive to Bush during final negotiations.”

The Washington Post says the vote was Bush’s “first defeat in his effort to preserve the broad powers of the USA Patriot Act.”

The Democrats
House Democratic leaders yesterday presented their members fresh internal polling data showing that GOP incumbents are in a weak position right now, Roll Call writes. “The polling, conducted in seven of the nearly 40 Republican House districts that the DCCC is targeting, showed that no GOP Member registered re-election numbers higher than 43 percent heading into 2006, according to sources in the Caucus meeting.” But a Republican spokesman said the GOP is in solid shape. “‘Democrats have been singing the same tune for five years now,’ [the spokesman] said. ‘In the past two cycles they’ve lost seats. So I’m not putting much credence into anything they say.’”

The Hill also writes about that internal polling. “Some observers have suggested that Americans’ disaffection with Congress could rub off on Democrats as well as Republicans, leading to depressed poll numbers across the board. [DCCC chair Rahm] Emanuel dismissed that assertion, saying that polling in the districts of Democratic incumbents has not been as low as in the seven GOP districts.”

At a press conference yesterday, leaders from five unions -- the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the Laborers, UNITE-HERE, and the United Food and Commercial Workers -- announced the creation of a new labor coalition that's committed to spending more money to organize new union members. Perhaps most significantly, this coalition seems to be another sign that these unions might break away from the AFL-CIO and establish a rival federation. "We believe the AFL-CIO ... can't lead a movement for change," said Laborers' president Terence O'Sullivan. "We believe without radical change, we can't continue to survive as a significant force."

AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney released a statement, responding to that new coalition. He said, "The clearest path to growing the union movement and helping more workers form unions is by exercising our greatest strength -- solidarity. Now is the time to use our unity to build real worker power, not create a real divide that serves the corporations and the anti-worker politicians."

The Los Angeles Times says move “was widely viewed as the first step toward a split in the 50-year-old AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 national unions that has been losing membership and power for decades. Four of the five union leaders have openly discussed leaving the larger body, complaining that its leadership is stodgy and defeatist. But they said Wednesday that they had no immediate plans to bolt and wanted to keep the focus on their new group, called the Change to Win Coalition.”

The Washington Times says that if the five unions leave the AFL, they would take with them more than $30 million in dues paid to labor federation each year.

Ethics and institutions
The liberal Campaign for America's Future will be running a print advertisement in two local Ohio newspapers today (at a cost of $15,000) blasting Ohio Rep. Bob Ney (R) for his ties to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff and for other allegations of ethical impropriety. The group says it also hopes to run similar ads on radio and perhaps TV later this month. "Representative Bob Ney exemplifies ... the corruption of today's Congress," said CAF deputy director Ellen Miller. "People are struggling in Ohio... Meanwhile, Bob Ney is helping out Indian tribes in Texas ... and traveling around the world in luxury."

NBC’s Mike Viqueira reports that Tom DeLay's communications director, Dan Allen, has resigned his post after just five and half months on the job. Allen, Viq says, cited the 80-hour work weeks and a desire to spend more time with his wife as reason for leaving. He has obtained a position at a Republican PR firm downtown.

The Hill: “Allen’s departure appears to be attributable to a combination of the office’s around-the-clock schedule and a conflict of personalities between Allen’s laconic but steely manner and the rest of DeLay’s hard-driving staff… Another GOP insider said the office was difficult for Allen from the outset.”

Roll Call notes that Allen is the third senior press aide in the last six months to leave DeLay.

The Houston Chronicle, looking at the latest financial-disclosure records, reports that DeLay owed three law firms between $125,000 and $315,000 in legal costs, even though his legal defense fund raised $439,300 in 2004. “His legal obligations put the powerful Republican from Sugar Land in a weaker financial situation than many of his House colleagues from Texas, many of whom reported assets well in excess of $1 million.”

The Luttig file
Potential Supreme Court nominee J. Michael Luttig, 51, currently serves on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Luttig has an impressive (and conservative) resume: He clerked for Antonin Scalia (who then was an appeals judge) and Chief Justice Warren Burger; he worked in the Justice Department under Bush 41; and he served as an assistant attorney general in the same Administration. Bush 41 nominated Luttig to his current position in April 1991, and he received a mixed rating from the American Bar Association -- the majority gave him a “qualified” rating, but a minority dubbed him “not qualified.” Nevertheless, he was confirmed by unanimous consent. He and his wife, Elizabeth (also an attorney), have two children, and they live in Northern Virginia.

Luttig is not known for giving speeches, granting interviews, or writing op-eds. In fact, since sitting on the bench, he has made few public statements -- one of the last ones being a eulogy he gave for author/commentator Barbara Olson, who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Gannett News Service has reported that he’s a member of the Federalist Society. Luttig was also a member of “Lawyers for Bush” during 41’s presidential campaign in 1988. Indeed, according to most media accounts, he’s a conservative. But in the questionnaire he filled out during his 1991 confirmation process, he wrote: “So-called judicial activism is no more defensible in pursuit of a conservative political ‘agenda’ than a liberal one.” Luttig’s last campaign contribution was back in 1990, to home state Sen. John Warner.

His almost 14 years of decisions, however, will be a target for opposition groups. On abortion, Luttig made news back in June 1997, when he stayed an injunction by a lower court and allowed a new Virginia law on parental notification to take effect. Then, exactly one year later, he ordered that a new Virginia law on late-term abortion go into effect, despite the fact that it was being challenged in court. A year later, he wrote an opinion striking down a provision of the Violence Against Women Act that allowed female victims of sexual assaults to sue their attackers. And in 1996, he wrote that barring gays from the military was constitutional, criticizing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as creating a “sanctuary for known homosexuals.”

Luttig is already quite familiar with the confirmation process for SCOTUS nominees: In the Bush 41 Justice Department, he helped prepare David Souter for his confirmation hearing. And he reportedly helped develop the counterattack strategy against Clarence Thomas critic Anita Hill. (A photo of Luttig and Thomas that hung in Luttig’s office had this inscription from Thomas: “This would not have been possible without you! Thanks so much, buddy!”)

Sadly, tragedy struck Luttig’s family in 1994, when his father was shot dead during a carjacking in his Texas driveway. Three defendants were convicted for the murder, and one was executed in 2001. Luttig’s close ties to the current Supreme Court were evident when the death penalty case of his father’s murderer was appealed to the high court: Three justices had to recuse themselves from the decision -- Thomas, Souter, and Scalia.  

Meanwhile, Roll Call reports that conservative 527 group Progress for America plans to spend $18 million in the anticipated battle over a Supreme Court vacancy. And that’s for just one seat. “In another sign of how high the level of anticipation is about a vacancy on the high court, Jessica Boulanger, a top press aide to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), is taking a leave of absence from the Hill and going to work for the group. Boulanger will focus almost exclusively on the Supreme Court fight, providing added heft to the group’s burgeoning media operation.”

The values debate
After the release of Terri Schiavo’s autopsy yesterday, the Washington Post says there weren’t any regrets by the Republican congressmen who intervened to save Schiavo’s life.  “‘My concern was for due process, and due process is not a medical issue,’ said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). Asked whether he had any regrets, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who visited Schiavo at the hospice in her last days, responded, "None whatsoever." He added: ‘If a state court decides to take the life of someone, there should be a federal review.’”

The Miami Herald says the same thing. "Republicans who launched a much-criticized effort to keep Terri Schiavo alive against what her husband said were her wishes stood fast Wednesday in the face of an autopsy report that backs her husband... They offered no apologies, and some suggested they wouldn't hesitate to do it again."

A new Washington Post/ABC poll finds that evangelical Republicans are far more likely than any other group to want the judiciary to stay out of controversial social questions, “suggesting that GOP criticism of ‘activist judges’ resonates with the party's core constituency… Separately, a poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that discontent among conservative Republicans and evangelical Protestants has fueled a significant drop in public support for the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Roll Call notes that several conservative organizations are thinking about establishing a formal interviewing process for potential ’08 presidential candidates, to determine their positions on policy issues their members care about. “Even though many of these groups are not allowed to formally endorse candidates because of their not-for-profit tax status, the interviews could play an influential role in the selection of the Republican presidential nominee. Social conservatives are an important voting bloc in the GOP primary and it is expected that most - if not all - of the Republican candidates will seek this community’s support.”

USA Today adds that “Gary Bauer, president of American Values, said … that the sit-down sessions, likely to begin after the 2006 elections, would be ‘a very effective way to nail down where people are on cultural issues.’ He said candidates have become ‘very astute’ at answering written questionnaires in ways that avoid making firm commitments.” Those who would conduct the interviews: James Dobson, Paul Weyrich, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, Tony Perkins, and Bauer.

The Des Moines Register notes that former Attorney General John Ashcroft was in Iowa yesterday, where he spoke at a Republican fundraiser about finding a presidential candidate who can fight the war on terror and uphold family values. Ashcroft, not surprisingly, also expressed his support for renewing the Patriot Act. 

The AP notes that Schwarzenegger, in his first week of campaigning for his special election, has shifted focus away from his three initiatives, and has instead raised “fears that Democrats want to increase taxes. Focusing on matters that had not been central aspects of budget negotiations or the debate over a special election appears to be a strategy aimed at putting Democrats on the defensive as the campaign for the Nov. 8 election gets under way.”

Sara Lee, a spokeswoman for the California Chamber of Commerce, which is backing Schwarzenegger’s efforts, says that pointing out that Democrats will raise taxes is entirely consistent with selling his reform initiatives, especially the one giving him broader powers to cut budget spending. “If we don’t have that budget measure, that’s what going to happen,” she tells First Read.

Finally, the San Francisco Chronicle says the Legislature failed to pass a budget on time for the 19th-straight year, despite a last-minute compromise proposed by Democrats. That compromise plan “was hastily offered up in recent days after legislative Democrats -- in the cross-hairs of a Nov. 8 special election -- decided to avoid a budget fight with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the potential to be politically portrayed as obstinate.”


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments