“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.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, Bill Hatfield and Katie Adams

FIRST GLANCE
While Washington continues to mull the Senate Democrats’ second successful block of John Bolton’s nomination to be UN ambassador (Will it affect the Gang of 14’s agreement on judges? Will Bush now make a recess appointment? Why, if he didn’t have the votes to prevail, did Majority Leader Frist schedule a cloture vote?), we turn our attention to two issues that played a major role in the 2004 presidential campaign, and that surfaced again yesterday: Iraq and religion.

  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

NBC’s Mike Viqueira reports that House Republicans launched a coordinated attack against House Minority Leader Pelosi for referring to the Iraq war on Thursday as a "grotesque mistake" -- something she’s said before. Speaker Hastert, Majority Leader DeLay, and Majority Whip Blunt all issued statements condemning Pelosi's remarks. "Our troops in harm's way need armor and equipment, not second guessing and cynicism. They deserve to be supported, not demoralized," Blunt stated. Indeed, Viq says, these Republicans all referred to war opponents as "Pelosi-Durbin Democrats." And speaking of Sen. Dick Durbin (D), Senate Republicans yesterday sent a letter to Minority Leader Reid, encouraging him to ask Durbin to apologize for his remarks comparing the treatment of Gitmo detainees to the way in which Nazis and Soviets treated their prisoners.

Viqueira also notes that a fight over religion spilled onto the House floor yesterday, as Indiana Rep. John Hostettler (R) accused Democrats of being part of "the long war on Christianity." At issue was a provision buried in the House’s defense spending bill -- offered by Wisconsin Rep. David Obey (D) -- to prevent religious proselytizing at the Air Force Academy. Hostettler later withdrew his remark.

Are Democrats once being caught flat-footed on issues that helped sink John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004? Democrats don’t think so, arguing that what Republicans are trying to do is change the subject. "It just shows how desperate they are to make us the issue," a House Democratic leadership aide tells First Read. "They are losing public opinion across the board" -- on issues such as Social Security, Iraq, and the economy.

Interestingly enough, the politics of religion and national security reappear today. At 11:55 am, President Bush makes remarks via satellite to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. Before that, at the White House, Bush meets with the prime minister of Vietnam at 9:10 am; it’s the first time a leader from that country has visited the White House since the Vietnam War. And then, at 10:15 am, Bush participates in the swearing-in ceremony of the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers.

On the national security front, which might produce more partisan fireworks, Pelosi and Rep. Henry Waxman (D) hold an event today at noon calling for a special commission to investigate prison abuse at Guantanamo Bay. Moreover, fresh off his announcement that he intends to run for president, Sen. Joe Biden (D) gives a 2:00 p.m. speech today at the Brookings Institution, where he'll discuss the challenges in Iraq and suggest benchmarks with which to measure progress there.

The Senate meets at 9:45 am; the House meets at 9:00 am.

THE POLITICS OF IRAQ AND GITMO
The latest USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll finds that only 39% favor the war in Iraq, that 52% (a new low) are satisfied with the conduct of the war on terrorism, and that 47% approve of Bush’s job. However, fewer Americans (35%) fear another terrorist attack than at any other time since 9/11. More: "Fifty-eight percent say the United States should continue to operate the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and 52% approve of the way the United States is treating prisoners there."

The Washington Times reports that Republicans are stilling pressing for an apology from Durbin over his Nazi comment last week. The paper also notes that the "White House, which has largely avoided talking about Mr. Durbin's remarks, weighed in with condemnation yesterday but stopped short of suggesting that any action be taken."

GOP pollster David Winston, in a Roll Call op-ed, blasts the Democratic leadership for not condemning Durbin’s remarks. "The deafening silence on the Democratic side of the aisle this past week, the fact that no major Democrats in either the Senate or the House have disassociated themselves from Durbin’s dangerous statements, is damning evidence of their unwillingness to condemn even the most extreme comments in the pursuit of political advantage."

But aren’t Republicans also engaging in the pursuit of political advantage here? Indeed, Roll Call writes: "Republican campaign officials and Congressional aides said they would continue to highlight Durbin’s remarks as well as other controversial comments made by Democrats. [GOP Sen. Mitch] McConnell said that if Democrats did not seek to distance themselves from the comments, he predicted it would be ‘a significant issue’ in the 2006 Senate campaign… Brian Nick of the NRSC said it is likely Durbin’s comments would also be used in a fundraising letter. The Republican National Committee is planning to release a Web video later this week highlighting the Democrat’s ‘wild-eyed rhetoric,’ said Tracey Schmitt, an RNC spokeswoman."

In an interview yesterday with political TV reporters, RNC chair Ken Mehlman contended that Democrats are having a difficult time getting their message on Iraq across to voters. He said congressional Democrats face the same problem that John Kerry did in 2004 -- that they're trying "to thread the needle" in making a "yes-but" argument on Iraq. But Mehlman argued that yes-but arguments really don’t demonstrate leadership to voters.

Meanwhile, per the Associated Press, Bill Clinton told the Financial Times that the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay "should ‘be closed down or cleaned up.’"

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, hardly the Bush Administration’s best friend, pens a Washington Post op-ed arguing that progress is occurring in Iraq. "As the process moves forward, there will no doubt be frustrating delays and difficult setbacks. But let us not lose sight of the fact that all over Iraq today, Iraqis are debating nearly every aspect of their political future."

MORE BUSH AGENDA
Phan Van Khai, Vietnam's prime minister who meets today with Bush, writes a Washington Times op-ed describing Vietnam's economic, political, and sociologically growth over the years -- and he stresses the need to continue such growth by strengthening ties with the US.

After his talk with Bush, Khai plans to meet with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Associated Press says. "Military ties between the two countries have included periodic docking of U.S. warships in Vietnam and plans for U.S. military training of Vietnamese officers. Intelligence sharing and cooperation on counter-terrorism activities also are part of the mix."

Yesterday’s cloture vote on John Bolton’s nomination was 54-38, six votes shy of ending debate. The Associated Press: "The setback left Bush facing stark choices - most of which could leave him appearing weak at a time he is facing sagging poll numbers and fighting lame-duck status six months into his final term. Some Republicans urged Bush to continue fighting for Bolton rather than appoint him on his own during an upcoming Senate recess for fear of sending a weakened nominee to the United Nations. ‘That would not be in our best interest,’ said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee."

The Washington Post: "The vote was a setback for Bush … and the latest in a string of partisan impasses that also have stymied his efforts to appoint judges and restructure Social Security. Some senators said a recess appointment now appears to be Bolton's only hope, even though it would be politically contentious and would send him to the United Nations under a cloud. That action could come as early as July 2."

The Wall Street Journal also notes that yesterday's cloture vote had "a margin of defeat that was twice as large as when the Senate considered an identical motion last month. The loss appeared so predetermined that neither party even bothered to muster all of its members for the vote."

The Wall Street Journal reports that lobbyists for the oil and coal industries "are mounting a counterattack against a Senate proposal to impose mandatory regulations on industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists say are accelerating climate change... The proposal, scheduled to be debated today in the Senate, would require the Department of Energy to issue emission permits to companies starting in 2010 that are intended to slow growth in the use of fuels that contain carbon and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions, measured against the growth of the economy."

Also in his interview yesterday with TV reporters, Mehlman talked about the RNC’s role in any fight over a Supreme Court vacancy. He said the RNC will provide research on key issues, it will mobilize the grassroots (and its 15-million-person email list) for any Bush nominee, and it will run an aggressive earned-media operation.

On Social Security, meanwhile, Mehlman said he’s encouraged with how things are going, noting 1) that big bills always take a while to sell and 2) that Bush has won almost every legislative fight (tax cuts, Medicare prescription-drug law) he's been in. Mehlman adds that Bush "strongly believes" that private accounts should be a part of any overhaul. The reason: "You can get more with less," due to the higher rate of return from the stock market.

Staying on the topic of Social Security, the "Denver Three" -- the three people who were kicked out of a Bush event on Social Security a couple of months ago for having a bumper sticker that wasn’t necessarily pro-Bush -- will hold a press avail with Rep. Mark Udall (D) today at 11:35 am calling on the Administration to look into the incident and calling out the person who removed them from the event.

Channeling First Read from yesterday, the Washington Post writes about anti-private accounts Americans United’s campaign targeting Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee. The group "identified the committee as an opportunity to ‘administer the coup de grace’ on Bush's approach, according to a PowerPoint presentation by the coalition."

The Chicago Tribune reports on the Bush administration's resistance to doubling aid to Africa in advance of next month's G-8 summit in Scotland, putting Bush at odds with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and European leaders.

THE DEMOCRATS
Roll Call follows up on Biden’s "semi-official" announcement last Sunday that he’s running for president. And it describes his biggest challenge: raising money. "The biggest challenge before Biden, according to knowledgeable party sources, is to prove that he can raise the tens of millions necessary to stay within shouting distance of the top-tier candidates… By conservative estimates, a serious Democratic candidate for president will need to raise $40 million to have a shot at the nomination."

Meanwhile, The Hill observes how Hillary Clinton has teamed up with conservative Senators on several different bills. "…Clinton has systematically formed partnerships with many of the Senate’s most powerful and conservative members on a host of legislation, even as she has helped to craft the Democratic leadership’s overall legislative agenda… Clinton denies any political motive to her bipartisan cooperation. ‘I’m just focused on trying to get things done,’ she told The Hill. ‘I consider the legislation I work on important to the people I represent.’"

And speaking of Hillary Clinton, a new biography about her -- "The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She'll Go to Become President" -- hits bookstores today. USA Today reports that conservative groups are promoting it as an anti-Hillary book that is "so damning it could destroy any possible bid for the presidency in 2008." Clinton’s camp says it won’t comment on a book that contains "vicious fabrications."

The Washington Times says the book portrays Clinton as "ruthless and ambitious."

The Boston Herald writes up Howard Dean's remarks at last night’s party fundraiser in Boston, where he attacked Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for never being there, and defended his mother. "'I don't care if Dick Cheney likes my mother or not, we are going to fight back,' Dean said." Furthermore, "Dean promised to escalate his attacks on the GOP despite the negative response to his controversial comments in recent weeks. His inflammatory statements have brought harsh rebukes from Republicans and generally tepid support if not outright criticism from fellow Democratic party leaders."

And this pairing might make some Republican oppo folks happy: Dean and Durbin (along with other local DC-area politicians) host a "Paint the Nation Blue" fundraising reception tonight at the National Museum of Women in the Arts at 7:00 p.m..

IT'S THE ECONOMY
The price of oil climbed to nearly $60 a barrel yesterday, the Washington Times says, despite the discussion by OPEC to raise supply.

The Washington Post says that a report being released today shows that health spending by privately insured Americans increased by 8.2% in 2004, virtually the same increase from a year ago. "More significantly, for the eighth straight year the growth in medical costs far outpaced the growth of wages -- by nearly four times in 2004 -- a trend that suggests more Americans will be unable to afford their health insurance."

ETHICS AND INSTITUTIONS
The New York Times reports that Preston, Gates & Ellis "says House ethics lawyers advised the firm several years ago that it could pay for some Congressional travel, an assertion that may bolster the argument of Representative Tom DeLay that he did nothing wrong in accepting lavish trips organized by the firm's star lobbyist." Internal documents obtained by the Times "say that the firm contacted two lawyers on the House ethics committee in 1996, when it began organizing large numbers of trips, and was told House rules probably allowed lobbyists to pay for a lawmaker's travel, as long as a client reimbursed the firm."

The Associated Press says Rep. Duke Cunningham (R) told the House yesterday that "he's been served with four subpoenas in Imperial County, Calif., and plans to comply with them… There were no details about the topic of the subpoenas, but a federal grand jury has reportedly convened in California to look into the November 2003 sale of Cunningham's home to Mitchell Wade, president of the defense contracting firm MZM Inc." Cunningham has denied any wrongdoing.

The Hill notes that Rep. Pete Stark (D) spent $500 of his own money on an internet ad that blasts Cunningham for the controversial sale of his home. "‘Attention Powerful Lobbyists! House for Sale By Influential Member of Congress … From recent practices by defense contractor lobbyists, it appears that you may be able to slip a cool million to a Member of Congress with little fear of ethics violations,’ read the ad, which ran yesterday on the National Journal Web site."

"CAULIFORNIA"
In the wake of last week's special election announcement and continuing budget woes in California, the San Francisco Chronicle reports Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's approval rating, per a new Field Poll, has plummeted to an all-time low of 31 percent, putting him in the ranks of California's least popular modern governors. "He now ranks fourth in unpopularity, behind Democrats Gray Davis and Pat Brown and Republican Pete Wilson."

THE VALUES DEBATE
The Washington Post also covers the dust up in the House over Rep. Hostettler’s criticism of the Democratic provision preventing religious proselytizing at the Air Force Academy. "‘Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians,’ [Hostettler] said… Eventually, Hostettler rose and read a sentence that had been written out for him in large block letters by a young Republican floor aide: ‘Mr. Chairman, I ask unanimous consent to withdraw the last sentence I spoke.’" Interestingly, the Post notes that the Rep. Obey’s amendment on proselytizing was defeated, 210 to 198.

Viqueira has more on yesterday’s back and forth over religion: After Hostettler made his initial remarks, Obey jumped to his feet and asked that Hostettler's words be "taken down," a reference to a procedure that’s used to censor offensive language from the record. The two sides, Viq adds, huddled to avert further contretemps. But after their huddle, the microphones were mistakenly left open, and Viqueira heard (but could not see) an apparent exchange between Rep. John Spratt (D) and Hostettler. "I’m as good a Christian as you are! You ever been in the military?" said one of them.

"No, but I’ve been a Christian. Is that all right?" replied the other.

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