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First Read: The politics of Enron

The politics of Enron.  “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Thursday, May 25, 2006 | 5:10 p.m. ETFrom Mark Murray

The politics of Enron
So how are the convictions of Enron's Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling playing politically? Not surprisingly, Democrats have been the ones who have jumped in -- and they have used the convictions to highlight key issues. John Kerry, who referred to Enron and its ties to President Bush during the 2004 presidential campaign, said in a statement: "Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling will soon be behind bars for a very long time, but their victims must not be forgotten... Protecting workers' pensions and shareholders' investments must become a real priority." In addition, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid released a statement emphasizing that Lay helped write the Bush Administration's energy policies. "With the nation facing sky-high gas prices in the upcoming Memorial Day driving season, it is past time for President Bush to put aside Ken Lay's energy policies and join Democrats in reducing the cost of gas and making America energy independent."

The convictions are also playing out on the campaign trail. In Texas, which was Enron's home state, independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman has called on his two opponents -- Gov. Rick Perry (R) and fellow independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn (a/k/a Scott McClellan's mom) -- to return the thousands of dollars Lay and Enron's PAC gave them in 2000 and 2001.  (Note:  The Friedman campaign issued a correction late Thursday, noting that the Perry and Strayhorn camps had already donated their Enron contributions to charity.)

• Thursday, May 25, 2006 | 3:05 a.m. ETFrom Mike Viqueira and Elizabeth Wilner

Defending Dennis Hastert
House Speaker Dennis Hastert and his GOP colleagues are criticizing another television network for reporting that Hastert is "in the mix" on the federal investigation into Jack Abramoff's business dealings, and alleging that the story was planted by the Justice Department in retaliation for Hastert's staunch opposition to the FBI's raid of Rep. William Jefferson's office last Saturday night.

"...You know this is one of the leaks that comes out to try to intimidate people.  And we're just not going to be intimidated on it," Hastert said on WGN Radio today.  His attorney sent a letter to ABC News charging them with committing "libel and defmation."  The network is standing by its reporting. 

House Republicans rushed to defend Hastert this morning through one-minute speeches on the floor.  "When the Speaker has criticized an action of the Justice Department on a constitutional ground, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that there is retaliation from those that have been criticized.  But let's realize what that is: retaliation," said Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE).  Hastert has been "maligned by irresponsible leaks by an unaccountable bureaucrat," declared Eric Cantor (R-VA).  He was also repeatedly praised as a paragon of virtue by his Republican rank-and-file.  Majority Leader John Boehner called him "one of the most decent, honest human beings ever to serve in this House." 

The former Illinois high school teacher and wrestling coach will become the longest-serving Republican speaker in US history on June 1, another likely reason why his flock took to the floor to praise him today, since they will leave town for the Memorial Day recess this afternoon and will not be in session next week when the big day arrives.

• Thursday, May 25, 2006 | 9:15 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
The scheduled action in Washington today is at the White House and in the Senate.  But don't lose sight of the House.

President Bush speaks at the change of command ceremony for the Commandant of the US Coast Guard at Fort McNair in Washington at 11:00 am.  Tonight at 7:30 pm ET and 12:30 am in London, he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair hold a full-fledged news conference on next steps in Iraq.

One set of votes the White House was hoping for that we won't see today: final votes on the war/Katrina emergency supplemental bill.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that House and Senate negotiators still can't agree on what to cut from the bill.  The Senate version rang in at about $14 billion above the amount that the President requested and the House passed.  Bush has threatened to veto the measure if it exceeds his request.

Still, some big Senate votes are teed up for today: Gen. Michael Hayden's nomination to be CIA director and/or Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to a federal appellate court may come up, and a final vote is expected on the immigration reform bill -- probably this afternoon, Strickland advises.  Until then, the bill's supporters will continue trying to beat back proposed amendments that would undermine its core components: border security, employer enforcement, a guest-worker program, and paths to citizenship.  Once a bill passes the Senate, negotiators in both chambers must hammer out a compromise between their two differing versions -- preferably, from the White House's view, one including everything they want.

An unlikely prospect from the start, that may be even less likely now that relations between the White House and the House are fast deteriorating over the Administration's aggressive law enforcement tactics in dealing with members of Congress.

The chief source of outrage among members is the FBI's Saturday-night raid of the office of a Democratic member involved in a bribery scandal.  The bipartisan Hill leadership is up in arms over what it sees as a violation of the separation of powers, House leaders particularly so.  The House Judiciary Committee has gone so far as to schedule a rare recess hearing on Tuesday entitled, "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"  Judiciary chair Jim Sensenbrenner is a lead opponent of a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants, one of the main tenets of the Senate immigration bill.

Per NBC's Mike Viqueira, over the previous four months or so, congressional authorities have been discussing how to react should federal investigators need to check out the offices of Rep. Bob Ney or Sen. Conrad Burns, two Republicans entangled in the Jack Abramoff scandal.  But before any protocol could be agreed upon, Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's office was raided.  Strickland reports that while the Senate doesn't have a dog in this fight, leaders there want to set up a process in case a raid should ever occur on their side of the Hill.  Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is the subject of an ongoing SEC probe, has a meeting scheduled with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for tomorrow to discuss the matter.

Also, after another network newscast reported erroneously last night that House Speaker Dennis Hastert is being probed by the Justice Department for his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal, speculation is rampant in the House that the report, which cited Justice sources, was retribution for Hastert's criticism of the Jefferson office raid.  Both the Justice Department and Hastert's office have issued statements saying Hastert is not under investigation, and Hastert has demanded a retraction of the story.  House GOP members may take to the floor today to vent about the Hastert situation.

And Roll Call reports this morning that the FBI is interviewing members of Congress to see if they played any role in the leaking of the NSA wiretapping program to the New York Times, which reported the program's existence last December.

The House used to be the chamber President Bush could count on.  (Even though Republicans also control the Senate, control of that chamber is more perception than reality.)  After years of decent relations despite weak congressional outreach, the Administration, through the Jefferson office raid, may have lost the trust of House GOP leaders.  Viq reports that top Bush midterm election strategist Karl Rove visited the Hill yesterday and gave members an upbeat presentation on Administration initiatives.  The presentation fell flat.  The way it was told to Viq, it was an "emperor has no clothes" moment.  Although House Republicans probably will continue to play ball with the Administration on legislation that could boost them in the midterm elections, right now it's hard to see them going out of their way to come through for the Administration on much else.

The Jefferson raid

For an isolated incident involving "one errant congressperson," as Democratic officials are calling it, the Jefferson bribery scandal is becoming an even greater distraction in Washington than the broadening scandals surrounding Abramoff and jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R).  The federal probe of Jefferson has ignited fights between the bipartisan congressional leadership and the Administration over the separation of powers, and an intraparty battle between Jefferson and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi over whether or not Jefferson should relinquish a key committee post.  All of which, as Viq notes, has created a peculiar spectacle in which Democrats are trying to ditch Jefferson while Republicans are defending him.

Democrats are stepping cautiously to avoid looking as though they're endorsing unethical behavior.  Jefferson has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but two associates have pleaded guilty to bribing him and the FBI says it has him accepting bribes on videotape.  Pelosi yesterday called for Jefferson to give up his seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee.  She had acknowledged to NBC News earlier this week that Jefferson's problems muddied the party's case against a GOP "culture of corruption."  Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean declined to back up Pelosi's call yesterday but said that if Jefferson is indicted, the party will "condemn" his actions.

Jefferson declined, saying he has used the post to steer Hurricane Katrina aid to his New Orleans district, and suggesting that Pelosi's call was "discriminatory" because "no other Member currently under federal investigation has been asked to step down from a substantive, legislative committee assignment."  Reps. Alan Mollohan (D) and Bob Ney (R) recently gave up the ranking member slot on the Ethics Committee and the chairmanship of the House Administration Committee, respectively, because of their involvement in federal probes.  Jefferson may not regard these two panels as "substantive" and "legislative."

Pelosi yesterday also issued a rare joint statement with Speaker Dennis Hastert decrying the FBI's raid of Jefferson's office and calling for the Justice Department to "immediately return the papers it unconstitutionally seized," after which Jefferson "can and should fully cooperate with the Justice Department's efforts, consistent with his constitutional rights."

Republicans are openly outraged over the tactics used by the FBI, at the least viewing it as overkill, Viq reports.  To these members, it's a matter of principle: Suppose that Jefferson or any other member conducts oversight over the FBI and finds things that the Bureau isn't crazy about people knowing?  Can the Bureau go ahead and bust the door down to purge congressional files under the guise of an investigation?  But not everyone is buying it.  A senior law enforcement official on the Hill said federal investigators aren't going to give anyone in Congress a heads-up about a search, and suggested that members are outraged not because they are defending the Constitution, but as a matter of pride or "turf."

Hastert yesterday not only called for the return of the materials seized in the raid, but said he thinks that the officials who participated should be "frozen out" from further involvement in the probe.  Jefferson himself filed a motion in US District Court asking for the return of documents seized.  But Justice Department officials say that's a non-starter, NBC's Pete Williams reports.  "We have made extensive efforts since last August to obtain this important information through other means and were unable to do so," Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said yesterday.  "The Department has conducted similar searches in the past and our actions were lawful and necessary under these very unique circumstances."

Department officials also say that while they will continue discussions with congressional leaders, they will not do anything that would jeopardize the criminal probe, Williams reports.  To concede to Congress' demands, officials say, would be to put members of Congress in a special category that would go far beyond what's required by the separation of powers.

For all the distraction this is posing on Capitol Hill and to a lesser extent at the White House, it's not clear whether the public cares or which side they'd come down on.  As we wrote the other day, public opinion of Congress being what it is, it's arguably not a great time for Hill lawmakers to be emphasizing how they should be treated differently from other Americans, particularly when suspected of having committed a crime.

The AP reports White House aides are talking with Hastert's staff "concerning the possible transfer of the documents, possibly to the House ethics committee," the goal of which "would be to deny the material both to prosecutors and to" Jefferson.

A Washington Post analysis calls the raid "an aggressive tactic that broke a long-standing political custom" but "might not violate the letter of the [Constitution] or subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court, legal analysts say."

With Jefferson declining to give up his Ways and Means seat, "Pelosi’s only recourse now is to seek Jefferson’s expulsion from [the committee], which would require the consent of the Democratic Caucus and a vote of the full House.  The last House Member to be forcibly stripped of a committee assignment appears to have been then-Rep. Phil Gramm," who, as a Democrat at the time, "was booted from the Budget Committee for supporting Ronald Reagan’s budgets."

The feds and Congress
The Chicago Tribune says of the erroneous Hastert report last night that a Justice spokesperson “acknowledged that the Justice Department generally neither confirms nor denies news reports asserting the existence of an investigation but said that the department was moved to respond because of ’unique circumstances.’”

The Wall Street Journal says that after the report aired about Hastert, "Republican aides on Capitol Hill accused the Justice Department of leaking the story to undercut Mr. Hastert.  One aide to Mr. Hastert said: 'No doubt about it.  They're pushing back.'"

Exacerbating the rift between Congress and the Administration, Roll Call reports that the FBI "is seeking interviews with top House Members from both parties to determine whether they leaked details of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program to The New York Times."  And in addition to members' outrage over the Jefferson office raid, "three House committees have objected to a request for documents and staffer interviews by the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego as part of the criminal probe into former Rep. Duke Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) activities."

The Hill comes at it all from another angle: "Federal law-enforcement officials say they witnessed a dramatic jump in campaign-finance and other election-related crimes in the 2004 presidential election year and are determined to beef up their policing of candidates running for federal and local office around the country this year."

The CIA leak case
NBC's Joel Seidman reports that in a court filing in the CIA leak case last night, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald did not rule out calling Vice President Cheney to testify.  Fitzgerald wrote, "the government has not represented that it does not intend to call the Vice President as a witness at trial."  At issue are notes written by Cheney on a clipping of the op-ed published in the New York Times by former Ambassador Joe Wilson in July 2003.  Included in Cheney's notes in the margins of the article, he wrote, "Did Wilson's wife send him on a junket?"  Fitzgerald argues that the fact that comments regarding Wilson's wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame, were included among Cheney's annotations supports the proposition that then-Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby had repeated conversations with Cheney about the necessity to get out "all" the facts in response to the Wilson article.  The filing by Fitzgerald also asserts that Cheney "was upset that his personal credibility had been attacked, unfairly in his view."

The immigration debate
Opponents of a compromise bill in the House may have public opinion backing them up.  The chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Tom Davis, told reporters yesterday that although he personally supports the guest-worker provision in the Senate bill, "people are much closer to the House bill" than to the Senate version.  Davis, who represents a suburban Virginia district, declared that immigration is "the hottest issue out there."  Asked about speculation that the House will wind up blocking a compromise bill, Davis, a former chair of the GOP House campaign committee, said that passage of a bill would help congressional Republicans by reinforcing for the public that they are engaged and doing their jobs.  "No deal doesn't work...  That doesn't help anybody."

The Houston Chronicle: “Some House opponents of the sweeping Senate immigration legislation said Wednesday that a deal on a final bill may be possible if senators and the White House drop their central demand for most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants to have a chance for citizenship.  Middle ground would include House consideration of a limited guest worker program.”

Outgoing Rep. Tom DeLay (R) has called "legalization a 'non-starter' for House conservatives" but nonetheless "sketched a possible compromise: tougher border security and a temporary worker program open to foreign workers," notes the Dallas Morning News.  "Senators backing a comprehensive overhaul welcomed Mr. DeLay's statement as a sign that House members may be inching closer toward the Senate position."

The Washington Times says resistance to the citizenship tenet of the Senate bill is growing among "liberal House Republicans."

The Los Angeles Times notes that "with all House Republican seats up for grabs in November - and with their majority considered more at risk than the Senate's - GOP representatives worry that Bush's approach will undercut their short-term objective: getting reelected by voters clamoring for action to better secure the borders."

The Miami Herald suggests that GOP opposition in Florida to Bush's immigration plan is troubling for him.  "[T]he president's difficulties in persuading his own party to embrace his views are reflected in the deep divisions among Florida's largely Republican congressional delegation...  Most of Florida's 18 Republican House members, some facing reelection challenges, are adamantly opposed to a measure that would allow for legalization."

Security politics
Despite speculation that Bush and Blair may be prepared to announce the partial withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq, US military officials tell NBC's Jim Miklaszewski that it's likely that US troops levels will remain at approximately 130,000 at least through the end of the summer.  USA Today notes that the two leaders' meeting tonight will be their 22nd at the White House.

House Republicans hold a 1:00 pm rally with veterans at the Capitol to mark Memorial Day.  Senate Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton and Dick Durbin, kick off a homeland security summit at 9:45 am.

Potential presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) made a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday to visit troops from his state.  He also will stop in Afghanistan to meet with President Hamid Karzai.  Romney, who is also traveling with Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, says any allegations that he's in Iraq for political reasons are false, citing the fact that 29 other governors have visited Iraq. – Boston Globe

The midterms
DNC chair Howard Dean does MSNBC's Hardball at 5:00 pm.

Stu Rothenberg writes in Roll Call that he is "finally seeing a significant amount of evidence at the local level - in polling data and in recent primary election results - that the national mood is having an impact on incumbents."

USA Today looks at how candidate recruitment can make all the difference between whether a party is positioned to retake, or keep the majority, and rounds up efforts by both sides to court the strongest possible contenders.

The former chair of the Republican House campaign committee, Tom Davis, was cautious yesterday in handicapping his party's chances of holding onto Duke Cunningham's House seat in California.  The San Diego-based district leans Republican, but the still-percolating bribery scandal that landed Cunningham in jail and an array of national and local factors currently lined up against the GOP are making this race competitive.  On the national level, an unpopular war, an unpopular president, and an unmotivated party base are proving to be hurdles for Bilbray.  On the local level, bids by third-party candidates have "fractured" the local Republican base vote, Davis said.  He also acknowledged that the stakes are high here.  Should Democrats win this seat on June 6, they will tout it as a victory for their "culture of corruption" argument against the GOP and try to argue that it bodes ill for scandal-plagued Republican incumbents who are seeking re-election.

A new Public Policy Institute of California poll shows Phil Angelides barely leading Steve Westly in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, 35%-32%.  A press release says, "regardless of who wins the June Democratic primary, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to be headed for a close race come fall.”

The New York Post writes that New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has raised more campaign cash from lobbyists than any other senator but one, Rick Santorum (R).

While he was handicapping, Davis was asked for his thoughts on the US Senate race in his home state of Virginia.  Starting with the caveat that both incumbent GOP Sen. George Allen and Democratic candidate Jim Webb are friends of his, Davis said he was "surprised" to see Webb, former US Navy Secretary under President Reagan, enter the Democratic primary.  Noting that campaigns require discipline, he said pointedly, "Let's see how that works out" for Webb.  Webb has competition for the Democratic nomination from Harris Miller.  Allen is favored to hang onto the seat.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
A Wall Street Journal analysis of the GOP infighting on various fronts says, "Democrats lost power in 1994 when they kept fighting among themselves, oblivious to their House burning around them.  Republicans have ruled since with a remarkable discipline, but are at risk now because of exhaustion, scandals and, critics would say, the rigidity of their ideology and failure to learn from policy failures in a changing world...  The greatest source of division is conservatives' concern about spending, aggravated by the mounting cost of the Iraq war."

The New York Times writes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s deputy Robert Zoellick intends to resign.  “From his first days at the State Department, Mr. Zoellick has chafed at his subordinate position, frequently remarking that he was finding the adjustment difficult after" serving the US trade representative.

And the Washington Post profiles new Bush domestic policy advisor Karl Zinsmeister, who's replacing Claude Allen.  Allen stepped down "after being charged with stealing more than $5,000 in a phony refund scheme."