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First Read: Battle truly begins in Pennsylvania

The battle truly begins in Pennsylvania.  “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Wednesday, May 17, 2006 | 5:00 p.m. ETFrom Mark Murray

The battle truly begins in Pennsylvania
For several months now, the campaigns of Sen. Rick Santorum (R) and Bob Casey Jr. (D) have been trading barbs on a regular basis (sometimes even flooding our e-mail inboxes). But those barbs seemed to escalate to DEFCON 2 after Casey won his primary last night -- suggesting that this Pennsylvania Senate race might truly deserve the hype some have given it. Immediately after Casey's victory last night, Santorum challenged him to 10 debates and to indicate how he would vote on every matter before the Senate. Santorum also said, per the AP: "Come out from behind the name and stand before the voters of Pennsylvania and talk about the issues important to the people of this state." Sen. Elizabeth Dole, chair of the Republican senatorial campaign committee, released a statement echoing that challenge: "Now that the general election is underway, maybe it's time for 'Silent Bob' to articulate his positions on key issues."

On cue today, Casey responded by issuing a list of 30 issue-based differences between Santorum and him -- including on Iraq, Social Security, and tax policy -- and saying, "I've tried to make this a campaign about the issues and about why the Santorum-Bush policies have hurt Pennsylvania. Sen. Santorum's remarks were untrue -- I'm here to set the record straight."

As intense as the race seems already, close observers and consultants involved in the race don't expect it to reach DEFCON 1 until the fall.  The first debate in this contest is likely to take place over Labor Day weekend on NBC's own Meet the Press.

• Wednesday, May 17, 2006 | 11:45 a.m. ETFrom Mike Viqueira

More conservative anger over immigration?
Karl Rove traveled to Capitol Hill this morning to make his pitch for the president's immigration plan, but some GOP members who were canvassed after they left the closed-door gathering were not impressed. Rove stayed for only 10 to 12 minutes total -- just enough time to essentially rehash Bush's Monday speech and answer a few questions, according to 10 or so members NBC News spoke with after the meeting. Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a true-blue conservative who is adamantly opposed to the plan, called the presentation "boilerplate." Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), another opponent, said it was "truncated." Both professed to be mystified as to why the president is trying to do this before "securing the border." To say the least, they were unmoved by what Rove had to say.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) also was unimpressed. As it happens, he will be on Air Force One with the Bush when he travels to Arizona tomorrow for an up close look at the situation on the border. Also along for the ride will be fellow Arizona Republican congressman Jeff Flake, who supports the president's plan. One GOP congressman who was encouraged with Rove's appearance was pro-guest worker Rep. George Radonovich (R-CA), who said he believes that Rove's visit and follow up will eventually bear fruit. Rove told members that he will be making calls to help answer any questions they may have.

• Wednesday, May 17, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
The White House and House Republican leaders might be at odds over a guest-worker program, but they're uniting for a display of fiscal responsibility. President Bush signs his $69 billion "tax relief extension" bill into law at 1:50 pm, extending his tax cuts on dividends and capital gains until 2010 and sparing an estimated 15 million upper middle-class Americans from the alternative minimum tax. The base-motivating value House Republicans see in this bill is reflected in the unusual degree of election-year shtick they indulged in yesterday, having an electrician from Newport News, VA participate in the bill's send-off from Capitol Hill and literally follow the bill down the street to the White House in his pick-up truck.

Overlooking opposition from some Republicans who are concerned about the deficit, the White House and GOP leaders continue to insist that the tax cuts have boosted the economy and to accuse those Democrats opposed to extending them of favoring a tax increase. Democrats continue to insist that the tax cuts benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and several Senate Democrats and a House colleague hold a 2:15 pm press conference to charge that the bill doesn't do enough to help the middle class.

Also today, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports, House Republicans say they plan to bring a budget to the floor. Passing a budget would spare them the embarrassment of failing to pass one for the first time since they claimed the majority in 1994. A close vote is expected.

This show of fiscal responsibility, intended to reassure an increasingly disgruntled GOP base that the party remains true to its principles, is not without chinks. Bush continues to cut taxes during wartime. He wants to halve the deficit by the time he leaves office, but has yet to veto a spending bill. In a speech on Monday, Karl Rove touted how Bush has issued 39 veto threats to various spending measures and got his way on all of them, which Rove called an "unreported achievement." Rove also asserted that "no president has made a bigger effort to cut entitlement spending." But Bush failed to persuade Republicans in Congress to substantially cut entitlements this year, and has yet to set up a promised panel to study the programs. He's also had trouble getting GOP appropriators to cut back on pork, a conflict which is expected to bog down the war/Katrina supplemental bill in conference -- though the White House might now welcome a chance to veto a spending bill.

Three appropriations bills due to be considered on the House floor this week show that at least for the time being, pork still reigns on the Hill, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports. Manure management research in Iowa, wolf monitoring in Idaho, and bovine genetics in Maryland are just some of the dozens of earmarks included in the three bills. Although the lobbying reform bill that recently passed the House would require that the member responsible for inserting an earmark into a bill be publicly identified, that measure awaits a conference with the Senate. House conservatives are publicizing a list of earmarks in an escalation of their conflict with their appropriator colleagues. These conservatives will try to strip many of these earmarks from the bills during floor debate but are not expected to succeed, Viq says.

Tonight, Bush participates in an equally crucial event for this election year, the Republican National Committee's annual fundraising gala at Constitution Hall, which is expected to bring in at least $17 million, per the RNC. The theme of the event is "Race to Victory" and the decor of the hall will reflect as much. RNC chair Ken Mehlman will introduce the President. Prior to the tax-cut bill-signing this afternoon, Bush will take part in a photo op and make remarks to the US Winter Olympic and Paralympics Teams at 10:20 am.

Also today, NBC's Ken Strickland reports, Senate Intelligence Committee members will receive an Administration briefing on the NSA domestic wiretapping program at committee chair Pat Roberts' request. Currently, only seven of the 15 members of the committee have been given details of the program. Strickland says the briefing could defuse what is otherwise expected to be a controversial hearing for CIA director nominee Gen. Michael Hayden in Roberts' committee tomorrow. Indeed, some Democrats are questioning the timing of the White House's new openness, since several of them have long fought for the full committee to get briefed on the classified program. And since many of the tough questions in the hearing would likely be about the NSA program, newly briefed panel members may wind up facing restrictions on what they can discuss in a public session.

The immigration debate
Arizona's East Valley Tribune previews Bush's stop in Yuma tomorrow, where he'll spend four hours touring a portion of the US-Mexico border, attending a briefing by Border Patrol officials, and making remarks on border security and immigration reform at the patrol’s Yuma Sector HQ.

"Yesterday, Mr. Bush said he would not accept any bill from Congress that does not include a guest-worker program and provisions to grant citizenship to at least some of the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens already in the country," notes the Washington Times.

So how might Bush's call for a guest-worker plan and a path to citizenship affect GOP candidates this fall? Rep. Tom Reynolds, who chairs the party's House campaign committee, told reporters yesterday that he's unsure. "I think we've got to see how the country reacts," he said, adding that if these candidates follow Bush's plan is up to them -- hardly a ringing endorsement of Bush's Monday speech.

Other House Republicans reacted generally positively toward Bush's border enforcement proposal, but were noncommittal at best on the citizenship question, NBC's Viq reports, as some GOP members continue to call the guest-worker proposal amnesty. A GOP aide said the Guard proposal is like "the shiny piece of metal on the spinner lure," and that the President has "no credibility" on this issue with conservatives. Asked at his weekly press briefing for his views on the speech, Majority Leader John Boehner praised the Guard proposal as a "good first step" but expressed concerns about the guest-worker plan.

Back in October, Viq reminds us, 81 House conservatives wrote to Bush and insisted that any guest-worker program come after passage of a border enforcement bill. In the wake of the massive protests that have occurred in the interim, positions have only hardened on that score. The only way that a bill providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants can pass the House would appear to be without conservative support -- and with the help of Democrats, something that GOP leadership is loathe to do. Viq reminds us that Speaker Dennis Hastert has said in the past that as a matter of policy, the only way any bill passes the House is with "a majority of the majority."

Viq points out that there is precedent for rolling the conservative ranks and passing a bill with the help of Democrats -- in No Child Left Behind and, to a lesser degree, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. But both happened back when Bush was doing much better in the polls and could effectively twist arms among Republicans. And Democrats, Viq points out, will be reluctant to hand Bush and Republicans any kind of victory six months before election day.

MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell reports that Karl Rove is heading to the Hill today to brief House Republicans on immigration.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the immigration bill, including the guest-worker provision, survived two votes intact yesterday. "Seven Democrats, including several from North Dakota, Oregon and other states, voted with Republicans to tackle security issues first. Eighteen Republicans rejected the amendment," notes the Wall Street Journal, which also reports, "A White House official didn't rule out the prospect that House-Senate talks would run past November.'"

The Chicago Tribune: “Battling with conservative Republican lawmakers who refused to budge on immigration policy, President Bush… confronted the political reality of how much more difficult it will be to sell his plans on Capitol Hill than it was to explain them on national television this week.”

The Dallas Morning News says there are a lot of unanswered questions about the National Guard's deployment to patrol the country's borders -- for example, "[w]hen the Guard will deploy, their precise mission and what units will be sent," as well as "what rules Guard members will operate under if they confront illegal immigrants."

Approximately 400 pro-immigrant activists from across the country will be in Washington today to lobby congressional lawmakers to support comprehensive immigration reform, and a nationwide effort to register Latino voters also will begin today. – Los Angeles Times

The New York Daily News: “Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted yesterday it's ‘just not clear’ if his Mexican-immigrant grandparents settled in the U.S. legally.”

Security politics
First BellSouth, now Verizon. A second telecom giant says it isn't providing phone call records to the NSA, in contrast to what USA Today reported. The third, AT&T, has not yet disputed the report. White House press secretary Tony Snow pointed out the two phone companies' refutations on TODAY this morning.

House Intelligence Committee chair Peter Hoekstra, who has already objected to Bush's choice of Hayden to head the CIA, is now criticizing Bush's pick to be the CIA's number two, Stephen Kappes. (Again, since he's not a member of the Senate, Hoekstra technically has no vote on the matter.) – Washington Times

Rep. John Murtha (D) will hold a news conference at 12 noon to mark the six months that have passed since he initially called for an immediate US troop withdrawal from Iraq.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The latest Washington Post/ABC poll shows what other recent surveys have: dangerously low opinions of GOP governance, a Democratic party that's benefiting more by comparison to the GOP than from anything they're proactively doing, Iraq tainting people's views of how the country is doing, and a record low job approval for Bush (33% in this survey).

The New York Times critiques Tony Snow’s first televised White House briefing. “With the president's standing in opinion polls this low, Mr. Snow was more like a stepfather meeting his wife's children for the first time.”

Today's demonstration of why the battle to eliminate pork is so uphill: The Hill reports that some Republican members from Pennsylvania expected to face tough races this fall are irked over what they see as Murtha's hogging the pork-barrel spending targeted to their state.

"Bush administration officials estimated Tuesday that about 90% of Medicare's 42.5 million beneficiaries have prescription-drug coverage, and a bipartisan group of senators said they would enact legislation to lift penalties on those who did not sign up," says USA Today.

The Los Angeles Times covers the dispute between the Administration and critics of the drug plan over the latest enrollment figures.

With fiscal policy on the Washington menu today, Bloomberg says Bush's approach to trade, "using individual accords as stepping stones to a unified, global system of trade," may be "backfiring. The bilateral pacts have increased pressure on Canada, China and Europe to seek their own separate deals at the expense of a new World Trade Organization accord, economists and lawmakers say. The result is a series of conflicting agreements that may do more harm than good."

Disaster politics
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and his challenger, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, squared off last night on MSNBC in a heated debate that focused on questions of leadership, race and the risks of rebuilding a city below sea level. Nagin spent most of the hour defending his actions during and after Hurricane Katrina while encouraging voters to remember a New Orleans that he said he was in the process of reforming before the city was decimated last year. From Landrieu's perspective, the city has made little progress in the nine months since Katrina hit and voters need a new mayor who is capable of "getting things done."

Co-moderators Chris Matthews of MSNBC and Norman Robinson of NBC affiliate WDSU made use of their second candidate forum by re-asking questions which Nagin and Landrieu had avoided back when the field was more crowded and dodging questions was a little easier. One question Nagin and Landrieu were asked to readdress was why taxpayers around the country should care about rebuilding New Orleans. Landrieu, who didn't give a straight answer last time, argued that the city is a "gateway" for exports and a major supplier of oil and energy and that without rebuilding, Americans across the nation could take a hit in their pocketbooks. Nagin said he believes the city should be rebuilt and feels confident that stronger levees will protect it from further catastrophes.

A new Tulane Poll shows Landrieu beating Nagin, 48% to 38%, with much of Landrieu's edge appearing to come from an advantage over Nagin on leadership.

With Massachusetts facing dangerous flooding, presidential contender and Gov. Mitt Romney (R) said in an interview yesterday that his Administration is doing everything it can to assist residents and to prevent looting. The Boston Herald says Romney's "remarks puzzled local officials who reported no incidents of looting... and prompted experts to question if Romney was raising red flags for no reason - or for political reasons."

Neil Volz, the former chief of staff to Rep. Bob Ney (R) and Jack Abramoff associate who pleaded guilty last week in the influence-peddling scandal surrounding the disgraced lobbyist, will be a cooperating witness in the David Safavian trial set to begin next week, per NBC's Joel Seidman. Safavian is a former chief procurement officer for the Bush Administration. Justice Department prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said in a pre-trial hearing yesterday that Volz will testify about suggestions from Safavian about creating language, to be inserted in legislation, that could have helped transfer some GSA-owned property to Abramoff and his clients. Abramoff will not appear as a witness at the trial, which is set to begin on Monday.

Republican operative Jim Tobin will be sentenced today for his role in the 2002 GOP phone-jamming scheme which disrupted Democrats' get-out-the-vote calls in New Hampshire. The RNC has paid Tobin's legal bills, and New Hampshire Democrats have been seeking to tie the scandal to the White House and national GOP officials. – Washington Post

Taped conversations between Rep. William Jefferson (D) and a witness, Lori Mody, could be key in the federal investigation into whether Jefferson offered bribes to Mody in exchange for her help in awarding contracts to a technology firm and according to Mody, defrauded her out of millions. The Times-Picayune reports that Mody went to the FBI after she claims Jefferson began offering her bribes and became a "cooperating witness" for the agency.

The New York Times takes a look at the Washington apartment units that are receiving scrutiny in the federal investigation into the finances of Rep. Alan Mollohan (D).

The Democrats
Al Gore's new movie about climate change, "An Inconvenient Truth," premieres tonight in Washington at the National Geographic Society, with Gore and the filmmakers on hand for a reception after the screening. Recording artist Moby will also be in attendance.

The 2004 election was rough on Democrats. A rare bright spot for them was Colorado, where they captured a GOP-held Senate seat, a GOP-held House seat, and control of the state legislature. Colorado Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D), who was in Washington yesterday, spoke with First Read about the party's success in his state and what that success could mean for national Democrats as they try and take back the House and Senate. Romanoff noted that Republicans had controlled the state House for nearly 30 years, but facing the state's worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, they focused instead of social issues -- like gay marriage and the Pledge of Allegiance. State Democrats, who he said fielded good candidates and had plenty of money, campaigned on this simple message: "Give us a chance." That message could work for national Democrats this fall, Romanoff said, but he added that they must show they have an agenda to govern. "You've got to give folks something to shoot for -- not something to shoot at."

The New York Times reports that the Democratic House campaign committee is running ads on Christian radio stations to remind listeners about the GOP’s plan last year to partially privatize Social Security. The ad, "scheduled to begin running Wednesday in five House districts in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Virginia," suggests "that the Social Security approach championed by Mr. Bush and many Congressional Republicans could undermine the stability of the retirement program while adding $2 trillion in federal debt.”

The midterms
One of Democrats' previously touted Iraq war veteran candidates went down in defeat last night in Kentucky. John Yarmuth defeated Iraq war vet Andrew Horne, 54%-32%, for the right to challenge GOP Rep. Anne Northup in the fall. – Courier-Journal

Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R) is distancing herself from President Bush and the national GOP while softening her stance on immigration as she runs for governor of Massachusetts, notes the Boston Globe.

In New Jersey, Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. (R) holds a press conference on immigration in Jersey City at 10:30 am.

In Oregon, Ron Saxton won the GOP gubernatorial primary and will now face potentially vulnerable Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D). More: “Elections officials late Tuesday reported 32 percent of the state's 2 million voters had cast ballots. That number wasn't final but was on its way to a record low turnout for an Oregon vote-by-mail primary.” – The Oregonian

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Democrat Bob Casey’s expected primary victory in Pennsylvania: “The nation's most anticipated U.S. Senate matchup became official last night as… Casey shrugged off the opposition of two liberal rivals to claim the spot on the November ballot opposite U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum… In early tallies, Mr. Casey had collected more than 80 percent of the Democratic votes while his rivals, Alan Sandals and Chuck Pennacchio, were stuck in single digits.”

The AP adds that an “effort by Pennsylvania voters to oust state lawmakers over a big pay raise cost at least 13 incumbents their jobs, including both of the Senate's top Republicans. The pay hikes were passed in the middle of the night last year, then repealed by legislators under public pressure.” And, “Iraq War veteran Patrick Murphy defeated a former county commissioner in a Democratic primary for the right to take on freshman Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick in a swing district in the Philadelphia suburbs.”