updated 7/27/2005 9:19:26 AM ET 2005-07-27T13:19:26

“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.

First glance
The Architect couldn't have planned it any better: Two of the Democratic Party's staunchest constituencies and organizers of its biggest get-out-the-vote operations are facing questions about their relevancy.  But Karl Rove has little to do with the position in which the pro-choice community and organized labor find themselves this week.  The blows are the result of friendly fire.

  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

First, Senate Democrats seem reluctant to engage Supreme Court nominee John Roberts -- and the GOP army amassed behind him -- in a debate over abortion despite Roberts' unclear position on Roe v. Wade and majority support in the polls for preserving the law.  The pro-choice community is now trying to decide whether and how to wage that battle on their own, while high-profile party officials like DNC chair Howard Dean (didn't the DNC chair used to be charged with firing up the party base?) focus instead on blurring the lines with Republicans on abortion.  Dean said as recently as Friday, before the College Democrats, that the party needs to "redefine" its stance on abortion.

Second, the AFL-CIO, whose members are gathering for their convention in Chicago this week, is breaking up due to disputes over how best to organize and attract new members.  The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, the AFL's largest member union, are quitting the organization; SEIU chief Andy Stern is expected to make an announcement at 2:00 pm ET.  But the split may not end there: The United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite-Here are joining the SEIU and Teamsters in boycotting the Chicago confab, and a handful of other unions have joined these four in forming a new labor coalition.

Meanwhile, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council meets today in Columbus, OH.  The DLC has served the party as an idea factory, helping to position Bill Clinton to win swing voters in the 1990s.  But it has no ground operation to physically deliver votes for the party as choice and labor groups have.  Nevertheless, today DLC members get courted by four potential presidential candidates: Evan Bayh, Tom Vilsack, Hillary Clinton, and Mark Warner, who speak at 10:30 am, 11:30 am, 12:15 pm, and 1:00 pm, respectively.  Bayh will hand off the DLC chairmanship to Vilsack, and a DLC source tells First Read that Clinton will accept a new leadership role with the organization.

We should note that there, but for the presidency, go Republicans.  Nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook points out how the Administration is having to negotiate the demands of its conservative base.  "Look at how the right reacted to" the prospect of President Bush nominating AG Alberto Gonzales to the Supreme Court, vocally objecting to the President's old friend.  Cook notes that Bush was able to "smack them and tell them to shut up and sit down, something that Democrats don't have."  The White House also has spent time reassuring conservatives that Roberts isn't another Kennedy or Souter.

Staying off the SCOTUS playing field, Democrats in Washington continue to focus on Rove and Scooter Libby's roles in the Plame leak controversy, a timely debate given Bush's sinking credibility in recent polls, and a very personal debate for Democrats itching to take down the architect of Bush's successes.  But at this point, it's not a debate that helps define for voters what the Democratic party stands for.

Bush today has another event (the first being his SCOTUS announcement) that may have been scheduled with an eye toward making him look presidential at a time when his White House is under fire: He and Laura Bush visit the Gilbert Stuart exhibit at the National Gallery of Art at 9:35 am.  Bush then meets with African-American leaders at the White House at 1:15 pm.  Vice President Cheney headlines two fundraisers for GOP House members today in Pittsburgh at 12:30 pm and on Staten Island at 6:30 pm.

And Congress embarks on its final week before recessing until September 6.  The House faces, among other items, a close vote on CAFTA, a vote on the energy bill, and possible confirmation of Rep. Chris Cox as SEC chief.  In the Senate, NBC's Ken Strickland reports that with Roberts off to a smooth start, Bill Frist plans to squeeze in some pet bills for GOP constituencies, such as the NRA-backed gunmakers' liability bill, and a final vote on the permanent repeal of the "death" or estate tax.  Meanwhile, a vote to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research looks less likely.

The Roberts nomination
NBC's Strickland says that Roberts will continue to make the rounds among Judiciary Committee members this week.  He has yet to meet with Senators Brownback and Coburn, both staunch conservatives who may have their own concerns on whether Roberts position of abortion is strong enough.

The Washington Post reports that "Democrats plan to challenge [Roberts] on economic, social and regulatory issues, hoping to use the confirmation process to highlight their differences with the Republicans and exploit them for future electoral gains.  The emerging Democratic strategy... seeks to turn Bush's request for an orderly and deliberative confirmation process into a go-slow approach..."

USA Today sums up the brewing dispute over documents: "The Bush administration does not plan to turn over all the documents written by... Roberts while he was a federal official, a White House adviser said Sunday, citing privacy concerns and precedent."  Democrats have yet to formally request all the documents, but take issue with the White House's position.  "White House refusal to turn over documents involving State Department official John Bolton is a key reason for Democratic opposition to his still-pending nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations," the story points out.  "But while Bolton's combative personality has earned him critics..., Roberts' résumé and small-town Indiana roots have played well."

"The documents issue is emerging as the biggest potential stumbling block to an easy confirmation for Roberts in the Senate," the Boston Globe says.

Bob Novak writes that Republicans are stressing that the “Ginsberg Standard” -- the various kinds of questions Ruth Bader Ginsberg would not answer during her 1993 hearings -- should be applied to Roberts.

The Washington Post reports that although Roberts "has repeatedly said that he has no memory of belonging to the Federalist Society,... his name appears in the influential, conservative legal organization's 1997-1998 leadership directory."  The story notes how White House officials have taken pains to correct news organizations that have reported his membership in the society.  A law professor says that what matters is whether or not there was "'intellectual immersion.'"

The Post also offers the most detailed look yet at how Bush settled on Roberts, rather than on Edith Brown Clement or another pick.  The story notes that "the president and his aides were shocked when conservatives launched a concerted assault on Gonzales for being too moderate."

Saturday's Des Moines Register reported that a group of Iowa Republican calling themselves "Iowa for Judge Roberts" are cautioning potential presidential candidates like Senators McCain, Hagel and Graham that "that defying the president could cost them in the Iowa caucuses."

The Boston Globe looks at how some liberal groups are reserving their firepower, and notes that "fractures among organizations that have traditionally been allied with Democrats could ease the way for the GOP-controlled Senate to confirm Roberts."

The New York Daily News reports that key Democratic senators like Sen. Chuck Schumer have "softened their tone toward the Supreme Court nominee, yet another indication his confirmation looks like a slam-dunk."

And the Chicago Tribune profiles Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter and his role in the upcoming hearings.

"Questions about the outcome of a federal probe into the leaking of a CIA agent's identity could linger into the fall, creating a long stretch of uncertainty for President Bush and his team on a sensitive topic," says the Wall Street Journal.  "There is no sign Mr. Bush himself has sustained much damage yet, and thus far, the complications for the White House aren't great.  But Democrats are sure to try to use the time to sow doubts about the president's team and erode his public support, already damaged by the conflict in Iraq and high gasoline prices."

The Washington Post wraps up AG Alberto Gonzales' Sunday-show comments about the probe, including that he gave White House chief of staff Andy Card word of the investigation about 12 hours before the rest of the staff:

Newsweek reported yesterday on the significance of Libby's testimony about his conversation with NBC's Tim Russert, vis-à-vis Russert's.  "An NBC statement last year said Russert did not know of Plame, wife of ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, or that she worked at the CIA, and 'he did not provide that information to Libby.'  This now appears significant: in pursuing Russert's testimony, Fitzgerald was testing statements by White House aides -- reportedly including Libby -- that they learned about Wilson's wife from reporters, not classified documents.  Libby's lawyer did not respond to requests for comment."

The New York Daily News notes that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is yet another prominent Democrat to argue that at least temporarily Rove's should lose his security clearance.

In his mostly red-meat address to the College Democrats on Friday, DNC chair Howard Dean called on Bush to fire Rove, questioning whether the President has the "guts" to keep his word.  "I challenge you, Mr. President: keep your word," Dean said.  "That person out not to be serving in the United State government.  He ought not to be serving, Mr. President, in your government and you outta keep your word and do something about it," he added.

The Washington Post says Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold's proposal to rescind "the Capitol-roving privileges that legislators-turned-lobbyists enjoy...  doesn't stand much chance of passing at present.  Absent some new lobbying scandal Congress will probably... allow things to stay as they are.  The reason is pure self-interest.  With each new election, more and more lawmakers retire early to join the lobbying ranks.  So why would they throw away a commercial advantage?"

The Democrats
Starting today, AFL-CIO delegates from across the country gather in Chicago for a convention marking the 50th anniversary of the merger between the AFL and CIO.  Current president John Sweeney is running unopposed for another term.  At the same time, the House of Labor is splitting into two.  As noted above, the SEIU is bolting, as is the Teamsters, and an additional pack of unions also may quit.  The dissidents argue that the AFL isn't devoting enough resources to organizing new members.  AFL officials counter that the split would devastate the already damaged organization.

What cannot be argued is that labor has lost two straight presidential elections and has seen its membership decline; only 12.5% of all salaried workers belong to a union now, compared to 12.9% in 2003, and 20.1% in 1983.  Labor is probably a casualty of all current economic dynamics -- the bumpy economy, high gas prices, struggling automakers, globalization (both outsourcing and trade), and immigration.  The Merrill Lynch research department wrote to clients last week: "...[F]or the first time in our professional lives, we have global arbitrage in cheap labor.  Full stop...  As it is, this still goes down as the most sluggish U.S. employment cycle ever recorded.  But jobs are being created-in low-cost locales like China (finished goods manufacturing) and India (software, biotech, engineering) where we estimate that employment is rising 18 million annually or about the equivalent of 6 years worth of nonfarm payrolls in the USA."

Addressing the convention today: Sweeney, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, John Edwards, and Harry Reid.  Tomorrow, Jesse Jackson, Arlen Specter (by video), and Gov. Rod Blagojevich speak at the confab.  On Wednesday, delegates will hear an anti-Wal-Mart presentation.  And on Thursday, the AFL-CIO will re-elect Sweeney.

The AP: "The boycott" of the convention "means the unions will not pay $7 million in back dues to the AFL-CIO on Monday.  If all four boycotting unions quit the federation, they would take about $35 million from the AFL-CIO, which has already been forced to layoff a quarter of its 400-person staff."

The New York Times: “A rift could hurt the labor movement badly by redirecting its focus and energies to internal battles instead of bedrock issues like fighting for wage increases and extending health care to more workers.  Democrats, a traditional ally of organized labor, are especially worried that a schism might hurt their party's chances by making labor a less potent political force.”

Democrats may be seeking to hang Karl Rove around Bush's neck, but they missed a big chance to try that last Friday.  Hill Democrats staged an informal "hearing" on the national security implications of leaking a CIA officer's identity.  With no Republicans participating, the event was neither bipartisan nor official, but a political stunt designed to direct attention to Rove and Libby's roles in the Plame leak.  But when Karen Hughes appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for her confirmation hearing, not a single Senate Democrat (members include Biden, Boxer, Dodd and Kerry, whom aides say had a scheduling conflict) showed up to take the opportunity to question Hughes, while under oath, about Rove and Libby.

It's the economy
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein writes about the re-emergence of "economic nationalists," who "insist the U.S. needs a more confrontational trade policy, and a more activist government economic strategy, to promote and protect high-paying American jobs."

Bloomberg.com writes that US economic policy in the Greenspan era "has changed the way Americans handle their finances" by encouraging them to spend more and save less.  "Fed officials including Greenspan already are stepping up warnings that households and the markets financing them may have been lulled into a false belief that asset gains and moderate business cycles are guaranteed."

The Bush agenda
The Wall Street Journal says the White House continues to "scour" the House for votes for CAFTA.

House and Senate negotiators have dropped a plan to protect producers of the gasoline additive MTBE from the energy bill, which moves that legislation closer to passage, but other issues remain.  – New York Times

The Washington Times covers the internal GOP dispute over House Republicans' Social Security bill, which doesn't address solvency.  "The White House's top economic adviser last week seemed to rule out" the plan, which "some conservatives" say is the "latest instance of President Bush's undercutting his closest allies on this issue...  White House economic adviser Ben Bernanke said Mr. Bush would insist that any final bill include both accounts and a solvency fix, according to several news reports...  When asked whether a solvency demand was inviolable, Mr. Bernanke said yes."

The Sunday Los Angeles Times suggests that a renewed White House focus on immigration is coming, with an eye toward the midterm elections: "strategists say Bush is planning to make immigration a top priority as soon as this fall..."

And Roll Call says the likely introduction of yet another bill to the stem cell mix, this time by GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, further dooms the chance that the issue will be addressed before Congress departs on Friday, which may well be what Bush prefers.  Arlen Specter has threatened to add his bill, the Senate version of the House-passed bill, to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies spending bill, setting it up for a potential presidential veto.

San Diego voters head to the polls tomorrow for the first stage of what could be a two-stage process toward electing a new mayor.  The crowded race seems likely to boil down to a November runoff, which would leave the city leaderless until then.  Against a backdrop of scandals that resulted in the city losing two mayors within one week, "the leading candidates in Tuesday's special election are depicting themselves as offering change and a fix for the troubled government of a city that is California's second largest and the nation's seventh-largest."  - USA Today

The San Diego Union-Tribune says the race is for second place behind city councilmember and surf shop owner Donna Frye, who nearly won her write-in bid for mayor last November.

A San Francisco Chronicle analysis on Sunday said that Schwarzenegger is looking less like the “Terminator,” and more like Gulliver -- “besieged, tied down, and overrun by his opponents.  And no wonder: After months of campaigning, fund raising and warning of a Nov. 8 special election he insisted was ‘guaranteed,’ the governor's team blinked this week.  Campaign adviser Mike Murphy floated a trial balloon -- most likely to gauge Democratic Party as much as voter reaction -- with Friday's public acknowledgement that Team Schwarzenegger has discussed... dumping the much-heralded special ballot altogether.”

Which would be too bad for supporters of caps on state spending like the one proposed by Schwarzenegger, which the Los Angeles Times says "is emerging as a centerpiece of a nationwide strategy by influential conservatives to slash government spending in state capitals across the country."  A similar initiative is expected to appear on the November ballot in Ohio, and next year, "Maine and Oregon residents probably will vote on similar proposals.  Meanwhile, in Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin, spending cap bills are picking up significant support in legislatures."


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