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First Read: Encouraging military tension?

Encouraging military tension?  “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Friday, June 23, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Alex Isenstadt

First glance
The White House is encouraging tensions within the US military: The McGuire AFB Little League Yankees of New Jersey face off against the Little League Indians of the Naval Submarine Base in New London, CT as tee ball returns to the South Lawn at 1:20 pm.  President Bush, back from his whirlwind trip to Europe, attends in his only scheduled public event today.

Vice President Cheney is in Chicago, where he'll make remarks on the economy at the Mercantile Exchange at 11:45 am ET and headline a fundraiser for a GOP House candidate at 1:30 pm ET.

Congress wraps up its two-week debate over the war in Iraq, which had the political effect of helping Republicans right their listing ship by unifying in opposition to "cutting and running" despite -- we'll say again -- 54% of those recently surveyed by NBC and the Wall Street Journal saying they would support a candidate for Congress who wants the troops home within a year.  Beyond that, all bets are off for how the intensely partisan debate will resonate with Americans who might be more inclined to cast their ballots in November based on what's going on with the war in September and October, rather than in June.

Sen. Hillary Clinton addresses another Democratic Party confab, this time a friendlier gathering of centrists.  Attendees of the New Democrat Network's annual meeting in Washington heard from potential 2008 rivals Joe Biden and Mark Warner yesterday and will hear from Clinton at 9:00 am today; Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will speak at 11:00 am.

Last month, in our weekly look at the great oh-eight presidential race, we examined some of nominal GOP frontrunner John McCain's recent shifts to the right.  Today, as she takes the podium at yet another extended Democratic cattle call, we look at Clinton's nuanced positions on some of the big political issues out there:

Abortion: A consistent supporter of abortion rights, Clinton has said she won't support Supreme Court nominees who aren't committed to upholding Roe v. Wade.  (This was reflected in her votes against nominees John Roberts and Sam Alito.)  She also has said she would support a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions if exceptions are made for the mother's health and life.  While her support for abortion rights has been consistent, the way she talks about abortion has changed: She used to say abortions should be "safe, legal, and rare."  More recently, such as in 2005, she called abortion "a sad, even tragic choice."

Flag burning: Clinton opposes flag burning (she has called it a "despicable act") and supports federal legislation that would outlaw flag desecration, much like laws that prohibit the burning of crosses.  Yet she opposes a constitutional amendment that would do the same, arguing that amendments to the Constitution should be rare and resorted to only when all legislative options have been exhausted.

Gay marriage: She opposes gay marriage and supports the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act her husband signed into law, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.  But she opposes a constitutional amendment to do the same.  Also, she supports civil unions that would guarantee homosexuals many of the same benefits given to married couples.

Iraq: In 2002, Clinton voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq and doesn't regret that vote, she says, but regrets the way Bush used his authority.  She has criticized the conduct of the war, but has not called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation.  She also stresses the need to succeed in Iraq.  On the question of troop withdrawal, she doesn't support Bush's "open-ended commitment," or some Democrats' call to leave by a specific date.  Just yesterday, she voted for the Democrat-proposed amendment calling for a roadmap to begin bringing US troops home.

Despite what the GOP playbook might say, there is room in politics and policymaking for nuance and subtle variations.  When it comes to big issues, many if not most Americans land somewhere between one extreme and the other.  But nuance also has its shortcomings, particularly in the hands of the current Republican party, opening a lawmaker or candidate up to charges of being uncertain of where they stand, or of being politically calculating.  Republicans pounded John Kerry with the former allegation in 2004; they may use the latter to whack Clinton.

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

Security politics
Thirteen Democrats voted for the Kerry amendment yesterday.  Among those voting for it: two Democrats running for president (Kerry and Feingold); one in a competitive Senate race (Menendez); and one facing a tough Democratic primary (Akaka).

The Levin-Reed amendment was rejected 60-39.  All Senate Democrats potentially running for president voted for it (Bayh, Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Feingold, and Kerry).  All Senate Republicans potentially running for president voted against it (Allen, Brownback, Frist, Hagel, and McCain).  Six Democrats voted against the amendment, three of whom face competitive Senate races or primaries (Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, and Lieberman).  Three Democrats who voted for the amendment face tough races this fall (Byrd, Cantwell, Menendez).  Only one moderate Republican voted for it, and he faces both a competitive primary challenge from a more conservative Republican and a tough general election (Chafee).

The votes yesterday, on the heels of the House vote last Friday, "ratified congressional Republicans' decision to stake their electoral fortunes largely on Bush's prosecution of" an unpopular war, says the Washington Post.  "The GOP solidarity was a vote of confidence in the White House and a gamble that the situation in Iraq will stabilize, or at least not worsen, between now and November...  Both parties, meanwhile, claimed to be in touch with U.S. public sentiment over the conflict."

The Los Angeles Times says the two votes yesterday "were less an attempt to legislate than a test of Democratic unity on an issue that could prove decisive in November's congressional elections and the 2008 presidential race."

"Democrats, who have long been criticized as lacking a coherent message on Iraq, said the votes demonstrated broad party consensus for a new path in the war -- and they lambasted Republicans as blindly following the president.  Shortly after the votes, a group of Senate Democrats stood in front of a blank poster labeled, 'The Republican Plan on Iraq.'" - Boston Globe

Per the New York Post, "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton declared, 'We're never going to have a strictly military victory' in Iraq moments after the Senate decisively rejected dueling Democratic plans to bring U.S. troops home."

The Washington Times notes divisions within the party over a timetable for troop withdrawal: "As anti-war Democrats stepped up their political offensive in Congress..., a counteroffensive appeared to be building among more hawkish party advisers who warned that a precipitous pullout now would send the wrong signal to Americans about the Democrats' commitment to the new Iraqi government and its fight against al Qaeda terrorists."

As intense as the Iraq debate has been in Washington for the past two weeks, congressional lawmakers on the ballot in 2006 and their opponents didn't seem to be engaging much on the issue back home.  Up until yesterday, that is -- when two Democratic Senate contenders launched new TV ads about the war.  Incumbent Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a blue state where the President may be particularly unpopular, went up with a small TV ad buy in which he charges, "My opponent supports George Bush's war...  I couldn't disagree more."  Rep. Harold Ford (D), running for the Senate in Tennessee, went up with an ad seizing on the news that Iraq's government might offer amnesty to the terrorists there.  "Over 2500 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq and their prime minister just said he wants to give amnesty to the terrorists who killed them," the ad states.  "No senator should stand for that."

In addition, Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), who's running against Sen. Mike DeWine (R) in Ohio, blasted DeWine for voting against the Levin-Reed amendment, which would have laid out goals but no timetable for withdrawing US troops.  "Mike DeWine failed Ohio's military families today by voting for more of the same in Iraq," Brown said in a statement.  "Ohio service members and their families deserve a plan, not a rubber stamp for the administration."

Democrats also are now accusing GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of playing politics by seizing on a just-declassified Army report outlining the discovery of unexploded shells in Iraq that showed traces of sarin.  On Wednesday night, Santorum, who the most vulnerable Senate Republican on the ballot by far, declared that the US military "has found the WMD in Iraq!"  But Pentagon and intelligence officials tell NBC that these were old shells which pre-date the Gulf War in 1991, and not the WMD the military has been looking for in Iraq this time around.  The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee charged yesterday that Santorum's assertion was politically motivated, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  Rep. Jane Harman said "it's a bit suspicious that this was rolled out the night before" the Senate debate and vote on troop withdrawal "by a Senator in a close political race."

The New York Times profiles the outspoken Americans -- mostly on the political right -- who continue to search for Saddam Hussein's WMD.  "More than a year after the White House, at considerable political cost, accepted the intelligence agencies' verdict that Mr. Hussein destroyed his stockpiles in the 1990's, these Americans have an unshakable faith that the weapons continue to exist."

Former Sen. John Edwards (D) will talk about US-Russia relations at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia at 11:15 am, then hold a media availability afterward.  Yesterday, Edwards endorsed the idea of withdrawing 40,000 US troops from Iraq. - Bloomberg

The immigration debate
House Republican leaders angrily denied yesterday that they're trying to kill an immigration bill, even as they announced a series of highly unusual field hearings for July and August which would forestall action on a bill this year.  "I'm sick and tired of you folks in the media saying we are blocking a bill!" an agitated Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner yelled at a press conference yesterday, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.  Sensenbrenner and 10 other top Republicans in the House insisted that they want to pass something.  "Our goal here is to get a bill," said Majority Leader John Boehner.  Even so, these Republicans took turns bashing the Senate bill, listing the provisions within that measure to which they object, Viq says.  They now refer to the bill as the "Reid-Kennedy bill," though before yesterday, it was known as the McCain-Kennedy bill.  The somewhat vague list of hearings to be held includes one in San Diego on July 5 and one in Laredo, TX on July 7.  Other hearings will be scheduled for August, including one in Yuma, AZ.

The Los Angeles Times says the simultaneous House and Senate field hearings on the Senate immigration bill mean "Americans will see dueling efforts by House and Senate members to promote radically different visions of immigration policy."  The story notes that "House members might find that most Americans backed the Senate approach, which had been endorsed by President Bush," and which is reflected in our latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.  Also reflected in the poll, however, is strong support among the GOP base for the House version.

US News & World Report has Republicans conceding that the plan for more hearings might cause them to get blamed for stymieing the legislation.  "'Anything that gets interpreted as a stalling action on one of the most important issues facing the country does not help the governing party,' says Whit Ayres, a top Republican pollster.  'Most Americans, including most Republicans, want something done on illegal immigration.  And they want it done soon.'"

The Houston Chronicle writes up a GOP poll showing that three-quarters of likely Republican voters support the Senate's approach to immigration reform.  "Forty-nine percent said they did not view this policy as amnesty, while 39 percent said it is amnesty."

The Washington Times looks at next Tuesday's Republican primary in Utah's 3rd district, where an otherwise rock-solid GOP incumbent, Chris Cannon, is having a tough time against an opponent who takes a harder line than Cannon on immigration and has been endorsed by Cannon's fellow Rep. Tom Tancredo.

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The Washington Post twins the partial estate tax repeal and line-item veto bills which passed the House yesterday by saying the House "approved a deep, permanent tax cut on large, inherited estates that would cost the Treasury hundreds of billions of dollars, then sought to burnish its reputation for fiscal discipline by granting the president power to rescind pet projects from spending legislation."  The moves "came as Congress struggles to contain stubborn budget deficits."

Bloomberg says the partial estate tax repeal would "permanently spare all but about 2,800 multimillion-dollar estates from federal taxes at death."  The bill faces a tougher road in the Senate, where some Republicans said "they would still push for a full repeal and are concerned the House measure doesn't go far enough to help small-business owners and farmers."  Also: "Senators of both parties are discussing a compromise that would drain less revenue from the government than the House legislation."

"The decision by Republican congressional leaders to seek something less than full repeal reflects the changing political dynamic in Washington," says the Wall Street Journal.  "After 12 years in control of Congress, Republicans worry that Democrats could win a majority in the House or Senate after November's congressional elections." A Democratic seat gain in November could mean that "estate-tax repeal would face even longer odds."

"Frist tries again on energy after collapse of $100 rebate," says the Journal's Washington Wire.  "Senate leader directs committee chairs to produce legislation by July 14, hoping to protect members amid $3-a-gallon gas prices.  Given calendar pressures, he seeks consensus measures.  That sidelines Republican quest for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling...  Likely elements: making gas gouging a federal crime, giving administration authority to overhaul autos' fuel-efficiency standards, tax incentives for renewable energy."

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by John McCain (R), released its report yesterday on Jack Abramoff's dealings with Native American tribes.  Per NBC's Joel Seidman, the report is causing problems for Rep. Bob Ney and potentially for former Bush campaign advisor Ralph Reed, who's now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, and prominent anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.  USA Today focuses on how the committee determined that "[e]xisting laws are sufficient to deal with the sort of massive fraud perpetrated by" Abramoff.

The Washington Post delves into potential problems for Ney due to contradictions between evidence presented and his talks with investigators.

The New York Times says the report portrayed Reed "as a central figure in Mr. Abramoff's lobbying operation...  While not accusing Mr. Reed of having knowledge of their crimes, the new report offers a rich - and for Mr. Reed potentially damaging - chronology of his close friendship with Mr. Abramoff and of the millions of dollars that Mr. Abramoff directed to Mr. Reed from Indian tribe clients who were seeking to protect their casinos from competition."

Per the Sacramento Bee, the report noted that "the company owned by the wife of Rep. John Doolittle [R] was paid more than $66,000 over two years out of funds from a California Indian gaming tribe, but concluded Julie Doolittle knew nothing about where the money came from...  Rep. Doolittle jumped on the report as a sign that he and his wife are innocent of wrongdoing, as they have consistently claimed."  But: "Critics reading the report ... said it was rich in details but shy on blame."

More on the midterms
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist holds a fundraiser in New York on Monday night that will raise money for (his own PAC and) the GOP's Senate contenders in Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and West Virginia.  Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman will make remarks.

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean fields sports-related questions on ESPN's "Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith" show at 11:00 pm ET.  (We wonder if Smith will still ask him a question about Dean's 50-state strategy...)

The general election in Maryland's gubernatorial race has begun, now that Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan (D) has dropped out of the race, handing Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) their party's nomination without need for a September primary, and setting up a longer, brutal fight between O'Malley and vulnerable GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich.  Duncan has been diagnosed with clinical depression. - Washington Post

In Texas, independent gubernatorial candidates Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn (a/k/a Scott McClellan's mom) qualified for the ballot, joining incumbent Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Chris Bell (D).  "With four high-profile candidates in the race, the winner likely will be decided by a plurality, rather than a majority, of votes...  [I]t's been a while since an independent was elected to the state's top office.  Sam Houston, a hero of the war for independence from Mexico, was the last independent to be elected Texas governor - in 1859." - Houston Chronicle

More oh-eight (D)
The Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws panel voted yesterday to add two state contests to the first weeks of its presidential nominating calendar in 2008.  One caucus will take place between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and one primary will take place during the week after New Hampshire's, but before other states begin holding their contests.  The panel has been exploring ways to increase the geographic and demographic diversity of those voters who get an early say over who becomes the party's nominee.  Operatives for the potential presidential candidates are already trying to find out which two states will move up, but that will be determined at a later rules and bylaws meeting.  New Hampshire Democrats who feel their first-in-the-nation status is being threatened continue to decry the DNC's effort.  The Republican National Committee hasn't moved to adjust its calendar.

Two Democratic candidates, former vice presidential nominee John Edwards and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, gave a pair of speeches in Washington yesterday that highlighted their focuses on the "old economy" and the "new economy," respectively.  Speaking at the National Press Club, Edwards repeated his assertion that poverty is "the great moral issue of our time' and that America has an obligation to end it.  He didn't address his own political future, but suggested that ending poverty could be a winning issue: "When I talked about poverty in the 2004 campaign, political types said it was futile.  They said nobody cares about poverty except for the poor.  Not true, and we saw it with Katrina."  Edwards has also focused assiduously on courting organized labor.  Former high-tech exec Warner, on the other hand, focused in his speech on America's ability to compete in the global economy: "The race is on for the 21st century," he said at the New Democrat Network's annual meeting.  "India and China are not playing for second place."  He ticked off eight different ways to make America more competitive.  "Politics in the 21st century [isn't] going to be left versus right," he said.  "It is going to be the future versus the past."

And is former President Clinton having trouble selling with New Hampshire Democrats?  The state party is holding tickets sales open for its fundraiser featuring Clinton in Bedford on Tuesday.  Tickets are $250 per person.