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First Read: A Graceland visit review

A Graceland visit review. “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

Friday, June 30, 2006 | 1:00 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi and Kim Sneed

A Graceland visit review
White House pool reports are often chock-full of colorful tidbits about the President's day, cleverly crafted by the reporters who cover him for the reporters who cover him.  With Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi touring Graceland as we pound away at the keyboard, already half in a holiday frame of mind, we thought we'd share some of the observations of Washington Times reporter Joseph Curl, the pool reporter along for the ride.

Upon arriving at Andrews AFB this morning, Bush and Koizumi "strode side by side, a Burning Love between them, across the tarmac (which was remarkable, given that just 60 years ago, their fathers had been at war, and now, through the power of freedom and democracy, their boys were going to pay tribute to a drug-addled sex addict who died on the toilet)," Curl writes.  On board, Bush played Elvis movies in his office while being served peanut butter and banana sandwiches (purportedly Elvis' favorite) which neither he or Koizumi touched. (Gee, we wonder why.)

The King's wife Priscilla and Lisa Marie greeted Bush and Koizumi at Graceland and began the tour, during which Koizumi sang a few bars from "Love Me Tender" and "Can't Help Falling in Love With You." No word on whether Koizumi's translator sang along.

But, alas, it wasn't all fun and games. White House spokesperson Tony Snow who met with reporters on board answered some pressing questions. Regarding yesterday's Supreme Court decision about the Guantanamo detainees, Snow said Bush is very interested in the decision and wants to ensure that justice is served to those being held there but also said the jail won't be closed until all cases are processed. When asked about the new Osama bin Laden tape, Snow said, "It's just another bin Laden audio tape, it is what it is."

That said, we're done being serious... for now.  We're going to take a break for a few days, rest up and return next Wednesday. Hope you all have a happy (and safe) Fourth of July. 

Friday, June 30, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

In today's issue:

First glance
Congress heads into the Fourth of July weekend, and will emerge from it next Wednesday, debating what defines an American.  The back and forth continues over immigration reform, and the House GOP leadership's inability to bring the Voting Rights Act to the floor for reauthorization, in part because of a squabble over multilingual ballots, threatens the party's image among Latinos.  On July 5, members of the House and Senate will hold field hearings in San Diego and Pennsylvania, respectively, on the White House-backed Senate plans for guest workers and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently in the United States.

President Bush's authority was dealt what many are calling the biggest blow of his presidency yesterday by the US Supreme Court.  But today at least, he's fully prepared to yield to another power.  As he said yesterday about his visiting friend, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, "Officially he's here to see the President, but I know the highlight of his visit will be paying his respects to the King."  The Bushes and diehard Elvis fan Koizumi tour Graceland later this morning; Bush will become the first sitting president to visit the landmark.

After that, they go their separate ways: Bush heads to Columbus, OH for a closed-press fundraising reception for endangered GOP Sen. Mike DeWine at 6:15 pm ET.  Laura Bush raises money for equally endangered GOP Rep. Mike Sodrel in Starlight, IN at 6:30 pm ET.  Vice President Cheney does his part by headlining a fundraising luncheon for Rep. Scott Garrett, a Republican in the blue state of New Jersey; the event is at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York at 12:30 pm.  After spending the weekend at Camp David, Bush will travel to Fort Bragg to mark the Fourth of July before returning to Washington.

In 2001, Bush took Mexican President Vicente Fox to Toledo, OH.  In 2002, he traveled with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski to Troy, MI.  Today, Bush and Koizumi visit Graceland.  So we wondered, if given the chance, which world leaders would the 2008 presidential candidates take on a trip, where would they go, and why?

The offices of GOP Sens. John McCain and Chuck Hagel declined to answer, while Sen. Hillary Clinton's office reassured us, yet again, that she "remains focused on being the best Senator she can be for the people of New York."  Some others didn't get back to us.  But here's who did:

Emphasizing that this is "[h]ypothetically of course," Democratic former Sen. John Edwards' office said "he would invite Chinese President Hu Jintao to a UNC-Duke basketball game so that he could learn more about one of the greatest sports rivalries in our country by watching UNC beat Duke."

Sen. Russ Feingold (D): "On her way to becoming the first woman elected president of an African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf studied in Madison, WI.  I'd love the chance to talk with her about progress in Liberia and swap stories about our times in Madison at one of my, and I'll bet one of her, favorite places - the Union Terrace on the University of Wisconsin campus."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R), per his office, "would take the King of Jordan to the Smoky National Mountains because the King of Jordan took him to Petra a few years back so he would want to return the favor by showing him some of the beauty of the state of Tennessee."

"I'd choose Tony Blair because I admire his courage in standing with the United States even at his own political peril.  I'd take him to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since it would give me an excuse to finally go and he could then get me hooked up to tour London's Abbey Road Studios," said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).

2004 Democratic presidential nominee and Sen. John Kerry: "I'm sure I'd get in trouble if I said I'd take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Grand Canyon and push, but man would that exorcise some '04 campaign demon."

Gov. Mitt Romney (R) of Massachusetts "would take Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Boston so they can walk the Freedom Trail together and discuss how much Iraq's path to freedom resembles America's in that both were born of sacrifice and struggle," per his office.

And Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) "thinks the Prime Minister of India is a very interesting guy and would invite him to the National Archives in Washington, DC to view the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution," said spokesperson Rodell Mollineau.  "The Governor would like for the leader of the world's largest democracy to see the documents that began it all."

First Read will return on Wednesday, but that doesn't mean you have to go without your favorite, constantly updated political calendar on

We wish everyone a happy and dry holiday weekend.

Goin' to Graceland
"Graceland has new paint on the fences, freshly trimmed bushes and a cleaning job worthy of heads of state," says hometown paper, the Commercial Appeal.  "Koizumi's visit will include eight rooms in the 15-room mansion with Koizumi seeing what other Elvis fans see.  The distinction is that the mansion will be closed to other guests until about 12:30 p.m. while" Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley conduct the tour.  Those eight rooms: "the living room, music room, dining room, the Vernon and Gladys Presley bedroom, the kitchen, the pool room, the TV room, and the infamous Jungle Room."  Koizumi may be accompanied by his brother, who is "a former president of The Elvis Presley Fan Club of Tokyo and helped organize installation of an Elvis statue in a Tokyo park."

An editorial in the paper offers some tourist advice for the duo, while asking Bush to pay more attention to the state and asking Koizumi if he could sent a Toyota manufacturing plant (or two) their way.

The Wall Street Journal reports that on the flight to Memphis, "Bush plans to show Koizumi Presley movies, play top tunes and serve peanut-butter and banana sandwiches."

Security politics
Yesterday's Supreme Court decision may have represented the biggest blow yet to Bush's powers, but that doesn't mean the White House won't try to turn it into a political victory by asking Congress for a legislative solution that will set up one of those debates Bush advisors and top GOP operatives love, in which they oversimplify the terms and hammer Democrats for being weak on security ("cut and run" being the most recent example).

Bush "may try to use a major legal setback to win a political victory" by asking "Congress for legal authority to operate the tribunals," says Bloomberg.  "Some Democrats left little doubt they would use the court ruling to question the presidential powers Bush invoked to justify several controversial decisions, including the military tribunals, secret domestic eavesdropping, monitoring of financial transactions and what Democrats said was an effort to scale back Congress's authority."

The Washington Times also says that GOP efforts to come up with a legislative answer for Bush "sets up a contentious debate between Republicans and Democrats on a hot-potato national-security issue just four months before midterm elections."

"The White House response was essentially to move the issue into the political arena by announcing it would seek congressional approval for its approach to prosecuting foreign terrorism suspects," says the Los Angeles Times.  "Republican strategists are likely to see huge advantages in moving such an issue into the realm of political debate" before November.

The Washington Post's analysis says, "In rejecting Bush's military tribunals for terrorism suspects, the high court ruled that even a wartime commander in chief must govern within constitutional confines significantly tighter than this president has believed appropriate...  For many in Washington, the decision echoed not simply as a matter of law but as a rebuke of a governing philosophy of a leader who at repeated turns has operated on the principle that it is better to act than to ask permission...  At a political level, the decision... provides fodder to critics who turned Guantanamo Bay into a metaphor for an administration run amok."

The Chicago Tribune calls the decision "the latest signal that the high court and Congress, after a long deference to the executive branch, are starting to check or question the Bush administration's attempts to broaden the wartime power of the presidency."

White House spokesperson Tony Snow said yesterday that the ruling "'will not mean closing down Guantanamo.'" – New Daily News

The House's vote yesterday to condemn newspapers for publishing details of the Administration's terrorist financing tracking system "was the latest volley in a GOP-led offensive against media organizations," writes the Boston Globe.  "Democrats pointed out that government officials have publicly boasted about stepped-up efforts to monitor terrorists' finances since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  Some reports have even specifically mentioned SWIFT."

Don't mess with Texas
A federal judge in Texas has set a timetable for the redrawing of the part of the state's congressional map that the Supreme Court found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.  All parties shall file their proposals by July 14; responses shall be filed by July 21; and oral arguments are set for August 3 in Austin.

The Supreme Court's clearance of most of Texas' 2003 map as constitutional may cause the House GOP leadership a headache by further stalling their effort to re-up the Voting Rights Act.  Majority Leader John Boehner said yesterday, "There are Republican lawyers on both sides of this issue who have different opinions... on what [the decision] means" for the Act.  Recently, GOP leaders were forced to postpone what they had expected to be a smooth reauthorization of some of the Act's provisions which expire next year because they didn't have the support of the majority of Republican members.  Some Southern conservatives objected to the continuing of "pre-clearance" rules under which their states would have to seek Justice Department approval before making any changes to election laws or district maps.  Others balked at the provision for multilingual ballots, tying this battle firmly to the overall immigration-reform debate within the GOP, and likewise threatening to alienate Latinos.

The immigration debateThe AP reports, "The Bush administration has been unable to muster even half the 2,500 National Guardsmen it planned to have on the Mexican border by the end of June, officials in the border states said.  The head of the National Guard Bureau disputed that tally and said the goal would be met by Friday...  Some state officials have argued that they cannot free up Guardsmen because of flooding in the East, wildfires in the West or the prospect of hurricanes in the South."

Senate leaders yesterday resolved the procedural disagreement that had been keeping them from commencing negotiations with the House toward a consensus bill.  "With that hurdle overcome, the onus for progress on an immigration overhaul rests with House Republicans." – Los Angeles Times

Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the respective chairs of the Senate and House Democratic campaign committees, yesterday unveiled poll numbers commissioned by the centrist Democratic group Third Way to make the case that Republicans would be unwise to campaign on immigration during the midterms.  Per a release, the poll finds that 57% of voters in 19 battleground states disapprove of Bush's handling of immigration, and that these voters -- by a 2-to-1 margin -- would blame congressional Republicans if immigration reform doesn't happen this year.  "If Congressional Republicans want to make immigration the centerpiece of their 2006 campaign, I've got three words for them: make our day," Schumer said.

Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, who's embroiled in the spreading Abramoff scandal, has lost his three top staffers, including the spokesperson who had doggedly defended him as the federal probe developed.  In addition, his district director has been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.  Ney's credibility took another hit just this week when a photo surfaced of him in a meeting he had told investigators he did not participate in.  Ney, in a written statement yesterday, put the staff departures down to "inevitable" turnover and cited a recent study about the average tenure for Hill staff.

The New York Daily News says that "Bernard Kerik's expected guilty plea on conflict-of-interest charges is mostly good news for his former boss, Rudy Giuliani, who now avoids the public spectacle of a bribery trial as he mulls a 2008 run for President."

Fortunately for Democrats, former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, convicted yesterday for participating in a bribery scheme, didn't win their primary earlier this month in his effort to make a comeback. – USA Today

Former Bush domestic policy advisor Claude Allen "is in negotiations with prosecutors to avoid trial on charges stemming from phony refunds he allegedly claimed at retail stores," says the New York Times.

It's the economy
Some Americans are nervous about the 17th interest rate hike, but, the Wall Street Journal Reports, after the Fed's announcement yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average "soared to close 217.24 points higher, a gain of about 2%, its best day in more than three years.  The NASDAQ Stock Market was up 3%, its biggest one-day rally since March 2004."

And the paper says the economy grew at an even faster rate earlier this year than the Commerce Department had previously projected.

With high gas prices holding down Bush and Republicans' standing on handling the economy, House Republicans yesterday won an end to the 25-year ban on new domestic offshore drilling.  "The proposal marks the possibility of a major change in U.S. energy policy and a setback for environmentalists...  A less ambitious offshore drilling bill is pending in the Senate.  Even if the far-reaching House version becomes law, it would have little immediate impact on prices consumers pay at the pump." – USA Today

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The Senate last night agreed to hold a vote, possibly as early as July, on federal funding for new lines of embryonic stem cell research, a bill passed by the House last year and one which Bush has threatened to veto.  Just about one year ago, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist changed his position on the issue and came out in favor of the funding.

"Frist, who is weighing a run for president in 2008, last night announced a framework for debate that likely will allow Republicans to dispense with the volatile issue of stem-cell research relatively quickly, months before November's elections." – Wall Street Journal

The Washington Post notes that the House doesn't appear to have enough votes to override a veto.

After the Supreme Court ruled against the Administration's military tribunal system for Guantanamo detainees, the liberal Alliance for Justice issued a press release noting that Senate Republicans "are reportedly trying to facilitate the confirmation of one of the chief architects of that system, Fourth Circuit nominee William J. Haynes, II.  Mr. Haynes, the Pentagon's general counsel, also helped craft the administration's now-renounced policies condoning the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of military detainees."

More on the midterms
More from the new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll: Democrats have a 20-point edge over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot test.  Also, "Democrats have opened up a 16-point lead on the question of which party is best equipped to tackle the nation's most urgent challenges.  Democrats... now find themselves preferred on the Iraq war, ethics and immigration -- issues where Republicans had been ahead, or where the public was more divided."  Compared to polling data from a similar point in the 1994 election cycle, "Republicans seem to be in worse shape now than Democrats were... going into an election that cost them control of Congress."

Bush's job approval rating in the poll is 41%. – Los Angeles Times

In his weekly National Journal column, NBC political analyst Charlie Cook notes some changes in the Senate races: Arizona and Washington have become more competitive, Maryland seems less so, while Virginia -- at the least -- will be a "nuisance" for incumbent Sen. George Allen (R).

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signs the state budget today.  The Los Angeles Times reports, at a fundraiser for the Log Cabin Republicans yesterday, he told the crowd he's "'proud to be on the same team,'" although he continues to oppose same-sex marriage.  The Sacramento Bee notes that the event "prompted an outcry from some social conservatives, but others said it could help win over independent voters."

The New York Daily News says that Hillary Clinton challenger KT McFarland (R), trying to infuse her campaign with badly needed cash, is bringing out the "big guns" for a July 13 fundraiser that her campaign expects to raise $300,000.  The fundraiser will feature September 11 Commission member John Lehman and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

A question about whether or not to ban abortion will make it on the ballot in South Dakota, but the law's restrictions could "backfire" on pro-life advocates because the only exception to the ban would be if the mother's life is at stake.  "Even ardent abortion foes... say exceptions are palatable to the American public and a practical way to greatly reduce the number of abortions." – Dallas Morning News

While a court decides whether Republicans should even be allowed to replace former Rep. Tom DeLay's name on the ballot in Texas, the GOP is proceeding with the process of picking his replacement anyway, reports the Houston Chronicle.

And in Virginia, 2008 presidential candidate and popular former Gov. Mark Warner (D) has pledged to "to campaign statewide... and personally hold a fundraiser" for Democratic Senate nominee Jim Webb. – Washington Post

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