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First thoughts: Bon voyage

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Bon voyage: This evening, President Obama embarks on a trip to Europe and the Middle East, which will take him to Egypt (where he will give his big speech on the U.S. relations with the Muslim world), Germany, and France. But his first stop will be in Saudi Arabia, the religious capital of Islam. In fact, this stop was hastily put together. While the White House denies that the Saudis exerted any pressure on the administration after it announced Cairo as the spot for the big speech, other sources tell NBC News that the White House was reminded about Saudi Arabia's importance in the Muslim world, and that keeping a positive diplomatic relationship with the Saudis was important -- whether dealing with Iran, Israeli-Palestinian issues, or oil independence. Still, to pull this off, it's a reminder that it's proof once again that the U.S.-Saudi relationship has to trump just about every other relationship in the region.

Video: President Obama heads to the Mideast today, where he hopes to reach out to the Muslim community. TODAY's Ann Curry talks to NBC's Savannah Guthrie about the trip.

*** Focusing on health care first: Before he departs for Saudi Arabia, however, Obama will meet at the White House at 2:30 pm with Democrats who sit on the two Senate committees that are drafting health-care legislation: the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. At today's briefing, the AP says, attendees will discuss a new report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, which finds that health-care costs -- now at 18% of the nation's GDP -- will rise to 34% in 30 years, if left unchecked. Translation: Fixing the health-care system will help fix the economy.

*** Sotomayor's day on the Hill: Also today, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor will be on Capitol Hill, where she will meet with top Democratic and GOP senators. Per NBC's Ken Strickland, she visits first with Majority Leader Harry Reid (at 10:15 am ET), then with Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (11:30 am), then Judiciary Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (12:15 pm), Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (1:30 pm), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (2:45 pm), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (3:30 pm), Sen. Orrin Hatch (5:00 pm), and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (sometime this afternoon). As Roll Call reminds us, these meetings are much more than courtesy calls; they will play a role in Sotomayor's nomination battle -- if history is any guide. "Take the case of Harriet Miers, the much-maligned friend of President George W. Bush who saw her nomination to the Supreme Court yanked before her hearings could even get started in 2005. Republicans and Democrats alike credited her collapse to a poor performance in her meetings with Senators -- the lawmakers didn't feel she had the intellectual weight or experience to merit a lifetime appointment to the high court."

*** Score one for Mitch McConnell and Dick Cheney? On the issue of closing Gitmo, have congressional Republicans and Dick Cheney come out ahead of Obama? For now, it appears that way, according to a new USA Today/Gallup poll. "By more than 2-1, those surveyed say Guantanamo shouldn't be closed. By more than 3-1, they oppose moving some of the accused terrorists housed there to prisons in their own states… It is one of the few subjects on which most Americans side with the views of the Bush administration over its successor. 'Coming up on eight years after Sept. 11, fear remains, and fear is politically potent,' says political scientist Paul Freedman of the University of Virginia, who studies public opinion. 'When it comes to the issue of terrorism … people are inclined to err on the side of that fear.'"

*** America's GM exit plan: In a briefing with a few reporters yesterday, leaders of the White House's auto task force attempted to clarify exactly how and when the U.S. could sell its shares of the new General Motors. In short, if everything goes swimmingly with the government's taxpayer investment, the government could be out of the auto business for good within five years, but that's probably an optimistic timeline. Let's explain further: The new GM will buy the necessary assets of the old GM sometime in the next 60-90 days, when a bankruptcy judge allows the sale to take place. After that, the actual sale of old assets to the new GM could take several more weeks. So at this point on the calendar, we're looking at October or November before this new private company, once again called General Motors, will come into existence. So at this point, New GM will be a privately-held company, not traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange (or any stock exchange for that matter). However, it is the intention of the Obama administration to get New GM to become a publicly traded company as soon as reasonably possible.

Video: Ray Young, CFO of GM, joins Morning Joe to talk about his company's future now with the federal government's involvement.

*** Christie vs. Lonegan: In New Jersey today, Republican voters head to the polls to choose the person they want to challenge vulnerable Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in the fall. As we've written before, this GOP primary contest -- between the more moderate Chris Christie and the more conservative Steve Lonegan -- is yet another chapter in the ongoing debate over the Republican Party's future. Does it aim for the political middle, or does it remain planted firmly on the right? Is being a moderate a virtue, or a curse? And what is more desirable, winning races or ideological purity? Polls show Christie, who's viewed as the bigger general-election threat to Corzine, with a comfortable lead. But it's a closed primary, and a low turnout could end up benefiting Lonegan, who advocates a flat tax. In the Democratic primary, Corzine faces only token opposition, and he will appear at a rally with Vice President Biden after the returns come in. Polling places open at 6:00 am ET and close at 8:00 pm.

*** Elsewhere today: Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man tasked with taking up the command in Afghanistan, testifies before Senate Armed Services at 9:30 am ET; Tom Daschle -- the man who almost became HHS secretary -- speaks at the National Press Club on the politics of health care reform at 2:00 pm ET; and the liberal "America's Future Now!" conference in DC continues for a second day, with Sen. Jeff Merkley on jobs and energy, the Rev. Jesse Jackson on making college affordable, Rep. Barney Frank on military spending, and Sens. Dick Durbin and Bernie Sanders, who host an awards gala honoring AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Video: Speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal says the challenge in Afghanistan is considerable, a military-centric strategy won't succeed, and he expects casualties will likely increase.

Countdown to VA Dem primary: 7 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 154 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 518 days

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