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First Read: Bush-Cheney travel ethical hotspots

Bush-Cheney travel ethical hotspots. “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Friday, May 19, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
President Bush and Vice President Cheney will travel through some ethical hotspots over the next several days in their efforts to boost Republican House incumbents and candidates whose vulnerabilities are rooted in scandals.  The efforts come as the House Ethics Committee undertakes probes of two members, one Republican and one Democrat, in response -- it seems -- to a series of national polls showing the public with an extremely low opinion of Congress.

After stopping in Virginia Beach for a fundraiser for freshman Rep. Thelma Drake at 12:40 pm, Bush then heads to Kentucky, where he will make remarks on his competitiveness initiative at Northern Kentucky University at 3:45 pm, followed by a fundraiser for freshman Rep. Geoff Davis in Florence at 5:35 pm.  GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher's indictment last week has Democrats claiming and Republicans fretting that Kentucky could become like neighboring Ohio, in that a scandal-plagued GOP administration will pose a hurdle for the party's candidates in November.  Davis, for one, faces a tough challenge from the Democrat he replaced in 2004, in a climate that's less friendly to Republicans now than it was two years ago.

Early next week, Vice President Cheney heads to California to raise money for House candidate Brian Bilbray and Reps. Richard Pombo and John Doolittle.  Bilbray, a former member of Congress, is running for the seat vacated by now-jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), and his Democratic opponent is trying to make an issue of Bilbray's ties to Congress.  Pombo and Doolittle have run into trouble over their efforts to help the owner of a lumber company who was facing investigation; Doolittle also has multiple ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

GOP House campaign committee spokesperson Carl Forti tells First Read that the Bush and Cheney events simply represent "the Administration fundraising for targeted incumbents and open-seat candidates."  That said, these Republicans are vulnerable largely because of ethics; otherwise Doolittle and Pombo, who faces an unusually tough primary challenge, would be regarded as safe and the Cunningham seat more likely to adhere to its usual GOP tilt.

While Democrats in Washington revel in splits within the GOP ranks, they must contend with their own internal divisions, the biggest of which is on display today in Connecticut.  Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has supported Bush on the Iraq war, faces an unusually feisty primary challenge from millionaire anti-war candidate Ned Lamont.  Lieberman is expected to easily win the state party endorsement at their nominating convention today, but all eyes will be on whether Lamont gets the 15% of the vote he needs to qualify for the primary ballot (if he falls short, he still can petition his way onto it).  The primary is on August 8.  Lamont is running TV ads hammering Lieberman's support for the war and calling him "a tool of the Bush-Cheney Administration."  An April poll shows Lieberman leading Lamont 65%-19%.  And next Thursday, MoveOn's 50,000 Connecticut members will hold their own online primary.  Lamont presumably will do pretty well among this anti-war crowd.

Tomorrow, New Orleans residents will head to the polls again to vote in their headline-grabbing mayoral election.  The city has been struggling to repair itself physically and emotionally after being hit with one of the most ferocious hurricanes in modern history, which exposed for the nation its economic disparities, weak infrastructure and racial tensions.  After narrowing the field from 22 candidates to two in last month's primary, voters have since been assessing current Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu to decide who is most qualified to lead them through the long and challenging recovery period ahead.

Nagin, who recognizes that his job performance during and after Hurricane Katrina might lead voters to think change is needed, has been encouraging them to remember their city before the storm struck last summer.  He argues that he was making progress in ridding the city of its "legendary" corruption while strengthening the economy.  If Landrieu wins, Nagin charges, the city will revert to its old ways.  Landrieu, who is a member of Louisiana's political royalty, believes he can move New Orleans forward by restoring its credibility and picking up the pace of recovery, which up until now has frustrated many residents.  But some critics see Landrieu and his family as career politicians who have failed over the past several decades to change anything.

Polls will be open from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm ET.  By law, the state must begin counting early ballots by 2:00 pm ET tomorrow.  That process could take several hours, during which the 76 polling precincts around Orleans Parish will begin sending in their results.  Officials were able to complete the count around midnight during last month's primary, but there's no telling how long it could take this time.

And, in our weekly report on the great oh-eight presidential race, we look at what the possible presidential candidates have said about Gen. Michael Hayden's nomination to head the CIA.  Although some Republicans have raised objections, that's not necessarily true among their colleagues eyeing the White House.  See below.

The immigration debate
In their ongoing deliberations over immigration reform, the Senate yesterday voted in favor of essentially making English the national language, including on federal documents.  The measure has quite a way to go before becoming law, NBC's Ken Strickland advises, but this is the first big step.  A somewhat softer Democratic alternative that specifically mentions the need to preserve multilingual services also passed, causing some confusion.  "Lawmakers said negotiations with the House would determine which of the two measures remains in a final bill overhauling the nation's immigration laws," says the Los Angeles Times.

"The English language vote continued the conservative turn that a major overhaul of the nation's immigration laws has taken since the Senate began debate this week." – Washington Post

But the Senate rejected an amendment that would have prevented illegal immigrants from collecting Social Security benefits "based on past illegal employment -- even if the job was obtained through forged or stolen documents." – Washington Times

The Los Angeles Times notes in its Yuma-Washington coverage that Bush yesterday "flew nearly nine hours round-trip, approximately 4,400 miles, for the roughly three-hour visit to the southwest corner of Arizona" to make his points about immigration.

In a reversal, Bush stated that he favors some fencing along the US-Mexico border, the New York Times says.  “Mr. Bush has in the past indicated he is opposed to fencing, and White House officials were kept busy... trying to explain the change in his position," which the story notes is Bush's "latest effort to win over House conservatives who want an immigration bill focused on strengthening border security instead of a temporary guest worker program favored by the Senate.”

Security politics
Iraqi leaders are preparing to announce the members of their new government this weekend, a milestone President Bush will surely take time to tout.  "After months of wrangling, those leaders say they have come up with a system that will help develop consensus on critical issues." – USA Today

The New York Times says the Senate Intelligence Committee's "questioning of General Hayden in more than seven hours of public testimony included moments of tension.  But, for the most part, Democrats as well as Republicans praised his experience...  None of the 15 senators on the committee indicated that they planned to vote against General Hayden's nomination.”

The Chicago Tribune says Hayden told the committee “he initially resisted Bush administration suggestions to expand domestic wiretaps on U.S. citizens after the Sept. 11 attacks, but that White House officials then convinced him the program was lawful.”

The New York Daily News notes that, in an effort to distance himself from the Pentagon, Hayden “told Congress yesterday he ‘wasn't comfortable’ with the secret Pentagon unit that claimed Al Qaeda had ties to Saddam Hussein.”

BellSouth has sent a letter to the publisher of USA Today, asking that the paper "'retract the false and unsubstantiated statements' about the company that it contends were in a May 11 story about a database of domestic calling records maintained by the National Security Agency...  Steve Anderson, a USA Today spokesman, said the paper is "reviewing it, and we will be responding.'"

The Los Angeles Times looks at the on-campus controversies surrounding high-profile commencement speakers who support the Iraq war, pegged to protests of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's scheduled speech at Boston College on Monday, and to Sen. John McCain's speech at the New School today.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The White House sent the House GOP leadership a letter yesterday asking that the emergency supplemental be passed before recess -- and repeating the President's threat to veto any bill that hits his desk and costs more than his requested $92 billion, except for additional bird flu funding, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  "The president's chief of staff and former budget director, Joshua Bolten, followed up with a trip to the Capitol where he was promised by the leadership that the veto won't be needed -- and that the bill will comply," says the Wall Street Journal.

The Washington Times reports that not only House GOP leaders but House conservatives see victories in their just-passed budget.

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage "after a shouting match between" the committee's chair, Arlen Specter, and potential Democratic presidential candidate Russ Feingold, who "declared his opposition to the amendment, his love of the Constitution and his intention to leave the meeting."  Potential Republican presidential candidate Bill Frist has scheduled a Senate floor vote for June 5.  Potential president candidate John McCain's vote will be watched closely by social conservatives. – USA Today

White House press secretary Tony Snow made a point of saying yesterday that he been watching the Hayden hearings on CNN.  The White House press corps had recently questioned why White House and Air Force One television sets always appeared to be tuned to Fox.

It's the economy
The House version of the Interior Department appropriations bill now includes a "Democratic plan to renegotiate Gulf of Mexico oil leases and take back $10 billion in incentives granted to Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and other producers."  The proposal, "spurred by voter anger about rising gasoline prices and record oil company profits, is the first measure passed by either house of Congress to address existing tax breaks or subsidies for the oil industry." - Bloomberg

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's next "red-state tour," this time of Louisiana and Ohio, will focus on gas and other energy prices.  Reid makes a quick stop in Louisiana later today, with a Democratic Senate campaign committee fundraiser tonight.  On Saturday, he will appear in Cleveland with the party's Senate nominee, Sherrod Brown, who is trying to draw attention to GOP Sen. Mike DeWine's contributions from oil and gas companies.

The Washington Post reports that the House Ethics Committee plans to work with the Justice Department "to avoid interference with federal prosecutors' investigations of" Reps. Bob Ney (R) and Bill Jefferson (D) as the committee begins its own probes.  "Yet it was not clear that the committee would have enough time to complete its work before the end of the legislative session this autumn."

Another House committee "will hold hearings to probe a Department of Homeland Security transportation contract, which members of Congress from both parties say raises procurement and security concerns."  Shirlington Limousine and Transportation "has been accused of providing limousines that took prostitutes to parties where lawmakers -- including former Rep. Randall 'Duke' Cunningham... -- were being entertained by intelligence and defense contractors." – Washington Times

The Boston Globe details the alleged connections between defense contractor Mitchell Wade -- who is also entangled in the Duke Cunningham scandal -- and Rep. Katherine Harris (R), who is running for Florida's Senate seat, along with other lawmakers.  "Though Cunningham and Wade both pleaded guilty, federal officials also want to know whether a second unnamed defense contractor may also have wooed congressmen, other defense contractors, and the CIA's third in command with poker parties, a hospitality suite, and possibly prostitutes."

The Wall Street Journal says the trial of former Administration procurement officer David Safavian, which is set to begin on Monday, will be a test of "an influence-peddling probe based largely on emails and a network of low-profile Republican aides can pass muster with a jury."

Disaster politics
Vice President Cheney will deliver the commencement address at LSU in Baton Rouge at 1:00 pm ET.

In last night's mayoral debate, the final one before tomorrow's election, "[s]parks flew... over whether Nagin has sugarcoated the city's financial health and about the veracity of his announcement Monday that his administration has secured a $150 million line of credit that would help maintain day-to-day operations through 2007," reports the Times-Picayune.

Historian Doug Brinkley's book criticizing Nagin's handling of Katrina was timed to help sink him in Saturday's mayoral runoff, Nagin and his supporters charge.  Brinkley says "that Nagin should blame himself that the book has become such a prominent part of the campaign." – Washington Post

The midterms
Bloomberg looks at how liberal Democrats are seeking to hold party lawmakers accountable at the voting booths when they agree with Bush's positions, and how some more centrist Democrats caution that these efforts could undercut the party's chance to retake control of Congress.

It comes as no surprise to close observers who recognize it's probably his only way to win in California, but the Los Angeles Times looks at the ways in which "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is distancing himself from President Bush and fellow Republicans in Congress as he seeks to avoid harm to his reelection effort."  The story notes that "the governor's anti-Bush stance involves a bit of whiplash" for some of his senior staffers who "moved to jobs in the reelection campaign directly from the Bush White House."

Florida's "Democratic candidates for governor are jockeying for a prized endorsement Sunday from the Florida AFL-CIO, whose half-million members crave a more union-friendly successor to Gov. Jeb Bush," reports the Miami Herald.

The Washington Post says the two top rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maryland have turned the state teachers' union endorsement race "into a mini-Iowa caucus."  The union will announce its endorsement tomorrow.

Four Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates met last night for an hour-long debate, during which the tone was mostly "civil" and the contenders saved their attacks for Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is retiring, and Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R) who is seeking to replace him, reports the Boston Globe.

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman is in WISCONSIN today, participating in an NRA grassroots workshop and keynoting the state GOP convention.

Here are statements the potential 2008 presidential candidates have made about Hayden's nomination to head the CIA.  Among those who will get to vote on his nomination, the Democratic senators say they're opposed or concerned, while the Republican senators say they're inclined to support him.  Reflecting the fact that their jobs don't require them to talk about national security too often, we couldn't find any statements from the current or former governors who are thinking of running -- Democrats Bill Richardson and Mark Warner and Republicans Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, and Mitt Romney.  Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) appears not to have said a word about Hayden, either.

Evan Bayh (member of the Senate Intelligence committee): Has said Hayden has "a distinguished career" and has "served his country well...  The question the upcoming hearings need to answer is whether General Hayden is the right man to bring necessary change to the CIA."

Joe Biden: Told ABC that he wouldn't vote for Hayden if he "stonewalls" in the hearings.  "I mean, if he... does not respond, then he'll make it very, very difficult.  But as a man, I think he's a first-rate person."

Hillary Clinton: Following her usual MO, has been cautious and fairly quiet about the nomination.  "I'm going to wait for the hearings," she told the New York Daily News.  However, said she was "deeply disturbed" after USA Today reported that the NSA has allegedly been collecting records of Americans' phone calls.

John Edwards: Although he hasn't made a public statement, a spokesperson says he's opposed to the nomination because of his participation "in what are at best questionable, if not illegal activities" at the NSA.

Russ Feingold (member of the intelligence committee): In a statement after meeting with Hayden earlier this week, he said Hayden "is a very experienced individual with great knowledge of our nation's intelligence operations.  But before voting to confirm General Hayden to this important post, I must be convinced that he respects the rule of law and Congress's constitutional role in conducting oversight."  Also said Hayden must be more forthcoming about the controversial NSA program.

John Kerry: Has said he's "very troubled" by Hayden's nomination "because he is one of the main supporters representing Donald Rumsfeld who helped to put in place the programs of spying on Americans and has been one of the biggest defenders of it."

George Allen: In a statement after Hayden's nomination, said he is "inclined" to support him.  "However, before making a decision, I wish to closely review General Hayden's attributes and capabilities to lead the CIA."

Sam Brownback: Has said he's pleased that hearings are taking place 1) to vet Hayden's qualifications and 2) to possibly revise the NSA surveillance programs to ensure people's rights aren't being violated.

Bill Frist: Said he looks forward to Hayden's "prompt confirmation" in a statement after the nomination.  "General Hayden is a very qualified nominee with a long history of service to his country."

Chuck Hagel (member of the intelligence committee): Told ABC that he supports Hayden, but that "there's no question that his confirmation is going to depend upon the answers he gives regarding activities of [the] NSA."

John McCain: Told CBS that he's "always inclined to support any president's nominee because elections have consequences.  But I also believe that hearings should be held.  And... for me to totally make up my mind before we have these hearings I think would be inappropriate."

A bill that would give an extra electoral vote to Republican Utah in exchange for granting Washington, DC full representation in the House of Representatives was easily approved by the House Government Reform Committee, though it faces a tougher road in the House Judiciary Committee.

The New York Daily News covers pro-choice/pro-gay rights Rudy Giuliani (R) campaigning for former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed (R), who is running for lieutenant governor of Georgia (and who is also linked to the Abramoff scandal).  “The coming together was one of the odder unions in Giuliani's recent political life, which is currently focused on testing the waters for a possible run for President in 2008 - when Giuliani may well need conservative activists like Reed at his side.”

As far as who's where, Bayh is in Iowa later today and tomorrow; Edwards addresses a South Carolina NAACP event in Columbia on Saturday night, with a media availability to precede it; Feingold lays out his view of US national security policy "beyond Iraq" at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington today at 12:30 pm; and Kerry will give the commencement address at, and receive an honorary degree from Kenyon University in Ohio tomorrow.

And in June, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle will be making his third trip to Iowa since 2004, notes the Des Moines Register.