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First Read: Military defense - against Congress

Military defense - against Congress.  “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Thursday, June 15, 2006 | 11:45 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner and Ken Strickland

Military defense – against congress
Apparently it's all hands on deck for the political battle over what course the United States should take in Iraq. Just this week, leading Republican voices have included President Bush, Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, House Republican leaders, and Vice President Cheney, who'll hit the talk-radio circuit this afternoon. Now add in the Pentagon itself. Its Legislative Affairs Office has e-mailed around a 70-page "Iraq Floor Debate Prep Book."

Recipients of the book were primarily Hill Republicans, along with a handful of Democratic Hill staffers who appear to have been included on the list by mistake, at least based on the book's "Section 4." Titled "Rapid Response," the section was written to refute charges against the Administration launched almost exclusively by Democrats, such as: "The President misled America into war;" "Troops are dying needlessly and don't believe in the cause;" and, "The President has no plan for victory." Another clue that Democrats received the book in error: One Democratic staffer relayed a follow-up e-mail sent from the Pentagon recalling the message. It reads, "The sender would like to recall the message, 'Prep Book.'"

Feeling summery?
And if you happen to be watching the Senate floor today, rather than the full day of debate over the war in the House, your eyes are not deceiving you -- a lot of Senators, both men and women, are wearing seersucker. Believe it or not, it's "Seersucker Thursday."

• Thursday, June 15, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

First glance
Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) and her conference get a second chance today.  Floor debate on the House Republican leadership's resolution in support of the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror will start this morning and run into tomorrow.  As we wrote earlier this week, part of the GOP plan here is to improve upon the image left with Americans the last time the House debated Iraq, when the just-elected Schmidt accused former Marine and senior Democrat John Murtha of being a coward.  Also, with Congress' standing so low, it couldn't hurt to hold a mature debate on the issue that continues to loom over the midterm elections, per the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.  The Pentagon says the US military death toll in Iraq has hit 2,500.

Now that the day is here, however, the debate looks like a pretty partisan exercise.  As NBC's Mike Viqueira notes, GOP leaders are preventing opponents of the war and advocates of US troop withdrawal from offering alternative resolutions.  They're hoping to use the debate to draw a bright line of distinction between themselves and Democrats as being tough and weak on national security, respectively.  Democrats hope to combat this strategy by raising questions of oversight and accountability.

The day is not without risks for Republicans: A handful of members can be expected to break ranks by calling for US troops to come home by October, even as House GOP leaders, the White House, and other party officials maintain that supporting a timetable for troop withdrawal amounts to cutting and running.  Vice President Cheney is expected to argue this case on talk-radio this afternoon.  But the new NBC/Journal poll suggests that while top Republicans would like to paint the debate in stark terms, overlooking opposition from within, those who are on the ballot this fall will need to be rhetorically deft and nuanced when it comes to talking about Iraq in order to sympathize with and reflect Americans' complex feelings about it.

Thirty-five percent of those surveyed from June 9-12 favor maintaining the current US troop level in Iraq.  Fifty-seven percent favor reducing the number of troops.  Of that 57%, 38% want a timeline for withdrawal.  Republicans on the ballot this fall "must communicate that they share this frustration" over how long the war is lasting, said NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R).  Voters need to see that "the guy gets it."  "It takes a very talented candidate, but I believe it is possible to both emotionally connect with people's frustration and be very aggressive to disqualify why you can't walk out of the country," he said.

Pollster Peter Hart (D) notes that 54% say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who favors pulling all US troops out of Iraq within the next year; 32% are less likely to vote for such a candidate.  Asked which of several possible things concerns them most about the GOP, 22% of Republicans and independents polled say they're most concerned that the party is "unwilling to reassess and find a new policy on Iraq."  "Too many people in your own party are looking for some change," Hart said of Republicans, along with "the middle of the electorate and the group who are undecided."  Pursuing an either/or debate on troop withdrawal could get Republicans a "one-week rhetorical satisfaction and an election disaster."

This isn't to say that Bush isn't seeing a slight bump from recent positive developments in Iraq.  Confidence that the war will come to a successful conclusion is up five points since April.  Fifty-three percent say the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will improve the situation there.  But as Hart points out, back in January 2004, the GOP held a 27-point edge over Democrats in terms of which party voters preferred on dealing with Iraq.  Today, voters prefer Democrats by three points.  As Hart said, "It's nothing the Democrats have done -- it's all about the Republicans."

Democrats, as Bush himself noted yesterday, remain split over what course to propose for the war.  These divisions will be visible today on the other side of the Hill, where NBC's Ken Strickland reports that Senate Democrats are straining to come up with a consensus amendment to offer to the defense reauthorization bill that would call for US troops to come home.  More on this below.

Bush's job approval rating in the poll is 37%, one point above his all-time low from April.  This marks 10 months for him under 40%.  Democrats have an 11-point edge over Republicans in the generic congressional ballot test.  The public's grim view of the economy, despite the Administration's efforts to tout its strength, has not improved since April.  On every issue tested except for national defense, terrorism and moral values, Democrats are the preferred party.

"Democrats have margins and advantages on issues on which they've never had margins or advantages before," said McInturff.  At the same time, he noted another standout result of the poll -- that "people are not happy with either party."  Both parties continue to have higher negative ratings than positive ratings in our survey.  And McInturff singles out one piece of data: When asked who would be to blame if there's no immigration reform bill, a striking 33% volunteered that both parties and Bush would all be equally to blame.  "Somebody wins an election," McInturff noted, but "we're in one of those periods of time when someone would consider voting for 'none of the above.'"

Today, Bush helps swear in his new US trade rep at 9:25 am, makes remarks at the Initiative for Global Development's 2006 National Summit at 9:50 am; signs the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act at 11:00 am; signs the MINER Act, at 11:30 am; makes remarks on a new Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument at 2:30 pm; and welcomes members of Congress to the White House for a picnic that was postponed from yesterday due to weather and presidential jetlag.

Your new favorite political calendar can be found on by clicking here.

Security politics
The Los Angeles Times says Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad and news conference "mark the beginning of a planned months-long effort" "to contrast [his] policies against growing disagreement among leading Democrats over whether to support immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops."  Bush's comments on Democratic divisions yesterday "reflected Republican strategists' calculation that... Democratic disarray could give the GOP an advantage in November on an issue that once looked to be a major weakness for Republicans."

The San Francisco Chronicle notes that the GOP's rhetorical offensive on Iraq "fits the White House's pattern in previous campaigns when they argued that the opposition party cannot be trusted to complete the mission in Iraq or protect Americans from terrorists.  What is different today is that public opinion... has turned against the war, and the president's own standing... has suffered dramatically."

The Chicago Tribune: "The president is unlikely to change many minds among opponents of the war...  Instead, the full arsenal of public relations weaponry that Bush has deployed this week... appears aimed more at stirring the Republican base for political battles ahead."

Cheney will do Sean Hannity's radio show and talk about Iraq around 3:15 pm.  Meanwhile, the Raleigh News & Observer covers Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's effort to shore up support for the war among evangelical conservatives at the Southern Baptist Convention yesterday.  Rice "won them over with talk of her personal faith and the rightness of the president's initiative in fighting terrorism abroad.  At a time when President Bush's public opinion has sunk, Rice's talk renewed many people's faith in the administration."

As for the House floor debate today, Speaker Dennis Hastert will make an opening statement at 11:45 am.  Roll Call reports that as of last night, the debate was "expected to last between 10 and 12 hours and could conceivably continue into Friday morning...  Republican leaders had not decided whether to recess for the (congressional) picnic or to continue the Iraq debate during it."

The Senate is scheduled to begin voting on the emergency supplemental funding bill for Iraq, Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina at 10:00 am.  Also today, per NBC's Strickland, the Senate could begin debating amendments to the defense authorization bill offered by Democrats John Kerry and Russ Feingold that would require almost all US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq before the end of this year.  The possibility of voting on such an amendment, which only a few Democrats openly support, had key members at their caucus meeting last night trying to come up with less rigid language which a majority of them -- and some Republicans -- would support.   The meeting, which produced no solution, was attended by about a dozen Senate Democrats including possible presidential candidates Biden, Clinton, Dodd and Feingold, and Dodd.  (Kerry was out of town.)

The options on the table range from pulling out the troops at the end of 2006, or by the end of 2007, or some date TBD, Strickland reports.  Jim Manley, spokesman for Democratic Leader Harry Reid, said he's confident the party can come up with an amendment with "responsible redeployment of troops starting this year" that will garner strong Democratic support.

Kerry and Feingold are both insisting that there be a deadline for withdrawal and that the end of 2007 is too late.  One Senate aide sympathetic to their cause said, "It's going to take a deadline to make Iraqis stand up on their own.  Without a deadline, it's just talk and politics."  Sen. Barack Obama, who's not inclined to support a 2006 deadline, says "the assumption that somehow that Democrats can be absolutely unified on a very difficult issue like this is unrealistic."

Strickland also reports that as both chambers prepare for debates on the war today, a senior GOP Senate aide says the Pentagon provided his office with 72 pages of talking points.  Per this aide, their office suspects all GOP senators were provided with such papers, which give a issue-by-issue counterpoint to criticisms Democrats will likely raise during the debate.

Ned Lamont, who is challenging Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) in Connecticut's Senate primary, slammed Lieberman for his position on Iraq at the liberal Take Back America conference yesterday. "George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman rushed us into this war, got our 132,000 troops stuck in a bloody civil war, and they should be held accountable,' Lamont said" to loud applause. – Connecticut Post

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Size matters when you're talking about building a presidential legacy.  Bush's establishment of a Pacific island chain northwest of Hawaii as a national monument today "will create the world's largest marine protected area," "larger than all of America's national parks combined." – Los Angeles Times

The Washington Post says "colleagues believe" that presidential advisor and speechwriter Michael Gerson's imminent departure "will leave a hole in the White House at a critical period."  The story notes that "newly installed Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten said in an interview that the departure is not part of his broader shakeup...  No one is being tapped to take Gerson's most recent assignment as senior adviser."

With the enthusiasm of their conservative base possibly at stake, the Washington Times covers House and Senate Republicans' efforts yesterday to reform the budget process to help further rein in federal spending.

Vietnam veteran and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) calls for the Senate to reject a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. – Washington Post

Immigration politics
"Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are increasingly doubtful that Congress will pass any sort of immigration reform legislation this year," says the Washington Times.  Negotiations remain stalled because of a constitutional quirk that prevents the Senate from taking the lead on any legislation that generates revenue, which one provision of the Senate bill would do, and the leaders of that chamber have not reached agreement on how best to handle the issue.

Our polling partner focuses on what our new survey shows on immigration reform -- that "Americans appear to be drawing closer to [Bush's] view on the immigration debate.  But that hasn't alleviated the squeeze on Republican candidates in the fall elections."  As the Journal notes, "conservatives are disproportionately likely to say immigration will be important to their vote."

House Democrats are expected to meet and vote later today on whether or not to temporarily expel Rep. William Jefferson (D), who's at the center of a spreading bribery scandal, from his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

NBC's Doug Pasternak notes that an 11:30 am hearing in the House Homeland Security Committee will return jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) to the spotlight.  The hearing will examine how a small DC limousine company received a recent $21 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security.  In 2004, Pasternak says, Cunningham wrote a letter of reference for the company, Shirlington Limousine and Transportation, which won an initial $1,632,708 contract with DHS.  Late last year, the company, owned by a convicted felon, won a second $21 million contract with the agency.  Committee chair Peter King (R) is expected to grill DHS procurement officials on the contract and Cunningham's role in awarding it to Shirlington.

Several papers cover Bush's expression of confidence in Karl Rove yesterday during his news conference:  Washington Post; New York Times.

USA Today examines the recent financial disclosure reports of those members of Congress whose finances are under investigation, and finds that most of them "have plenty of cash - just in case they someday face hefty lawyers' bills."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page looks at how the controversy and federal investigations over earmarks have "engulfed" House Appropriations Committee chair Jerry Lewis.  "If Republicans aren't spooked by the Lewis investigation, they should be...  Republicans won the House in 1994 in part because the House Bank and Post Office scandals revealed the arrogance of a Democratic majority that believed it could do anything and voters would never send them packing."

Despite his legal defense fund, former Rep. Tom DeLay (R) still owes $1 million in legal fees, reports the Dallas Morning News.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Speaker Hastert and two partners turned in a profit of more than $3 million "on property they accumulated and sold in just over three years near the route of a proposed controversial freeway on the western fringe of suburban Chicago...  Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean rejected the notion that the land, located 5 1/2 miles from the proposed Prairie Parkway route, rose in value because of the highway project.  The speaker long has been an aggressive proponent of the highway and helped secure more than $200 million in federal funding through an earmark in federal transportation legislation."

The Democrats
The Washington office of economic research firm ISI writes to clients that although "the market doesn't discount election outcomes in any significant way until after Labor Day,... this year the market does already appear to be discounting the possibility of a Democratic Congress."

The Boston Globe is the latest to report on what House Democrats propose to do during their first week in the majority: "hike the minimum wage, slash interest rates on student loans, and install a new package of restrictions on lobbying activities that is designed to increase accountability in government." But "Republicans quickly attacked the Democratic platform as a collection of nice sounding ideas that will harm the economy and force tax increases."

The Hill looks at recent cracks in House Democrats' unified front.

More on the midterms
Now that the primary is over, Democratic challenger Phil Angelides is trying to compete with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in their race to the center, hoping to "broaden his appeal to mainstream Californians by casting himself as a fiscal conservative and champion of the middle class...  Angelides is also trying to use Schwarzenegger's political ties to the president to make broader gains." – Los Angeles Times

In Florida, the AP finds that Senate candidate and Rep. Katherine Harris (R) reported "an income of $125,000 to $1.1 million last year, including interest and dividends from bank accounts and investments."  Even if she spends her $10 million inheritance from her father on her Senate campaign, "Harris would have about $30 million to try something else should her Senate bid fail."

In New York, Sen. Hillary Clinton's Republican challenger John Spencer is criticizing the national GOP for not throwing its weight behind his candidacy, the New York Daily News says.  In a new radio ad, he states, "'You find out who your buddies are real fast,' Spencer said.  'I was endorsed by the Republican Party and the Conservative Party of New York.  But, the national Republicans aren't backing me up yet.  They're afraid.'  He finishes: 'Don't send your checks to Washington.  Get behind me.'"

In Texas, the AP reports that gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell (D) has raised more money in the past month that independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, "thanks in large part to a $100,000 donation from a late Houston oilman...  Bell collected $333,212, more than the $307,534 reported by Strayhorn and the $149,132 by Friedman."  Incumbent Gov. Rick Perry (R) raised $375,000.

And Roll Call looks at how Sen. George Allen's re-election fight in VIRGINIA could actually boost his presidential campaign prospects after November.  Allen strategist Chris LaCivita said the race's "high-profile nature could... allow Allen to gain more attention and raise even more money...  A decisive win over (Democrat Jim) Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, would also set Allen on course for a likely 2008 primary battle with Sen. John McCain."