updated 9/27/2005 9:11:01 AM ET 2005-09-27T13:11:01

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First glance
Former FEMA chief Michael Brown testifies at 10:00 am before the House select committee investigating the government's response to Katrina.  NBC's Mike Viqueira and Norah O'Donnell report that Brown is still on FEMA’s payroll as a consultant.  Brown told committee staffers yesterday that he's working "to provide a review" of Katrina prep and the immediate aftermath, Viq says.  Viq also advises us to expect that Republicans will be tough on Brown in an effort to prove that the committee hearings are not the "sham" and "whitewash" that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi claims they are.  House Democrats hold a 10:15 am presser to announce their effort to get a floor vote on an independent, September 11-style commission on the Katrina response.

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President Bush heads back to the Gulf Coast, touring the area around Beaumont, TX and Lake Charles, LA.  At a time when Bush is calling on federal agencies and on Americans to conserve energy when possible, the press corps is wrangling with the White House about the traveling Bush himself is doing to and from the region, asking how much gas his motorcade uses and questioning whether all the travel is necessary.  More on this below.

Also in the news today: Bill Frist has spoken; Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean differs with Cindy Sheehan on Bush's handling of the war, a DNC aide tells First Read; Senate leaders have agreed to hold John Roberts' confirmation vote at 11:30 am on Thursday, NBC's Ken Strickland reports; and the executive director of the organization pushing for confirmation of Bush's Supreme Court nominees gives us his thoughts on Bush's next pick.

Sure to come up at today's 1:00 pmPentagon briefing: Bush's proposal to set an automatic trigger at which the job of responding to natural disasters would shift from the Department of Homeland Security to the Pentagon.  White House spokesperson Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday that Bush "talked to senior levels of the military, and they had a good discussion about it."  NBC's Scott Foster reports that so far, per Pentagon officials, Secretary Rumsfeld has not reached any conclusions nor offered any recommendations to change DOD's role in disaster management.  Bush seems to be taking a passive-aggressive approach here, saying Congress should consider the idea but stopping short of exhorting them to act.  Per NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, the White House says it will work with Congress but does not appear ready to send specifics to the Hill.

And at a time when the White House is being criticized by GOP conservatives for spending too freely on hurricane relief without suggesting any offsets, two Republican senators today will propose a constitutional amendment to give the president line-item veto power.  Bush asked for the line-item veto at a news conference last November, not long after his re-election, but the issue hasn't come up on the Hill until now.  Sens. George Allen and Jim Talent announce their amendment at 11:45 am.  Having the proposal out there gives Bush an opportunity to get behind a measure promoting fiscal responsibility -- and one that might help assuage conservatives.  Still, the odds that such an amendment would pass seem long, and NBC's Pete Williams points out that the Supreme Court struck down a statutory line-item veto in 1998.

The promotion of the line-item veto also reminds us that four and a half years into Bush's term, he has yet to veto a bill.  There was some speculation that he would veto the highway bill after the price tag came in above his prescribed limit, but he signed it nevertheless.  Paul Light of NYU tells First Read that "most presidents consciously look for veto bait early, to show they know how to use the pen."  As a result of Bush's refusal to cast a veto, Light suggests that Bush's threats about trimming pork and criticism of wasteful spending "just don't ring true."  "You have to prove that you can do it before they'll take you seriously," he says.  "To do it this late, that's a pretty daunting challenge" for the President.  Light calls the line-item veto "kind of a 'stop us before we kill again' measure."

Other analysts suggest that Bush hasn't cast a veto because he hasn't needed to.  The Washington office of economic research firm International Strategy & Investment wrote to clients recently, "Bush hasn't cast vetoes because he's largely been satisfied with the results of the collaborative process.  His initial preferences may be for smaller government and less spending, but either he doesn't feel that strongly about it to fight his congressional allies or he chooses to spend his political capital elsewhere."

Hurricane politics: The Bush administration
We mentioned above that the White House's own consumption of gas quickly became an issue with the press corps yesterday as the President exhorted Americans to conserve fuel when possible.  Consider last night's pool report about Bush's attendance at a dinner at Rumsfeld's house: "This motorcade was marginally shorter in the SUV category - five - than the one that traveled to the Energy Department today, with six SUVs.  But it was longer in vans, four tonight, compared with three this morning.  Two limos, of course."

The AP notes that Bush's "entourage is designed for speed and the ultimate in security, not for fuel economy, so every movement he makes outside the White House consumes an enormous amount of fuel.  The arrangements are dictated by the Secret Service, whose mission is to protect him... McClellan wouldn't say whether the president was considering shortening his motorcade.”

The New York Times on Bush’s remarks yesterday urging Americans to drive less: “Mr. Bush's comments … were particularly notable because the administration has long emphasized new production over conservation. It has also opted not to impose higher mileage standards on automakers.”

The AP focuses on Bush also calling to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the strong likelihood he will name “a federal czar-like official to oversee Gulf Coast reconstruction.”

The Wall Street Journal says, "In suggesting on Sunday that the military lead in major disasters, Mr. Bush is engaged in a delicate balancing act.  On the one hand, he wants to avoid triggering Americans' deep-seated fears of military interference in daily life.  On the other hand, he is seeking a bigger federal role to improve emergency responses."

The AP got hold of a GOP Hill staffer's summary of Michael Brown's pre-hearing briefing yesterday with Hill aides, providing a preview of what we can expect to hear him say today.  Per the memo, "Brown expressed regrets 'that he did not start screaming for DoD (Department of Defense) involvement' sooner," "took several shots at Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin," "also described Blanco as 'indecisive' and refusing to cede control of the Louisiana National Guard to federal authorities because 'it would have undercut her image politically.'"

USA Today looks at the no-bid contracts being awarded and the potential for fraud and waste, and notes that of the $62.3 billion Congress has allocated for relief, "$15.8 billion had been spent as of last week."

FEMA will use taxpayer funds to reimburse faith-based organizations that have provided shelter, food and supplies to Katrina and Rita victims, marking the first time that "the government has made large-scale payments to religious groups for helping to cope with a domestic natural disaster."  The move raises church-state questions and is drawing criticism from civil liberties groups that the Administration is pandering to conservatives.  – Washington Post

And First Lady Laura Bush will head to Biloxi, MS today to film "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."  "The first lady's spokeswoman, Susan Whitson, said Bush wanted to endorse a conservative message of the show--the private sector doing good work, rather than waiting around for the federal government to do it."  The episode will air in November.  – Chicago Tribune

Hurricane economics, oil, and gas
Bloomberg this morning: "Crude oil fell as refineries in Texas and Louisiana shut to repair damage done by Hurricane Rita, enabling the U.S. to build up stockpiles of crude.  Gasoline futures rose earlier on concern plants affected by Rita will take weeks to start up again.  The storm has shut down almost a quarter of U.S. refining capacity, and another 5 percent remains closed because of Hurricane Katrina.  With refineries not working, demand for crude is declining...  Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, plans to increase output capacity and reserves soon, contrary to expectations the country is running out."

Also: "Consumer confidence probably dropped to the lowest in almost a year this month as gasoline prices surged after Hurricane Katrina, economists said...  The expected confidence reading is the lowest since November, and the drop would be the biggest since February 2003."  Bloomberg attributes the drop to fuel costs.  Also today, Fed chief Alan Greenspan gives a speech on economic flexibility to the National Association of Business Economics.

Meanwhile, Democratic senators hold a 12:30 pm presser to call on the Senate Commerce Committee to investigate charges of gas-price gouging after Katrina.

Hurricane politics: Congress
The Washington Post says GOP Hill leaders' PR blitz to try to assuage conservatives riled up over spending will include "no substantive changes in budget policy...  [T]he wholesale budget cuts envisioned by House conservatives are not being contemplated; the Senate is moving toward approving a temporary expansion of Medicaid for hurricane survivors, estimated to cost $9 billion.  Nor are GOP leaders considering tax increases."  And then there's the fact that Rita hit a "politically sensitive area of Texas..."

NBC's Viq reminds us that this was to be the year that Congress performed its core function of passing spending bills in a timely manner, but Katrina and Rita have laid waste to the goal of getting them done before the start of the new fiscal year.  This week, the House will pass what surely won't be the last stop-gap continuing resolution to keep the government functioning while Congress gets its act together.

Roll Call reminds us that by this weekend, the House "will have already have sailed past its originally scheduled adjournment date...  Only after the House has passed a multibillion-dollar (budget) reconciliation package will the leadership turn its full attention to the second part of the process: cutting taxes."

House Democrats hold an event today to mark the 11th anniversary of the GOP's Contract with America.

Ethics
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist sought to curb critics' and media interest in the two federal investigations into his sale of HCA stock back in June shortly before the stock value dropped.  At a presser yesterday, he basically repeated what his aides have said before: that he sold the stock in an effort to eliminate any conflict-of interest issues during his possible presidential run.  Frist emphasized in his statement that his handling of the stock has been in compliance with Senate ethics rules.  A liberal good-government group nevertheless filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee.

The New York Times’ write-up of the presser notes that Frist announced he first sought legal and ethical advice two months before divesting his shares in HCA in June, when that stock plummeted.

One Democratic strategist raises the question to First Read of why Frist thinks the stock would pose a conflict of interest for him in a presidential run, but hasn't posed one for him during his time as majority leader, when he has been positioned to affect legislation.  In his remarks yesterday, Frist "noted that for years he repeatedly had said his ownership of HCA stock posed no conflict of interest for his Senate duties.  Those statements frequently angered some consumer and victims' rights groups because of the large amount of health care legislation before the Senate, including the Medicare prescription drug plan," says the Washington Post.

Roll Call has details of what did and did not take place with Frist's stock, per blind-trust and other Senate ethics regulations.  "As he walked away from the bank of microphones... Frist was asked whether he had been accurate when he made statements in 2003 that he didn’t know if held any HCA stock.  But [he] declined to comment and headed into the elevator."

SEC chief Chris Cox has recused himself from the SEC probe of the stock sale, The Hill reports, because he contributed to Frist's re-election campaign, setting up the chance for a deadlock among the other four commissioners.

More drip, drip, drip on Jack Abramoff?  The New York Times reports that the Justice Department’s inspector general and the FBI are examining whether a veteran federal prosecutor’s demotion shut down an investigation into Abramoff three years ago.  “Spokesmen for the department in Washington have said there was nothing unusual about the timing of Mr. Black's reassignment in 2002. They said it was appropriate for the Bush administration to want to replace him with a permanent, Senate-confirmed United States attorney.”

SCOTUS politics
Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a group established to help confirm Bush's judicial nominees, tells First Read that he believes Bush will likely nominate a conservative (i.e., no Alberto Gonzales); that the decision will come "sooner rather than later;" and that ideology matters more than diversity.  "The President will go in a conservative direction," Rushton says.  Is it understood that the Attorney General is not on that list?  "Yeah."  Rushton also says the announcement should come shortly after the vote on Roberts, possibly later this week or even over the weekend.  He also says it's possible that the announcement won't come via a primetime address -- that Bush might take a lower-key approach.  Rushton notes that while it would be "nice" if Bush selects a woman or minority, ideology trumps diversity.  "You want to get the judicial philosophy and brilliance first," he says.

The New York Times plays up Bush’s remark yesterday that he is “‘mindful that diversity is one of the strengths of the country,’” as he moves to fill the O’Connor vacancy.  “Bush's comments on diversity and filling a second Supreme Court slot focused new speculation on several women frequently mentioned as contenders.”

The Houston Chronicle: "Conservative Republicans close to the selection process" say Priscilla Owen and Edith Jones are under consideration by Bush.

Judiciary Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy complained in a private meeting last week that he felt "blindsided" by Minority Leader Harry Reid's announcement of his opposition to Roberts, The Hill reports.  "The Reid-Leahy split has opened the door for Democratic defections."

On the same day that floor debate on Roberts’ confirmation began, the Los Angeles Times writes that Bush Administration lawyers asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the first federal law banning a late-term abortion procedure.  “The dispute over this type of procedure - known medically as intact dilation and extraction and called ‘partial-birth abortion’ by critics - amounts to a rerun of a case heard five years ago by the high court. However, the outcome is in doubt this time because the makeup of the court is changing.”  The paper reminds us that O’Connor cast the decisive vote in the original case.

The politics of national security
Less than three weeks before the October 15 referendum on the Iraq constitution, the Washington Post reports, a new study by the International Crisis Group says the constitution and the process by which it was drafted have exacerbated the "divide among Iraq's factions and will likely trigger civil war unless changes are negotiated quickly to accommodate the concerns of Sunni Muslims."  The ICG "calls on the Bush administration to engage in a 'last-ditch, determined effort' to broker a compromise among the country's three largest ethnic and religious groups."

Democratic National Committee spokesperson Josh Earnest tells First Read that party chair Howard Dean met with Cindy Sheehan at the DNC last Saturday, at his invitation.  At the meeting, Dean thanked for Sheehan "for her courage in standing up and speaking out."  Asked if Dean agrees with Sheehan's position on the war, Earnest says Dean "admires her conviction," but "their views on the President's handling of Iraq are not identical."  Dean "appreciates the sacrifices she has made for this country," Earnest adds.

NBC's Libby Leist reports from the Karen Hughes "listening tour" of Muslim nations that there's been little real news thus far and it's hard to tell what impact the tour is having.  There have been some brief clips on Arab news channels and in the newspapers.  But whether anything is occurring on the Arab street is a different story, Leist says.

2005 and 2006
The Change to Win Coalition, the group of dissenting unions who broke away from the AFL-CIO, is holding its founding convention in St. Louis.  The Washington Post profiles Anna Burger, formerly of the SEIU, who has been chosen to run the new coalition.

"With Democrats unsure of how the rifts within organized labor will impact the 2006 elections and beyond, union officials are looking to their campaign against" Schwarzenegger’s initiatives in California’s November 8 special election "to serve as a model for future cooperation," Roll Call says.

The Los Angeles Times notes that if Schwarzenegger’s redistricting initiative passes, the number of competitive races in the state will increase six-fold.  “But redistricting experts caution against expecting a dramatic shake-up of political power… The new districts probably would create competition in 10 congressional districts, seven Assembly districts and eight state Senate districts, according to research released Monday by Claremont McKenna College's Rose Institute of State and Local Government.”

Turning to Virginia’s gubernatorial race, the Richmond Times-Dispatch writes that Gov. Mark Warner (D) has blasted GOP candidate Jerry Kilgore (R) in a fundraising letter.  “Though Kilgore dismissed the Warner letter as political boilerplate, the missive represents a ratcheting-up of the popular governor's role in a campaign viewed as a referendum on him and his policies.”

Howard Dean campaigns with New York mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer at a high school at 4:30 pm, after which, the two will shake hands with commuters at a nearby subway stop.

And Sen. Robert Byrd (D) is expected to announce today that he'll seek a ninth term in 2006.

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