“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 23, 2005 | 9:21 a.m. ET
From Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, Ted Kresse, and Chris Donovan

Today, we focus on an issue that could become the dominant political story later this summer (and maybe also through the fall): the Supreme Court. NBC’s Pete Williams advises that the justices will issue decisions today, Monday, and perhaps even after that. The decision everyone seems to be waiting for: whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed in public buildings. Once all the decisions have been handed down, however, Washington then will watch to see if Chief Justice Rehnquist decides to retire. (The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that Justice Scalia has been telling law clerks that Rehnquist’s health is better than what’s been reported.) 

  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 whether or not he -- or any other justice -- steps down, the SCOTUS fight has already begun. The conservative 527 group Progress for America began airing a new TV ad yesterday (at a buy of $700,000 on DC cable) warning that Democrats will “attack anyone” Bush nominates. The ad cites some previous negative comments by prominent Democrats, and it says, “So you know what the liberals will say about any Supreme Court nominee… But a Supreme Court nominee deserves real consideration, instead of instant attacks.”

Moreover, at 12:45 pm, Sens. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Ted Kennedy, and Chuck Schumer hold a press conference to release a letter signed by 44 Democrats beseeching Bush to discuss any Supreme Court nominations with the Senate before he makes his choice. (Kennedy spoke about this on the Senate floor at 9:00 am.) In other SCOTUS-related news today, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee holds a hearing at 2:00 pm on the consequences of Roe v. Wade. And First Read takes another look at a possible Bush nominee to the Supreme Court -- this time we examine John Roberts, who currently serves on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Like the other possible nominees, Roberts is a conservative. But just how conservative is he? See below.

The other big political story out there, as it has been all year long, is Social Security. Yesterday, House Republicans unveiled a proposal creating private accounts from surpluses in the Social Security trust fund -- a move that doesn’t exactly adhere to what Bush wants to do. Today, Senate Republicans take their turn touting the measure. Bush, meanwhile, embarks on his 36th Social Security event since his State of the Union address. Today, he’s in Silver Spring, MD, and he speaks at 9:50 am. Later, at 1:45 pm, he makes a statement on CAFTA. Also on the Social Security front, Sen. Max Baucus (D) and Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) hold a 3:00 pm presser on the Hill to discuss details of a new poll measuring the attitudes of rural Americans towards the retirement program.

The Senate meets at 9:00 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

Other news that’s out there: more discussion of Bolton’s stalled nomination, Karl Rove’s statement that Democrats didn’t understand the consequences of 9/11, yesterday’s Senate hearing into Jack Abramoff’s Indian tribe lobbying, and today’s House vote to cut public broadcasting. Finally, some humor tonight: Howard Dean appears on Comedy Central’s Daily Show. Meanwhile, Dean’s counterpart, RNC chair Ken Mehlman, addresses the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico at 11:45 am.

USA Today on the new GOP Social Security plan establishing voluntary private accounts by using the surplus in the Social Security trust fund (rather than through payroll taxes): “The proposal sidesteps the biggest problem facing Social Security: its inability to pay full benefits by the middle of the century.”

One of the proposal’s backers, Rep. Paul Ryan (R), pens this USA Today op-ed: “Our legislation is guided by three basic principles: “The Social Security surplus should only be used for Social Security. The surplus should not be used to fund other government programs. The surplus should not be used to mask the true size of the national debt.”

But in a conference call yesterday, Dean Baker of the liberal-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research argued that since Republicans are the ones controlling Congress -- if they want to control the spending of the surplus, they can. "If I were a Republican, I don't know if I'd be making that argument."

The Hill gets this “tepid” comment from Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley on the Social Security proposal: “‘I want to pass legislation that makes Social Security solvent, along with personal accounts if possible, and that obviously goes further than this legislation does,’ Grassley said in a statement put out by his office. ‘But I welcome any member of Congress who wants to introduce Social Security legislation to do so. The more members we get involved in this debate, the better. More involvement helps move the ball up the hill.’”

The Washington Post points out another potential shortcoming with this proposal: the amount that could be invested in private accounts is very small. “Excluding interest owed on borrowed Social Security funds, the cash surplus from Social Security taxes this year will leave enough for an average of $434 available for each account… [A]t its height in 2008, the cash surplus will reach $97 billion … leaving an average of $588 each. But that cash surplus would decline rapidly to zero after a decade. By 2016, all that would remain is $40 per account.”

MSNBC.com writes that Democrats see the proposal as a “bait-and-switch” tactic. “Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security, and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who also serves on the Finance Committee, voiced their fears Wednesday that Bush and his allies in Congress would win private retirement accounts in the end by wrapping them in a glimmering package which would include tax breaks, retirement savings incentives, and perhaps pension reforms.”  <

USA Today analyzes Bush’s struggles so far with his second-term agenda. “So why isn't Bush doing better on Capitol Hill now? The bottom line, according to political veterans and analysts: Republicans in Congress have to run again. Bush doesn't.” The paper quotes prominent Republicans, who recommend that Bush should reach out more to Congress, should be more direct in what he wants, and should focus on what’s concerning the public: the economy and Iraq. 

Ron Brownstein, in the Los Angeles Times, writes that as Bush moves to focus his energies on the situation in Iraq, he faces this question: Can his words about the situation there actually move public opinion? “[M]any experts believe that events now enormously outweigh arguments in shaping U.S. attitudes about the conflict. That means that unless security in Iraq improves, Bush may find it extremely difficult to reverse the steady erosion of support for the war evident in recent public opinion polls.”

At a fundraiser in New York, Karl Rove slammed Democrats for their response to 9-11, the New York Times says. "'Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," Rove said.  Rove also talked about Sen. Durbin’s controversial Nazi comparison. "Has there ever been a more revealing moment this year? ... Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.'"

USA Today reports on Progress for America’s SCOTUS ad. “‘We've had ads before about nominations, but the idea of an ad even before a vacancy is announced - this is unprecedented,’ says Richard Davis, political science professor at Brigham Young University… The ad's release symbolizes the political tension over a potential vacancy on the Supreme Court, which hasn't had an opening in 11 years.”

The Wall Street Journal speculates on the person Bush might nominate to the Supreme Court, in the event of a vacancy. "The jurists on the rumor-mill shortlist are likely to equal -- if not exceed -- the conservative views of Chief Justice Rehnquist. But there are some important differences in their résumés and rulings that could determine how they would fare in the Senate.” 

Regarding the stalled Bolton nomination, the Washington Post ponders whether the GOP will try to use a Gang of 14-like approach to bypass Democrats Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, who are adamantly opposed to Bolton’s nomination. “Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a key player in the judicial compromise, is one of three Democrats who have voted to end the Bolton filibuster. The so-called Gang of 14 met recently for breakfast, he said, but their only goal is to stick together on judicial matters. ‘I haven't seen any evidence’ of an effort to strike a similar bipartisan accord on Bolton, he said.”

The Washington Times says that Sen. Trent Lott (R) “urged the White House Tuesday to hand over the information to one or two senior Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is one of several Republican lawmakers working behind the scenes to broker a compromise over the nomination.”

The Washington Post covers the DNC report released yesterday revealing problems with the 2004 vote in Ohio. “The report said that 28 percent of all Ohio voters and 52 percent of African American voters said they had problems in voting, whether it was long lines, ballot problems, intimidation or difficulty in finding their polling place. Although 71 percent of white voters said they were confident their votes were properly counted, just 19 percent of African American voters expressed similar confidence. The long lines were caused by the scarcity of voting machines in a number of precincts, particularly in minority areas, the report said.”

The New York Times: “But Democratic officials said they could not conclude that Mr. Bush's Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, would have won in Ohio even if voting had gone smoothly."

In a statement, RNC chair Ken Mehlman called the report "pure political fiction." Howard Dean, responding to that characterization, said such an "attitude" undermines democracy and proves Republicans are more interested in spewing hot air than paying attention to facts.

Roll Call writes about a new group, the Progressive Legislative Action Network, which seeks “to seed simultaneous policy efforts in the states, providing legislators with model bills that can be passed with minor adjustments essentially anywhere… ‘I think the most important thing about PLAN is that it’s a further indication that the states are being looked at with real seriousness on the progressive side,’ said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the left-of-center Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.” 

Emily’s List yesterday released a new survey showing that one-third of women who voted for Bush in 2004 do not intend to vote Republican in 2006. President Ellen Malcolm said that while the findings are a good sign for Democrats next year, they still have not "sealed the deal." The organization says Democrats must fine-tune their message to focus not only on the economy -- but also family and community value issues, since most women see themselves as their families’ main protectors.

The Chicago Tribune examines how even though Sen. Durbin's now-infamous Nazi comparison was rarely heard at the time, conservative bloggers and radio commentators were fanning the flame to keep the story going when no one was watching. "What Durbin encountered over the past week is a convergence of an increasingly polarized two-party system with a high speed, high-technology process for spreading news and opinion in what can amount to a shrill and unforgiving wall of sound.”

The RNC, meanwhile, yesterday unveiled a new web ad -- “Wild Thing” -- highlighting what it calls some of the Democrats’ recent “wild rhetoric.” (And, yes, the ad plays the classic tune “Wild Thing” by the Troggs.)

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Dallas Morning News give detailed accounts of yesterday's Senate testimony on the Abramoff-Scanlon dealings with Indian tribes:

Roll Call: “The financial ties between former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and prominent conservative activist Ralph Reed were deeper, and began earlier, than had been previously disclosed, according to documents released at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.”

Moreover, the New York Times reports that Rep. Doc Hastings may resign as chair of the House Ethics Committee. "The Congressional officials spoke on the condition of anonymity about the possibility that Mr. Hastings would resign, saying that he had not wanted to vent his frustrations about the job publicly." But: "Congressional officials said that Mr. Hastert and other Republican leaders were eager to see Mr. Hastings remain in his post if only to avoid the appearance of new turmoil on the ethics committee, which is the only House committee that is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic members.”

John G. Roberts, Jr., 50, currently serves on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, which happens to be the alma mater of Supreme Court Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg. A native of Buffalo, NY, Roberts, received both his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard (in fact, he was managing editor of the Harvard Law Review), and he clerked for appeals court judge Henry Friendly and then-associate Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist. He served in the Reagan Administration before joining the firm Hogan & Hartson in 1986. He returned to government in 1989, becoming Ken Starr’s deputy solicitor general during all four years of Bush 41’s Administration. After Bush lost in 1992, he returned to Hogan & Hartson, and by the time he left in 2003, he was senior partner and head of its appellate practice. He and his wife, Jane (who is a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman), live in Maryland with their two children (Jack and Josephine).

Bush 41 actually nominated Roberts in 1992 to replace Clarence Thomas on the DC Circuit, but his nomination went nowhere in that election year. Nine years later, though, Bush 43 nominated him to the same post in May 2001 -- but it was stalled again under the newly Democrat-controlled Senate. Then, after the GOP regained control in 2003, he had two hearings before being confirmed by voice vote. His old boss, Rehnquist, swore him in on June 2, 2003. While Roberts didn’t receive a roll call vote, he did have one in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved him, 14-3. The Democrats who supported him were Joe Biden, Herb Kohl, Dianne Feinstein, and John Edwards. Chuck Schumer, Richard Durbin, and Ted Kennedy voted against him.

Considered by many to be one of the premiere appellate lawyers in the country, Roberts is quite familiar with the Supreme Court, having argued 39 cases before it. As Orrin Hatch noted at Roberts’s confirmation hearing: “I have had Supreme Court Justices say you are one of the two greatest appellate lawyers living today.” When Roberts was first nominated back in 1991, the American Bar Association gave him a “qualified” rating, but when they reevaluated him nearly ten years later, he was given its highest rating of “well qualified.”

Roberts, by most accounts, is a conservative. Indeed, Legal Times has reported that he’s a member of the Federalist Society. However, during his confirmation process, Democrats like Seth Waxman, Walter Dellinger, and the late Lloyd Cutler either supported him or said kind things about him. But abortion groups opposed Roberts in 2003, because when he worked in the solicitor general’s office, he signed on to a brief (in a case involving the gag rule) stating that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled. Whether or not this is his own view is unclear, since he was making a legal argument on behalf of his client -- the Bush 41 Administration. During his own confirmation hearing, Roberts refused to discuss his own opinion of Roe v. Wade. Democrats were also concerned about other cases he had argued, including ones on affirmative action and the environment. But Roberts countered that he has not been ideological, since he’s argued for clients from both sides of the aisle. Indeed, in 2001, the AP described him as a “popular member of the bar who is considered a politically well-connected moderate.”

Yesterday, the House -- for a seventh time -- passed a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration, 286-130. Now action will move to the Senate, where it has its best chance to pass in years.  USA Today: “Vote counts by the Citizens Flag Alliance, which supports the amendment, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes it, show the Senate could be only two votes shy of the 67 needed to send the measure to the states for ratification.”

The Washington Post: “The House has passed the measure four times before, but it has always fallen short of the two-thirds vote needed in the Senate. But changes in the Senate's makeup shifted several votes to the bill's supporters, and a lobbyist who leads the opposition said the absence of one or two senators could mean that the measure would pass. ‘There are too many scenarios where we lose,’ said Terri Ann Schroeder, senior lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. ‘We're very concerned.’”

The AP notes that the Southern Baptist Convention has ended its eight-year boycott of Disney, which they had criticized for giving benefits to the companions of its gay employees. “‘We believe for the boycott to be effective, it had to have a beginning and an ending,’ said Gene Mims, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention committee that put the Disney resolution before some 12,000 members at the meeting. SBC delegates also passed a resolution that encourages parents to investigate their children's public schools to determine whether they are too accepting of homosexuality.”

The Los Angeles Times previews today’s House vote that would cut spending for public broadcasting. “The measure … would strip more than $200 million, including money for Ready to Learn, an initiative that helps finance children's shows such as ‘Reading Rainbow.’ Republican supporters say the cuts - part of a large package of reductions in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill - were necessary to help overcome a $1.6-billion shortfall.” The vote comes at a time when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “is embroiled in a highly unusual partisan struggle involving allegations of secret contracts with Republican lobbyists and a consultant who graded former ‘Now’ host Bill Moyers on political bias.”


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