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First Read: The Gay Marriage urban legend?

The Gay Marriage urban legend?  “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Monday, June 5, 2006 | 3:00p.m. ETFrom Mark Murray

The Gay Marriage urban legend?
In a statement this afternoon, President Bush reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman (and thus prohibiting gay marriage). Why? Because "activist" courts in Massachusetts and elsewhere have forced his hand. "Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges," he told a crowd of supporters who agree with him on this constitutional amendment. In fact, Bush referred to "activist judges" and "activist courts" several times during his brief remarks.

With the midterm elections just five months away, most political analysts see Bush's jumping into the gay marriage debate -- after staying silent on the issue since the 2004 election -- as a way to pep up a demoralized conservative voters, especially since many conservatives believe the issue helped him win re-election. But some are already starting to question whether such a tactic will work in this political environment. And Newsweek even has former Bush-Cheney campaign strategist Matthew Dowd doubting its effectiveness two years ago. "It didn't drive turnout in 2004," he told the newsweekly, saying that turnout was the same in states with gay marriage bans on the ballot and those without. "That is a urban legend.

Critics blasted Bush's speech. "At a time when hard-working Americans are losing sons and daughters in Iraq, struggling to afford health care for their families, and worrying about being able to fill their tanks with gas, the President and Republican leaders are launching a discriminatory attack on the U.S. Constitution and American families," said the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group. "That’s not leading, that’s shameful politicking, and Americans are speaking out.”

• Monday, June 5, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ETFrom Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

First glance
For the last few weeks, congressional Republicans have been consumed with matters that have divided their party (immigration), allied themselves with Democrats (protesting the FBI's raid of William Jefferson's office), or been largely out of their control (continued violence in Iraq). But this week and the next, they're turning to issues that bring most of them together: gay marriage, flag burning, and the estate tax.

Today and tomorrow, the Senate will debate a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between a man and woman, with a vote expected on Wednesday. Later in the week, the chamber will take up repealing the estate tax. And next week, the Senate will consider a constitutional amendment prohibiting the burning of the American flag. None of these measures is expected to pass, although some kind of compromise could be reached on the estate tax. But, as we wrote last week, passing legislation really isn't the point -- rather, it's to rally a largely demoralized GOP base to turn out for the November midterms.

The $64,000 question, of course, is whether these measures -- and even other ones -- will do the trick. An AP/Ipsos poll last month found that 45% of conservatives disapprove of Bush’s job performance, 65% of them disapprove of Congress, and 31% want Republicans out of power. And in the last NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Democratic voters indicated they were much more interested in the midterms than their GOP counterparts.

President Bush is jumping into the marriage debate, too. After meeting with the president of the Republic of Congo, fellows from the Chinese Leadership Program, and the president of Honduras, Bush makes a statement at the White House on the Marriage Protection Amendment at 1:45 pm. Family groups and legal scholars (both Republicans and Democrats) will be in attendance. Bush devoted his Saturday radio address to the issue, saying that “activist judges” who have “made an aggressive attempt to redefine marriage” make such an amendment necessary. “Activist courts have left our Nation with no other choice,” he said. “Democracy, not court orders, should decide the future of marriage in America.”

Gay-rights advocates argue that such an amendment would write discrimination into the US Constitution for the first time in more than 200 years by denying marriage to same-sex couples. The Human Rights Campaign holds a 1:00 pm press conference outside the Capitol to protest the amendment and urge Congress to focus on more pressing matters. The liberal Center for American Progress and the libertarian Cato Institute host a debate on the issue at 10:00 am.

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell notes that religious conservatives have criticized Bush on the issue of gay marriage: They say he benefited from their turnout in 2004 -- due in part, they say, from the gay-marriage ballot measures in important battleground states -- but they charge he’s remained largely quiet on the issue since then. O'Donnell also reminds us of this important subplot: that Vice President Cheney publicly opposes a constitutional amendment. It is the only time he has taken a public position that's contrary to the president's. Indeed, today Cheney will be in Lake Forest, IL raising money ($300,000) for the Republican National Committee. Last month, First Lady Laura Bush also said that gay marriage shouldn’t be used as a campaign tool.

But proving that Republicans can't completely avoid the issues that divide them or that are out of their control, Bush returns to the topic of immigration on Tuesday and Wednesday at events in New Mexico, Texas, and Nebraska. On Thursday, the president attends the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and later meets with governors to discuss the line-item veto.

The other news that dominates politics involves the smorgasbord of races -- in Alabama, California, Iowa, Montana, and elsewhere -- that take place tomorrow. More on them below and in Tuesday's First Read.

The values debate
The AP on the Senate taking up the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage: “All but one of the Senate Democrats - the exception is Ben Nelson of Nebraska - oppose the measure and, with moderate Republicans, are expected to block an up-or-down vote, killing the measure for the year… The House also is expected to take up the measure this year.”

The Chicago Tribune: "On the eve of the Senate's vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage, some legal scholars argue this collision between religious liberty and the right to marry will be played out thousands of times across the legal landscape if states are not prevented from recognizing same-sex marriage." The paper also notes though that some scholars say that fear is "exaggerated."

Knight Ridder: “Despite the futility of the gay marriage and flag burning votes, some Republican strategists said they were just the jolt that conservative voters needed to overcome what polls suggest is their growing antipathy toward the party." Conversely, "[o]ther Republican operatives say the strategy is a waste of time when most Republican voters are angry or divided over the Iraq war, high gas prices, and immigration."

In a Boston Herald op-ed, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) compares GOP efforts to implement a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage with their involvement in the Terri Schiavo case, because both are "a wholly inappropriate effort to override state courts and to intrude into individuals’ private lives and most personal decisions." Nicknaming the proposed bill the "Republican Right Wing 2006 Electoral Strategy Amendment," Kennedy writes that the bill is "more about rallying an extreme base to vote than about solving a problem.”

The immigration debate
The New York Times says that the Bush Administration this week plans “to issue strict standards requiring more than 50 million low-income people on Medicaid to prove they are United States citizens by showing passports or birth certificates and a limited number of other documents.” The new standards “vividly illustrate how concern about illegal immigration is affecting domestic social welfare policy.  The purpose of the law was to conserve federal money for citizens, reducing the need for states to cut Medicaid benefits or limit eligibility.” The standards take effect on July 1.

The New York Times also takes a look at problems on the other border -- with Canada -- after the arrest last weekend of 17 Ontario men suspected in a fertilizer bomb plot. “Tighter border controls between the United States and Canada are likely to be less useful than better domestic intelligence and information-sharing in detecting homegrown terrorist plots in North America, terrorism experts said.”

The Chicago Tribune examines the US Border Patrol's "catch and release" policy, which it says frustrates border agents and inevitably allows many illegal immigrants to remain in the country.

The Chicago Tribune also profiles Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R), who is now a "bogeyman to illegal immigrants and their allies but a hero to Americans seeking a crackdown on illegal immigration." Regardless, "[m]ore than anyone else, it is Sensenbrenner, the likely chairman of the House-Senate negotiation over the legislation, who will hold the key to whether a compromise is reached and an immigration bill eventually arrives on Bush's desk."

The Washington Times looks at how the immigration debate is affecting Republicans in congressional races across the country. The issue "has become both a rallying cry for Republicans in some races and a wedge that splinters Republicans in other races."

The Washington Post examines the “corporate labyrinth” that federal prosecutors say embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D) “erected to secretly receive illegal payments for promoting high-tech ventures in Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria. For Jefferson, 59, the money-making schemes were supposed to be all in the family, involving his wife, two brothers, five daughters and two sons-in-law.” Jefferson has repeatedly insisted that didn’t commit any wrongdoing.”

NBC’s Joel Seidman says David Safavian, the former White House budget official on trial for obstruction of justice in the Jack Abramoff influence peddling scandal, will continue to face questions on the witness stand today. Seidman also notes that Abramoff and co-conspirator Michael Scanlon, who both pleaded guilty to bribing public officials for business favors, are scheduled to have status hearings before a federal judge tomorrow. Abramoff's attorney, Abbe Lowell, tells NBC News that he intends to argue that Abramoff needs more time before he is sentenced.

It's the economy
Bloomberg reports that Fed chief Ben Bernanke will speak today at 2:15 pm at a panel discussion in Washington, where he “has a chance … to elaborate on the outlook for the central bank's next interest-rate decision.” But: “He may not take advantage of it.”

Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, says the country has reduced crude oil output because of a decline in demand and rejected assertions that his country is trying to limit supply. "The implication of Mr. Naimi's remarks is that Saudi Arabia would again open its oil spigots when buyers ask for more oil. For the past two years, the Saudis say, their policy has been to sell as much oil as buyers want, to the limit of the kingdom's production capacity."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
White House official Peter Wehner pens a Washington Post op-ed pointing out all of the positive news in the country (lower crime and abortion rates, a growing economy, and the promotion of democracy around the world). “We hear a great deal about the problems we face. We hear hardly anything about the encouraging developments. Off-key as it may sound in the current environment, a strong case can be made that in a number of areas there are positive trends and considerable progress.”

Also on the Washington Post op-ed page, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) writes in favor of a permanent repeal of the estate tax. An opposing op-ed by columnist Sebastian Mallaby argues that repealing the estate tax “is like erecting protectionist barriers around the hereditary elite. It is anti-meritocratic and unfair -- and antithetical to this nation's best traditions.”

A Wall Street Journal’s editorial page takes issue with the Joint Committee on Taxation's estimate of how much a repeal of the estate tax would cost. The political situation "speaks volumes that opponents of repeal aren't debating the morality of the double or triple taxation that the death tax represents. Instead, they're basing their case on highly dubious Joint Tax estimates.”

The midterms
As the primary season heats up, USA Today reports that electronic voting machines are under attack. “Lawsuits have been filed in at least six states, the most recent last week in Colorado, to block the purchase or use of computerized machines. Most of the suits argue that the machines are vulnerable to software tampering, don't keep an easily recountable printed record and may miscount, switch or not record votes and even add phantom votes.”

The Los Angeles Times says the Democratic gubernatorial primary in California between Phil Angelides (D) and Steve Westly (D) is a battle “over the same question that has convulsed the party nationwide: Would a liberal or a moderate stand the best chance in the fall?… The debate is also a matter of tone. Angelides takes a combative approach to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, President Bush and other Republicans, while Westly calls bipartisanship the key to getting things done in Sacramento.”

USA Today notes how the heated Angelides-Westly contest might be helping Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) re-election chances. “‘Each Democrat has given Schwarzenegger a line of attack against the other Democrat on taxes and ethics,’ says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.”

Per the San Francisco Chronicle, a new Field Poll gives Schwarzenegger a 41% job-approval rating. While this is not significantly different than his approval rating last month, "Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said there was good news in the poll for a governor facing re-election this year. The number of voters not registered as Republican or Democrat that approve of Schwarzenegger's job performance is rising."

Matthew Dowd, Schwarzenegger’s chief campaign strategist, held a conference call on Friday and also sent out a memo to offer his take on the state of the race. Dowd asserted, as he has in the past, that this will be a "close" contest. He cited Schwarzenegger's improving job approval numbers, a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats for either Angelides or Westly, and the governor's record on the job as reasons for his optimism. One thing that won't affect the race, Dowd added, is Bush's standing. (If Dowd is right about that last point, Schwarzenegger should breeze to re-election. But if he's not...)

Just to give you a glimpse of how much seems to be at stake in Tuesday’s run off between Brian Bilbray (R) and Francine Busby (D) to fill the congressional seat vacated by jailed former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R), the Republican National Committee tells First Read that it has 150 people on the ground there (most of whom are volunteers, in addition to six to eight paid staffers). Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Stacie Paxton says there are approximately 400 Democrats working the district.

The New York Times notes that California’s Jerry Brown has been a two-term governor, a three-time presidential candidate, and mayor of Oakland. Now, he’s running in a Democratic primary for state attorney general. “That Mr. Brown, 68, is running to fill a law-and-order post that is beholden to the demands of other state officials … might surprise those who remember his maverick, on-my-own 1992 presidential bid.”

Colorado’s Bob Beauprez (R) is one "lucky" guy, says the Washington Times. "Beauprez was facing an expensive battle in the Republican gubernatorial primary until Thursday night, when the Secretary of State's Office dropped a political bombshell by announcing that his rival, Marc Holtzman, had failed to qualify for the ballot.... The unexpected development came as the first good news in months for state Republicans, who had urged Mr. Holtzman to drop out of the race and save the party from a damaging primary."

USA Today recounts Katherine Harris’ (R) campaign struggles in her Florida Senate bid. “The woman who oversaw the 2000 presidential vote recount in Florida is running for the GOP Senate nomination - inspiring dread among many in her party. Whether they measure by fundraising, polls, disarray, ethics, strange behavior or potential to polarize, they see trouble.”

The New York Times uses the Democratic gubernatorial primary Iowa to profile how abortion has become a big issue in state contests after South Dakota passed its law banning most abortions. The paper adds that the abortion debate has also popped up in races in Florida and Arkansas.

In the state’s Democratic primary for governor, a new Des Moines Register poll shows Secretary of State Chet Culver leading Mike Blouin, the state's former director of economic development, 36%-28%, with state Rep. Ed Fallon coming in at 21%.

In New York today, Hillary Clinton speaks at noon at the New York Women for Hillary luncheon.