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First Read: Tom DeLay farewell tour

Tom DeLay farewell tour. “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Thursday, June 8, 2006 | 2:35 p.m. ETFrom  Mike Viqueira

DeLay farewell tour
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-TX, plans to hold forth with a 20 to 25 minute valedictory opus on the House floor this afternoon (around 4:15 ET), as his farewell tour continues on its penultimate day.

Last night it was a thank you dinner downtown for his police security detail, where eyes reportedly grew misty. On Tuesday DeLay was feted at a swanky French restaurant. Early on Wednesday he spoke to his former subordinates in the GOP caucus, and there, too, tears were shed. This afternoon he will go down to the Capitol "cop shop" police substation to deliver inspirational remarks at line-up.

Then it's on to the House floor, where not everyone has fond memories of his tenure as majority leader. DeLay had originally planned to ask for 'unanimous consent' to make his speech out of turn. But Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, let it be known that she would object ("I think a large part of his legacy will be a culture of corruption here in the Congress of the United States"...on camera), so DeLay gets one more chance to twist Pelosi and Dems into a parliamentary pretzel in order to get his time.

Meanwhile, DeLay has been privately practicing his speech, which is expected to cover a very wide range of issues.

Over the course of the week DeLay has been receiving well-wishers in his Cannon office, and Friday - his final day here in Congress - he will host a day long "open house." All are invited, even press. Just don't bring a camera.

• Thursday, June 8, 2006 | 11:05 a.m. ETFrom  Alex Isenstadt

Zarqawi death brings rare consensus
Key Republicans and Democrats have begun to comment on Zarqawi's death, and their reaction is striking in this respect: They actually agree on something when it comes to Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said in a statement, “Our military forces are to be commended for their dedication to eradicating the terrorist network in Iraq. Today’s success in eliminating the thuggish terrorist Al-Zarqawi is a sure sign that they are on the way to accomplishing that goal." Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said that “there is considerable and difficult work ahead to stabilize Iraq. But with the death of Zarqawi and the naming of key Iraqi security ministers, today is a day to recognize these important achievements.”

Zarqawi's death is even getting reaction from those running in House races. Diane Farrell, a Democrat who is challenging Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut, issued a statement stating that Zarqawi's death “is an important blow against al-Qaida. Our military and intelligence forces have shown again that they are the finest in the world and their dedication, perseverance and bravery has paid off. Our fine military men and women are to be congratulated and commended for their extraordinary work.”

• Thursday, June 8, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ETFrom  Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

First glance
The news that al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi was killed in an operation by US Special Forces will obviously overshadow everything else today. In a statement outside the White House at 7:30 am, President Bush said, “Now Zarqawi has met his end and this violent man will never murder again… Zarqawi’s death is a severe blow for Al Qaida. It is a victory for the global war on terror.” Bush added, however, that his death doesn’t end the difficult mission in Iraq.

Does this development improve Bush’s political standing? After Saddam Hussein’s capture in late 2003, Bush saw his poll numbers go up. But since his re-election two years ago, even the most positive developments in Iraq (its elections, the formation of a new government) haven’t been able to stop Bush’s slide in the polls. Will that change in the next round of national surveys?

As of this writing, Bush also has already addressed the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, and he meets with US governors at 10:10 am to discuss the line-item veto. After that, he visits with the president of Chile. The Senate, meanwhile, votes today on a bill that would permanently repeal the estate tax. With the possibility of a Democratic filibuster, Republicans will need to come up with 60 votes. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is pushing for a total repeal, but if Republicans don’t get cloture, he might be open to a compromise of some sort. Republicans argue that the estate tax is unfair because it amounts to double (or even triple) taxation after someone’s death, while Democrats are calling it the Paris Hilton Tax, because it applies to only the super-rich in this country.

Political observers across the country continue to try to make sense of Brian Bilbray’s (R) victory over Francine Busby (D) in the California run off to fill Rep. “Duke” Cunningham’s congressional seat. What does it mean for Republicans’ and Democrats’ psyches, the upcoming midterms, and the 2008 presidential race? Yet what that contest might have a more immediate impact on is the upcoming House-Senate showdown over immigration.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff tells First Read that many House Republicans are going to interpret Bilbray’s victory as a message to stay far away from the Senate legislation (advocated by President Bush) that gives illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Throughout the race, Bilbray attacked Busby’s support for this citizenship proposal, and it appears to have paid off for him. "There is not a single person in the House who is going to blink,” McInturff says. “The House is not going to change their position."

There are many other takes on the Bilbray-Busby race and the results from Tuesday’s other primaries. See below. And for those interested in the next big primary clash, tune into MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews at 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm ET to watch a debate between the two Democrats vying for the right to take on Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) in the fall: Harris Miller and Jim Webb. That Virginia primary takes place on June 13.

Also, the YearlyKos convention -- hosted by the liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the DailyKos -- begins today in Las Vegas. Those expected to speak at the four-day conference include a Who’s Who of the Democratic Party: Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Gen. Wes Clark, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. By our count, that’s the three top figures in the Democratic Party and four potential presidential candidates. (No Hillary Clinton, though…)

One person who definitely won’t be attending the convention is outgoing Rep. Tom DeLay (R). NBC’s Mike Viqueira reports that DeLay intends to deliver a farewell speech on the House floor this afternoon, and wants to get unanimous consent to speak out of turn. But demonstrating that DeLay can’t even leave Congress without some type of conflict or controversy, Viqueira notes that Pelosi is already objecting to the unanimous consent request. DeLay’s final day in Congress is tomorrow.

Security politics
The Washington Post writes that Zarqawi’s killing “is the most significant public triumph for the U.S.-led coalition since the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein.”

The New York Times: “The announcement of Zarqawi's death, shortly before noon today in Baghdad, appeared to mark a major watershed in the war.”

The AP notes that the development "comes at a time of trouble in Bush's presidency. It is uplifting news for the president whose popularity has been weighed down by waning public confidence in his handling of the war in Iraq."

A senior US official long involved in the hunt for Zarqawi tells NBC’s Bob Windrem that the real value of today's attack may be ending Zarqawi's "world-wide ambitions." The official said that if, as reported, seven of Zarqawi's associates were killed with him, it could means that the US has "decapitated" Zarqawi's "command structure" at a time when his ambitions were on the rise.

NBC’s Ken Strickland reports that Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R) is accusing Vice President Dick Cheney of meddling in his committee's business. On Tuesday, the committee nixed plans to subpoena telephone company executives to testify about reports that the NSA was collecting Americans’ phone records, because Cheney told Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) that he would review pending legislation surrounding the issue in exchange. In a letter to Cheney, Specter says he found it "perplexing" that he had seen Cheney earlier that day at a luncheon and he made no mention of the matter. "I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions en route from the buffet to my table," Specter wrote.

The New York Times adds that in his letter to Cheney, “Specter said the vice president had cut him out of discussions with all the other Republicans on his own committee about oversight of the administration's eavesdropping programs, a subject on which Mr. Specter has often been at odds with the White House.”

"Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said Cheney had not yet studied [Specter’s] letter but that the administration 'is committed to working with members on legislation' concerning anti-terror intelligence programs, even though the administration believes it has the authority it needs already," reports USA Today.

Meanwhile, NBC’s Viqueira says that June 15 has been set as the tentative date when the House plans to hold an extended debate over the war on the House floor. It's shaping up as a wide-ranging assessment of the situation in the "war on terror," and it’s expected to last at least a full day -- which means that everyone will have a chance to be heard. This is an initiative being pushed by House Majority Leader John Boehner, Viq says, and it is unclear what his political aim might be. However, one high-ranking House Republican says that the discussion will demonstrate to the American people that there is no other option but to stay on and continue the fight. He adds that what he terms "the white flag caucus" of the Democratic Party will be out in full force, and that Republicans will benefit by the comparison.

The values debate
The Washington Post says that the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was “soundly” defeated in the Senate yesterday. “Supporters went into yesterday's showdown knowing they could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment, much less the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and bring the measure to a final vote. But they had at least hoped to gain a simple majority of the Senate, or 51 votes. Instead, they fell short, 49 to 48.”

The New York Times: “The decision effectively killed the issue for the year in the Senate, though the House is expected to consider its own version this summer.”

The seven GOP senators who voted against the amendment were McCain, Gregg, Specter, Chafee, Collins, Snowe, and Sununu; Gregg and Specter voted for the amendment two years ago. Two Democrats -- Ben Nelson and Byrd -- voted for it. – Washington Post

The Boston Globe adds that "Gregg's shift surprised some political observers, who considered him the most conservative of all New England senators and the one most closely associated with President Bush, the leading supporter of the amendment."

NBC’s Viqueira notes that embattled Rep. Bill Jefferson (D) emerged from a meeting with the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee last night to say that his position is unchanged: that he will resist efforts to force him off the coveted Ways and Means Committee. In addition, Viq says, the Congressional Black Caucus voted to support their colleague Jefferson in his effort to remain on the committee. They came to the determination during their weekly closed-door luncheon.

Roll Call reports, however, that after the steering committee met last night, “it seemed more likely that Jefferson’s colleagues would move to expel him from the exclusive panel - a move that could set up a clash between Democratic leaders and Jefferson’s allies in the Congressional Black Caucus.” It adds that the process of possibly removing Jefferson from the committee could begin as early as today.

Roll Call says the FBI is investigating “the personal financial records of House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, the California Republican’s wife and two close advisers as part of its broadening lobbying-for-earmarks investigation that led to the imprisonment of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.). Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) has also come under financial scrutiny by the FBI, which sent a special agent from its office in Riverside, Calif., to the Cannon House Office Building to retrieve the records of the lawmakers and advisers.”

The Hill covers DeLay’s remarks yesterday to a closed-door GOP meeting. He said the Republican Party “would pick up seats if members remain unified this election season… The former majority leader also challenged GOP lawmakers to embrace Republican values in fighting judicial activism and seeking broad changes to the federal tax code.”

In an op-ed in The Hill, however, Minority Leader Pelosi writes that DeLay’s resignation from Congress “brings to an end what the press has referred to as a ‘criminal enterprise’ run out of the former majority leader’s office. Yet the widespread Republican culture of corruption goes deeper than one man and extends further than one office. Mr. DeLay’s departure under an ethical and legal cloud fails to extinguish that broader corruption.”

In the latest twist in the New Hampshire GOP phone-jamming saga, the New Hampshire Democratic Party has filed a motion seeking to depose some of the biggest names in Republican politics -- including former RNC chair Ed Gillespie, Terry Nelson (who worked on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign and who now works for John McCain’s PAC), and veteran consultant Chris LaCivita.

The immigration debate
The Washington Post covers the president’s remarks on immigration yesterday. “Bush appeared to put greater emphasis on other elements of the debate, visiting a community center that offers assistance to immigrants living in Omaha. He also announced the creation of a federal task force to help people at the grass roots teach English and civics to newcomers. Bush said the United States is ‘a compassionate nation that treats people decently.’”

The New Democrat Network Political Fund is kicking off a five-month, $2 million national media campaign tomorrow using television and radio ads and the internet to court Latino voters. Tied to the beginning of the World Cup, the group will run ads in six states using well-known soccer figures to appeal to Latino voters and directing them to a new Web site where they will be able to learn about the Democratic Party. NDN will announce the campaign, entitled "More Than a Game/Party" (in Spanish: "Mas Que un Partido"), at an 11:00 am press conference today at the National Press Club. Their first radio and TV and radio ads begin running Friday.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Turning to today’s showdown over the estate tax, the Wall Street Journal reports that Frist has previously "suggested he would let nothing less come to a vote" than a permanent repeal of the estate tax -- but "yesterday for the first time embraced the idea of reaching a compromise on the issue." Frist's willingness to compromise "is based in part on the belief among some Republicans that this year may be the best opportunity to achieve a compromise, because Democrats are poised to pick up Senate seats in this November's election."

House Republicans are seeking to cut funding for public programming, which could eliminate popular shows from PBS and NPR, says the Boston Globe. "A similar move last year by Republican leaders was turned back in a fierce lobbying campaign launched by Public Broadcasting Service stations and Democratic members of Congress, in a debate that was colored by some Republicans' frustration with what they see as a liberal slant in public programming... Still, Republicans say they remain adamant that public broadcasting cannot receive funding at the expense of healthcare and education programs."

The midterms
In a briefing yesterday with a handful of political reporters, Bernadette Budde of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) -- which traditionally supports GOP candidates, but also a handful of Democrats -- took her stab breaking down Tuesday’s races. Despite their various outcomes, she believes that the following four factors are true: incumbents, despite their success in primaries so far, continue to remain vulnerable; voters are engaged but are tuning out candidates who appear too rehearsed and keep talking about the same issues; both parties need to focus on courting independent and split-ticket voters and not just their base; and there are still enough seats in play for Democrats to take over the House. If Democrats do win, Budde says it's because voters want change. But she adds that if Democrats don't solve problems, their reign may only last one term.

Perhaps proving one of Budde’s points, the Wall Street Journal says several congressional incumbents “lost a third or more of the primary vote to underdogs, reflecting an apparent anti-incumbent mood."

The Washington Post analyzes the aftermath of the Bilbray-Busby run off in CALIFORNIA: “The results settled Republican nerves, which have been set on edge by months of nearly relentless bad omens… For Democrats, it highlighted how difficult it could be to translate generally favorable national trends into tangible victories on the ground.”

The New York Times, though, plays up Bilbray’s inability to break 50%. It says the race eased Republicans’ “anxieties … but signaled future difficulties as they confront tougher Democratic challenges in increasingly contested districts this fall.”

Roll Call’s Stuart Rothenberg writes, “Don’t get me wrong: Republicans shouldn’t misinterpret the results as evidence that everything is fine and dandy as they head into the November elections… Even so, Busby’s inability to expand her vote - and Republican voters’ apparent unwillingness to vote Democratic - does raise questions about the prospects for Democratic challengers and open-seat candidates in Republican-leaning, but now seemingly competitive, districts such as Minnesota’s 6th, Wisconsin’s 8th and Nevada’s 2nd.”

Bilbray "believes he rode a wave of anti-illegal-immigration sentiment to defeat Democrat Francine Busby," the San Diego Tribune says.

In her statement conceding defeat yesterday, Busby said: “I am proud that my campaign has brought the need for ethics reform to center stage… In a district that has a 15% Republican registration advantage and 50% more Republicans than Democrats, voters have risen above partisanship and sent a powerful message for change - they want to see a government that works for us again on important issues like health care, the war in Iraq, immigration reform, education and the environment. I know we can do better, and together, we will. Yesterday's election was the beginning of that change.”

While some Democrats were patting themselves on the back for coming close to winning this GOP-tilting seat, Hotline points out that Democrats will have to win in even redder districts if they want to take back the House in November. - Hotline

Turning to the state’s gubernatorial contest, the San Francisco Chronicle says that Democratic nominee Phil Angelides (D) now faces the task of selling his tax-hike plan to a general election audience. "The tax plan was popular with the liberal Democrats who carried Angelides to victory in the low-turnout primary election... Now Angelides has to make his pitch to a much wider audience of Republican and nonpartisan voters who are even less likely to applaud any plan to raise taxes."

Meanwhile, another Chronicle article notes that Schwarzenegger provided a glimpse of "what are sure to be his themes for the coming months: that his administration has produced dramatic gains for the state in education, economy and infrastructure."

In Indiana, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman delivers remarks at a state party fundraiser in Indianapolis that begins tonight at 6:30 pm.

USA Today: "Four Republican state senators who voted against South Dakota's abortion ban lost their primary elections, raising questions about support for an effort to repeal the controversial state law." This "might mean trouble for a planned referendum in November to rescind the ban."

In advance of his debate today on Hardball with opponent Harris Miller (D), Roll Call profiles Virginia Senate candidate Jim Webb (D). “Webb has broad support from national party leaders, who view him as the only viable nominee against Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) this fall. That notion was reinforced Wednesday when Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, endorsed Webb.” But: “Miller has amassed a lengthy list of homegrown endorsements, and is playing up his profile as a loyal partisan foot soldier while painting Webb as a Johnny Come Lately to the Democratic Party.”