First Read: Murtha's leadership ambitions

• Friday, June 9, 2006 | 4:35 p.m. ETFrom Mike Viqueira

Murtha’s leadership ambitions
Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha today announced to colleagues that he will run for majority leader if the Democrats win control of the House in the November elections.  "If we prevail....I have decided to run for the open seat of majority leader," Murtha writes as part of a two-sentence letter to fellow House Democrats. He concludes by asking for their support.

There's a big “IF” here, namely that Democrats would have to win the majority in order for them to even have a position of majority leader open. If that does indeed happen, then current minority leader Nancy Pelosi would likely move up to become the first female speaker in history.

The announcement comes as something of a shock to the current #2 in the House Dem hierarchy, Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who before today could not be faulted if he expected to move up to majority leader unopposed. A Hoyer spokeswoman says that if there is, in fact, a majority leader race, then Hoyer is definitely in, and expressed confidence that Hoyer would prevail.

A  source close to Hoyer says that they got no advance notice of what Murtha was up to and asserts that Hoyer has raised 10 times more campaign funds for fellow Dems than has Murtha.

A group of fiscally conservative House Democrats hase already come out in support of Hoyer, saying the Murtha announcement is a "distraction" to the effort to capture the House.

Hoyer had lost a close leadership race to Pelosi a few years ago, but the two had called a truce as Hoyer has settled in as the minority whip. There had been persistent rumors that Hoyer - who is seen as a moderate - was set to challenge Pelosi - who is seen as further left - once again next year. But Hoyer was quoted just this week as saying that wasn't going to happen.

Murtha is a close Pelosi ally, and Democratic insiders are sure to see a plot by Pelosi in this move today. A source close to Pelosi insists, however, that the she had nothing to do with Murtha's decision.

• Friday, June 9, 2006 | 2:10 p.m. ETFrom Mark Murray

U.S. Troop numbers after Zarqawi
With Zarqawi's death in Iraq, the question now becomes: What's next? That's precisely what one reporter asked President Bush at his brief press conference today at Camp David with Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen: When will Iraqi security forces begin to take over, and when will US soldiers begin coming home? Bush replied that a reassessment will come as the new Iraqi government begins to finalize, and it will depend on how the government and people there react. President Bush will continue to discuss Iraq next week, when he meets with Administration officials at Camp David on Monday and participates in a video teleconference with Iraq's cabinet on Tuesday.

With the midterm elections less than five months from now, the possibility that a substantial number of US troops could home between now and then is a tantalizing subject for political reporters. Could such a withdrawal help Bush and the Republican Party heading into the midterms? Or, as we mentioned earlier today, is the political environment already locked in?

• Friday, June 9, 2006 | 10:45 a.m. ETFrom Tom Curry in Las Vegas

Networking with the blogger
The first-ever Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas -- 800 left-leaning activists brimming with optimism -- has drawn presidential hopefuls, past and present: Wes Clark was mingling with Kossites at the reception at the Riviera Hotel last night; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will be here doing a panel discussion on energy policy this morning. Former Virginia governor Mark Warner, who’ll address the convention on Saturday, arrives this evening to party with the Kos crew at the Stratosphere Hotel.

Of course Howard Dean will be here to give Saturday’s keynote address.

Last night, the activists gave Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the proprietor of Daily Kos web site, a hero’s welcome. The bloggers had proven “there was a desperate need for strong progressive voices in this country,” he said. “I think we have arrived.”

Also spotted here Thursday night: Ambassador Joe Wilson (here for a panel on the Plame episode, a burning topic of interest for Kos people); former Dean campaign operative Paul Blank, now running the Wake Up Wal Mart campaign [which has major anti-Hillary Clinton implications]; and Trevor Miller from Sen. Russ Feingold's PAC.

Big applause at Thursday night’s opening bash came when Markos told the crowd that a new Quinnipiac Poll showed Sen. Joe Lieberman’s lead over insurgent Ned Lamont slipping to only 55 percent to 40 percent, among Democrats likely to vote. Lieberman is the most hated man here at Yearly Kos, yes, beyond even President Bush.

• Friday, June 9, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ETFrom Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

First glance
It’s been quite a week, hasn’t it? After the Senate votes on the estate tax and gay marriage, Tuesday’s elections, and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, things begin to slow down today (we think). President Bush, at Camp David, greets Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Demark at 9:10 am. And the two men hold a joint press availability at 10:50 am.

It’s also been quite a week for a White House and a GOP badly in need of some victories. Although Republicans lost the votes on the estate tax and gay marriage, they can take some comfort in their win in San Diego for Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s congressional seat and in Zarqawi’s death -- perhaps the best news out of Iraq in months for the White House. And here’s some more good news: House and Senate Republicans have reached a deal on the Iraq/Katrina supplemental spending bill, which meets Bush’s asking price; the legislation will likely reach his desk next week.

In an interview yesterday with First Read and other political reporters, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said the Zarqawi news is “a very good event for our country.” And he admitted that it would likely boost Bush’s standing. “I think it will have an impact.” The news, he said, is a reminder that “what I say today will change tomorrow.”

But what’s unlikely to change, Hoyer added, is the consistent polling showing unhappiness with the nation’s direction and a desire for change. He compared the upcoming election to 1996, when the public had already made up its mind by April whom it would elect. “People ask me, ‘How are you doing, Steny?’ I say, ‘I’m not sure, but my opponents are doing poorly.’ That is, I think, what is really happening in some respects.  But I think we are doing well.” Hoyer’s analysis is similar with what the pollsters who conduct the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll have told us: that outside of an extraordinary event, we may have reached the point where the election environment is locked in, no matter what happens.

But Hoyer's quote above also is instructive: While Democrats know that Republicans may be doing poorly, they are unsure about their standing as well. House GOP campaign committee chairman Tom Reynolds holds an off-camera briefing with the press today at 10:00 am to offer his take on the political landscape.

In other news, a House Democratic panel has endorsed a move to oust Rep. William Jefferson (D) from the Ways and Means committee (although its vote won’t be ratified until next week). That sets up a potential showdown with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. In addition, today is Tom DeLay’s last official day in Congress. He went out in a blaze of glory yesterday in his final address on the House floor, and he probably will do the same when he plays Hardball with Chris Matthews at 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm ET on MSNBC.

Also, the liberal YearlyKos convention continues in Las Vegas, while another one -- the Campaign for America’s Future’s “Take Back America” conference -- begins next week on Monday. This three-day liberal confab will feature Democratic bigwig speakers such as Robert Redford, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Harry Reid.

In the emerging 2008 presidential race, so much emphasis is often placed on the horse race polls in tracking the standing of the potential candidates. But in our weekly look at the great oh-eight race, we do something a bit different: We examine their approval and favorability ratings in their own states. See below.

Security politics
A Los Angeles Times analysis says “Zarqawi was at the top of the U.S. target list here, and his death seems likely to give a psychological boost to U.S. and Iraqi officials. But in a country overwhelmed by multiple competing armed groups, his end will do little to quell the violence, U.S. intelligence officials, counter-terrorism experts and independent analysts said.”

The Boston Globe writes that some analystsdiffer "on the impact Zarqawi's death will have on the day-to-day operations of the insurgency. Some think it could mark a decisive defeat for insurgents trying to ignite a civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites, while others said Zarqawi's influence had already weakened before his death and that others will follow in his footsteps and build on his accomplishments."

The Wall Street Journal believes that any political gains for Republicans from Zarqawi's death "are likely to be short-lived unless the development is followed by a longer-term reduction of violence in Iraq -- and by what many Republicans quietly hope for but won't publicly advocate: a drawdown of U.S. troops before November.”

USA Today notes that Bush, “who has expressed regret for making statements such as daring terrorists to ‘bring it on,’ took a more subdued approach to Zarqawi's death. So did members of his staff.”

The New York Times adds, “The muted approach marked a departure from the triumphalism with which the White House has greeted some other major events in the war in Iraq.”

The Washington Times says that while most Democrats responded positively to Zarqawi's death, some who broke ranks said the event "wasn't significant and is being used to divert attention from an unpopular, unsuccessful war that should be ended.” The Republican National Committee seized on this report this morning and sent out a press release blasting Democrats’ “commitment to defeatism.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki writes in a Washington Post op-ed that his government “will build on the additional momentum gained from the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in order to defeat terrorism and sectarianism and to deliver on the Iraqi people's hope of a united, stable and prosperous democracy.”

The latest AP/Ipsos poll shows that 59% say going into Iraq was a mistake, and only 44% say it was likely they would see a stable government in Baghdad. This survey, however, was completed before the news that Zarqawi had been killed. “It remains to be seen how those events could affect opinion, especially among a public paying close attention to war dispatches.” The poll also has Bush’s job approval at 35%, Congress’ approval at 24%, and 52% wanting Democrats to capture control of Congress.

The Washington Post says that Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R) has offered compromise legislation that “that would give President Bush the option of seeking a warrant from a special court for an electronic surveillance program such as the one being conducted by the National Security Agency.”

DeLay’s last day
The Washington Post says that in his final speech on the House floor yesterday, DeLay delivered a “pugnacious defense of the iron-fisted partisanship that defined his decade in power.” But: “It wasn't all fire-breathing; DeLay, a foster parent, spoke eloquently about the nation's dysfunctional child-welfare system.”

“‘You show me a nation without partisanship, and I'll show you a tyranny,’ Mr. DeLay said, adding, ‘It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle.’”  - New York Times

The Chicago Tribune says DeLay was "[p]olarizing till the end" as he packed the "lower chamber on the Republican side with supporters and detractors who sat rapt with attention. On the Democratic side, a few dozen members watched quietly until he took a shot at liberals."

On DeLay’s final day, the Washington Post reports that his former chief of staff, Susan Hirschmann, was one of the top two recipients of privately financed travel from 2000 to 2005 among congressional aides per a new report by the Center for Public Integrity. Hirschmann “took 18 trips from 2000 to 2002 -- many with her husband -- at a cost to others of more than $85,000… That put her in a close second place behind Brian Gaston, whose 39 trips over the five-year period studied by the groups cost $87,000.”

Roll Call reports that the House Steering and Policy Committee last night voted to oust embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D) from the Ways and Means Committee; the vote is expected to be ratified on Thursday, unless Jefferson steps down voluntarily. This is all “expected to bring to the surface the tensions between the [Congressional Black Caucus] and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who set this chain of events in motion by calling for Jefferson to give up his seat on the influential committee two weeks ago.”

Per the AP, Rep. Melvin Watt (D), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said “that black voters might wonder why a ‘black member of Congress' would be stripped of his committee post with neither rule nor precedent to justify it.”

As we reported yesterday, the New Hampshire Democratic Party is seeking to depose some top national GOP officials -- including former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie -- in New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal of 2002. Now, we’ve learned that the Democratic National Committee has directed its legal team to provide pro bono legal assistance to the New Hampshire Democratic Party as its seeks to do this.

The immigration debate
At yesterday’s National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, the AP says that Bush told the audience that the deportation of the illegal immigrants in this country will not work. “‘There are those here in Washington who say, “Why don't we just find the folks and send them home,”’ Bush said. ‘That ain't gonna work.’”

Immigrants nationwide, meanwhile, “are applying for U.S. citizenship in record numbers or seeking to solidify their legal status in a move to protect themselves at a time of political uncertainty,” the Washington Post reports. “Between January and April, immigrants filed 251,385 applications, an 18 percent increase from the same period last year.” interviews a prominent Hispanic evangelical, who warns that the immigration debate could affect the GOP’s relationship with Hispanics -- who "are unlikely to forget who made them the focus and the scapegoat for a failed immigration system. If the Republicans continue, they will be alienating Hispanics for decades. Their only hope to win a national election will be voter apathy."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
House and Senate negotiators yesterday reached a deal on a $94.5 billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, the Washington Post writes. The bill is expected to reach President Bush’s desk next week.

The AP reminds us that the originally-passed Senate version “had exceeded Bush's request by more than $14 billion, adding large sums for farm disasters, fisheries aid, veterans medical care, port security and to compensate Texas for taking on evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. Most of that extra money was dropped, as was $289 million to create a fund to compensate people if they were to be injured by a pandemic flu vaccine.”

Senate Republicans yesterday were unable to muster the 60 votes needed to clear a procedural hurdle to abolish the estate tax, the New York Times writes. “Republicans are now debating whether to give up on their goal and attack Democrats in the coming midterm elections as obstructionists on a measure that they say has considerable support, or settle for a bipartisan measure that would stop short of eliminating the tax entirely.”

The Los Angeles Times: “But striking a deal will be difficult in an election year, especially with Democrats hoping to take control of at least one chamber of Congress in November's vote. Said [Sen. Trent] Lott: ‘The Senate's pretty partisan right now.’”

The Wall Street Journal makes a similar point. “With midterm elections just five months away, Democrats have a powerful incentive to prevent Republicans from scoring election-year victories."

USA Today notes that the estate tax had looked like a strong candidate for full repeal last year, but several things happened, including the post-Katrina focus on poverty (making it harder for lawmakers to cut taxes for the rich), the ballooning deficit, and strong objections from the opponents of repeal.

The AP: “About 11.5 million elderly and disabled people signed up for the new Medicare drug benefit by the May 15 enrollment deadline, bringing the number of beneficiaries with drug coverage to 38.7 million, officials said Thursday.” Administration officials were please by the news, but critics “did not interpret the final numbers as good news. Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said most of those who did not enroll are the poor.”

The midterms
In his briefing with reporters yesterday, House Minority Whip Hoyer produced a chart showing that when a president’s approval rating is below 50%, his party loses an average of 41 House seats in midterm elections; when it’s between 50%-59%, the average loss is 20 seats; and when it’s over 60%, the average loss is 5 seats. Looking at Bush’s current approval rating, Hoyer said, “Redistricting and money are going to make our fight an uphill fight. But we don’t need 41 seats [to take back the House]. We need 15.”

Francine Busby, who was defeated in Tuesday’s special congressional election in California, "believes two things turned her momentum: A misstatement at a Hispanic gathering and a barrage of negative ads," reports the San Diego Union Tribune. "Busby said that volunteers canvassing the district stopped hearing optimism, but instead heard only complaints about the negative campaigns. Doors closed in their faces."

In Iowa, the Des Moines Register reports thatDemocratic gubernatorial nominee Chet Culver yesterday won the support of the primary rivals he bested on Tuesday: Mike Blouin and Ed Fallon.

In Texas, "Independent candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn is asking the state to list her on the official November ballot as Carole Keeton 'Grandma' Strayhorn, saying that's how voters know her. She's had a name change since her famous 'One Tough Grandma' advertising campaign in 1998," reports the Dallas Morning News. But a spokesman for the Democratic candidate for governor, Chris Bell, called the move a 'high water mark for absurdity in Texas politics.'" - AP

West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D), up for re-election this year, will become the Senate’s longest-serving member on Monday, USA Today says. “It's a milestone for the West Virginia Democrat… It's also emblematic of the graying of the institution in which Byrd has served for more than 47 of his 88 years.”

The San Francisco Chronicle covers the "YearlyKos" convention being held this weekend in Las Vegas, which is "a sign of how new media is reshaping politics," as "some of the nation's top Democratic politicians are flocking to the first major offline convention inspired by a political blog."

How are the potential presidential candidates faring in their own states? Below is a list of their approval and favorability ratings. Warning: Some of these surveys are a bit dated, and we were unable to find polls measuring the performance of Sens. Biden, Brownback, and Hagel.

Bayh: A Selzer and Co. poll conducted for the Indianapolis Star in March had him with a 63% job approval.
Clinton: According to a WNBC/Marist Poll released last month, 51% said she was doing an "excellent" or "good" job in office. Of those surveyed, 69% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans gave her positive reviews.
Feingold:  Last October, a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll found that 55% approved of his job performance while 32% disapproved. A Strategic Vision (R) poll released this week produced the same results.
Kerry: In a March Boston Globe poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire, 60% said they had a "favorable" view of Kerry.
Richardson: A poll commissioned by the Albuquerque Journal and conducted by Research and Polling, Inc. last October found that 53% approved of his performance. Two years before that, however, his job approval was 64%.
Vilsack: Per last month’s Research 2000 poll conducted for KCCI television, 54% thought he was doing an "excellent" or "good" job, while 45% said they thought his performance was "fair" or "poor." In January’s Des Moines Register poll, Iowans gave him a 59% approval rating.

Allen: Per a poll in January conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, 54% said they approved of his job performance. In a September 2005 Washington Post survey, 58% had a favorable view of him and 28% had an unfavorable view.
Frist: A Middle Tennessee State University poll in November had him with a 47% approval rating and a 30% disapproval rating.
Huckabee: According to a University of Arkansas poll from last November, 58% approved of his job performance while 27% disapproved.
McCain: In a Behavior Research Center Rocky Mountain Poll conducted in January, 65% of registered voters said he was doing an "excellent" or "good job" while 70% of likely voters agreed.
Pataki: According to a WNBC/Marist Poll released last month, just 30% said they thought he was doing an "excellent" or "good" job in office, while a whopping 67% said they thought he was doing a "fair" or "poor" job.
Romney: A Boston Globe poll in March conducted by the University of New Hampshire had his approval rating at 46% while 47% disapproved.