updated 11/1/2005 9:28:51 AM ET 2005-11-01T14:28:51

“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
Add to the Bush Administration's list of reasons to thankfully bid October good-bye: NBC's Richard Engel reports that it was the fourth-deadliest month for the US military in Iraq since the war began, and November opens with the price of oil ringing in below $60 per barrel for the first time since July.

  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

After firing up the base yesterday with the Alito nomination, President Bush today seeks to rally all Americans behind the idea that they're in it together when it comes to the next possible national disaster, a bird flu outbreak.  In laying out his plan to handle a bird flu pandemic at NIH at 10:10 am, Bush will not only seek to bolster the public's faith in his oversight of their well-being, but will step up the rhetoric of a shared effort that he invoked un-emphatically in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  A White House spokesperson, talking to the AP, likened the effort to Rosie the Riveter.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that in the post-Katrina world, Bush advisors say, combating an outbreak will be more than a federal responsibility -- it will require a combined effort of government, public health, medical, veterinary and law enforcement officials, the private sector, and individuals.  O'Donnell reports that the price tag for Bush's proposal will be $7 billion, including $3 billion to spur development of vaccines.

Close observers suggest to First Read that the proposal may spark tension between the federal government and state and local governments, who have historically handled public health issues themselves.  "To be fair, this kind of coordination is hard because it's hard, not because Feds are stupid," one national security analyst tells First Read.  "The assumption has always been that disease was a local matter."  Local governments generally dislike dealing with the Centers for Disease Control, suggests another longtime observer who asked not to be identified.  "The big problem comes with national threats like bioterror and pandemic and the age-old model doesn't work anymore."

Sen. Barack Obama, one of several Democratic lawmakers pushing avian flu preparedness, holds a presser to react to Bush's speech in the Senate Radio & TV Gallery at 3:00 pm.

To sum up the start of Alito, Day Two: Mission accomplished for Bush on re-energizing conservatives; interest groups on both sides of the aisle are gearing up as anticipation grows of a possible Democratic filibuster; Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid charges that the White House didn't consult with Democrats and suggests that Alito's hearings won't begin until 2006; House Democrats plan to get in on the act, though they technically have no say over the nomination; and NBC has details on the circumstances of Alito's 1990 confirmation and his teaching on terrorism and civil liberties at Seton Hall University.  More on all of this below.

Also today, Bush's tax-reform commission sends its recommendations to the Treasury Department, which is noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it may kick-start a winter-long debate over tax reform that could culminate in a Bush proposal in the State of the Union, if he decides to make tax reform a major plank of his domestic agenda next year; and 2) it may start the silent countdown to Treasury Secretary Snow's departure -- and White House chief of staff Andy Card's reassignment.

The Fed is expected to raise interest rates for the 12th straight time today.

And, Tom DeLay has a hearing in Austin today to determine whether or not the judge assigned to preside over his trial should recuse himself because he has contributed to Democratic campaigns and causes, including MoveOn.  Shortly before DeLay's appearance, MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser will testify.  Scooter Libby's arraignment is scheduled for Thursday morning and will be presided over by Judge Reggie Walton, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Bush in 2001.

The Alito nomination
"Presidential aides acknowledged the course change," says the Washington Post of differences between Harriet Miers and Alito.

Subject changed, says the New York Times.

Alito's lone dissent on the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case has quickly become the rallying point for interest groups on both sides:  Washington Times, New York Times, Los Angeles Times

The Newark Star-Ledger interviews Alito’s 90-year-old mother.  “No, she said, she would not discuss her son's views on national issues.  No, she did not have a message for Democrats who might question his nomination.  Then came a question about abortion.  ‘He is against abortion,’ Rose Alito replied quickly.  ‘We both are.’”

The Boston Globe looks at the possibility of a filibuster and how Democrats would need to proceed to make it successful.

MSNBC.com’s Tom Curry reports Alito gives the Senate a clear choice.

Sen. Orrin Hatch used the "A" word -- "Armageddon."  - Washington Times

Lots of focus on the Gang of 14, who will meet on Thursday in Sen. John McCain's office.  The Hill says "the parameters of the Gang of 14 agreement, particularly the meaning of 'extraordinary circumstances,' seem likely to be tested by Alito’s nomination."

The Los Angeles Times has a slightly different take: "senior Democratic staff members doubted that the seven moderate Democrats in the Gang... would consider Alito's strongly conservative record - or the fact that his ascension to the court could tip its balance - as the sort of extraordinary circumstances that would allow them to support a filibuster."

"If Republican opposition does develop, it appears more likely that it would come from moderates than from conservatives," says the Boston Globe, singling out pro-choice GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters at a Monitor Luncheon yesterday that: Alito's selection is "an attempt to divert attention" from the White House's current problems; that Bush also nominated Alito "to placate the radical right;" that he's not taking a possible filibuster off the table; that he doubts hearings will take place soon ("I can't see hearings starting before the first of the year"); that Democrats should vote their consciences, and wait until the hearings before they make up their minds; and that Democrats were virtually not consulted in Bush's choice of Alito.

Reid expanded on that alleged lack of consultation, saying that at the Sunday night memorial for Rosa Parks, White House chief of staff Andy Card approached Reid and told him he'd be calling him at 6:30 am Monday.  At 6:45 am, when Card called, he asked, per Reid, "Have you already heard [about Alito]?"  Reid: "Yep."  And that was the extent of the consultation, Reid told reporters.  "With Roberts, we had consultation.  With Miers, we had consultation.  With Alito -- zero."

On the other hand, the Washington Times reports that "Karl Rove called key conservative interest group leaders yesterday morning to give them a heads-up."

As interest groups on both sides of the aisle formulate strategies to support or oppose Alito's nomination, two pro-Alito groups are already announcing ad campaigns.  Progress for America, which works with the White House to back its judicial nominees, is launching a one-week, $425,000 cable ad buy calling Alito "respected" and "tough."  The group has also launched a website, a $50,000 Internet ad campaign, and a 20-state grassroots and PR effort.  The Family Research Council also will launch a pro-Alito ad campaign today at an 11:00 am presser at their downtown DC office.

Several liberal organizations, meanwhile, will hold a pen-and-pad briefing in the Hart Senate Office Building at 10:00 am to announce their opposition to the Alito pick.  Lawyers from the Alliance for Justice, Community Rights Counsel, National Partnership for Women & Families, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, People for the American Way and other major organizations "will discuss Alito’s judicial record and specific concerns about issues important to ordinary Americans," per the release.  The National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association will focus their efforts on grassroots campaigning.   A spokesperson for the group tells First Read that they'll work with 4,000 member clinics to educate them that Alito's "views on the right to privacy and reproductive rights are far out of the mainstream and his ascension to the Court would present a real threat to those rights."

Though they have no say, technically, House Democrats plan to vocally oppose the Alito nomination, Roll Call says.

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein writes that "Alito's opponents face the challenge of generating significant public resistance to a nominee whose legal credentials are unquestioned.  That hurdle proved far greater than Democrats expected during" Robert's confirmation.  "Conversely, Bush faces the risk that a victory could impose a heavy cost," as "a highly partisan and ideological fight could further damage Bush's weakened position with swing voters."

While Bush has rallied the base, "the choice... appears certain to produce an angry ideological battle with the Democrats that will dominate the country's politics heading into next year's midterm elections...  Whether the upcoming battle, which is likely to focus heavily on the divisive issue of abortion, ultimately helps a president whose approval ratings are scraping 40 percent, and whose support among moderates and independents has plummeted even lower, is an open question."  - Washington Post

The Chicago Tribune says Bush may not need this fight right now.  "With his second-term agenda mired in war and distracted by a legal scandal reaching into the White House, the president has invited a donnybrook with Democrats over the future of the Supreme Court that could forestall anything else he expects to accomplish in the months ahead."

More on Alito
NBC's Chris Donovan points out the circumstances of Alito's 1990 Senate confirmation vote: Alito was confirmed to his current post on April 27, 1990 by unanimous consent, meaning that there was no Senate roll call vote.  But he was also confirmed en bloc along with over 190 nominees (seven other judicial nominees and scores of military appointments), which a Senate librarian points out is not an uncommon practice.

NBC's Bob Windrem reports that one of the courses Alito developed himself and has taught at Seton Hall (for two credits) is on "Terrorism and Civil Liberties."  A 2004 syllabus reads, "This Seminar will examine constitutional and other legal questions presented by important, recently adopted antiterrorism measures.  Measures that have been proposed but not adopted may also be studied.  Among the topics that will be considered are the use of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, the detention without trail of enemy combatants, the closing to the public of certain deportation proceedings, and the use of electronic surveillance and the information that it yields."  Alito also discussed the connection between September 11 and the detention of Taliban militants at Guantanamo Bay.

USA Today, reporting on Alito's finances, says that he's a "man of relatively modest means compared with many of the nine sitting justices.  Alito's 2004 financial disclosure report shows total assets in the range of $615,000 to $1.6 million, not including his house."  His largest common stock holding?  Exxon Mobil, "worth $100,000 to $250,000."

The Wall Street Journal does its expected take on Alito's pro-business record.  "Alito's Third Circuit is one of the smaller federal jurisdictions, but it hears a disproportionate share of business-related cases because its three-state territory includes Delaware, where many companies are incorporated, and the heavily industrial New Jersey and Pennsylvania."

More Alito profiles:  Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News

Some Republicans have suggested that the nickname "Scalito" is a slur against Alito's Italian roots, but the Washington Times points out that he was "dubbed 'Scalito' by some lawyers because his judicial philosophy is similar to that of" Scalia.

The Bush "re-launch"
GOP pollster David Winston outlines in Roll Call how, as bad as last week was for Bush and the GOP, it could have been worse.  "In truth, most presidents, at some point in their tenure, have slumped in the polls, sometimes dramatically, only to rebound to a position of political strength - a fact that Democrats conveniently overlook when crowing about Bush’s dip in public opinion."

With Bush's tax-reform commission due to send its recommendations to the Treasury Department today, economic research firm International Strategy & Investment lays out in a memo to clients what it sees as "the state of the tax reform agenda: Treasury is ready to go on the substance but the White House isn't sure it wants to open another battle front over tax reform at a time Republicans are in the middle of so many other political battles.  On the other hand, they don't have much to take to voters going into next year's mid-term elections.  They are likely to wait and see how things play out the next few weeks before deciding whether they can succeed in moving tax reform through Congress next year."

The Merrill Lynch research department tells clients that the extension of various tax cuts may be jeopardized by Democratic gains in 2006, particularly in the House: "It can no longer be taken for granted that the GOP will sweep the House and the Senate again come the [2006] midterm elections at this point, and what is interesting is that Mr. Bush’s approval rating of 40% is exactly where Bill Clinton’s was at this same stage in the fall of 1993 - and the Dems were booted out of both houses the next year.  Back then, it was viewed bullishly, since 'Billary’s' socialized health care reforms were replaced by Newt Gingrich’s 'Contract With America'.  This time around, what is at stake is the permanency of the Bush tax cuts, since they all have different expiry dates right now."  Between the Senate and House, Merrill Lynch concludes that "since spending and tax legislation originates in the House… that may be more important for the Dems to win since it would just not allow any Republican legislation to be taken up to begin with."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer will be joined by House Democrats' campaign committee chair Rahm Emanuel at Hoyer's weekly pen-and-pad today at 1:00 pm, where the two will talk about the tax-reform panel's recommendations.  An Emanuel spokesperson tells First Read that the pair will "critique the advisory panel a little bit -- at least on the recommendations that have already been made public, specifically repealing the AMT for everyone by cutting" popular tax breaks among the middle class.  Major themes are likely to be Bush's desire "to give a tax cut to the wealthy" and simultaneously revamp the tax code.

The Wall Street Journal looks at the "political fire" already being drawn by the panel's recommendation that the home mortgage tax break be scaled back.

We've written here before that some leading conservative voices see the recommendations thus far as "tweaking" the system rather than as a needed overhaul.  The Journal's editorial page marks the release of the rec by asserting that "the tax code is monstrous" and assuming "that reducing complexity will be high on" the panel's "to-do list." 

Yesterday, Bush and Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi took no questions after their meeting, heading off any potentially awkward press questions about Italy's support for the Iraq war in the wake of Libby's indictment, or about intelligence reports on Niger.  The AP, covering Cheney's elevation of two aides to fulfill Scooter Libby's duties, notes that the Administration intends to remain silent as long as legal proceedings are ongoing.

The Washington Post previews a Libby trial "in which Libby's interests could collide with those of the Bush White House...  Republicans worry that Libby's court fight will force President Bush to deal with the prospect of top officials testifying and embarrassing disclosures of how the White House operates and treats critics."  The story notes that a plea agreement is a possibility.

The Wall Street Journal says "the potential political damage for... Cheney, will in some measure depend on the events of June 12, 2003," which was "the day Mr. Libby 'was advised' by Mr. Cheney that former diplomat Joseph Wilson's wife worked in the counterproliferation division of the [CIA].  On the same day, the Washington Post reported that an unidentified former ambassador had been sent on a special mission to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium yellowcake from the African country."

Per the AP, DeLay's legal fund raised $318,000 during the third quarter to help fight the conspiracy and money laundering charges.

Roll Call reports that the witness list for tomorrow's Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with one Native American tribe includes former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Stephen Griles, "the highest-ranking Bush administration official to become publicly enmeshed in the Abramoff scandal," whose "scheduled appearance on Wednesday surprised those who have been following the case."

It's the economy
CNBC notes that the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.2% this month, its biggest October decline since 1997.  Despite its bad reputation, October has been kind to the DJIA recently; this was just the second decline during this month over in the last eight years.  Also, the NASDAQ composite fell 1.5% this month, breaking a string of four consecutive October gains.  The Nasdaq has fallen in eight of the first 10 months this year.  And the S&P 500 lost 1.8% this month, its biggest October decline since 1997.

Also, the price of crude fell yesterday, settling at $59.76, its first finish below $60 a barrel since July 28.  "After topping $3 a gallon, average gas prices continued to plunge last week, falling to the lowest levels since Hurricane Katrina damaged Gulf Coast oil refineries," says USA Today.  But: "The period between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving traditionally sees a lull in fuel prices...  Nationwide, the average gas prices are still up 45 cents from a year ago."

Bloomberg looks at the question likely to confront incoming Fed chair Ben Bernanke: whether or not to continue raising interest rates after the Fed raises them today, and probably for a 13th and 14th time, before Bernanke takes over the job on February 1.  "Unlike Greenspan, Bernanke may be facing a slower-growing economy," and "inflation may also be higher than policy makers prefer because of rising energy prices...  Households that use heating oil can expect to pay 32 percent more this winter than a year ago, according to Energy Department forecasts."

Wal-Mart Watch, the labor-funded Wal-Mart critic, hosts a screening of the anti-Wal-Mart documentary, "The High Cost of Low Price," tonight in New York.

The New York Times front-pages that Wal-Mart, after getting whacked by labor for months, has finally set up a war room.  "Wal-Mart is taking a page from the modern political playbook," hiring Reagan "image-meister" Michael Deaver and former Clinton advisor Leslie Dach "to set up a rapid-response public relations team in Arkansas.”

Energy politics
Senate Democrats Dorgan and Dodd hold a(nother) press conference today at 11:30 am calling for a windfall profits tax on oil companies "to provide relief to consumers in light of reports that big oil companies are reaping record profits thanks to skyrocketing energy prices."

Bloomberg reports on how the GOP's push for oil drilling in ANWR, a desire not shared by all Republicans, may hold up the Senate budget package: "Senate Republicans' divisions over a proposal to allow oil drilling in Alaska may derail their plan to cut federal spending by at least $39 billion...  Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said his party's lawmakers now unanimously oppose the budget cuts.  To pass the measure, the Republican Senate leadership will have to persuade at least two of the seven Republicans who opposed ANWR in March to vote for the lease sales this time."

2005 and 2006
We noticed that key 2005 candidates weighed in on the Alito pick yesterday, which didn't happen with either John Roberts or Harriet Miers.  On the GOP side, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore commended Bush's choice, calling Alito a "nominee of impeccable credentials and impressive experience."  New Jersey's Doug Forrester also praised his fellow Garden Stater, saying that Alito is "the personification of the American dream."  But Forrester, running in a blue state, also said that "as someone who supports a woman’s right to choose, I am troubled about one of his decisions that seems to challenge that right.”  Meanwhile, the campaign manager for GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, who faces a stiff challenge for re-election in 2006 from Democrat Bob Casey, noted the irony that Democrats have called Alito controversial, mainly for his dissent in the abortion decision over restrictions signed into law by Casey's father.

On the Democratic side, Kilgore opponent Tim Kaine didn't put out a statement on Alito, but he has accused Kilgore in the past of wanting to criminalize abortion in Virginia if Roe v. Wade is overturned.  "Obviously, Roe v. Wade being overturned is no longer a distant hypothetical," Kaine spokesperson Delacey Skinner told First Read, but she said that Kaine is unlikely to raise this issue unless reporters ask about it.  One GOP operative in Virginia suggests that if Kaine mentions Kilgore's position on abortion, he's just as likely to motivate conservatives in opposition as he is to inspire supporters.  In New Jersey, on the other hand, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jon Corzine said, “While I am pleased that a New Jerseyan has been nominated to the Supreme Court, I am concerned that it is an attempt by President Bush to appease radical conservatives..."  And New York mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer (D) slammed Mayor Mike Bloomberg (R) for giving $7 million to Bush and the GOP "that that made this nomination possible."  (Bloomberg had no comment on the nomination.)

Ferrer today launches an attack ad, entitled "Buddies," which highlights Bloomberg's $7 million donation to the RNC.  Bloomberg's camp says the ad is factually incorrect because he gave the $7 million to the non-profit group running last year's GOP convention, not to the RNC.  – New York Daily News

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) does talk-radio and campaigns in San Luis Obispo, Bakersfield and Palm Springs today.  The Los Angeles Times points out that Schwarzenegger's plan of "'micro-targeting' voters, advertising in selected markets to reach them... is guided by a single premise: If every Democrat and every Republican in California votes next week, Schwarzenegger's measures are likely to lose."

Another tough poll for Schwarzenegger: The latest Field Poll shows his four ballot measures each opposed by at least 50% of likely voters.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Schwarzenegger yesterday raised the specter of having to raise taxes if his special election agenda fails.


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