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First Read: Harris stands alone in Florida

• Wednesday, May 10, 2006 | 12:50 p.m. ETMark Murray and Javier Morgado

Harris stands alone
Florida House Speaker Allan Bense (R) has decided not to challenge Katherine Harris in a GOP Senate primary, even though Republicans were urging him to get into the race. Bense's decision leaves Harris as the sole Republican -- so far -- to challenge incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in the fall. Florida's candidate-filing deadline is Friday. Recent polls have shown Nelson leading Harris by a wide margin; in fact, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has said, "I just don't think she can win."

Harris, a US congresswoman, became a polarizing figure after her role in the 2000 Florida recount. And she saw her Senate candidacy take another hit after the defense contractor who pleaded guilty for bribing Randy "Duke" Cunningham admitted giving her an illegal campaign contribution.

In a statement announcing his decision not to get into the race, Bense said: “While the challenge of running a successful campaign over the next several months was exciting, and while I am confident we would have been successful, ultimately my decision came down to the fundamental question of whether I was willing to spend the next six, 12 or possibly 18 years of my life away from my family and my home serving Florida in the U.S. Senate. After much thought and prayer, I realized the answer to that question is 'no.'"

• Wednesday, May 10, 2006 | 11:45 a.m. ETFrom Mike Viqueira

Ney makes his case before GOP
Two days after his former chief of staff-turned lobbyist pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to corrupt him, embattled Rep. Bob Ney made his case to his GOP House colleagues this morning, addressing them at their weekly closed-door meeting in a Capitol basement conference room. 

On Monday, former top Ney staffer Neil Volz pleaded guilty to supplying Ney with a "stream of things of value" in return for official acts.  The occasion marked the fourth time that Ney has been implicated in court papers in the Jack Abramoff scandal.  Ney and his lawyers sharply dispute these assertions, and Ney has sworn that he will fight vigorously against any charges that might be coming and will continue to stand for re-election this fall.

After the meeting this morning, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said it was "a heartfelt discussion" that got "a good response from our conference... and that's all I care to say about it."

• Wednesday, May 10, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
His job approval at yet another new low (31%) in yet another national survey (New York Times/CBS), President Bush and his concerned GOP ranks are reaching out to the 'burbs. After Bush does his third event in two days on his Medicare prescription-drug benefit in Orlando at 9:30 am, he heads back to Washington for a 1:40 pm meeting with victims of identity theft. At that event, he will announce a new executive order to beef up federal efforts to guard against the crime.

House Republicans, meanwhile, will roll out a "suburban agenda" at 1:00 pm, spearheaded by Rep. Mark Kirk of the Chicago suburbs, who got to leak the plan to his hometown paper. They will then join their Senate colleagues for a 2:00 pm rally on the Capitol steps to tout their expected victory on, first, extending the 15% tax cut on dividends and capital gains until 2010, which they will call a boon for the investor class, and second, on providing a temporary "patch" on the Alternative Minimum Tax, which will spare an estimated 15 million middle-class Americans from the tax for a year. Total price tag: $69 billion. Hill GOP leaders reached an agreement on the legislative package last night. The House may pass the bill as early as tonight and the Senate is expected to vote on it later this week, giving the White House a legislative victory to anticipate heading into the weekend.

NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that top Republicans are calling the deal "an insurance policy to keep the strong recovery underway." Treasury Secretary John Snow, as well as key committee chairs Charles Grassley and Bill Thomas, said yesterday that the "vibrant recovery" of the past three years is largely due to the Administration's tax cuts. Snow and small business owners will join GOP lawmakers at the 2:00 pm rally. A memo from the House GOP Conference says they will be handing out "No Tax Increase" stickers and buttons, as well as "member specific pocket cards," which "will have national economic highlights on the front and state economic specific information on the back."

Democrats argue that the extended tax cuts will benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and some Senate GOP critics suggest that the package will increase the deficit. Bush is urging Congress both to make all his tax cuts permanent and to help him halve the deficit by the time he leaves office. Analysts say this latest round will give the average middle-class household an additional tax break of about $20.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Nebraska and West Virginia have nominated two self-funding millionaire candidates for the Senate: Pete Ricketts in Nebraska and John Raese in West Virginia.

Vice President Cheney is scheduled to make an appearance on the Hill at roughly the same time as the rally, delivering remarks at the Distinguished Service Award Ceremony in Statuary Hall at 2:30 pm. (Maybe he'll show up a little early and hit the rally?)

And a group of Democratic lawmakers and other critics of the Medicare prescription-drug drug benefit will gather for a mid-day rally with, they say, a couple hundred seniors in the historic Russell Senate Caucus Room. Among other demands, they will call for an extension of the upcoming May 15 enrollment deadline, which has become a line in the sand for Bush -- and one which GOP lawmakers are willing to cross. The Administration yesterday announced that they're extending the deadline for low-income seniors amidst concerns that this group has been slower to sign up, while some GOP lawmakers and candidates are already saying the deadline should be extended for all seniors.

Security politics
NBC's Ken Strickland reports that Gen. Michael Hayden's confirmation to be CIA director appears more likely based on comments from key GOP Senators yesterday. Perhaps most significantly, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said the "dust has settled" on criticism of the nomination -- especially over whether a military officer should lead the civilian spy agency -- and that he's "hoping" to hold confirmation hearings next week. Roberts also left open the possibility that Hayden could be confirmed by the full Senate before the next recess starts on May 29. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist continues to say he strongly supports Hayden and considers his military experience "a strength." And Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner also expressed "full confidence" in Hayden and dismissed concerns about Hayden's military status, saying, "I do not feel that should be a condition" of his confirmation.

Bloomberg reports that Democrats, seeking to deny Republicans their desired fight over the NSA domestic wiretapping program, plan to "focus their fire on... Hayden's military background and suitability to head the [CIA]... and won't emphasize the nominee's role in running" the program. The story notes, "The Senate's most vocal critics of Hayden's involvement in the surveillance are Republicans."

A Democratic House leadership aide suggests to First Read that the tepid reception Hayden's nomination has gotten among the GOP leadership may be due in part to the White House failing to consult with them before dismissing one of their former longtime colleagues, Porter Goss, and naming a new director. House Majority Leader John Boehner did say when asked yesterday by a reporter that he had not been consulted by the White House before Hayden was announced, but Boehner is supporting Hayden's nomination, NBC's Mike Viqueira notes. Speaker Dennis Hastert and the chair of the House Intel Committee, on the other hand, have objected to Hayden's nomination.

A day after their colleague/rival Russ Feingold did so, potential Democratic presidential candidates Evan Bayh and Mark Warner offered remarks yesterday morning at the National Press Club to counter GOP criticism that Democrats are weak on national security. Warner said he is "annoyed" that Republicans continue to paint Democrats as soft on terrorism. "I don't need to be lectured by Karl Rove... about what is needed to keep America safe," he said. The real problem, Warner argued, is that the Administration failed to develop a coherent strategy in Iraq, has not worked with other countries to combat terrorism, and is "caught" in a "19th-century mindset." Warner thinks Democrats can offer the "21st century approach" needed to address national security issues.

Bayh said that the war has been "tragically mismanaged" and argued that the United States cannot fight terrorism with what he called a weak economy (Republicans would obviously dispute the suggestion that the economy is weak). Bayh's rationale is that terrorists don't need nearly as much money to carry out attacks as the United States needs to defend itself against them. He also admitted that Democrats, who focused more on pocketbook issues in the last two elections, should have focused more on national security.

Medicare politics
USA Today says that as the Medicare RX registration deadline nears, "a little over half of those who didn't have drug coverage before now do... The Bush administration calls the program a success, saying more than 30 million people - or about 71% of those eligible for Medicare - now have drug coverage. The majority of those had some kind of drug coverage before... Some of the approximately 7 million holdouts may sign up in the next few days, as insurers continue their marketing push up to the deadline."

The White House is arguing that the RX plan will be a "value-added" for Republican candidates as more seniors enroll and realize the benefits. "Besides, said Bill Frenzel, a Republican who represented a Minnesota district in Congress and who now studies economic and political issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Bush's low poll standings have him reaching for whatever issues may help." – Los Angeles Times

The New York Times also says that while the RX plan once “seemed to be another White House initiative going wrong,” "White House aides now say the issue is emerging as a surprise plus for Republicans in a rocky election season.” But: “Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, an economically conservative group, said that whatever gains the program might give to Republicans from older voters would be negated, at best, by losses among the conservatives who make up the core Republican vote in nonpresidential elections.”

"Republican incumbents and challengers in key House and Senate races have sided with Democrats to support postponing the Medicare prescription-drug enrollment deadline, breaking from President Bush and GOP congressional leaders who are committed to keeping the deadline in place," says The Hill.

Advocacy groups in Iowa are calling on Senate Finance chair Charles Grassley to extend the deadline. The groups say "Iowa seniors need more time to enroll because the plan is confusing. They also said that relatively few low-income Iowa seniors eligible for subsidies have signed up." – Des Moines Register

Just how vulnerable are Republicans this fall when it comes to the prescription-drug law? Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida, who joined President Bush yesterday, might hold the answer. Shaw faces a tough challenge from Ron Klein (D) in a district with a sizable senior population which also voted for John Kerry in 2004. "I do think it's going to be a big issue in the district," says Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. "I'm sure Ron Klein will bring it up."

Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report tells First Read that she can envision two scenarios about how the Medicare drug benefit plays out for Republicans in November: It either hurts them, or it's a wash. She doesn't see how it becomes a political winner for the GOP -- which few thought would be the case when Bush signed it into law in 2003. Indeed, as we mentioned yesterday, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 27% of adults have an unfavorable view of the drug plan (compared with only 17% who have a favorable view), 69% of seniors believe it's too complicated and confusing, and just 24% of seniors say it will help them personally. But there is some good news in the poll for Shaw and Republicans: these numbers have improved from past NBC/Journal surveys, and enrollment has increased. That's why, Jewett suggests, Bush and Shaw were promoting the Medicare plan -- to prove to seniors that it's a program that works.

Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, believes the drug benefit might have less of an impact on the race than some expect. For one thing, she says, Shaw has a earned the reputation that he delivers to his senior constituents, which could shield him from Medicare-related attacks. In addition, MacManus argues that other issues -- like Shaw's health (he had a cancerous tumor removed from his lung in January) and the national political environment -- might play bigger roles. "I don't really see it as the defining issue for the Shaw-Klein race," she says. Walter says, "The reason Clay Shaw loses isn't Medicare. It is a combination of everything" -- Medicare, gas prices, Bush's standing, etc.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The latest New York Times/CBS poll finds that disapproval of Bush’s handling of Iraq and gas prices has dropped his job approval rating to 31%, which ties the low point his father hit in the poll in July 1992. “That is the third lowest approval rating of any president in 50 years; only Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter were viewed less favorably.” More: Just 23% approve of the job Congress is doing 70% believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction; 55% say they have a favorable view of the Democrats; and just 37% view Republicans the same way.

The Chicago Tribune examines how Republicans are gunning for the suburban vote this November. “Many of the most competitive races in the fall will be waged in the inner suburbs of big cities... And Republicans, concerned by a shift of Democratic voters leaving cities, are devising a multiyear strategy aimed at creating a congressional agenda targeting suburban residents.”

Regarding the extension of the tax cuts, "Although Republicans focused on the economic necessity of the bill, its approval this week also would be an election-year bonus for their party and President Bush as they fight to maintain their majority." – Washington Times

"Middle-income households would receive an average tax cut of $20 from the agreement, according to the joint Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, while 0.02 percent of households with incomes over $1 million would receive average tax cuts of $42,000." – Washington Post

"To help pay for some of the tax cuts, the bill allows wealthy Americans to convert their retirement savings from traditional individual retirement accounts to Roth IRAs. Since investments in Roth IRAs are taxed when deposited... the change would raise an estimated $6.4 billion over the next decade for the Treasury. Critics call the change a gimmick that would raise money in the short term, but cost the government far more in the future, because the Treasury won't be able to tax the retirement savings down the road."

Republicans will get tax cuts, but not a budget. "Since taking power in 1994, House Republicans have never failed to pass at least their own budget resolution, and a major push is under way now to avoid such an embarrassment. But... whatever happens, there is a tacit understanding that coming to agreement with the Senate is out of reach."

Between the two appellate court nominees currently moving through the Senate confirmation pipeline, The Hill says Terrence Boyle is more likely to become the target of a filibuster than Brett Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh was expected to face tough questioning yesterday from Senate Judiciary Democrats looking for information about his involvement, as White House staff secretary, in the NSA program and other controversial Administration efforts, but the Washington Post says he mostly dodged the bullet. – Washington Post

It's the economy...
Two big events today: The Fed is expected to decide to raise interest rates by a quarter point for the 16th consecutive time, and the Treasury Department releases its currency report, which is expected to include a verdict on whether the agency is branding China as a currency manipulator. Bloomberg: "National Association of Manufacturers Vice President Frank Vargo anticipates a congressional backlash if Treasury balks at citing China, after repeated threats it may do so."

One day after his former chief of staff pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to corrupt him, "House GOP leaders remained largely noncommittal Tuesday about the political future of embattled Rep. Bob Ney (R), even as some Republicans privately believe that if the Ohioan is indicted he should be encouraged to drop out of his re-election race," Roll Call reports. Ney plans to defend himself before his colleagues at their conference meeting this morning.

USA Today looks at how their own members' ethical difficulties are undercutting Democrats' efforts to make a GOP "culture of corruption" an effective rallying cry for the elections.

Disaster politics
Today is the third day of early voting in the New Orleans mayoral runoff between incumbent Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. According to Jennifer Marusak, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Al Ater's office, 18,210 absentee ballots have been requested, of which 1,798 have been returned. That's more absentee ballots requested and returned at this same point during early voting last month. So far, 3,318 have voted in person, bringing the total votes cast in this election to 5,116. Of those who have voted, over 65% have been African-American, while 31.5% have been white.

The Times-Picayune reports that Nagin is being forced to head out of town to fundraise since many of his big-time donors in the city have abandoned him. Several former Nagin staffers also have left him to work for Landrieu.

The midterms
Roll Call previews both parties' efforts to paint a picture for voters of what a Democrat-run Senate under Majority Leader Harry Reid would look like. "Republicans will paint a dire picture of liberal interests rolling back tax cuts and impeaching President Bush, while Democrats will look to increasingly distance themselves from their traditional policy-centric, inside-the-Beltway image and instead tie their party’s positions to local and regional interests."

The Washington Post front-pages its look at prominent African-American GOP candidates this year. Some Republicans "say it will take more than one political cycle to change the habits of African American voters, and some Democrats say it will take more than a few attractive black Republican candidates to overcome GOP positions -- on affirmative action and other issues -- that many blacks view as anathema to their interests... Still, some Democrats say the GOP's investment in high-profile black candidates... cannot be dismissed lightly."

The Los Angeles Times says GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $37 billion bond deal to fund construction projects "has complicated efforts by his Democratic rivals to portray him as a failed governor who is too conservative for California."

The New York Daily News says President Bush, in FLORIDA yesterday, was “trying one last time to cut the political legs out from under the woman” -- Katherine Harris -- “who helped put him in the White House in 2000… Sources in Washington said Bush would make a final attempt to nudge Harris out of her doomed Senate race… Sources in Florida said [Bush] also made a personal plea to a possible Harris challenger, state House Speaker Allan Bense.”

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) and her husband failed to pay more than "$800 in penalties and interest after failing to file two unemployment insurance reports on time for their children’s nanny," reports the AP. A "spokesman for Granholm’s Republican rival, Dick DeVos, said the governor also has had problems with filing campaign finance reports for her Executive Office Administrative Account... The Michigan Republican Party has asked the [IRS] to investigate what it says are late or missing reports."

In Nebraska’s GOP gubernatorial primary, incumbency outweighed football celebrity as Gov. Dave Heineman defeated former University of Nebraska football coach and current Rep. Tom Osborne, 50%-44%. The Omaha World-Herald: “Osborne's three landslide victories for Congress against mostly marginal candidates did not prepare him for a fight with a seasoned politician, one who spent 30 years honing his skills and who entered the race with the GOP establishment in his corner.” Heineman will face Democrat David Hahn in November.

Meanwhile, Pete Ricketts won the GOP nomination to face Sen. Ben Nelson (D). “With a campaign fueled by nearly $5 million from his personal checking account, [Ricketts] overwhelmed his once better-known GOP rivals," and "immediately turned his attention to November. He said his race against Nelson would be ‘nationally significant’ and would help determine whether Republicans or Democrats like Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts control the Senate.” – Omaha World-Herald

Embattled GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who was absent during an earlier presidential visit to his state, told Don Imus on MSNBC this morning that he's be glad to have Bush come campaign for him: "When the President of the United States comes into your state, you show up." Asked about his somewhat improved poll standing, Santorum said, "as the President gets worse, we get better. I don't know why that's happening."

And in Texas, independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn (a/k/a Scott McClellan’s mom) yesterday turned in 223,000 signatures to get on the ballot this fall -- almost five times the amount she needs. “Independent candidate Kinky Friedman plans to turn his petitions in during a noon rally Thursday.” – Houston Chronicle