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First Read: Economic & security concerns

Economic & security concerns. “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

Friday, July 14, 2006 | 9:35 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

First glance
President Bush is now in St. Petersburg for the G8.  Violence in the Middle East helped drive crude oil prices to a record high of $76.70 a barrel yesterday and has raised the near-term prospect of $80 per barrel and the longer-term prospect of $90 or even $100 per barrel.  Economists expect Americans to start feeling it at the pump almost immediately.  After spending the first few news cycles suggesting that the Administration has been stretched too thin on Iraq, Iran and North Korea to focus on the Middle East, national security experts and correspondents are now considering what the recent deterioration on so many fronts means for Bush's hoped-for legacy of spreading democracy.  En route to Russia early this morning, Bush called the leaders of Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

Back home, hearings and political posturing seem to be taking precedence over legislating on Americans' priorities on Capitol Hill, with the clock ticking down to the August recess.  One example: Republicans spent far more time yesterday trying to shame Democrats over a campaign committee web video than they spent touting their successful reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.  One exception: the Senate's upcoming vote on increased federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, which has the support of a majority of the public.  Just short of one year since his surprising speech in which he announced his support for more funding, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will bring the issue to the floor on Monday, hoping for a vote before Tuesday's out.

The complex issue has often proved to be a slippery slope for politicians -- especially those with their eyes on the White House.  Below, in our Friday look at the 2008 presidential race, is your cheat sheet on what many contenders have said on the matter.

Key members of the Administration and national GOP are now facing the distraction of being involved in civil lawsuits.  Former CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, will hold a 10:00 am press conference to discuss the lawsuit they filed yesterday in US District Court against Vice President Dick Cheney, his former chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Karl Rove, and 10 other unnamed operatives.  The couple claim these officials endangered their lives and the lives of their children.  They're demanding a jury trial and compensatory damages, per NBC's Joel Seidman.  Lawyers and spokespeople for some of those named in the suit have called it baseless.  According to NBC's Bob Windrem, Plame had until today, the third anniversary of her outing in the infamous Robert Novak column, to file suit under the Privacy Act.

And while Democrats' efforts to make a case against a so-called GOP "culture of corruption" have focused on Republican lawmakers and officials in Washington, Texas, and California, the place where they're making the most progress may actually be New Hampshire, where a judge has ruled that attorneys for Democratic plaintiffs may depose former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, current RNC chair Ken Mehlman, and current strategists for potential presidential candidates John McCain and George Allen, as part of Democrats' effort to seek compensation for the jamming of their phone banks on election day 2002.

Your favorite, constantly updated political calendar is always available on

It's the economy...
The AP: "Oil prices are being pushed higher by rising global demand and worries that the world's limited supply cushion would not be adequate to offset a lengthy disruption to output in major producing countries...  There are also concerns about the risks hurricanes pose to U.S. production...  While Israel and Lebanon are not involved in the Middle East oil market, the fear is that the conflict could spill into other corners of the region...  Meanwhile, Iran has threatened on more than one occasion to use oil as a weapon if the United Nations uses economic sanctions or some other punishment in its dispute with Tehran over its nuclear program," and in "Nigeria, government officials said twin explosions hit oil installations."

Eighty dollars per barrel is the new $70, suggests the Wall Street Journal, which adds that some industry analysts "see the likelihood of $90 oil.  Others are seriously mulling the possibility of $100."

Security politics
"The surge in Mideast violence means conditions are deteriorating in the very places -- Israel, Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Afghanistan -- that President Bush had been able to point to as bright spots for his policies," says the Wall Street Journal.

USA Today suggests that Bush's meeting with Russian President Putin might not be quite as friendly as his time spent with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office announced yesterday that per its estimate, the Iraq war "has cost $291 billion so far and would total almost half a trillion dollars even if all U.S. troops were withdrawn by the end of 2009...  Costs far exceed early estimates.  Former White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey initially predicted that the war could cost $100 billion to $200 billion.  Other administration officials dismissed the figure as too high, and Lindsey was fired." – Los Angeles Times

The Bush Administration supports a bill introduced by Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter which would give the President the option of seeking a review by the special FISA court of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program, NBC's Pete Williams reports.  Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that Bush has indicated to Specter that if the bill passes in more or less its current form, the Administration will submit the program for the court's review of its constitutionality.  Gonzales also indicated that a provision of the Geneva Convention requiring humane treatment applies to all terror detainees, whether they're being held by the Pentagon or by intelligence agencies.  That provision "applies to our conflict with al Qaeda," he said.

"The compromise is the second recent policy U-turn by a White House that has argued the president should have unfettered ability to prosecute the war on terror," says the Financial Times.

The New York Daily News writes that "Sen. Hillary Clinton pointed out yesterday that even if Guantanamo Bay prisoners are tried and acquitted on specific charges, they could still be held as enemy combatants," adding that "Clinton (D-N.Y.) raised the matter to counter GOP claims that Democrats are going soft on terror suspects by backing new rules on trials for detainees."

Days after Democrats say they first posted it on the web, Republicans became incredibly exercised yesterday about a Democratic House campaign committee video showing footage of flag-draped military coffins, along with other images from Iraq and of former Rep. Tom DeLay and of Hurricane Katrina, with the heading, "Things have taken a turn for the worse."  House Majority Leader John Boehner called the video "outrageous" and "disgraceful."  Other GOP complaints, reported by NBC's Mike Viqueira: "a galling level of smug self-righteousness;" "the most tasteless thing that I have seen;" and "cynical, shameful, despicable exploitation."  GOP Rep. Tom Cole, who's hoping his colleagues will elect him to be their next House campaign committee chair, introduced a resolution condemning the use of military caskets and funerals for partisan purposes.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reminded Republicans that Karl Rove has declared that the war will be used as a political issue this fall.  "Was it despicable when they used images of 9/11?" she asked, referring to the photos of President Bush on September 11 that were used in a campaign context.  Senior Democratic Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, who faces perhaps his toughest race for re-election campaign in years, disagrees and sent Democratic House campaign committee chair Rahm Emanuel a letter asking him to have the video changed: "I strongly recommend that you pull this ad and delete both of these clips before running it again."

The Democratic House campaign committee says the video has been posted on the web for 11 days -- but we'd note that, due to the GOP's efforts, more people probably looked at it yesterday than over the entire previous 10.

The San Francisco Chronicle suggests that "Republicans likely criticized the ad to help rally a conservative base that continues to support the president and the war."

The New York Times -- as well as NBC -- has former Bush ad-maker Mark McKinnon siding with the Democrats.  "'This is one where I respectfully disagree with my colleagues: I think it is an appropriate image,' Mr. McKinnon said...  'It reminds people of the cost of war.  People die in wars, and people should understand that we shouldn't hide from that fact.'"

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Republicans' vehement objections to the Democratic web video were interrupted by news that Speaker Dennis Hastert had to check himself into Bethesda Naval Hospital for a skin infection which, if not treated quickly, could pose a serious risk to his health.

In advance of the Senate vote next week, one source closely involved in the effort to expand federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research tells First Read that there are at least 62, and possibly as many as 67 votes -- i.e., possibly enough to override a veto -- in favor of the legislation.

Democrat Ed Perlmutter, who's running for a key open House seat in Colorado, has unveiled a new TV ad pushing for more federal funding of stem-cell research timed to Bush's visit.  In the ad, Perlmutter says, to camera, "Stem cell research could potentially cure my daughter...  Alexis has lived with epilepsy her entire life...  Government has a responsibility to invest in research that can save lives...  I'll fight like hell for stem cell research to cure diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's, and epilepsy because people are more important than politics...  I'm Ed Perlmutter, candidate for Congress, and I approve this message because it's time Washington takes care of our own people for a change."

The Washington Post points out that yesterday's votes on the Voting Rights Act, which the House ultimately reauthorized after considering and rejecting a series of amendments, "put a dent in [Speaker] Hastert's principle of moving major legislation only with a 'majority of the majority' -- that is, with most of the chamber's 231 Republicans supporting it.  Overwhelming Democratic support was crucial to defeating three of the potentially killer amendments introduced by dissident Republicans and opposed by Hastert."

As First Read reported yesterday morning, the Washington Times says, following their meeting, that the Gang of 14 is skeptical of appellate court nominee William Haynes' chances: "this is the first time the group has been so openly hostile toward one of Mr. Bush's nominees."

The Boston Globe says of the New Hampshire phone-jamming suit, "The trial is to begin Nov. 27 -- meaning the pretrial depositions" of key GOP officials and strategists -- "would occur in the months leading up to the congressional elections."

The Houston Chronicle reports that the 5th Circuit yesterday "granted an expedited hearing to the Texas Republican Party on its quest to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay on the ballot."  The court will take up the case on July 31, and attorneys have until July 26 to file briefs. 

The Washington Post says of the Plame-Wilson lawsuit that "legal analysts said the suit could open new avenues for extracting information from the administration, because Plame and Wilson could conduct discovery if the U.S. District Court in Washington lets the suit proceed...  First, though, Plame and Wilson would probably have to overcome a claim by Cheney that the vice president is immune from suit.  There is no clear legal rule on that point, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that a fired whistle-blower could not sue the president, and Cheney would be likely to argue that the same should apply to him."

Former White House procurement officer David Safavian, who last month was handed the first conviction prompted by the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, is requesting a new trial, NBC's Joel Seidman reports.  In court papers, Safavian's attorneys argue that by including as evidence hundreds of e-mails between Safavian and Abramoff constituted hearsay that might have prejudiced jurors.

The immigration debate
Several weeks ago, we posed this question: Is the current immigration debate producing a backlash among Latinos against the GOP?  To some extent, yes, according to a new Pew poll.  The Houston Chronicle: "The survey's conclusion about Latino attitudes toward Republicans is based on erosion of support for the party's position on immigration.  The poll found that the portion of Latinos who believe the Republican Party has the best position on immigration dropped to 16 percent from 25 percent two years ago."  But: "The Democratic Party showed no significant gains among Latino registered voters and by some measures lost support from 2004 to 2006."

More on the midterms
A new AP-Ipsos poll has Bush's job approval rating at 36%, basically unchanged from last month, and Democrats leading Republicans in the generic ballot, 51%-40%.  "Democrats also held the advantage among persuadable voters - those who are undecided or wouldn't say whom they prefer.  A total of 51 percent said they were leaning Democrat, while 41 percent were leaning Republican."

In his weekly National Journal column, NBC political analyst Charlie Cook notes that Bush's poll numbers have climbed up to 40%, per three different polls.  The explanation for the uptick, he says, is that GOP voters are coming back into the fold.  "On the one hand, these numbers suggest that Bush can pick up another point or two just by regaining Republicans who have defected since the first of the year.  For the president, that's the good news.  The bad news for him is that the fluctuation among Democrats and independents has been so slight that he is unlikely to ever regain his popularity with either group."

The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire has a blurb on the current fundraising picture: "Republican governors' group, led by 2008 White House hopeful Romney of Massachusetts, today will report year-to-date fund raising of $11.5 million in 2006.  That tops $7.3 million to be filed by Democrats...  Senate Democrats aim to keep cash advantage through June, but Republican counterparts raised $12 million at recent Bush dinner; vulnerable Sen. DeWine of Ohio has $6.6 million cash on hand.  House Democrats say a dozen challengers have raised at least $1 million...  Republican National Committee next week will report $44.6 million in cash, dwarfing DNC's $9.9 million."

RNC chair Ken Mehlman is in Alabama today for a couple of events, including a fundraising dinner for the state party which is expected to bring in about $100,000.

The Miami Herald talks to former staffers on GOP Rep. Katherine Harris' floundering FLORIDA Senate campaign, who say her downfall began with a story about "Joe's dead intern."  Before MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who was courted to run against Harris, "could announce he wouldn't, Harris called major donors and suggested Scarborough would have to answer questions about the strange death of a former staff member in 2001, according to two former high-level Harris staff members, a GOP donor and Scarborough."  Former campaign manager Jim Dornan explains why this story caused many to leave.  "''This [story] encapsulates everything wrong with her as a candidate,' Dornan said.  'She reacted without thinking.  She made stuff up.  She called people she had no business calling.  And when confronted with the insanity of her -- I use this term lightly -- `strategy,' she denied it and tried to blame someone else.'"

Ten Republican legislators are asking Florida gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher (R) to drop out of their party's gubernatorial primary to give his primary opponent Charlie Crist a better shot at winning, reports the Miami Herald

The GOP Senate campaign committee sent out an e-mail yesterday hailing a new poll showing vulnerable Sen. Conrad Burns (R) basically tied with his Democratic challenger, Jon Tester, in Montana.  Why were they touting this survey?  Because in previous polls, Tester actually led Burns by a few points.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) tells the Los Angeles Times that he has a proposal for California lawmakers: "He'll support an easing of term limits if they'll agree to change the way California draws voting districts."  After his own redistricting plan failed at the polls last year, Schwarzenegger now supports a plan that "would transfer political map-making powers to a panel of 11 citizens, chosen by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and judges, and take effect after the 2010 census."

Vice President Cheney heads to New York later today to headline a fundraiser for House candidate Ray Meier in Utica at 6:00 pm.

In Pennsylvania, the campaign of very vulnerable GOP Sen. Rick Santorum held a conference call with reporters yesterday to talk about how eager Santorum is to debate his challenger, Democrat Bob Casey, and how they can't get Casey to commit.  With the exception of one scheduled debate, the Santorum campaign says, Casey has not agreed to participate in any.  That one debate?  Mark your calendars -- it will take place on NBC's Meet the Press on September 3.

According to an informed Texas Democratic source, progress has been made toward a bipartisan deal involving Democratic Reps. Henry Cuellar and Lloyd Doggett and Republican Reps. Lamar Smith and Henry Bonilla on a new Texas congressional district map.  Per this source, the proposed plan, which has been submitted to the state attorney general, would not endanger any incumbent.  Some other Texas Democrats are annoyed that Cuellar seems to be passing on the chance to give the Republican Bonilla a more competitive district in order to secure his own.

The Houston Chronicle details the proposals that have come out.  "While almost two dozen parties in the state's redistricting lawsuit can file maps with the court, the two that will be most closely watched will be the ones that come from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund," which was the winning plaintiff in the Supreme Court case.

Here's your cheat sheet on what many 2008 presidential contenders have said on embryonic stem-cell research:

Democrats -
Evan Bayh:  Supports it.  Was one of 40 Senators who signed a letter in May asking Frist to take up the issue soon because of its "vast potential for curing diseases and saving lives," and claiming that any "further delay" in addressing the issue would mean "lost opportunities for new cures and new treatments."

Joe Biden: Supports it.  In a statement released this week, said the "promise of stem-cell research is undeniable...  It's my hope that we will adopt a policy that will allow the use of these embryos in vital research to treat a host of diseases."  Also signed the May letter to Frist.

Hillary Clinton: Supports it.  Co-sponsored the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would allow the voluntary donation of embryos for research.  In May, issued a statement saying that research holds "promise for millions" and that restricting federal funding would "limit the ability of our scientists to aggressively pursue avenues that could lead to cures for many" diseases.  "We cannot afford any additional delay in carrying out research that has the potential to save millions of lives."  Also signed the letter to Frist.

John Edwards: Supports it.  Once said on the campaign trail that he hopes stem-cell research would help someone like Christopher Reeve "get up out of that wheelchair and walk again."  Wife Elizabeth also campaigned in support of it.

Russ Feingold: Supports it.  Co-sponsored the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act.  Last summer, said the bill "would help our nation's researchers unlock that potential by increasing the quantity and quality of stem cells lines available for research."  Also signed the letter to Frist.

John Kerry: Supports it.  In May, told a crowd at American University that supporters must speak out to prevent a "few ideologues" of getting "in the way of progress that can cure Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's and AIDS."  On the campaign trail in 2004, released a TV ad advocating for more research and campaigned with Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's.

Bill Richardson: Supports it.  At a July 2004 news conference, praised former President Reagan's son Ron for advocating the issue. "This is not politics.  This is science.  This is helping mankind."

Mark Warner: Supports it.  Last August, told WTOP radio, "I have a daughter with juvenile diabetes.  I've got a mom with Alzheimer's.  I know there are a host of other diseases that stem cell research could potentially unlock a cure for.  I think we ought to do everything we can to advance the science in that area."

Tom Vilsack: Supports it.  In January, said he would repeal a law (which he supported when it first passed) outlawing the cloning of humans and stem cells.  "'We never dreamt that the treatments resulting from those research opportunities would ever develop so quickly, would ever develop lifesaving treatments, but they have,'" he told the AP.

Republicans -
George Allen: Only favors research on non-embryonic stem cells, and says technology can allow scientists to do research "without destroying an embryo."  In August, said he was for stem-cell research that could pass his three filters: "the advancement of science," "proper federal funding," and "trying to avoid the ethical controversy."

Sam Brownback: Opposes the use of embryonic stem cells for research, thinks adult stem cell research is a better alternative, and is against using taxpayer funds for such research.  Along with Sen. Rick Santorum (R), proposed the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act.  Issued a statement last month saying it "has never been acceptable to use human beings as means to an end, even if that end is scientific research."

Bill Frist: After initially opposing it, now supports it.  After the Senate unanimously agreed to bring the issue to the floor, issued a statement saying embryonic stem-cell research offers "tremendous promise" and "hope for treatment that other lines of research cannot."  He added, though, that "this research presents serious ethical questions that deserve discussion and deliberation."

Chuck Hagel: Opposes it.  Co-sponsored the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act and endorsed Bush's call in 2001 to limit federal funding to already established lines of embryonic stem cells.

Mike Huckabee: Opposes it.  Three years ago, signed law banning all human cloning, including for medical research.

John McCain: Supports it.  On Meet the Press last summer, said that "those of us who support this do not believe that it has anything to do with human cloning...  But for us to throw away opportunities to cure diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's...  I think would be a mistake."

George Pataki: Supports limited stem-cell research.  Last year, said it was a "positive thing," but is concerned about how state legislators plan on paying for the research.  In January, introduced an $800 million biotechnology and medical research fund that could potentially be used for funding stem-cell research.

Mitt Romney: After supporting the issue for several years, announced last year that he opposes the "creation of new human embryos for the purpose of research," and that he would support criminal charges against scientists who use such embryos.  However, he supports research on surplus embryos left after in-vitro fertilization.

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