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First Read: Debating Iraq's future

Debating Iraq's future.  “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Monday, June 12, 2006 | 5:30 p.m. ETFrom Huma Zaidi

Debating Iraq's future
President Bush held an impromptu news conference at Camp David this afternoon to update reporters on his discussions with Administration officials about the course of the Iraq war. With Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld on his right and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on his left, Bush said his team discussed the best ways to move Iraq forward, but hesitated to make any predictions on US troop withdrawal. Tomorrow, Bush will continue these discussions with Iraqi cabinet officials via conference call. The message he will send to them, Bush said, is that "we stand with you." The two-day meeting comes on the heels of high-profile al-Qaeda member Abu Masab al-Zarqawi's death last week and the completion of the Iraqi Cabinet.

Bush, who said that tomorrow will be a "fascinating" day, emphasized that the war is "worth it" and that the United State must meet its "responsibility" to help Iraq rebuild. Bush and his advisors discussed how Iraq can increase oil production, which he thinks will "unite" the country. He also said that Iraq's neighbors should do more to help.

In the meantime, Sen. John Kerry (D) sent out an email to supporters this afternoon urging them to call on their Senators to support his amendment for troop withdrawal by the end of the year. Kerry, who voted for the war but is now pushing for withdrawal, writes that "dissent and debate are being stifled here at home... It's time to put the future of Iraq in the hands of the Iraqi people."

• Monday, June 12, 2006 | 1:35 p.m. ETFrom Mark Murray

GOP on John Murtha’s ambitions
It took them a while (maybe because the news didn't break until Friday afternoon), but Republicans are now beginning to hammer Democrats over the reports that Rep. John Murtha (D) will challenge Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) -- the current No. 2 in the House Democratic leadership -- for majority leader, if Democrats win back the House in November. "I must admit I am surprised by the fact that Democrats have jumped the gun and already started the race for Majority Leader," said Rep. Tom Reynolds (R), chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, in a statement. "Such a move is not only five months and fifteen seats premature, but it comes just days after Democrats were defeated in CA-50... I would be remiss if I did not point out that in order to have a leadership race, Democrats would have to do something they have not done for several cycles now ... and that is win." The Republican National Committee also issued a press release on this same topic entitled "The Real Dem Agenda: Political Infighting and Earmarks."

• Monday, June 12, 2006 | 9:15 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

First glance
The issue that looms over the midterm elections returns to the front burner as the White House and congressional Republicans, heartened by the death of Abu Masab al-Zarqawi and the completion of the Iraqi Cabinet, hope to benefit by contrast with Democrats from what is shaping up to be, through various forums, a week-long debate over America's role in Iraq and the progress of the overall war on terror.

President Bush huddles with Administration officials at Camp David for two days, taking part in a video teleconference with the new Iraqi Cabinet from there tomorrow.  He also meets with members of the Iraq Study Group at the White House on Wednesday.  Bush and Administration and military officials will continue throughout these events to try to manage Americans' expectations about when and how US troops may start to come home.  At some point later this week, Bush may also sign the emergency supplemental funding bill which will provide more money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

The House returns to Washington today to vote on the supplemental.  A House committee also will debate and vote out a resolution "[d]eclaring that the United States will complete the mission in Iraq and prevail in the Global War on Terror," which is scheduled to get a full day of floor debate on Thursday.

While Bush's events may be the marquee events of the many related to Iraq this week, this House debate is the least predictable and most intriguing.  As NBC's Mike Viqueira has said, Majority Leader John Boehner has pushed for this day of open debate to the puzzlement of some of his Republican colleagues, rejecting an effort to more tightly script the proceedings.  That said, Viq notes that there's less apprehension among the ranks now than there was before al-Zarqawi was killed.  Part of the GOP plan here is to improve upon the image left with Americans the last time the House really debated Iraq, when freshman Jean Schmidt (R) accused John Murtha (D) of being unpatriotic.  Also, with Congress' standing so low, Viq points out, it couldn't hurt to hold a mature debate on the biggest issue of the day.  Some Republicans suggest the debate will show Americans that there is no other option but to stay in Iraq and continue the fight.  For their part, a party leadership aide tells First Read that Democrats will raise questions of oversight and accountability "that have gone unasked over the past three years."

The Senate returns to Washington tomorrow to take up the emergency supplemental and begin debating the defense authorization bill.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that this debate also is expected to become a heated one over the US role in Iraq.  The bill is likely to become a magnet for Democrat-proposed amendments seeking to change the course in Iraq, such as timetable for US troop withdrawal and other benchmarks.

Expected to help lead Senate Democrats' calls for US troops to come home will be Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who today becomes the longest-serving member of the Senate in history -- one day longer than former record-holder Strom Thurmond (R).  The 88-year-old Byrd walks with two canes, but he's still seeking an unprecedented ninth term this fall.  Republicans are seeking to make a campaign issue of his fierce criticism of the war.

One scheduled sidebar to these main events on the Hill, a Senate debate over a proposed constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, has been postponed until closer to the Fourth of July.  Strickland reports that Republicans will hold some sort of flag-related event on Wednesday, which is Flag Day.  Also, some of the biggest issues the Senate needs to address are still in flux; the Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Haditha as soon as the Pentagon to finishes its probe.  In Detroit today, a federal judge will begin hearing arguments on whether or not the controversial NSA warrantless wiretapping program is constitutional.

As the Iraq debate reheats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, a liberal gathering across town will illustrate the squeeze put on Democratic lawmakers over the war and the pressure on their ranks to stay unified for the sake of retaking control of Congress.  The Campaign for America's Future holds their "Take Back America" conference today through Wednesday and, as proof of the influence of this wing of the party, will hear from the likes of Hill leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, potential presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Tom Vilsack and Russ Feingold, and Sen. Barack Obama.  Addressing the conference today: Reid and Robert Redford.  The event is the second gathering of liberals in less than a week to draw high-profile Democratic officials and lawmakers, after the YearlyKos confab in Las Vegas.

And while House GOP leaders hope their splintered conference will achieve some unity through the Iraq debate this week, House Democrats return to their own internal divisions, including leading war critic John Murtha's pledged challenge to Steny Hoyer for the majority leader post should Democrats retake the House, and splits within the Congressional Black Caucus, and between the caucus and the party leadership, over whether or not Rep. William Jefferson should be temporarily expelled from his Ways and Means Committee seat because of his role in a widening bribery scandal.  The caucus is expected to vote on the matter on Thursday.

Security politics
The AP says Bush's Camp David confab is "meant to show Americans anxious about the open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq that progress is being made.  The decision to hold meetings at [Camp David] is certain to give them a stature and exposure they might not have if set at the White House."  At the same time, "White House officials played down expectations of troop-cutback formulas or other dramatic announcements from the meetings."  The story notes that the meeting was on the books "before Wednesday's killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi... and the Iraqi parliament's approval Thursday of three key security ministers.  White House officials said the meetings would be conducted against the backdrop of how both developments may have changed things."

The New York Daily News says that as the summit begins, "a top Iraqi security official is predicting that many American troops will be headed home by the end of the year and nearly gone by 2008."

The Washington Post says Bush "may hold a news conference to tell Americans about the discussions" with the Iraqi Cabinet on Tuesday.

Per Roll Call, a draft of the House GOP resolution on Iraq scheduled for debate on Thursday stresses "the importance of fighting terrorism and says that Saddam Hussein 'constituted a threat against global peace and security.'  The language also refers to Iraq and Afghanistan as two parts of the same fight...  While supporters of the Iraq war, including most House Republicans, argue that Iraq is a part of the larger war on terror, critics of the fight disagree."

Reuters says that the case being heard in Detroit today on the NSA wiretapping program "goes to the heart of the larger national debate about whether President Bush has assumed too much power in his declared war on terrorism." - Reuters

The Los Angeles Times looks at how the Administration's offer to negotiate with Iran "has compounded many conservatives' concerns about the direction of U.S. foreign policy under" Condoleezza Rice's State Department.  "Many fear the administration has lost some of its forcefulness.  They are unhappy with the normalization of ties with Libya, the proposed nuclear deal with India, the seeming slowdown in U.S. efforts to democratize the Middle East - which was a cornerstone of Bush's second inaugural address - as well as the handling of the Iraq war."

Immigration politics
We may see a resolution this week of the procedural dispute that has prevented Senate negotiators from starting to work with their House counterparts on an immigration reform bill -- or we may not.  Per NBC's Strickland, Senate leaders Bill Frist and Harry Reid remain at odds over what to do about the language in the Senate bill that makes it a revenue-generating bill, when the Constitution requires that bills that generate revenue originate in the House.

The Wall Street Journal covers GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's efforts to negotiate "the issue of immigration in a tight re-election campaign in a state roiled more than any other by the different poles in the debate."  One tactic he's using: heavy reliance on his own personal story.  Another: distance himself from Washington.

The Washington Post looks at how Republican Rep. JD Hayworth's unusually competitive-seeming re-election bid in Arizona has become "something of a referendum on immigration policy."  Hayworth, "[i]nitially moderate on immigration," has "shifted to oppose a guest-worker program and favor the deportation of all illegal immigrants."  His Democratic opponent "believes that many Republican moderates in the district feel more generous toward illegal immigrants, and he backs the middle ground favored by Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D)."

It's the economy
"The government this week will issue two widely anticipated inflation reports" -- on Tuesday and Wednesday -- "that could determine whether the Federal Reserve keeps raising interest rates or stands aside."  The Fed next meets on June 28-29. – USA Today

The New York Times front-pages that the head of the United Auto Workers, at the beginning of the union’s convention today in Las Vegas, will distribute a “strikingly blunt” report to members, telling them “that they cannot ride out the automobile industry crisis and should be prepared to make tradition-breaking decisions to help rescue the industry.”

Bob Novak writes about the resolution introduced by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) which repudiates the stand taken by Speaker Dennis Hastert and other members of Congress that the FBI’s search of Jefferson’s office was improper.

A pre-trial status hearing in the CIA leak case is scheduled for today at 1:30 pm.  In each of the prior status hearings, NBC's Joel Seidman notes, there has been a constant drip of clues as to what former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby's defense strategy will be and who will likely be called as witnesses.  Judge Reggie Walton is likely to once again ponder whether special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation is actually nearing conclusion.  Because Fitzgerald has indicated that the investigation is ongoing, Seidman notes, Walton has allowed him to withhold certain documents dealing with Karl Rove that Libby's attorneys contend are crucial to their preparing a defense.

Roll Call reports the latest on how a top aide to House Appropriations chair Jerry Lewis has profited from his ties to his old lobbying firm, which specializes in getting earmarks into the spending bills that pass through Lewis' committee.  Jeff Shockey "received almost $2 million last year in a buyout package" from the firm.  Shockey's attorneys say the buyout "met all ethical and legal guidelines applicable to House staffers.  They added that Shockey’s current position... does not directly involve him in the approval of earmarks for any Members, or for his former clients."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Conservative activists hold a press conference at the National Press Club at 12:15 pm to press the Senate GOP leadership to act on some of Bush's stalled judicial nominees, such as Terrence Boyle and William J. Haynes II.

USA Today reports that the Administration today will start a new effort "to track down and sign up millions of low-income people on Medicare who are not receiving prescription-drug coverage,... the latest in a series of attempts by the government and private groups to lure those seniors who stand to benefit the most from Medicare's prescription-drug program - but who are most likely to have missed out on the coverage...  According to Medicare's estimates, most of those without coverage - about 3 million of the roughly 4 million still not part of the drug plan -have low incomes and would qualify for extra financial assistance."

Roll Call reports that while the "House and Senate Budget committees are preparing to move ahead with legislation establishing presidential line-item veto authority, both panels have indicated they intend to overhaul the measure proposed by the Bush administration and produce a bill that provides significantly less license than the executive branch had sought."  The line-item veto has become part of the overall debate between the White House and Congress over executive-branch authority.

The Democrats
Last Friday, First Read was privy to a conference call organized by the DNC with staffers from the party campaign committees, among others, to discuss their political agenda heading into this week.  Per the call, the DNC will continue to charge the Bush Administration with failing to address issues important to voters such as high gas prices, instead focusing on socially divisive issues such as gay marriage (a message they tried to push last week, which was overshadowed by Zarqawi's death).  They plan to make this point with a town meeting on Wednesday to "contrast" the Administration's "misplaced" priorities with voters'.

The Democratic aides also rejected the idea that Francine Busby's loss in the California special election last Tuesday cast a shadow over their hopes of reclaiming the House in November.  Rather, they see the close race as an indication that Busby's "message of change" resonated with voters.  One Democratic House campaign committee staffer calculated that if they continue to undercut Republican support levels by five or six points, as Busby did, they could gain as many as 34 seats in November.  One staffer with the party's gubernatorial campaign committee added that according to polling they've seen (they didn't specify whose), Democratic candidates are ahead in 24 out of this year's 36 gubernatorial races.

Despite all of these ideas, one call participant worried that the DNC isn't pushing their message aggressively enough.  "God only knows what [Republicans are] up to that we don't know about," the staffer said.

Covering the Democratic lawmakers and aspiring presidential nominees who attended YearlyKos in Las Vegas, Bloomberg raises questions about the Internet's effectiveness when it comes to getting out the vote.’s Tom Curry asks, "Could this past weekend’s Yearly Kos convention... turn out to be the most significant political gathering of 2006?  Here’s why it might be: The next Democratic presidential nominee will have to go with, or go over, or go around the left-populist-progressive wing of the Democratic Party."

The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll of likely 2008 caucus-goers has former Sen. John Edwards at 30%, Sen. Hillary Clinton at 26%, Sen. John Kerry at 12%, and Gov. Tom Vilsack at 10%.

More on the midterms
Former President Clinton keynotes a fundraiser for Florida Democrats in Orlando at 11:45 am.

Karl Rove keynotes a New Hampshire GOP fundraising dinner in Manchester tonight and is expected to talk about the midterm elections.

Democrats remain poised to net governorships this fall, but enough of their own incumbents are facing tough races that they may not net as many seats as was earlier expected. – USA Today

The AP reports that Schwarzenegger's get-out-the-vote effort in California will be similar to the one that Team Bush used in the 2004 election.  "Party insiders say as many as 90,000 people could be enlisted in the closing days of the race to knock on doors, plant yard signs or make telephone calls to connect with potential voters.  That's an unprecedented figure in a state thick with Democrats."

Rep. Ben Cardin, candidate for the Democratic Senate nod in Maryland, gives what his campaign is billing as a "major" speech on Iraq at the University of Maryland in College Park at 12 noon.

US News & World Report examines the smorgasbord of competitive races in Ohio this November.  “Nowhere are the forces shaping the midterms in sharper relief than" there.

The Houston Chronicle writes about former Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson's bid in Texas, where he was running against Tom DeLay until DeLay resigned from Congress.  “DeLay's departure changed the dynamics of the race by removing a big target…  Republicans, who were set to pick a nominee to replace DeLay, had to put the process on hold last week as the Texas Democratic Party won a court order blocking the GOP from nominating anyone until at least June 22.”

And in Virginia. Kerry will appear with "his fellow Vietnam veteran" and Senate candidate Jim Webb (D) today ahead of tomorrow's primary, per Kerry's office.  The Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch profiled Webb rival Harris Miller.  “Describing himself as a ‘shorter, poorer version of Mark Warner,’ Miller has run a classic primary campaign, using direct mail, television and campaign stops to energize the traditional Democratic base.”  On Saturday, the paper profiled Webb.