“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, September 12, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
With a schedule that kicked off last Friday, the White House appears to be taking a two-pronged approach to boost itself out of this latest and most serious political funk yet: 1) by tying together Hurricane Katrina, September 11, and the greater war against terror, and 2) by reaffirming President Bush's world-leader credentials.  Having observed the fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in various ways from Friday through yesterday, Bush visits New Orleans and Gulfport, MS today, then meets with the Iraqi president tomorrow before heading to the United Nations, where he addresses the General Assembly on Wednesday morning.

  1. Other political news of note
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Regarding 1), the question is whether the opposite is happening -- whether Bush and his Administration's perceived slow response to Katrina is infecting public's view of the war in Iraq, the war against terror, and the Administration's ability to handle a crisis.  Senate and House committee begin hearings this week into what happened with the response.  Polls released by Time and Newsweek both show Bush with his lowest approval rating yet in those surveys.  One of your co-authors traveled to battleground Ohio this weekend to see the Texas Longhorns beat Ohio State and, still reveling in the win on Sunday, came across a Columbus Dispatch poll showing that Bush’s approval rating in the Columbus area has sunk to 41%.  Support for his handling of Iraq has declined to 37%, though this may be due more to Ohio's recent heavy casualties there.

And regarding 2), Bush heads to the UN amidst international media coverage suggesting that some foreign leaders may view him as the politically diminished leader of a country that, despite Bush's insistence to the contrary, cannot take care of its own.  Also, there will be available points of comparison for Bush's handling of the hurricane aftermath and his approach to foreign policy: Rudy Giuliani, lionized for his handling of September 11, keynotes the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America convention in New York late this afternoon, and on Thursday, former President Clinton kicks off a summit including hundreds of heads of state and CEOs in what Clinton aides describe as an effort to solve some global problems -- but in what others may interpret as a deliberate contrast to Bush's foreign policy.

In Washington, the post-Katrina scramble shares the lead this week with the confirmation hearings of -- barring some unforeseen development -- the next US Supreme Court chief justice.  John Roberts faces the Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes some of the more outspoken members of each party's ranks, today at 12 noon.  Today's session takes place in the historic but media-unfriendly Russell Senate Caucus Room; the rest of the hearings will be held in Hart 216.

Indeed, Katrina may even rear her head in some Democrats' questioning of Roberts over the courts' approach to minorities and the poor.  On abortion, we already know that Judiciary chair Arlen Specter, a pro-choice Republican, does not intend to ask Roberts whether he would overturn Roe v. Wade in hopes of communicating to other committee members that Specter doesn't think such questions are appropriate, though he does plan to ask Roberts whether he believes there's a constitutional right to privacy.

NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the hearings will likely end on Thursday and that, under the scheduling agreement, the committee will vote out the nomination one week from tomorrow.  If committee Democrats engage in any delaying tactics, Strickland says, September 26 is the scheduled back-up date.  Senate Majority Bill Frist has said that the floor debate will start no later the week of the 26th, and the confirmation vote by the full Senate will happen no later the September 30.

Today, Senate Judiciary members make 10-minute opening statements; both statements and the questioning of Roberts happen in order of seniority, with Republicans going first.  After the opening statements, Roberts gets sworn in and then makes his statement, for which he has 15 minutes.  White House officials have said that Roberts may choose to speak extemporaneously rather than make formal remarks.  Questioning begins tomorrow.  The American Bar Association and representatives of 30 outside groups, 15 per side, will testify on Thursday.

Hurricane politics: The Bush administration
The Wall Street Journal says the Administration "is importing many of the contracting practices blamed for spending abuses in Iraq as it begins" the Gulf Coast rebuild.  "The first large-scale contracts related to Hurricane Katrina, as in Iraq, were awarded without competitive bidding, and using so-called cost-plus provisions that guarantee contractors a certain profit regardless of how much they spend."  In addition to bipartisan calls for a new government agency to oversee the rebuild, there are also questions about whether FEMA "is capable of effectively disbursing tens of billions of dollars."

If you're wondering how FEMA chief Michael Brown made it through his confirmation hearings, he didn't actually face confirmation hearings due to the government's reorganization of FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security, as NBC's Chris Donovan points out.

The New York Post covers the latest development in the spat between the White House and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.  The day Katrina first hit, “Blanco called the White House demanding to speak to the president.  When told he couldn't be found, she asked for Card and was again rebuffed, according to Time magazine.  Blanco left a message with a Homeland Security official, but had to make yet another call several hours later before finally speaking to the commander-in-chief, the magazine said.”

Right before the evening newscasts on Friday, the Administration announced it was making changes to the $2,000 debit-card program for evacuees that had so recently been touted by President Bush.  USA Today covers the changes to the program and how the money will now be dispensed, Q&A-style.

The Washington Post says "Katrina has thrust the twin issues of race and poverty at President Bush, who faces steep challenges in dealing with both because of a domestic agenda that envisions deep cuts in long-standing anti-poverty programs and relationships with many black leaders frayed by years of mutual suspicion."  The story notes Bush's acrimonious history with the NAACP, and RNC chair Ken Mehlman's efforts to reach out to African-Americans in the months before the hurricane hit.

Channeling First Read, the New York Times also explores whether the Administration’s slow initial response to Katrina damaged the GOP’s effort to woo African-American voters.

The Washington Times quotes a Republican political consultant "who has known the Bush family for decades" saying that "the perception that the federal government failed miserably to react quickly enough to the crisis puts the Republican control of Congress at risk next year."  He also said "the Democratic message of incompetence in the Bush administration during this disaster resonates with the public, and it is impossible for the Democrats... to overplay their hand."  A "senior Republican congressional aide" dismisses that suggestion, but notes that "the volatile political situation has the potential to hurt Republicans... if the party's leaders lose emotional control."

The Sunday Washington Post speculated on Katrina's political impact: "With the popularity of Congress and President Bush sagging before the crisis, many officials said Bush and lawmakers made their situation worse by... digressing into political warfare."  And: "GOP congressional leaders, concerned about a backlash to the massive spending ahead and the president's performance over the past 10 days, are lobbying Bush to lay out a long-term vision that would be announced in an address to the nation..."

Hurricane economics
"Some Wall Street strategists and investors are puzzled by U.S. stocks' two-week advance since Hurricane Katrina.  They said the rally may end as the storm's toll on the economy outweighs a potential pause in the Federal Reserve's interest-rate increases," Bloomberg reports.

"The estimated claims costs for property-casualty insurance companies from Hurricane Katrina have soared to as high as $60 billion, heightening the likelihood that some insurers will be hurt by the storm," says the Wall Street Journal.  "Citing 'catastrophic and unparalleled losses,' Standard & Poor's Ratings Services on Friday put the ratings of 10 insurance groups on watch for possible downgrade."

Delta "is expected to file for bankruptcy-court protection as early as this week," the Journal also reports.  The airline has been struggling financially for years, but surging oil prices exacerbated its problems.

Hurricane politics: The agenda
NBC's Chip Reid points out that Republicans are now pushing various forms of deregulation, arguing that the hurricane's aftermath requires it.  Examples: drilling for oil and natural gas in currently protected parts of the Gulf Coast; drilling for oil in ANWR; a further suspension of fuel standards beyond the current timeframe; and suspending regulations that slow the process of getting refineries online.  Bush already temporarily suspended the Davis-Bacon law requiring that government pay workers the prevailing wage.  Democrats, not to be outdone, are also using Katrina to push their long-term agenda, calling for: higher vehicle mileage requirements; a new tax on oil company windfall profits; a higher minimum wage; a government crackdown on gasoline price-gouging; and massive long-term government spending programs.

The AP looks at how Katrina is renewing the energy debate.  "Just over a month after President Bush signed into law a massive energy bill, lawmakers are talking about the need for a second one.  If it emerges from Congress, it will carry the stamp of Katrina and the vulnerabilities the storm exposed to the nation's energy system."

As one eagle-eyed lobbyist advises his clients, "Medicaid cuts may prove to be the first test of the" extent of the reordering of Congress' priorities.  "Earlier this year, Congress instructed its committees to reduce Medicaid spending $10 billion by late September.  Congressional leaders" have decided to delay the budget reconciliation process "that implements the cuts, and some lawmakers ­ mostly Democrats, but including two key Republicans ­ suggested abandoning the Medicaid reductions entirely.  If the Medicaid reductions are forsaken, the reordering will place spending restraint at a lower priority than it was before Katrina hit."

Bloomberg reports that "U.S. lawmakers are poised for a fight over renewing two dozen expiring tax provisions -- including a 15 percent rate on dividends -- that seemed certain to win passage before the recovery costs for Hurricane Katrina exploded...  Among the tax cuts competing for inclusion in a $70 billion package are a research credit worth $5 billion annually to companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Co. and a temporary measure limiting the reach of the alternative minimum tax."  Also, "Republicans... say renewing the dividend tax cut will stabilize the national economy."

The Los Angeles Times, writing from battleground New Mexico, says that the hurricane may have only exacerbated the nation's political divide.  Still, in talking with voters, the paper found "some areas of bipartisan consensus.  Tax cuts, for one...  Of more than three dozen people interviewed, only a handful favored cutting taxes at this time."

The presidential commission on tax reform has opted to put off issuing its recommendations to the White House, which it had been scheduled to do in late September.  Per economic research firm International Strategy & Investment, "If the panel doesn't make a recommendation by Thanksgiving, it means the White House believes the agenda is too crowded to push for tax reform in 2006."

Hurricane politics: Congress and spending
Roll Call reports that House Government Reform Committee chair Tom Davis is proceeding with his planned hearings into what went wrong despite congressional leaders'' insistence on a bipartisan, bicameral committee investigation.  Davis is scheduled to hold his first hearing on Thursday.

John Kerry is flying to the region today with supplies donated by Boston area businesses, reports the Boston Herald.

USA Today hears a growing note of caution among lawmakers and government officials about the rush to spend.

Merrill Lynch told its investor clients on Friday: "Katrina has now become a great valve for Congress to spend gobs of dough, keep the economy alive and save their re-election prospects in Nov/06 - we don't mind saying that for politicians, this must be like manna from heaven.  Who in their right mind is going to complain about the fiscal spigots being turned on in this case (as if anyone did in all the pork that went into the highway spending bill)."

The Roberts (re-)nomination
"Liberal groups plan to gather outside the Senate to oppose the Roberts nomination starting at 5:30 a.m.  By 7:30 a.m., nine women calling themselves 'Roe Rangers' and donning black robes with gavels will be picketing outside the Supreme Court in support of Roe v. Wade."  The women are among those protesting Roberts on behalf of Planned Parenthood.  "At 10 a.m., Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, will gather with several conservative leaders outside the Russell Senate Office Building for a press conference in favor of Judge Roberts' confirmation."  - Washington Times

The Boston Globe looks at how the slow response and weak attacks on Roberts by liberal groups may have increased the momentum with which he heads into the hearings.

The Dallas Morning News notes that Senate aides on both sides think "Hurricane Katrina improves Judge Roberts' chances, dominating news coverage and making it hard for liberal groups to get much traction for their protests.  Some Democratic supporters said this might not be the right time for a political fight over the high court."

The New York Times: “Democrats, who were already planning to press Judge Roberts on civil rights, are likely to be even more aggressive on that front, citing the racial divisions exposed by the hurricane.  But they must be careful not to push too hard, some political analysts say, because the suffering on the Gulf Coast has left the public with little appetite for a partisan slugfest.”

"Analysts from both parties say the Judiciary Committee's toughest questions -- and Roberts's likeliest risk of a slip -- will center on a few issues that have dominated liberal-conservative judicial debates for years," such as "the balance of power between Congress, the executive branch and the courts," along with "abortion rights, voting rights and questions of balancing environmental protections against jobs and property development."  - Washington Post

Former US Solicitor General Ted Olson defends the Administration's refusal to release documents from Roberts' time in that office, noting that the memos "may even contain assessments of the justices with whom he may soon be serving.  Failure to protect the integrity of these materials will not only damage the public interest in top-flight government lawyering, but will forever inhibit future officials from frank internal assessments of litigation strategy."

The Los Angeles Times notes how a "skillful, persuasive chief justice could use" the opportunity to speak first and lead private discussions "to shape the issues to be decided.  The chief justice also takes the first crack at choosing cases for the high court to consider among the hundreds of appeals that arrive each month."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein suggests that Bush might want to nominate a Democrat to fill O'Connor's seat.

But Bob Novak says the frontrunner to replace O’Connor might be Priscilla Owen.  “According to White House sources, Bush met secretly with Owen last week.  While not decisive evidence, this was no mere get-acquainted session beginning a long exploration.  He knows and admires his fellow Texas Republican.”

Ethics
Newsweek wondered yesterday whether Tom DeLay has "dodged a bullet."  A PAC he founded was just indicted without his getting mentioned, "and Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's two-year campaign-fund-raising probe is expected to wind down soon without bringing charges against" him.  "Earle doesn't plan to refer evidence to the prosecutor in DeLay's home district either, an Earle spokesman says."

"Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who recently became the target of a federal investigation, has established a legal defense fund in his name," Roll Call reports.  "Jefferson came under intense media scrutiny after his New Orleans and Washington homes, office and vehicle were the subject of FBI raids early last month.  So far, the FBI has declined to comment on the nature of its searches or the investigation."

Caulifornia
Roll Call reported last week that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is expected to announce he’s running for re-election, and the Sacramento Bee notes that announcement could come this Friday at an “Ask Arnold” town hall meeting in Southern California.  “That gives the Republican governor a big news splash across the state Saturday, the same day he's scheduled to speak at the state GOP convention in Anaheim.”

On Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle examined Schwarzenegger’s sagging popularity.  “‘The governor must still convince independents and moderates that he is as he seemed to be last year... a figure in Sacramento who stood for solutions and an end to partisan bickering, who put the people's interests first,'’ said Mark Baldassare, pollster for the Public Policy Institute of California.  It won't be an easy job: With little more than a year to go before the November 2006 election, the latest polls show the governor's approval rate at less than 40 percent.  Even fewer voters said they are inclined to re-elect him.”

2005 and 2006
Roll Call weighs how much the current majority party's outlook resembles that of the then-majority Democrats before the 2004 tsunami election.  Answer: somewhat, but any hints that Democrats "could be poised to gain seats in 2006, and to what magnitude, remains a political lifetime away."

Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg contemplates the chances of a six-year itch election.

Republican Jerry Kilgore leads Democrat Tim Kaine in the Virginia gubernatorial race by 4 points among registered voters and by 7 points among likely voters in the latest Washington Post poll.  Democratic Gov. Mark Warner's 76% job approval isn't translating to Kaine.  Kilgore "appears to be benefiting from the state's Republican tilt, even as President Bush and the national party struggle...  But the poll also indicates that Kilgore has not succeeded in portraying Kaine as a liberal."

The Richmond Times-Dispatch took a look yesterday at the all in the money involved in the race, noting that the two major-party candidates "have already raised well more than $22 million combined and could spend up to $50 million on the Nov. 8 election.  Independent H. Russell Potts Jr. has estimated he could collect $5 million.”

Turning to New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, a new Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll shows that Jon Corzine’s (D) lead over Doug Forrester has grown to 20 points among registered voters (48%-28%), and to 18 points among likely voters (49%-31%).  “A similar poll just after Forrester won the GOP nomination in the June 7 primary gave Corzine a 10-point edge.  The Democratic U.S. senator's evident surge comes at a time when the Republican administration in Washington is under heavy criticism for its handling of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina."

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