updated 10/19/2005 12:31:49 PM ET 2005-10-19T16:31:49

“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
President Bush may be emphasizing security and foreign policy as legacy building blocks these days -- he meets with the President of the European Commission at 11:05 am and signs the homeland security funding bill 3:00 pm -- but Iraq isn't offering him quite the safe haven from problems at home that it used to.

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NBC's Richard Engel reports that per a senior Western diplomat, there probably was "some ballot stuffing" in the Iraqi referendum, and that the next 48 hours will be critical to the legitimacy of the election.  This diplomat tells Engel that if Iraq's electoral commission mishandles the investigation and its PR in particular, it could play into the hands of those who aren't happy with the results (mostly Sunnis), some of whom are now claiming fraud.  That being said, the official does not expect the outcome of the election to change.

The graver risk to Bush's hopes for foreign policy success is the CIA leak investigation and the attention it's gradually drawing to the Administration's never-proven WMD-based case for going to war.  The White House announced yesterday that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will meet with Bush at the White House on October 31: "Italy is one of America’s strongest allies and closest partners in the global war on terror," including in Iraq.  We wonder what Berlusconi might say about the Administration's case for war if, sometime between now and the meeting, one or more White House officials are indicted.

We wrote yesterday that Democrats are so focused on weaving the CIA leak into their "culture of corruption" argument against the GOP that they aren't making the broader connection to Iraq and the missing WMD.  The Democratic National Committee suggests to us that they would make that connection if it turns out that key White House aides get indicted.  "This is about a cover-up and the intimidation of critics of the Administration," DNC spokesperson Josh Earnest tells First Read.  "There needs to be a concerted effort on our part to remind folks what this is all about."  One Democratic message strategist arguing that "Bush and the Republicans" "broke the law to promote their own political agenda and took us to war -- and today soldiers are being put in harm's way because they broke the law."  The AP's US casualty count stands this morning at 1,978.

Here's another thing we wonder: If Vice President Cheney were planning to run for president, would this still all be happening?  To the extent that Cheney's office is involved in the Plame leak, you'd have to think that if he planned to run for president down the road, as most vice presidents do, his aides would rethink before engaging in the kind of behavior Lewis Libby has admittedly and allegedly committed.  Does a lack of a fear of being held accountable by voters in some future run for president factor in here?

On the domestic front, Alan Greenspan says soaring energy prices basically amount to a tax "that drained purchasing power from oil consumers."  According to data from the Energy Information Administration, NBC's Chris Donovan notes that the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has increased 94% since Bush took office in January 2001 (from $1.47 to $2.85), and the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has increased 40% since the day Bush was re-elected in November 2004 (from $2.03 to $2.85).

And conservative critics of Harriet Miers are now raising money for a campaign to get her to withdraw her nomination, while on the other side, the left is stirring; see below.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell says that Miers' questionnaire will be delivered to the Judiciary Committee this morning, and that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will offer comments in support of Miers during a speech today in Washington.  (We're not sure how that will help Miers' case with conservatives, who don't trust Gonzales.)   Also, consultants assembled by the White House to push Miers will release a new round of talking points today, describing her "experience," "intellect," "temperament" and "integrity."

Lastly, the latest Gallup survey shows nothing but "lowests" and "worsts" for Bush and the GOP-run Congress: a 39% Bush job approval rating, his lowest in that survey; a 29% job approval for Congress, "its lowest level since 1994, the year Democrats lost control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years;" and 68% saying "they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country.  That is the most negative assessment in nearly a decade," says USA Today.  The good news for Bush: his "approval among his Republican base continues to hold firm."

Ethics
The Washington Post says prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has "assembled evidence that suggests Cheney's long-standing tensions with the CIA contributed to the unmasking of operative Valerie Plame...  It is not clear whether Fitzgerald plans to charge anyone inside the Bush administration with a crime," the story goes on to say.  "But... it is increasingly clear that Cheney and his aides have been deeply enmeshed in events surrounding the Plame affair from the outset...  Cheney, a longtime proponent of toppling Saddam Hussein, led the White House effort to build the case that Iraq was an imminent threat because it possessed a dangerous arsenal of weapons."

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan yesterday refused to engage with reporters about any contingency planning that might be going on in case a Bush official is indicted.  But a GOP official tells First Read that Republicans have already mapped out strategies to deal with all the different scenarios -- if Rove is indicted, if Libby is indicted, if no one is indicted, etc. -- from Fitzgerald's probe into the CIA leak.

A lot of mentions have been made of how Rove testified before the grand jury for four and a half hours last Friday.  But per NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, Rove's testimony was interrupted by another prosecutor who made arguments before the same panel on a different case.

Because Rove stumped for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester (R) in June, and raised several hundred thousand dollars for the state GOP, New Jersey Democrats tell First Read that they will make that an issue if Rove is indicted before the election.  "A big part of our campaign strategy has been detailing the similarities between Forrester and Bush," said a spokesperson for the state Democratic party.  "And if we can continue to drive that by calling for [Forrester] to return the money raised by the President's indicted political guru or something along those line then we'll pursue it."

The DNC, meanwhile, is touting Rove's second canceled fundraiser: His scheduled appearance at an RNC event in Greenwich, CT yesterday was nixed, and as previously noted, RNC chair Ken Mehlman subbed for Rove at an event on Saturday for Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch says Cheney yesterday helped raise $750,000 at a fundraiser for Virginia gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore (R) yesterday.  (We'd note that the White House used to announce Cheney's fundraising appearances for candidates, but didn't this time.)  “Cheney was not made available for comments.”

Although the New York Times' Judith Miller wrote on Sunday that she got a "security clearance when she was embedded with a military team in Iraq, NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports that CIA, DIA and Pentagon officials say they know of no instance or circumstance in which a reporter has been, or would be granted a security clearance for any reason, and they don't know that Miller was given one when she was embedded with the US Army's 75th Exploitation Unit that was tasked with finding Iraqi WMD immediately following the end of major conflict in spring 2003.  While embedded reporters are often granted access to classified briefings on the grounds that the information can't be reported, Pentagon officials say no military commander or officer has the individual authority to grant a security clearance, Mik notes.  Officials say they're continuing to check whether Miller had been granted a security clearance of any kind.

Miller will testify on Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on a federal reporters' shield law.

On DeLay, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that prosecutor Ronnie Earle (D) tried to persuade DeLay to plead guilty to a lesser charge of a misdemeanor that DeLay "wasn't guilty of because he knows he has no case," said a DeLay spokesperson.  The aide adds that DeLay's legal team yesterday filed motions for a speedy trial, to quash and dismiss the second set of "manufactured" charges, and for severance.  DeLay's arraignment is scheduled for Friday.

DeLay attorney Dick "DeGuerin said Earle made the plea offer in the context of DeLay keeping his House leadership post," notes the Houston Chronicle.

USA Today takes a long look at DeLay's success in turning K Street into a GOP fundraising network -- leading with a Texas businessman who pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations after, he claims, DeLay and his aides instructed him to funnel money to various GOP committees and candidates.

The Washington Post front-pages previously low-profile GOP Rep. Bob Ney's ties to Jack Abramoff.  The long report says Ney "is under investigation by Florida federal prosecutors looking into Abramoff's acquisition of" a casino cruise company, and that he has hired "a prominent Washington criminal defense lawyer."

The Miers nomination
The effort to determine where Miers stands on Roe v. Wade is ongoing.  The Dallas Morning News writes up the confusion:

The American Bar Association has released three unofficial meeting transcripts of arguments Miers made in 1992 and 1993 in favor of allowing ABA members, and not the leadership, to vote on whether or not the organization should take a position on abortion rights, NBC's Chris Donovan reports.  The ABA notes that the transcripts have not been edited, proofed, reviewed by participants, approved as minutes, or confirmed for accuracy.  Although Miers does not explicitly express her own position on the question, Donovan says, this quote is attributed to her in August 1992: "Now those who are committed to choice and who advocate the resolution desire the prestige of the ABA behind the cause.  I understand that, you understand that, and we appreciate why, and when you understand, as I do, that the choice issue is inextricably entwined with the debate of total freedom for women, for empowerment, you fully understand the depth and caring and emotion which accompany the efforts like those in support of this resolution."

NBC's Ken Strickland reports that per Judiciary Committee Democrat Chuck Schumer, with whom Miers met yesterday, Miers told Schumer that "no one knows how" she would rule on Roe v. Wade.  According to Schumer, Miers said she didn't recall talking about Roe with any Administration officials.  But when Schumer asked her directly if she spoke with Karl Rove about how she might rule on the case, she refused to discuss any details of her conversations with Rove, Strickland reports.  Schumer said Miers also declined to discuss hardly any issues she worked on as White House counsel.  Strickland notes that Schumer appeared disappointed with the meeting, saying that his first meeting with then-nominee John Roberts was "far more illuminating."

As for the timing of Miers' confirmation hearings, Schumer told reporters that Republicans are planning to start the hearings the week of November 7, though Democrats had not yet signed off at that time.  An announcement on timing may come today.

Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter emerged from his meeting with Miers yesterday "saying she told him she believed that the Constitution includes a right to privacy - an account of the meeting that was later disputed...  'Miers called him to say that he misunderstood her and that she had not taken a position on... the privacy issue.  Sen. Specter accepts Ms. Miers' statement that he misunderstood what she said,'" says a Specter spokesperson.  – Los Angeles Times

The Boston Globe covers transcripts of Miers speeches in which she argued in favor of a stronger executive branch, the extension of the Patriot Act, and Cheney's energy task force, and says "the information could heighten Democrats' concerns about how Miers would approach issues involving the separation of powers among the branches of government if she is confirmed."  The issue "might cost Miers some Democratic support in a confirmation vote that is likely to be close."

The Hill reports that lead conservative critic David Frum is spearheading an effort to raise money for a campaign to persuade Miers to withdraw her nomination.

"Republican lawmakers and pollsters are reporting growing grass-roots hostility to the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, while yesterday the American Conservative Union chairman broke with President Bush over the pick," says the Washington Times.  David Keene "vigorously criticized the Bush administration over the Miers nomination, saying conservative trust in the president was gone."

The Washington Post looks at how the conservative interest-group "apparatus constructed largely by Bush strategist Karl Rove and deployed effectively on" Roberts' behalf "has splintered over Miers and broken free from its commander."

The New York Times writes that conservatives are beginning to point fingers at White House chief of staff Andy Card, whose office oversaw the Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina as well as played a role in selecting Miers.

National security politics
Before Saddam Hussein's trial begins tomorrow, the Boston Globe's Canellos says Americans will be reminded that the Administration hasn't been able to capture Osama bin Laden.

UN Ambassador John Bolton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on UN reform.  NBC's Chip Reid says the hearing could be lively since the committee's ranks include caustic Democratic critics Biden, Dodd, Kerry, Feingold and Boxer, plus Republican critic Voinovich, and there's lingering bitterness over Bolton's recess appointment.

It's the economy
The price of crude oil dropped yesterday upon news that Tropical Storm (soon to be Hurricane) Wilma seems more likely at this point to head up the Atlantic seaboard than into the Gulf of Mexico. - Bloomberg

Talking bigger picture, Alan Greenspan said in a speech in Tokyo that "[r]ising fuel costs have drained consumers' purchasing power and 'will undoubtedly be a drag' on global economic expansion...  The surge in prices after the storms 'effectively represented a tax that drained purchasing power from oil consumers,' Greenspan said.  The Fed chairman called the status of world refining capacity 'worrisome' because it has been rising slower than oil production over the past decade."  - Bloomberg

The GOP agenda: Taxes and spending
Bush is expected to meet with Hill leaders tomorrow to discuss cuts to offset hurricane relief spending; the House is expected to vote on $50 billion in further cuts in Medicaid, student loans, and food stamps for 2006 on Thursday.  Beyond saying that the White House does "support rescissions of spending increases" and does not support rolling back the Bush tax cuts, Scott McLellan yesterday refused to get into specifics.  He spoke generally of prospective cuts in Medicaid -- "We are proposing to cut out some of the loopholes that should not exist in that program.  We want to make sure that those who are in need of getting Medicaid assistance are getting their help."

Democrats are girding for battle over the House vote.  The Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities -- the same folks from the union-backed group opposing private Social Security accounts -- is targeting 13 House Republicans with protests and other grassroots activities in an effort to persuade them to vote against the amended budget resolution. "The message to these members is simple: Don't slash support for families, children, students, and seniors to finance tax breaks for millionaires," stated an ECAP memo given to First Read.

Roll Call says House Democrats will oppose the vote by arguing that "the GOP is a party of fiscal irresponsibility, hypocrisy in spending and misplaced priorities."

USA Today says Bush's tax reform commission today will propose "to radically shrink and simplify federal tax forms, in part by doing away with popular deductions such as the one for state and local taxes...  The proposal is driven by Bush's demand for a simpler tax process and by a series of recommendations by the panel that would strip away scores of special tax breaks" to pay for the (also recommended) elimination of the alternative minimum tax.  "Eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes would benefit taxpayers in states with lower taxes while hurting those in high-tax states" such as California, New York and New Jersey.  "As many as 40 states would be net winners."

The GOP agenda: Immigration
Remember when immigration and embryonic stem-cell research looked like they'd be the big agenda items this fall?  The immigration issue may break through today.  Homeland security chief Chertoff and Labor Secretary Chao testify at a Senate Judiciary hearing on immigration reform nearly three months after both skipped an earlier hearing on the subject.  Today's hearing comes after the release of a new Tarrance Group (R) poll showing that more than 70% of likely GOP voters would favor a plan providing illegal immigrants with a way to earn legal status, while also increasing border security and imposing tougher penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants.  Also today, off the Hill, Senators McCain and Kennedy discuss their immigration reform legislation at the US Chamber of Commerce at 12 noon.

Per the AP, GOP Sen. John Cornyn says Congress has sidelined immigration reform until January.

But the Houston Chronicle says Cornyn's timeline "will work only if lawmakers can agree on the most basic aspects of reform, and chances of that are far from certain...  In addition to the philosophical divides, 2006 is an election year for every House member and one-third of the Senate's membership, a factor that makes the odds of significant overhaul exceptionally slim."

The Wall Street Journal covers Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist's third-party run for Congress in the special election to replace SEC chief Chris Cox in California, and how Gilchrist siphoned enough votes from the GOP frontrunner to hold him to a runoff.  "The success of Mr. Gilchrist's single-issue campaign... serves as a metaphor for the deep schism among conservative voters nationally -- and within the Republican party leadership -- over what to do with 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S."

The Democrats
Emily's List celebrated its 20th anniversary yesterday with a luncheon for over 1,400 women with speakers from every level of government, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm,  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Emily's List founder and president Ellen Malcolm.  Granholm had the entire ballroom hushed when, with bated breath, she described her desire to talk about her "family's values."  The entire speech was crafted to take on traditional Republican hallmarks and twist them to a female's perspective, a/k/a a "family perspective" -- that of a "daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife."  For example, she compared wearing her siblings' hand-me-downs to trimming the budget deficit in Michigan, and said she still takes a brown-bag lunch to work and uses her predecessor's coasters (flipped over, of course).

Granholm didn't shy away from touching on national topics, though.  She stressed the importance of funding state heating assistance programs for low-income families.  "Do you hear me George Bush?  Please fund the extra heating assistance."  And she stressed the importance of a college education for people of all incomes, saying it's important for the children of the workers "who will clean this ballroom after we all leave" to continue their education as well.  (Granholm actually singled out the Hilton staff several times.)

Malcolm said she knows how concerned EMILY's List members are about the country's direction under five years of Republican rule, citing the Iraq war, the growing deficit, breaches of separation of church and state, promotion of surging corporate profits and soaring poverty rates as some of the problems.  Her solution: "If you are tired of Republican corruption and slash and burn politics, put more women in office."  Pelosi criticized the Administration's handling of Iraq, charging that troops are inadequately equipped for a falsely justified war with no exit strategy.

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