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First Read: The politics of the Iraq vote

The politics of the Iraq vote. “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Friday, June 16, 2006 | 3:15 p.m. ETFrom Mark Murray

The politics of the Iraq vote
To give you a glimpse of how today's House vote on the Iraq war resolution -- which passed by a 256-153 margin -- is playing politically, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has seized on the "nay" votes by Reps. Harold Ford (D) and Sherrod Brown (D) who, respectively, are running for the Senate in Tennessee and Ohio. "Harold Ford's vote today to cut and run from Iraq demonstrates that despite his campaign rhetoric about being some type of a moderate, Ford is a DC liberal at heart," said NRSC spokesman Dan Ronayne. Regarding Brown's nay vote, Ronayne added, "Ohioans can add this vote against a coherent security policy to Brown's lengthy record of being wrong on national defense."

Ford, however, justified his vote on Imus this morning, calling the resolution a gimmick. He said if Congress and the White House were serious -- and not just focused on the midterms -- then they would come together and say, "'Let's have a serious conversation about the various approaches and various proposals on the table to help win the war on terrorism'... Instead, they give us a gimmick. And I think the American people ... get this."

One other note about today's House vote: The two House Republicans President Bush is raising money for today -- Reps. Dave Reichert of Washington and Heather Wilson of New Mexico -- didn't vote on resolution. Instead, it seems, they spent the morning flying to their states to attend the fundraisers.

• Friday, June 16, 2006 | 12:05 p.m. ETFrom Mike Viqueira and Elizabeth Wilner

Jefferson feels wrath of Congress
Just like that, the House has, for the first time ever, voted to temporarily expel a member of Congress from a committee seat.  By unanimous consent, Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's colleagues on both sides of the aisle moved to deprive him of his seat on the Ways and Means Committee due to his role in a growing bribery scandal.  Jefferson's fellow Democrats approved the move behind closed doors last night, but a vote by the full House was required to ratify the unprecedented action.

As we wrote earlier this morning, when House Democrats undertook their campaign against a so-called GOP "culture of corruption," they never figured that one of their own members could become as recognized in this context as Republicans like Tom DeLay or Duke Cunningham.  The Democratic leadership is hoping to balance out the damage from the scandal -- in which $90,000 was infamously found in Jefferson's freezer -- by sending a message that the party comes down swiftly against even the possibility of corruption.  The underlying message is that the leadership is unwilling to tolerate anything that might jeopardize their chances of retaking control of the House in November.  Jefferson's supporters say he's being unfairly persecuted; Jefferson himself has reminded his colleagues that his New Orleans constituents will be deprived of the help they've received through his role on the powerful committee. 

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats with a 7-point edge over Republicans on dealing with ethics in government.

• Friday, June 16, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

First glance
Having already logged thousands of airline miles this week, President Bush jets across the country today to raise money for two vulnerable House Republicans, both of whom represent districts John Kerry won in 2004.  But with the White House and GOP on a sugar high over a recent string of victories, the trek is not quite the psychological slog it otherwise might have seemed for those involved.  In Washington State at 1:50 pm ET, Bush headlines a reception (closed to the press) for Rep. Dave Reichert.  He then heads to New Mexico for an open-press event at 6:50 pm ET for Rep. Heather Wilson.  White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters yesterday that although it's too early for Bush to hit the campaign trail for candidates, in the meantime, "he's going to do everything he can to raise money and support" them.

As with Bush's other recent fundraising appearances, there's the question of whether the beneficiaries of his efforts will actually be present.  A campaign spokesperson for Reichert tells First Read that the Congressman is scheduled to attend the event and is honored to have Bush come to his district, even if they don't always agree on the issues.  Wilson, per an aide, is also expected to attend her fundraiser.  With the House voting later this morning on the GOP leadership's war resolution, either or both members could get hung up in Washington.

Their Democratic opponents are elated that Bush is coming to these blue districts, and can't wait to try to hang him around their necks.  "Why is President Bush coming to campaign for Dave Reichert?" asked opponent Darcy Burner (D) at a press conference on Wednesday.  "Because Dave Reichert is a loyal foot soldier, and the President wants to reward that."  Burner appears at a rally with Washington State Democrats today in Seattle at 2:45 pm ET to protest Bush's visit.  In New Mexico, Wilson opponent Patricia Madrid (D) will hold a press conference at 1:00 pm ET to pre-but Bush's arrival.  Madrid, the state's attorney general, is making the Iraq war an issue in her race against Wilson, who serves on the Intelligence Committee.

Laura Bush, meanwhile, raises money for GOP Sen. Jon Kyl at an event in Scottsdale, AZ at 2:50 pm ET.

After another two hours of debate, the House is scheduled to hold a final vote on the GOP war resolution around 11:00 am.  The non-binding resolution states, among other things, that a timeline for US troop withdrawal would be "arbitrary" and against the nation's security interests.  Yesterday's anticipated war debate in the Senate was deflated somewhat by Democrats' effort to postpone a confrontation over a timetable for US troop withdrawal.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that Democrats are trying, but so far have not been able, to unite behind such a proposal.  Even so, Republicans hammered favorite whipping boy John Kerry for his proposal to withdraw troops by the end of 2006, while Democrats tried to pressure Republicans to condemn a proposal by the new Iraqi government to offer limited amnesty to insurgents who have killed US troops.

When House Democrats undertook their campaign against a so-called GOP "culture of corruption," they never figured that one of their own members could become as recognized in this context as Republicans like Tom DeLay or Duke Cunningham.  Yet if their move to temporarily expel Rep. William Jefferson (D) from his Ways and Means seat goes to the full House for ratification, that's probably what will happen.  The caucus voted behind closed doors last night to unseat Jefferson, who's involved in a growing bribery scandal.  Afterward, he left open the possibility that he'll step down from the committee of his own accord.  The Democratic leadership is hoping to balance out the damage from the scandal by sending a message that the party comes down swiftly against even the possibility of corruption; Jefferson's supporters say he's being unfairly persecuted.  The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats with a 7-point edge over Republicans on dealing with ethics in government.

Their planned town hall scuttled because of a last-minute meeting at the White House on Wednesday, congressional Democrats hold a press conference at 10:15 am to lay out their "new direction for America."  Among their goals for their first days in the majority: a minimum wage increase.  Earlier this week, a House committee actually passed a minimum wage hike with the help of several Republicans, and Democrats will now try to keep Republicans from laying claim to one of their longtime issues.  Fifty-four percent of those surveyed by NBC and the Journal last weekend say they're more likely to vote for a candidate for Congress who favors increasing the minimum wage to $6.65 per hour.

And in our Friday look at the great oh-eight race, we comb through the crosstabs of the NBC/Journal poll to see how two possible candidates -- Sen. John McCain (R) and former Vice President Al Gore (D) -- are faring among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.  Gore has said he doesn't plan to run, but some choose not to believe him, and in any case, it's interesting to measure his standing now that he's back in the news with his documentary on global warming.  See below.

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

Security politics
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein, channeling First Read from yesterday, writes that the GOP's big push "to focus attention on the Iraq war represents a high-stakes gamble: that doubts about the direction Democrats might set on national security exceed anxieties about the course charted by President Bush...  In Thursday's debates on Capitol Hill, Republicans argued that Democrats would withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq too quickly.  But they also provided the opportunity for a succession of Democrats to argue that Bush would stay too long."

The Wall Street Journal says "Republicans seized the offensive" during the overall Iraq debate, "taking advantage of divisions among Democrats to force quick votes against withdrawal.  But on the day that U.S. troop deaths in Iraq reached 2,500, the partisan tone distressed members in both parties and could create a backlash against the majority."

The Los Angeles Times says of the upcoming vote on the House GOP resolution, "Democrats... were debating whether to vote against it or vote 'present' to avoid being accused of not supporting the troops."  A senior House Democratic aide suggests to First Read, however, that not many members will vote "present," since the real punch behind such a vote would come only if all Democrats votes that way, and a handful of them are in fact expected to vote in favor of the resolution.

The AP notes, "A few Republicans who have publicly expressed misgivings about the war also were expected to oppose the resolution."

Earlier this week, the Senate passed John McCain's proposal that further funding requests for the wars be subject to the regular budget process.  The New York Times, covering Bush's signing of the (perhaps last?) Iraq/Afghanistan "emergency" supplemental yesterday, notes, "The administration has argued that it cannot predict the exact amounts that will be required."

"If the full House concurs" to remove Jefferson from Ways and Means, per the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "it would mark the first time in the 217-year history of Congress that the House has removed a rank-and-file member from a committee."

The Jefferson scandal is in the spotlight today not only in the House, but in court as well.  The federal judge who signed the search warrant allowing the FBI to raid Jefferson's Hill office last month will preside over a potentially contentious hearing pitting the executive and legislative branches of government in a showdown over the separation of powers, NBC's Joel Seidman reports.  US District Court Judge Thomas Hogan will hear arguments from the Department of Justice and the House of Representatives, as well as from Jefferson's lawyer, on the search he OKed.  The raid was the first ever of a congressional office on the Hill.  House leaders have called the search unconstitutional; Justice officials have said that any special treatment for lawmakers would essentially allow Congress to block criminal investigations.

It is still not known exactly what was seized from Jefferson's office, Seidman reminds us, but whatever it was, Jefferson wants it back.  Bush ordered the seized materials to be sealed until mid-July to allow the House and the Justice Department enough time to try to resolve the issue.  Jefferson is under federal investigation for allegedly taking bribes in order to influence high-ranking government officials in Africa to do business with a Kentucky-based Internet company.  He has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing.  But the Kentucky business owner and a former Hill aide have both pleaded guilty to bribing him.  Jefferson's former aide Brett Pfeffer, who is cooperating with the investigation, was recently sentenced to eight years in jail.  Vernon Jackson, chief executive of iGate, pleaded guilty to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson.  He has yet to be sentenced.

The Los Angeles Times writes up yesterday House Homeland Security Committee hearing on how a small limo company received a recent $21 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security with help from now jailed former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R).

The New York Post screams, "RAGE OVER HOMELAND HOOKER LIMOS," in reference to the "prostitute-toting limo company."

The Democrats
Republicans aren't the only ones crowing about being back on track by the end of this long, action-packed week.  One senior House Democratic aide suggests to First Read that the caucus heads into the weekend on more solid footing: the Jefferson scandal is being dealt with; the debate over the GOP's war resolution yesterday went more smoothly than expected for them; and the prospective fight over a majority leader post Democrats don't even have claim to yet has been moved to the back burner.

The San Francisco Chronicle profiles House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, noting that her "ability to hold her caucus together is being tested as internal party disputes over war, ethics and its own leadership erupt into public view."  More: "Whether the episodes reflect a growing confidence among Democrats that they will be the majority party after next year's election, or the news media's obsession with exposing conflict, the attention has become a distraction for Democrats" and "has provided an opening for Republicans to assert that their opponents are stumbling."

"Senate Democratic Leader Reid launches 'Your Congress' on, a Webcast network for the left." – Wall Street Journal

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The Washington Post points out that Bush's signing of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act yesterday comes as he "and Republican congressional allies are trying to reassure disaffected conservative supporters that they remain committed to conservative causes.  With midterm elections approaching, Bush recently gave two speeches promoting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and the Senate plans to vote on another amendment that outlaws flag burning."

Despite some delays, Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter and ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy say they will pursue oversight hearings on whether Bush has abused the use of signing statements to exempt himself from the law, writes the Boston Globe.  "The Bush administration says that its use of signing statements is legal and that previous presidents have used them.  But critics say that the current administration has gone far beyond any predecessor."

The New York Times covers yesterday's swearing in of new US trade representative Susan Schwab, who faces a huge challenge "to salvage" the Administration's hopes for the so-called "Doha round" free-trade negotiations.  "But some critics say the appointment of Ms. Schwab - succeeding a recognized power hitter with close ties on Capitol Hill - was a sign that the Bush administration was scaling back its hopes for a successful Doha negotiation."

USA Today continues to track the progress of Bush's new Medicare prescription-drug program, and finds that some "problems that plagued low-income seniors and people with disabilities during the rollout... have continued on a smaller scale, causing some new beneficiaries to lose coverage or spend their own money at pharmacy counters" when they fall into a two- to six-week gap between programs.  "Since January, most of the early problems have been rectified.  But each month, 10,000 to 70,000 new people fall into the gap between Medicaid and Medicare."

It's the economy
Fed chair Ben Bernanke "eased nerves on Thursday with a measured assessment of the threat posed by higher energy prices to inflation and growth, as stocks advanced worldwide...  Mr Bernanke zeroed in on the sustained increase in energy prices as one of the root causes of the recent inflation scare, and pledged to keep a careful watch on inflation expectations." – Financial Times

The Chicago Tribune: "Moments after the Fed released the text of Bernanke's speech--in fact, just as he started speaking in Chicago--the Dow began a run that would extend nearly 129 points.  It then dropped slightly to close at 11,015.19.  Call it the Bernanke Effect.  Or the Hold-Your-Breath Effect.  Or perhaps most accurately, the Hold-Your-Breath-Bernanke's-Talking Effect."

Wall Street remains uncertain as to whether the market rally is or isn't a sign that the downturn is really over. – USA Today

Our polling partner points out in its Washington Wire, "Economic gloom gives Democrats a political opening.  By 39%-16%, Americans expect economy to get worse in next year; 43% say it'll stay the same" in the new NBC/Journal poll.  "Democrats lead on handling the economy by the largest margin, 16 percentage points, since 1993...  Among independents, 25% worry Democrats will too quickly raise taxes and spending.  But 37% say Bush's party isn't sufficiently curbing spending and shrinking the deficit."

More on the midterms
In California, the Sacramento Bee notes that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is distancing himself from state GOP lawmakers who are refusing to back a budget that provides health insurance to all children, including those of illegal immigrants.  "But the governor also said he opposes Democrats' plans to expand the number of children who are eligible for health programs, saying the state cannot afford it right now."

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman is in Montana tonight addressing the GOP state convention, presumably joined by vulnerable Sen. Conrad Burns (R).

In Virginia, Democratic Senate nominee Jim Webb holds a press conference (and conference call) at his campaign HQ in Arlington at 11:00 am.  Per the press release, this will be Webb's first media availability since having minor hand surgery on Wednesday.

Writing about the 2006 battle for the suburban vote, the New York Times profiles the Washington state congressional district that Bush is heading to today.  "After years in which Republicans capitalized on rapid growth in outlying areas, Democrats now see an opportunity to make gains in close-in suburbs where changes in the composition of the population are working in their favor...  Democratic hopes of retaking the House, party strategists say, could hinge on places like Bellevue, a city of 107,000 just across Lake Washington from Seattle."

The AP previews Bush's stop in Medina, WA, where the Reichert fundraiser is expected to net $500,000.  Anti-war protests are planned and "[n]otably absent will be GOP Senate hopeful Mike McGavick, who is challenging freshman Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell."

NBC's Chris Donovan on looks at a somewhat unusual club: Senators who all hold the roles their fathers once held.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll places Sen. John McCain (R) and former Vice President Al Gore (D) under the microscope.  Overall, 40% of respondents view McCain favorably, while 16% view him negatively.  Digging deeper into those numbers, McCain continues to appeal to Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike.  Per the poll's crosstabs, Republicans (by a 47%-16% margin) and Bush voters (44%-17%) view him favorably.  That's also true among independents (38%-16%) -- and even among Kerry voters (38%-19%) and Democrats (35%-17%).  If McCain does run for president, his challenge will be to win over some of the approximately 30% of Republicans, Democrats, and independents who have a neutral opinion of him.

Gore, conversely, doesn't seem have the same crossover appeal as McCain does.  Democrats (by a 53%-18% margin) and Kerry voters (52%-16%) view him favorably.  But that's not the case among Republicans (73% of whom view him unfavorably) or Bush voters (71% of whom view him unfavorably).  Even independents, by a nearly a 2-to-1 margin, see him in a negative light.  Among all respondents, 30% view Gore favorably, while 42% view him negatively -- a net negative rating.  As NBC/Journal pollster Alex Horowitz (D) calls the situation "an inconvenient truth."

Meanwhile, the Democrat who continues to loom over the party's 2008 field, Sen. Hillary Clinton, is giving a major policy address -- as of this writing -- on the issue of privacy at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy's national convention.

And the Des Moines Register reports that Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) is increasingly honing his "national message" during stops in New Hampshire and his home state of Iowa.