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First thoughts: Seeking bipartisanship

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Seeking bipartisanship: Since winning November's presidential election, Obama has named two Republicans (Bob Gates and Ray LaHood) to serve in his cabinet, met with John McCain and attended a dinner in his honor, and listened to GOP ideas on the stimulus. Today, he makes an additional effort to extend a hand to Republicans when he travels up to Capitol Hill. According to NBC's Mike Viqueira, Obama will meet with House Republicans at 12:15 pm ET, and then with Senate GOPers at 1:25 pm. Another sign of compromise: As part of the stimulus, the White House has apparently agreed to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax, which would cost an estimated $70 billion, boosting the total current cost of the stimulus to nearly $900 billion. But Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell hinted on TODAY that agreement to this idea -- pushed by Senate Finance Committee ranking Republican Chuck Grassley -- isn't enough. Will the president acquiesce on anything else? Does he need to? By agreeing to include a few Republican ideas, the White House may have the talking points they want. If they don't get the bipartisan support they would like, then expect to hear the spin from the West Wing along the lines of, "It was a plan with bipartisan input," or something to that effect. By the way, Obama and the Democrats got a more complete study from the CBO, which now gives them more leverage in the stimulus impact debate after an initial CBO report was being used by the GOP to hammer away at the Democrats.

Video: Obama heads to Capitol Hill seeking to convince Republicans to get behind his $825 billion stimulus package.

*** How will Republicans respond? Of course, bipartisanship is a two-way street. The Los Angeles Times gets right to the conundrum congressional GOPers are facing. "For Republicans, the economic debate is the first test of how they will play the weak political hand they were dealt by the 2008 elections. They have proven willing to oppose Obama's stimulus plan so far, but some Republicans worry about the risk of confronting a popular president during an economic crisis, when their party's power is lower than it has been in more than a decade." Just what does the GOP do? This is a big week for the party, as it selects a new leader on Friday. It does seem as if McConnell wants to work more with Obama than House Leader Boehner. Of course, this simply could be the reality where Boehner has a more conservative caucus he's leading in the House than McConnell's leading in the Senate. McConnell knows he'll have Republicans vote for Obama's stimulus; it's possible Boehner won't have that many. Imagine this scenario: More Senate Republicans vote for Obama's stimulus package than House Republicans. Possible? More likely than you think, given the ideological makeup of both caucuses. Also worth noting, Rahm Emanuel has a dinner with some moderate House Republicans tonight.

Video: TODAY's Meredith Vieira talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about Obama's stimulus package.

*** A strong signal: In his inaugural address, Obama pledged to reach out to the Middle East. He sent another strong signal by 1) sending special envoy George Mitchell to the region and 2) giving his first TV interview from the White House not to American TV network -- but to the Arab news channel Al Arabiya. Obama made little news in the interview, but its symbolism was the news in and of itself. "I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away," Obama said. "And George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals." More: "Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table."

*** Rangel back in the news: Is this a sign of things to come for Rangel? Per The Hill, "Peter Welch (Vt.), a new Democratic member of the House ethics committee, gave back nearly $20,000 in donations he received from Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is under investigation by the panel for an array of ethics charges."

*** RNC Chair race update: Hotline yesterday released its survey of the 168 RNC members who will choose the next chairman of the Republican Party. Current chair Mike Duncan leads with 25 committed supporters, followed by former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele with 17, South Carolina Party chair Katon Dawson with 12, Michigan chair Saul Anuzis with 11, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell with 10, and ex-Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman with no solid votes. The Web site 'YourRNC.com has it Duncan 35, Dawson 19, Steele 18, Anuzis 15, Blackwell 13, and Saltsman 0. First Read has been working on our own count over the past couple of weeks, and we'll release our tally tomorrow.

*** Slow and Tedious: If yesterday was any guide, the recount trial in Minnesota -- which could last for weeks -- seems about as much fun as watching paint dry. Per the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "The trial to determine Minnesota's disputed U.S. Senate election got off to a slow start Monday -- and then bogged down. The trouble came over testimony that workers for Republican Norm Coleman's campaign had marked or obscured copies of some absentee ballot envelopes offered as evidence. The acknowledgment provoked confusion and prompted the judges to demand the original documents… That turn promised to prolong a trial that Coleman lawyer Joe Friedberg predicted in his opening statement would be 'extremely tedious' and involve the examination of 5,000 ballots, one at a time." 

Countdown to RNC winter meeting: 1 day
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 126 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 133 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 280 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 644 days

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