“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.

Monday, July 18, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Katie Adams

First glance
Will the White House introduce its SCOTUS nominee during the thick of the Plame leak investigation?  The Washington Post reports that President Bush may announce his pick as early as this week, rather than next week.  That would be a big effort to change the subject -- and might well succeed.  It would also "prove" that the White House is not distracted by the Rove controversy, and possibly force Senate Democratic critics to tone it down in the interest of having that much talked about, dignified confirmation debate.  Presumably, it would also be a sign that the White House is confident that no other memos or damaging material about the Plame leak will come to light during the SCOTUS debate.

  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

A Rove and SCOTUS-fixated Congress now has two weeks till their August recess, from which they won't return until after Labor Day (and when they do return, the Senate will be absorbed in SCOTUS confirmation hearings).  Time to take stock of where the formal Bush agenda and other key items stand.  President Bush himself devoted part of his Saturday radio address to calling for the passage of Social Security reform, the energy bill, CAFTA, and the highway bill.  He'll make remarks on both CAFTA and the Patriot Act this week, as well as remarks on something called "senior security."

Social Security reform topped Bush's list despite the fact that late last week, his congressional point people put it off until the fall.  That might make the debate more likely to run into the election year, but more immediately, it could cramp the White House's effort to push tax reform this fall.  Conferees on the energy bill will continue to plug away.  The highway bill looks like it will ring in at $286 billion, a figure the Administration has suggested Bush could live with after he threatened to make a more loaded bill the subject of his first veto.

Among the bigger sidebar items: The House is expected to debate the extension of the Patriot Act starting on Wednesday.  NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that the White House won't get a permanent extension of some of the more controversial provisions, like roving wire taps, but that the bill will be the subject of a major fight nonetheless.  And in the Senate, a fight is brewing over expanded federal funding for stem cell research.  Senate opponents to the version passed by the House -- which Bush also has threatened to veto -- have managed to undercut the momentum for that bill in their own chamber by drafting compromise legislation.

Also needing to be dealt with before recess: a shortfall in funding for veterans' affairs, a potential political millstone for Republicans given the war in Iraq.  Also, with inquiries stacked up like planes at Reagan airport, the House Ethics Committee still has yet to start work.

And CAFTA remains a work in progress.  China trade legislation is expected to be dealt with first, in an effort by the House GOP leadership to win more votes for CAFTA.  Between that legislation and more hearings on a Chinese oil company's effort to buy US-based Unocal, this week is likely to bring more China-bashing on the Hill.

The White House continues to stay mum on China in general, but may be sending a signal about courting India to counter China's growing international influence by welcoming the Prime Minister of India to the White House this morning.  The Bushes receive Prime Minister Singh and his wife at 9:00 am, after which the two leaders meet, then hold a joint press avail at 11:15 am.  There's also an "official" dinner this evening, only the fifth big formal dinner of Bush's presidency.  The Indian PM addresses a joint meeting of Congress tomorrow.

Matt Cooper reported in Time magazine on Sunday that Karl Rove was the first to tell him that Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, and that Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby was the second.  Neither gave Cooper her name.  Still TBD is whether either one broke the law.  Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, meanwhile, kept up the "best defense is offense" strategy on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday by calling on some Democrats to apologize for "smearing" Rove, while former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta pointed out that regardless of whether or not laws were broken, the White House didn't tell the truth about Rove not being involved.

Having already profiled several potential SCOTUS nominees, First Read examines possible pick Edith Jones of the 5th Circuit.  If Laura Bush gets her way and her husband selects a woman to replace O'Connor, Jones could be it.  NBC's Chris Donovan profiles Jones below.

And Hillary Clinton and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings address the National Council of La Raza conference in Philadelphia today; Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and the two chairs of the national party committees address the conference tomorrow.

Ethics
Matt Cooper's first-person Time magazine account.

The Chicago Tribune on Libby: “Although it has been known that reporters had spoken to Libby, it was unknown what Libby had said.  His conversation with Cooper is the first indication that Libby was aware of Plame's role in her husband's trip to Africa.  When Cooper asked if Libby knew of that, Libby said he had heard that as well, the article said.”

The Los Angeles Times spotlights how "intensely focused" top Bush and Cheney aides were on "discrediting" Wilson: "Although lower-level White House staffers typically handle most contacts with the media, Rove and Libby began personally communicating with reporters about Wilson...  A source directly familiar with information provided to prosecutors said Rove's interest was so strong that it prompted questions in the White House...  Rove reportedly responded: 'He's a Democrat.'"

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein notes, as First Read has, how disciplined the GOP has been in defending Rove and not letting any concerns show, and how uniform Bush's support has been from Republican voters, a testimony to the kind of party that Rove has helped build.

The Sunday Washington Post sums up the remaining questions in the Plame investigation: "Prosecutors are trying to determine if White House officials shared information about Plame based on [a] State Department memo, or from conversation with reporters, as Rove has testified, or somewhere else.  If it turns out Plame's identity was learned from the memo, it would undermine the GOP defense that Rove and other administration officials were simply discussing information they had learned from reporters...  Did the White House leak the identity of a CIA operative?  Is it a crime?  Did Bush have any knowledge of it?  Will Fitzgerald have spent this much time pressuring officials and reporters and not deliver an indictment?"

The Wall Street Journal also offers a Q&A about the case.

Cunningham follow-up: Roll Call notes that GOP Rep. Randy Cunningham's announcement that he'll retire at the end of this term has sparked "a debate among legal experts over whether lawmakers under investigation are better served staying in office or leaving to mount their defenses as private citizens."  Also, despite the fact that Cunningham is under federal investigation for his ties to a defense contractor, the paper notes that for now, he will retain his seats on key defense committees -- and his national security clearance.

Last Friday night, after East Coasters had left the office but in time for West Coast updates of the network evening newscasts, Schwarzenegger announced he would sever his financial ties to American Media, the magazine group with whom he had contracted to offer strategic and promotional help for as much as $8 million over five years.  Still, there’s lingering criticism that Schwarzenegger broke one of his promises when he took office: that his Administration would set a new standard for openness, says the Sacramento Bee.

SCOTUS greatest hits
Amidst many newspaper accounts of how surprised many in GOP circles are about how long Bush is taking to announce his pick, the Washington Post reports that "the White House signaled allies over the weekend to be prepared for a nomination this week." 

The New York Times offers some of the latest revelations from the White House in Bush’s search for a nominee: that Bush is interested in picking a conservative woman (perhaps Edith Jones or Edith Clement); that the other finalists seem to be J. Michael Luttig, John Roberts, and J. Harvie Wilkinson III; and that Bush will likely make his pick in late July, before he leaves for his five-week stay at his Texas ranch.

Roll Call notes, as others have, that if the White House stays mum beyond Thursday, it will "go down as the longest a Republican president has taken to announce a high court nomination since 1971."

The Washington Times says conservatives are charging that "Democrats are floating candidates who they consider acceptable Supreme Court nominees primarily to ensure that they can complain later about not 'really' being consulted by President Bush when none are selected...  Not so, say Democrats."

Sunday's Boston Globe looks at liberal lion Ted Kennedy's history with judicial nominations, now that Harry Reid has made Kennedy the Democrats' "point person for strategy," and notes that Kennedy is one of 44 senators who has previously cast a vote for a SCOTUS nominee, and is "the longest-serving member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in history..."

Saturday's Raleigh News & Observer runs an op-ed by John Edwards, who asserts that Democrats "can force the administration to do the right thing: nominate a person who will uphold the Constitution and win broad, bipartisan approval."

In a Roll Call op-ed, a former general counsel and staff director on the Senate Judiciary Committee offers do's and don'ts for US senators in questioning a nominee, arguing that the correct approach is for senators to "seek philosophical particularity," and for the nominee to engage "in a real dialogue on the critical issues of the day - a national conversation, if you will."

Where's the Gang of 14? you might ask.  NBC's Ken Strickland's answer is that the gang's moment in the SCOTUS confirmation process has yet to come.  The Gang renewed their bond last Thursday, with all members still on the same page, Strickland notes.  But they don't see themselves as players yet, and all pretty much concur that they won't become players until some problem arises for the nominee.  They don't want to be seen as working on a parallel track with the Senate leadership, and they definitely don't want to get into defining right now what "extreme circumstances" might cause them to disband.  Per Strickland, these guys consider themselves to be the SWAT team for when the nominee faces a potential filibuster.  Most of them are hoping for a consensus nominee -- and that they'll never be called into action.

The Edith Jones file
Edith Hollan Jones, 56, currently sits on the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. After earning her undergraduate degree from Cornell, Jones went to the University of Texas Law School, where she graduated with honors and met her husband.  She then went into private practice at Andrews Kurth in Houston and became the firm’s first woman partner in 1982.  Reagan nominated Jones to the 5th Circuit in 1984, and the Senate confirmed her a year later after a 10-minute hearing.  She received a "qualified" rating from the American Bar Association, and recently noted that at the time, no Democrats raised objections to her nomination.

This isn't the first time Jones has been mentioned as a possible SCOTUS nominee.  In 1990, Bush 41 narrowed his short list to Jones and David Souter.  Bush went with Souter, and afterward, then-chief of staff John Sununu predicted that Souter would be a “home run” for conservatives.  Sununu also reportedly said that Jones -- whom many conservatives favored -- “starts next time at the top of the stack.”  But in 1991, Bush once again passed over Jones and went instead with Clarence Thomas.  Like her parents, both Republican activists, Jones has done her share of work for the GOP, serving as general counsel to the party in Texas.

Jones described her judicial philosophy this way in a 2001 interview with The Houston Lawyer: “The federal judiciary has an important but ultimately limited role in society.  I favor legislative authority over judiciary authority.”  She is a strong defender of the death penalty.  In the infamous “sleeping lawyer” case that made national headlines, she sided in a majority opinion (later overturned) against the lawyer’s client, Calvin Burdine, that argued, "We cannot determine whether” the lawyer in the capital case “slept during a critical stage” of the trial.  In a 1990 law review article, Jones laid out suggestions to lessen delays in Texas capital punishment procedures, including a schedule that would set four to six executions per month.  In one case, Jones complained to a defense attorney that his last-minute motion was causing her to miss her son’s birthday, a comment which got some press.  She then wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times to defend her actions, saying that the motion was without merit and that the defendant was executed that night.

On abortion, Jones wrote a 2004 opinion criticizing Roe, arguing that the Supreme Court should be able to review new information about the harm of abortions.  If Bush selects her, she also may face questions about a 1999 law review article she wrote, entitled “The Nature of Man According to the Supreme Court,” which criticized several Court decisions on social issues, including pornography, the “coarsening of speech,” family relations, the institution of marriage, and the constitutional rights of children.  The key line in this article might be in the final graph, where she says that optimism that reform can be accomplished “lies in the capacity of the Supreme Court to reconsider its decisions."  She has been a vocal critic of the confirmation process for George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, comparing recent hearings to McCarthy's.

The liberal People for the American Way has already registered the Web site www.stopjones.com.  Jones has a sense of humor: Some liberal critics have dubbed her the “Darth Vader of the 5th Circuit,” to which Jones replied in 1991, “At least they could get the sex right and call me Lady MacBeth.”

China politics
A decision from the Unocal board on whether or not to continue entertaining the Chinese bid could come within the next few days, says the Wall Street Journal.

As the Administration stays mum on the CNOOC effort to buy US-based Unocal, there are rumblings that they're basically playing catch-up on their China policy.  From the Sunday Los Angeles Times' lengthy spread on China's quest for energy: "Before the Unocal bid, Beijing's activities had attracted relatively little attention from a U.S. administration focused on Iraq, Washington's war on terrorism and other foreign policy priorities.  'We're still trying to get a handle on what's happened on our watch,' said a senior State Department official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.  'More work needs to be done on this.'"

The governors
The Des Moines Register looks at some of the health care issues the governors tried to tackle at the National Governors Association conference over the weekend.

The AP notes that the governors' "concerns about Medicare centered on a relatively small portion of Bush's huge new drug prescription policy that would affect elderly who are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid and old enough to qualify for Medicare...  Governors have long argued that the federal government should pay the costs of that group, which are significantly higher per person than for the rest of the Medicaid population."

Sunday's Des Moines Register writes up how GOP Gov. George Pataki met with Iowans and said that running for president is something he's thought about.

Today's Des Moines Register points out that some Democratic governors who may seek the party's nomination in 2008 nevertheless tried to avoid stepping on the toes of Iowa's governor, Tom Vilsack.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, GOP Gov. Mitt Romney downplayed any media "hyperventilation" over his Iowa schedule.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

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