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First Read: Big day in the Senate on Friday

Big day in the Senate on Friday. “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006 | 4:05 p.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira

Big day in the Senate on Friday
It looks like Friday will be the big day for a Senate vote on the package the House passed over the weekend that would raise the minimum wage but also partially repeal the estate tax. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced today that he will soon get the procedural ball rolling on the package, starting a clock that will wind down to Friday morning with a vote to cut off debate. You know how it goes: 60 votes in support are required to stop debate and proceed to an up or down vote. If Republicans get to 60 or more in the morning, chances are that the vote on final passage would happen later that day.

GOP success on the minimum wage/estate tax bill makes it more likely that the Senate would quickly turn to a pension reform bill and pass it that day as well. But if cloture fails, the odds are that the pension bill won't even come to a vote until the Senate returns from its recess in September.

Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

In today's issue:

A sage consultant we know wrote to his clients at this time one year ago about the problems presidents tend to face in the first August of their second term: "August 1937 and 1957 hit Roosevelt and Eisenhower with recessions.  Watergate began to unravel in August 1973...  In August 1985, President Reagan authorized the secret sale of arms to Iran.  Linda Tripp began taping phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky and talking to reporters about President Clinton in August 1997." 

Indeed, the events of August 2005 made it arguably the most politically punishing month of George W. Bush's presidency so far.  It started off looking like it might center on the CIA leak investigation and the Jack Abramoff scandal, then turned sour for him on Iraq, as anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and House candidate Paul Hackett (D) gave voice to growing public dissatisfaction with the conflict, and rising gas prices continued to undercut the public's view of an otherwise strong US economy.  The month ended with the Administration's perceived inaction on Hurricane Katrina.  These developments cost Bush in both his personal standing and his job approval rating, which dropped from 46% in July 2005 to 40% that September in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and has remained below 40% ever since.  Recently it registered at 39%; Bush has now been below 40% for nearly one year.

So what will August 2006 bring?  In some ways, the month is shaping up like last August, but on steroids.  National security hotspots have proliferated and the Administration is now juggling Iraq and the Middle East, plus Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea, with the international popularity of Bush's Secretary of State potentially in for a bruising, as a few news outlets note today.  Gas prices are no longer a problematic $2.50 per gallon -- they're $3 per gallon, while new signs point to an economic slowdown.  And the end of the month will bring the one-year anniversary of Katrina, when Bush's financial and policy commitments for Gulf Coast recovery will be revisited.  Small wonder that he spent part of yesterday at the National Hurricane Center in Miami getting briefed on how the hurricane season is shaping up. 

One factor Bush will have to contend with this month that he didn't face last year is a roiled Republican congressional majority that's increasingly taking an every-chamber-for-itself approach to the midterm elections, including a House GOP leadership that's at odds with Bush over immigration reform and has scheduled nearly two dozen field hearings around the country to whip up opposition to his desired guest-worker plan and path to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the country illegally.  Bush will do a couple of immigration events at the Texas-Mexico border on Thursday.

The annual presidential physical at the Naval Hospital this morning is Bush's last publicly scheduled event in Washington before he begins making his way to Crawford for the first stage of his vacation.  His occasional forays beyond Crawford to key states might include longer stays designed to make him seem more accessible and capitalize on his likeability, like his overnight visit to Miami earlier this week.

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are kicking off the month with a show of being on the same page on Iraq.  The party's Hill leadership and top members on the foreign relations, intelligence, and related committees sent a letter to Bush yesterday calling on him to begin a "phased redeployment" of US troops from Iraq by the end of the year.  But as we've noted here before, while Democrats try to get on the same page about the war in Washington, what's taking place in Connecticut belies that show of unity.  Depending on the outcome of Sen. Joe Lieberman's primary, Democrats, despite their best efforts, might wind up spending most of August debating their own position on the war, rather than the GOP's.

Their lack of credible national spokespeople on the issue could also affect their ability to turn the debate to their advantage this month while they're scattered around the country.  As NBC political analyst Charlie Cook has noted before, Rep. John Murtha's image as one of the party's few heavyweights on military policy has gotten muddied up from too much politicking.  A touted tour by Murtha of dozens of House districts has only two firmly on the books so far, as best we can tell, including the kick-off in Pittsburgh today.  Republicans remain nervous about Murtha, though, judging from a Republican National Committee press release attacking him this morning and their announcement of a press conference by his GOP opponent.

Have you checked out's political calendar lately

The latest on the Middle East, per the AP: "In a major expansion of its ground offensive, Israel has decided to send troops deeper into Lebanon to clear out Hezbollah fighters and secure the territory until a multinational force is deployed there...  Israel hopes to complete the new push to the Litani River nearly 20 miles from the Israeli border in the next two weeks." 

Bush called the violence in Qana "awful," the New York Times says, "but he continued to resist calling on Israel to accept an immediate cease-fire.  Facing one of the most awkward moments in recent relations with Israel, he described the current Middle East crisis as part of a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror...  But he also said the administration was working urgently through the United Nations to fashion what he called a 'sustainable' cessation of hostilities." 

"As the diplomatic efforts unfold, the Bush administration has appeared once more to be slipping into the role of go-it-alone superpower defying the collective wishes of its allies," says the Los Angeles Times.

Bloomberg casts the current Middle East conflict as the biggest challenge of Rice's service: "None of her earlier missions has been as prominent or risky as Lebanon, and a failure could impair her standing at home and abroad...  Rice -- who is usually spared the sharp criticism leveled at Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, especially for their handling of the Iraq war -- has found herself on the receiving end of barbs." 

But the Financial Times notes that while a "growing number of moderate Republicans and former Bush administration officials are alarmed by what they call [Rice's] 'uneven-handed diplomacy' in the Middle East," "...after months of disillusionment, America's neo-conservatives have fallen in love again with the Bush administration."  The story points out that "Mr Bush is largely insulated from a political backlash by the muted stance of the opposition Democrats, who are nervous of being painted as weak on national security in the build-up to mid-term elections in November." 

The Washington Post says of Democratic lawmakers' letter to Bush calling for the start of a troop withdrawal by the end of the year, "For all its passion, the letter has more significance as a political statement than as a policy alternative.  Most Democrats previously have embraced the general idea... and the letter adds no specifics about how many troops should be withdrawn or how rapidly."  One "senior Democratic strategist... said party leaders concluded that voters want a clear choice between backers of a timeline for beginning a pullout and the GOP's no-timetable position." 

From USA Today: "The Senate Foreign Relations Committee put off until September a vote on whether to make John Bolton's appointment as United Nations ambassador permanent.  The delay came at the request of committee Democrats who are seeking White House documents they asked to see last year."  Bolton's appointment expires in January. 

Roll Call: In an effort that isn't expected to get far, but may give Republicans something to shoot at, 22 House Democrats so far are advocating the repeal of the 2002 Iraq war resolution. 

"Record temperatures across the US turned the natural gas market on its head on Monday - forcing prices up 14 per cent as many analysts were predicting a supply glut could send them lower," says the Financial Times.  "Sweltering heat led to unusually high air-conditioning use, forcing a draw-down in natural gas inventories, which are typically built up in summer...  However, despite the draw-down, the US still has a natural-gas inventory that is high by historical standards." 

Roll Call: This final pre-recess week in the Senate seems likely to include rare Friday votes on the pension-reform bill and what's become known as the "trifecta" package -- the minimum wage hike, partial estate tax repeal, and business tax breaks. 

With Bush heading to the Texas-Mexico border on Thursday to talk about immigration, the Houston Chronicle has Sen. John Cornyn (R) saying Bush "must make a 'bold and dramatic move' to revive the prospect of major immigration legislation becoming law this year.  'To some extent the president's got some proving himself to do when it comes to his commitment' to immigration reform, said Cornyn, whose longtime allegiance to Bush has been strained over the issue." 

EJ Dionne in the Washington Post tackles the Connecticut Senate primary: "It's true that [challenger Ned] Lamont's campaign has been energized by widespread opposition to the Iraq war and the fact that Lieberman has been one of the most loyal Democratic defenders of President Bush's Middle East policies.  But Lieberman's troubles are, even more, about a new aggressiveness in the Democratic Party called forth by disgust with the Bush presidency -- an energy comparable to the vigor that a loathing for liberalism brought to the Republican right in the 1970s and '80s." 

The Wall Street Journal calls the race the highest-profile manifestation yet of the tug of war between MoveOn and the Democratic Establishment, and says it's "similar to a push by conservative Republicans in the early 1990s to take over the party structure and elevate such social issues as abortion.  That intraparty feud contributed to the re-election defeat of President George H. W. Bush in 1992 but helped fuel the conservative Republican takeover of Congress two years later." 

In our latest look at party turnout efforts for the fall, AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman tells First Read that the labor federation is targeting 21 gubernatorial races, 15 Senate contests, and more than 50 House races this election season.  It also plans to spend $40 million -- an unprecedented sum for the group in a midterm cycle -- in its effort to get union members to vote.  Indeed, Ackerman says there are approximately 12 million voters in these states -- especially in key battlegrounds like Ohio and Pennsylvania -- that either belong to a union, live in a union household, or are in some other way affiliated with the labor movement.  "We're playing a huge role in these elections," she says.  On the split in Democratic GOTV efforts, Ackerman simply reiterates how "huge" the labor effort will be, and how much the GOP is in disarray.  On the split within organized labor and working together in 2006, she says that the AFL is "still talking through that" with new coalition Change to Win to coordinate efforts.  "A split in the labor movement is never good for workers."  But: "The AFL-CIO is doing everything we can to turn out union voters," and she's "encouraged" that Change to Win has the same goal.

A federal appeals court in Austin yesterday heard arguments on whether or not former GOP Rep. Tom Delay's name must appear on the ballot this fall, even though DeLay left his seat in June.  State Republicans argued that voters should be allowed to replace DeLay's name on the ballot since anything less would be a violation of their voting rights, and that because DeLay is now a Virginia resident, he is clearly ineligible to appear on the ballot.  Democrats, however, said that DeLay's residence is not conclusive and that Texas law states that a candidate who wants to withdraw from the race cannot be replaced on the ballot if the opposing party has a viable candidate.  The court is expected to make a decision in the next two weeks.  Democrats told reporters they're "confident" that the judges will decide the case in their favor.  Party officials also stressed that they are confident in nominee Nick Lampson, who is "set up and prepared to run a campaign against and second, third, or fourth choice candidate the Republicans pick."

The Houston Chronicle writes that the three-judge panel "seemed to favor the Democrats' position...  Judges Pete Benavides and Edith Clement noted that a candidate like DeLay could move back to Texas by Election Day and be eligible for office." 

Washington Post: "The Pentagon has decided not to renew a contract with a company caught up in the scandal involving former House member Randy 'Duke' Cunningham (R-Calif.), forcing the closure of an intelligence center in Virginia that grew out of a 2003 'earmark.'" 

More from the Washington Post: Kansas holds its primaries today, and while there's not much of interest at the congressional level, the state school board elections, including some of the primaries, have become a battle over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. 

With former President Clinton scheduled to raise as much as $4 million today for the Democratic challenger to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in CALIFORNIA, the Los Angeles Times reports that "Schwarzenegger is heading into the general election with only a modest fundraising lead" over Phil Angelides, even though Angelides spent nearly all his money to win his primary. 

The Financial Times reports that California "could become the first American state to link to an international greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme under plans unveiled on Monday during a visit to the state by Tony Blair, the UK prime minister.  The accord outlined by Mr Blair and [Schwarzenegger] contrasts sharply with the refusal of President George W. Bush to commit the US to limits on carbon dioxide production." 

The Sacramento Bee: "Officially, California has no authority to enter into treaties with foreign governments...  But the announcement of a shared United Kingdom-California effort to combat the problem appeared to bypass -- and upstage -- the Bush administration in planning ways to cut carbon dioxide and other pollutants scientists blame for global warming." 

Hartford Courant: In CONNECTICUT, Lieberman's campaign isn't taking about its effort to gather the necessary petitions to allow Lieberman to run as an independent.  "The campaign must gather at least 7,500 signatures from registered voters who say Lieberman should be allowed a spot on the November ballot under his newlyformed party, Connecticut for Lieberman.  The petitions must then be filed with town clerks, who must verify the signatures before they can be forwarded to the secretary of the state's

The New York Times reports that 6,715 voters "have changed their registration from unaffiliated to Democrat, the secretary of state said on Monday...  Both the Lieberman and Lamont campaigns say they expect record turnout in the primary election, and both campaigns say they believe the newly registered Democrats are a good sign for them." 

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean headlines a fundraiser for the DELAWARE party in Wilmington at 4:00 pm.

NAACP chief Bruce Gordon said Gov. Mitt Romney (R) "'made a bad choice'" over the weekend when he used "tar baby" to describe the Big Dig crisis, reports the Boston Herald.  But "Don Scoggins, president of Republicans for Black Empowerment, a national grassroots organization, disagreed, saying he would have read right past Romney's 'tar baby' remark had the media not pointed it out." 

The New York Times covers Sen. Hillary Clinton's speech on rural revitalization yesterday, in which she "called for major federal investments to expand broadband Internet access in rural communities, promote the development of alternative fuel sources like corn-based ethanol and encourage medical school graduates to practice in agricultural areas."  More: "The speech... underscored efforts the senator has made to address the economic concerns in the traditional Republican strongholds of upstate New York... But, politically speaking, Mrs. Clinton's effort to appeal to voters in this part of the state may have as much to do with 2008 presidential politics as it does with her re-election efforts this year." 

Sen. John Kerry's speech in Boston yesterday in which he called for a federal rule requiring that all Americans have health insurance by 2012 was the "latest attempt to stake out policy ground in preparation for a possible second run for the presidency in 2008," says the Boston Globe.  "Yesterday's was the third speech Kerry has delivered in recent months at Faneuil Hall -- the same setting he used to formally announce his 2004 campaign for president, and to concede defeat to President Bush the day after the election."  But Republicans shot back that "Kerry has ignored the new Medicare prescription drug program backed by the president -- something Kerry and most Democrats opposed."

The Des Moines Register's David Yepsen says that on the stump, "Kerry seems much sharper and more populist than he did in the run-up to the 2004 caucuses...  In this cycle, Kerry's stump speeches contain more humor than the wonkish dissertations he served up four years ago." 

A quiet August in Washington means a busy season in Iowa.  The Register reports that at least nine potential presidential candidates have visits scheduled this month, beginning with former Sen. John Edwards (D), who will make his 11th trip to the state today.

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