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First thoughts: Culture wars return?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Culture wars return? On such a busy day in politics -- GM's bankruptcy announcement, President Obama's upcoming trip to the Middle East and Europe, today's oral arguments before the Minnesota Supreme Court in the never-ending Franken-Coleman contest, Sen. John Ensign's speech in Iowa, Mitt Romney's address in DC, and the liberal "America's Future Now!" confab in DC -- the biggest story could very well be yesterday's slaying of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller. The killing (along with the Sotomayor SCOTUS nomination and the president's recent speech at Notre Dame) has the potential to return the culture wars to prominence in American politics. Obama, who has sought to find common ground on abortion and campaigned in part to "turn the page" on the culture wars, released a statement yesterday saying that he was "shocked and outraged" by Tiller's murder. "However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence," he added. Both pro-choice and pro-life groups condemned the murder. But there was one exception: Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. "George Tiller was a mass-murderer," he said in a statement. "We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God." The mainstream anti-abortion community has to be nervous about Terry's comments and actions over the next 48 hours.

Video: A suspect has been arrested in the killing of Dr. George Tiller, one of the nation's few providers of late-term abortions, who was shot and killed in his church in Wichita, Kan. NBC's Janet Shamlian reports.

*** Government Motors? At the White House at 11:55 am ET, Obama will announce that the U.S. government is pushing GM into bankruptcy protection and will give it another $30 billion, bringing the taxpayer investment in the auto giant to $50 billion. Obviously, the Obama administration is pretty confident it knows what it's doing now, but GM is no Chrysler. And while it does look like some form of Chrysler will survive -- thanks to a merger with Fiat -- just what will the new GM look like? The fact that the government will own a majority stake in the new GM is both good news and bad news for taxpayers. The good news: The government is getting something for its money; it's not a bailout with no strings attached. The bad news: It's government intervention at its most obvious. We don't expect the government ownership of GM to be a political liability in the short term, but what about long term? What if GM doesn't perform or doesn't start to turn things around in the next three to four years? Will Republicans be able to use this as proof that too much government is a bad thing? By the way, will this new $30 billion be enough for GM? Or now that we're in for a penny, doesn't that mean we'll be in for a pound (or more dollars?).

Video: General Motors, the auto giant that ruled American industry for more than 50 years, is filing for bankruptcy today. The move is likely to result in thousands of additional job cuts. CNBC's Phil LeBeau and Erin Burnett report.

*** The GOP's (near) silence: Six months ago, remember when Sen. Bob Corker and other Republicans were essentially saying, "Let GM go into bankruptcy." They probably never thought the young Obama administration would end up doing this. Strikingly, we haven't seen any real criticism from Republicans on this bankruptcy (although the RNC did distribute a press release with the headline "Government Motors"). The likely reason: because they would be doing the same if they controlled the White House. However, organized labor trusts a Democratic administration to put them in bankruptcy, and probably wouldn't be as cooperative if this were a Republican administration.

Video: Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., discusses Judge Sonia Sotomayor's 2001 comments about her judicial perspective with NBC's David Gregory on "Meet the Press."

*** Sotomayor update: On Tuesday, Sonia Sotomayor will go up to Capitol Hill for meetings with Sens. Harry Reid (D), Pat Leahy (D), and Jeff Sessions (R). But let's not beat around the bush: Barring an unforeseen fact or a dreadful performance at the confirmation hearing itself, Sotomayor will be on the Supreme Court by October 1. The weekend rhetoric from elected Republican senators seemed to suggest that whatever comfort level they had for attacking the nominee last week completely disappeared -- thanks to the overheated attacks by Gingrich, Limbaugh, et al. In particular, Sessions signaled the change in tone on "Meet," when he refused to condone the "racist" chatter. The thing that must frustrate a Sessions and some other elected Republicans is that Sotomayor's "wise Latina woman" comments were fair game until Rush and Newt spoke. So instead of Sessions' criticism of the remarks as proof of some sort of judicial bias, only the part of Sessions' statement that criticizes Limbaugh gets covered.

*** Obama's European (and Middle Eastern) vacation: On Tuesday evening, Obama departs on a five-day trip through the Middle East and Europe. On Wednesday, Obama will be in Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with King Abdullah. On Thursday, he's in Cairo, Egypt, where he gives his big speech on America and the Muslim world. On Friday, he'll be in Germany visiting the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. On Saturday, he's in Normandy for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landing. And he returns to the United States on Sunday.

Video: Jordan's King Abdullah II discusses U.S. foreign policy under former President Bush and President Obama with NBC's David Gregory on "Meet the Press."

*** I am liberal, hear me roar: So what does the left think of Obama and his administration? We'll get an answer starting today, when the liberal version of CPAC takes place in DC. The three-day event, organized by the group Campaign for America's Future, has been previously known as the "Take Back America" conference. But now that Democrats control the White House and Congress, the group has changed the name to the tamer (yet more punctuated) "America's Future Now!" Even though Obama has disappointed some liberals with his decisions to send more troops to Afghanistan, to oppose releasing photos of detainee abuse, and to oppose nationalizing the banks, organizers tell First Read that -- for the most part -- they're very happy with the course the White House has charted. Today's prominent speakers include Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein, Organizing for America's Mitch Stewart, Howard Dean, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. And here are some of today's more notable panels: The Economy: OMG!; Progressives in the Age of Obama; Kick Them When They're Down? How the Right Plans to Come Back and What Can Be Done about It; and the Grand Inquest: Torture, Presidential Abuse and Accountability.

*** The never-ending recount: Also today, the Minnesota Supreme Court begins hearing oral arguments in the ongoing Franken-Coleman race, which has now lasted a whopping 209 days beyond Election Day. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune puts it, "Almost seven months after a U.S. Senate election that was too close to call, five justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday on whether problems with absentee ballots justify reversing a lower-court ruling that declared DFLer Al Franken a 312-vote winner over Republican Norm Coleman… A decision upholding the lower-court ruling could end the protracted struggle and allow Franken to join the Senate, giving Democrats an invincible majority. A ruling for Coleman wouldn't return him to the Senate, but could keep his hopes alive and delay a final decision for months."

Video: MSNBC's Ed Schultz talks with Minnesota's Secretary of State Mark Ritchie about why the Senate needs to seat Al Franken immediately.

*** 2012 watch: Tonight, Nevada Sen. John Ensign (R) dips his toes into the 2012 waters when he delivers a speech in Sioux City, IA at 8:00 pm ET.

An Ensign spokesman tells First Read that the senator's speech will discuss GOP ideas on education, health care, and national security -- and their differences with the Democrats' ideas. Of course, the words "John Ensign" and "presidential candidate" haven't appeared together much, if ever. But clearly, Ensign has looked around the Senate, looked around the GOP, and realized what a lot of us have realized: There's no obvious front-runner for 2012 or even a group of front-runners. So why not, right? We've wondered what Obama's election would do to other senators. For years, senators were told they'd never get to the White House, and the stats proved it. Now, with governors in general less popular now than before, having a well-rounded issue experience that a senator gets may mean more to voters than so-called executive experience. Ensign is the son of casino executive, and who knows if the social conservative wing of the GOP will be ready to embrace him? But the guy has both the looks and conservative bona fides on many other issues to make him an interesting potential candidate to watch. 

*** 2012 watch, part II: Also today, at 11:00 am in DC, Mitt Romney gives a speech (sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation) on the need for a stronger military.

Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 1 day
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 8 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 155 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 519 days

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