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First Read: Stem cell debate continues

Stem cell debate continues.  “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 | 4:00 p.m. ETFrom Alex Isenstadt, Mike Viqueira and Huma Zaidi

Stem cell debate continues
With President Bush poised to issue the first veto of his presidency on a bill that would expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research tomorrow, Democrats are being very vocal on the issue today. In a conference call with reporters this afternoon, Democrat Claire McCaskill, who is challenging Republican Jim Talent for his Missouri Senate seat, slammed Bush, who won the state in 2004, for not pushing the legislation through. "To turn our back on this would be shortsighted," McCaskill said. "The power of research has defined us as a nation." McCaskill accused Talent of hedging on the issue, at first coming out strongly against an expansion of funding, and now simply not wanting to talk about it. "Talent is riding the fence and it looks pretty painful." On Saturday, McCaskill delivered the Democratic radio address, urging Congress to pass the legislation.

Rep. Harold Ford, the Democrats' candidate for a Senate seat in Tennessee, issued a statement today saying that people like Bush "regrettably, subordinate science for ideology. That is wrong." Rhode Island Senate candidate Sheldon Whitehouse (D) accused Bush of prioritizing "ideology before science" while "putting his narrow political base before the health and hopes of those living with debilitating illnesses by vetoing this crucial measure." One Democratic House aide pointed out that many Republican-held seats that are in jeopardy in November are in areas where stem cell research is supported by voters.

In the meantime, Republicans remain largely mum on the issue. "It's not something that anybody wants to talk about for weeks on end," says a GOP House leadership aide, who went on to describe the issue as "touchy." Majority Leader John Boehner said that advances in science will soon make this "a moot issue" and that, at any rate, he doesn't see "any huge consequences, politically, on this issue."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 | 9:40 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

In this issue:
Expanded stem cell research funding to clear the Senate, teeing up Veto #1
House Republicans hold "values votes"
Energy concerns may shift from gas prices to the power grid
Ralph Reed faces his Abramoff demons as Georgia holds its primaries

First glance
President Bush's public schedule for today consists of three photo ops: with the local Boy Scouts of America, with the Indy 500 winner, and with Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, and Papal Nuncio Pietro Sambi.  White House spokesperson Tony Snow told reporters yesterday that Bush will not address the NAACP convention on Wednesday, but left the door open for an address at some other point (the convention's closing session takes place on Thursday).  Otherwise, Bush's day looks like the type of semi-down day you might expect for a guy who just returned from a trip to the other side of the globe -- and for a president who's closely watching a war in the Middle East and waiting around to cast a veto.

At 3:45 pm, the Senate will begin voting on the three stem-cell research bills -- one which would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (HR 810), one which would require NIH to research and develop ways to acquire stem cells without destroying human embryos, and one which would prohibit the development of embryos for the sole purpose of research.  All three bills are currently expected to pass by later this afternoon.

As NBC's Mike Viqueira notes, once the Senate completes action on the two bills not dealing with federal funding, they will go to the House, which has not yet voted on either of them.  They're expected to vote either later today or tomorrow.  Then all three bills will go to the President, who is expected to veto HR 810 and sign the other two into law.  After that, possibly as soon as later this week, the House will hold a vote to override the veto, which is expected to fail.

Republican lawmakers' efforts to dispatch this issue in a blink of an eye stands in stark contrast to the protracted immigration debate, another issue which severely splits the party, dividing Bush from many Republicans on the Hill.  The difference highlights how, as complex an issue as stem-cell research is, the immigration debate is even more intricate.  In the case of the former, the President, in sticking to his position, is on what many Republicans see as the politically inconvenient side of the argument, since a majority of the public and a couple of Reagans support more funding.  Republicans are even trying to provide Bush with a soft landing by sending him some other stem-cell bills he can sign.  By contrast, those who oppose him on immigration reform are so far refusing to offer any alternatives, Republicans in the House and Senate are at loggerheads, and there's dispute among party lawmakers over where the public is on the issue.

Also today, the House is scheduled to take up a constitutional measure defining marriage as between a man and a woman, which is expected to get majority support but fall short of the necessary two-thirds required for passage.  Tomorrow or Thursday will come a "court stripping" measure that would take away the federal judiciary's ability to hear challenges to the "under God" clause in the Pledge of Allegiance.  This provision is expected to pass the House and die in the Senate, Viq says.

Further south, Georgia holds its primaries.  It isn't often that a downballot contest for lieutenant governor, particularly a primary, becomes the main attraction.  But that happens today as former Christian Coalition boy-wonder Ralph Reed and state Sen. Casey Cagle face off in a GOP contest that has received a lot of national attention, and has become increasingly competitive, due to Reed's past business ties to convicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  As one of us wrote last week, so far no politician linked to the Abramoff scandal -- neither Rep. Bob Ney, Sen. Conrad Burns, nor even former Rep. Tom DeLay -- has lost at the polls.  Will Reed become the first?  And if he wins the primary, could he and his ties to Abramoff hurt incumbent Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), who's slightly favored by analysts to win re-election in November?  Polls released last week show the race to be a toss-up: An InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion survey had the candidates tied at 37% each, while a Strategic Vision (R) poll had Cagle leading Reed, 42%-41%.

The Reed-Cagle race is overshadowing the equally competitive battle between Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox for the opportunity to challenge Perdue in the fall.  Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report tells First Read that Taylor has run the stronger campaign, but that Cox -- because of her ability as a female candidate to attract moderate GOP women -- might be stronger in a general election.  The InsiderAdvantage poll had Taylor leading Cox, 49%-40%.

Georgia's other primary of note involves Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D), who last month avoided an indictment for hitting a Capitol Hill police officer (after he stopped McKinney at a security checkpoint because he didn't recognize her).  The controversial McKinney faces two Democratic challengers, but neither is expected to pull off what little-known Denise Majette did four years ago: upset McKinney in the primary.  Polls in Georgia open at 7:00 am ET and close at 7:00 pm ET.  The winners in each race need to garner more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff, which would take place on August 8.

Have you checked your favorite political calendar lately?

Stem cellsThe AP reminds us that the core of the current stem cell debate "is not whether human embryonic stem cell research will proceed or even if taxpayers will help fund it--they already do, $38 million worth this year."  The issue is whether the government will provide funding for research on more embryonic stem cell lines.

NBC's Robert Bazell offers a primer on the debate.

The Chicago Tribune covers yesterday's back-and-forth over how many federally funded embryonic stem-cell lines are available to researchers.

The Washington Post's Milbank offers the imminently and eminently useful factoid that Bush, to date, has signed 1,116 consecutive bills into law.

Roll Call says of the bill's fast travel from the Senate to the White House to the House, "that's exactly how Republican leaders and the White House have designed it.  They want to bring the bill up and push it out, and in doing so, put to rest a controversial issue that divides Republicans, puts the president at odds with many in his party and even pits some conservative Senators against each other."

The Boston Globe says that "Bush's veto of a measure that appears to enjoy strong public support will be a deep disappointment to GOP moderates, including some who are facing tight reelection campaigns."  Still, "[s]ome social conservatives insist that Bush's veto of expanding embryonic stem cell research is good for the party, since it allows Republicans to demonstrate their commitment to protecting human lives."

Senate Majority Leader Frist, who now supports more federal funding after changing his position a year ago, offers a version of his floor speech yesterday in a Washington Post op-ed today, emphasizing how he's remaining consistent with his "deep-seated belief that human life has value at all stages of development."

The Boston Globe profiles Beth Kolbe, a quadriplegic Harvard student interning with Sen. John Kerry (D) this summer, who will appear with him on the Senate floor today when he speaks in support of expanding stem-cell research.  Kolbe asked Kerry if she could join him.

Senate Democrats are preparing to try to capitalize on a veto.  "If President Bush vetoes HR 810, it will be clearer than ever before to the American people that it's time for a New Direction," says a memo to "Senate Democrats" from Minority Leader Reid's office.  Hoping to capitalize on today's vote, Missouri Senate candidate Claire McCaskill (D), who is making her support of embryonic stem cell research a key part of her campaign against GOP Sen. Jim Talent, holds a conference call with reporters about the vote at 2:00 pm ET.

Those who oppose expanded funding hope that "focusing attention on stem-cell research that does not involve the destruction of human embryos will turn public opinion against research on embryonic stem cells," says The Hill.

The Los Angeles Times reports that despite the expected veto, "proponents are encouraged that support for the measure has grown, even in a Republican-controlled Congress.  The debate will probably continue in election campaigns in 2006 and 2008."  The story also says Bush might get a lobbying call from Nancy Reagan.

Security politics
"House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) later this week are expected to introduce a resolution signaling strong support for Israel during its violent showdown with Hezbollah." – The Hill

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman gives a speech tonight at the Christians United for Israel conference in Washington.

The Washington Post on Bush's open-mic moment before departing Russia on Monday: "at the same time that the gaffe peeled back the curtain on Bush just a bit, it also punctured the White House line that all the leaders here at the summit shared the same view of the Middle East, a line that was never all that convincing in the first place."  Also: "The exchange with Blair, one of [Bush's] closest allies, offered a peek into their relationship.  Bush repeatedly interrupted or changed the subject, Blair at times stammered as he tried to make his points."

"The $*%! hits the fan as he discusses Mideast with Blair," blares the New York Post.

The House Republican campaign committee continues to try to make an issue of their Democratic counterpart's web video showing flag-draped US military coffins.  Democrats, meanwhile, claim that the attention drawn to the video by Republicans trying to shame them actually helped them gather more e-mail addresses than they'd originally hoped.

It's the economy..."A sharp drop by oil prices Monday eased worries on Wall Street that the turmoil in the Middle East may trigger a destabilizing energy shock...  But as the exchange of blows showed little sign of abating, fears remained that the conflict could drag out or even spread deeper into the oil-rich region."

Meanwhile, the heat wave is putting the condition of the nation's power grid back on the front burner. – Wall Street Journal

Republican pollster David Winston makes the party's deficit-based case for a strong US economy, including their oft-used argument that Bush inherited a recession from President Clinton.  (Democrats would point out that Bush also inherited a budget surplus.)  "Unlike balancing the budget, the projected lower deficit as an issue by itself may not push most voters who are more concerned with the cost of living than the cost of government.  But it is a major political setback for what I suspect is the Democrats' strategy to defeat any and all attempts to make the president's tax cuts permanent."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The Los Angeles Times says a Bush NAACP speech may come on Thursday, the final day of the convention.  "Negotiations, which have been underway for days, have involved the NAACP's president, Bruce S. Gordon, who has pursued warmer relations with Bush and White House aides, including political strategist Karl Rove."

Even so, Gordon had harsh words for Bush yesterday, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.  Julian Bond "harshly criticized the administration, slamming it for the war in Iraq, for abusing civil liberties, using the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as an excuse, and implementing an economic policy that gives to the rich and takes from the poor."

The New York Times examines RNC chair Ken Mehlman's crusade to win over African-American voters, an effort which the paper says seems to be faltering.  "That perception of Republicans as insensitive to racial issues was fed again by the opposition mounted by some House conservatives to an extension of the Voting Rights Act.  The House approved the extension last week."

The AP says of the gay marriage vote scheduled for the House today, "The House vote... has little legislative significance because the Senate has already effectively killed the proposal for this waning session of Congress.  But President Bush has asked, and social conservatives demanded, that gay marriage be on the agenda in the run-up to the election."

The Democrats
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi addresses the NAACP convention today.  Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid talked up Democrats' support for a minimum wage increase. – Washington Times

Democratic Leadership Council CEO Al From does the Monitor breakfast with reporters this morning to preview the DLC's upcoming confab in Denver this weekend, which will feature DLC chair Tom Vilsack and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The New York Daily News reports that Rupert Murdoch held a quiet breakfast fundraiser for Clinton's re-election campaign yesterday -- just hours before raising money for Sen. John McCain.

The US Capitol Historical Society has dropped its plans to include jailed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in its tribute to retiring members of Congress, the AP says.  "But despite complaints from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., [the society] is keeping former Majority Leader Tom DeLay on the program for Wednesday's annual event, in which case Pelosi has said she won't appear.

More on the midterms
Roll Call reports, for this year's top House races, record fundraising by Democratic challengers as well as healthy bank accounts for vulnerable Republican incumbents, but on the Senate side, most vulnerable incumbents have a big financial edge.

"The Internal Revenue Service is warning churches and nonprofits that improper campaigning in the upcoming political season could endanger their tax-exempt status," the Los Angeles Times reports.  "The agency also launched a program to expedite investigations into claims of improper campaigning, prompting an advocacy group to charge this month that the program could restrict the free speech of nonprofit groups and churches."

In California, the Los Angeles Times front-pages that GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's top campaign advisor "is being paid to provide marketing strategy to AT&T Inc. at a time when the governor's office is involved in negotiations on legislation potentially worth billions of dollars to the telecommunications giant...  [A] spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign said that neither the political strategist nor his [consulting firm] had acted improperly."

Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Phil Angelides is hoping to "enhance his law-and-order credentials" by supporting "a Republican ballot measure" co-sponsored by Schwarzenegger "toughen the penalties for sex crimes."  A Schwarzenegger campaign spokesperson "said the Democrat's support for Proposition 83 was late in coming and 'raises serious questions about Angelides' priorities and his ability to lead.'" Los Angeles Times

Bloomberg takes its turn looking at the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut.  "The outcome of the primary may show how much dissent the Democratic Party is willing to tolerate and how deeply unpopular the war is.  The results may also show whether Democratic senators who voted for the invasion and who are looking at possible presidential bids in 2008 will face an angry electorate."

Another race in Connecticut is also turning on the Iraq war: moderate GOP Rep. Chris Shays' run for re-election.  "In few of the country's 435 House races this year is the contrast between two candidates so vivid and so stark," says the Hartford Courant.  "Shays does not shy away from Iraq, but Monday, as he flew home [from Iraq], his campaign launched its first television ad of the campaign that stresses the candidate's character."

Rep. Katherine Harris, the GOP Senate candidate in Florida, is back home and resting comfortably after having ovarian surgery yesterday. - AP

In Georgia, if Cox wins the Democratic primary today, it "would make her the first woman in Georgia to receive a major-party nomination for governor." - AP

In Missouri, home to one of the nation's most competitive Senate races this year, Democrats sued to block a new state law that would require voters to show a photo ID. - AP

The Houston Chronicle says the five candidates for Texas governor "raked in campaign cash of more than $10.6 million in the first six months of the year, with Gov. Rick Perry and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn raising most of the money.  While the combined total is enough to cover the annual incomes of 196 Texas families, it is far from breaking a record in a Texas governor's race."

And in Washington State, Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell also is getting bogged down by her support for the Iraq war, though not to the same degree as Lieberman. – Washington Times

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