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First thoughts: A fight that fizzled?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** A fight that fizzled? When President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court back in May, who thought her nomination would largely take a backseat to the political fights over the stimulus, health care, and energy? But as her Senate confirmation hearing begins today, that's precisely what has happened. Even the morning's Republican National Committee research document is about Obama's meeting today with organized labor, not Sotomayor. And here's what today's headline from the Washington Times was: "Sotomayor Faces Easy Route to Confirmation." (By the way, DO note that the Washington Times has since changed the headline to the less tough "Debate continues ahead of Sotomayor hearing.") These things tell you all you need to know about how this political fight has fizzled. Of course, Republicans will ask her questions about her views on abortions and guns, the New Haven firefighter case, and that "wise Latina" comment. But as NBC's Pete Williams said on TODAY, unless Sotomayor says something explosive during the hearings, it's a virtual certainty that she'll be confirmed.

Video: TODAY's Matt Lauer talks to David Gregory, moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," about the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor

*** Hearing tick-tock: Today's Sotomayor hearing begins at 10:00 am ET in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building. The morning will consist of opening statements by the 12 Democrats and seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then, at about 1:00 pm, Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (who's trying to boost her name ID for 2010) will introduce Sotomayor. About 30 minutes later, Sotomayor will make her opening remarks. Per NBC's Williams, the actual questioning takes place Tuesday morning. Each senator will be allowed 30 minutes in this first round of questioning (and if past experience is a guide, some will not consume their full time allotments). On Wednesday, Williams says, questioning will pick up where Tuesday left off. Once every senator has concluded a first-round question period of 30 minutes, the second round begins for those who wish to ask more. Second-round questioning is limited to 15 minutes per senator. On Thursday, outside witnesses will testify.

*** Introducing Sen. Franken: The sideshow highlight of the hearings this week: Al Franken's debut on the national stage as a Senate questioner. Of course, he once PLAYED a U.S. senator questioning a Supreme Court nominee on "SNL." He was the late Paul Simon questioning Clarence Thomas.

*** Latest cable catnip: Sotomayor's confirmation might not be contentious, but the news -- via the Sunday New York Times -- that the CIA withheld information from Congress about a secret counterintelligence program on orders from former Vice President Cheney certainly is. Today's Wall Street Journal says the program "was an attempt to carry out a 2001 presidential authorization to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives, according to former intelligence officials familiar with the matter." The story is cable catnip because it involves spies and Cheney, two important ingredients to fire up the left and the right on the air and in the blogosphere. By the way, there are other lingering questions about the future of the CIA that this story could spark. Will the National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair use this moment to seize more control over the intel community (as a whole) and the CIA (in particular)? Speaking of Cheney, his daughter Liz pens a Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing (who else?) Barack Obama.

*** When Obama isn't the news: Given that the two big stories for TV today appear to be Sotomayor and CIA-Cheney, it means an entire week when the president is NOT front and center talking about the economy or health care. On the one hand, it's helpful for the president to handle things behind the scenes, and it certainly makes it harder for Republicans to find their own news hole to hit on the economy or health care. On the other hand, Obama needs more attention to be given to his attempts at re-defining the stimulus and making a push on health care. Granted, these two issues will likely bubble back up next week -- and beyond -- when the CIA-Cheney and Sotomayor stories wear themselves out on cable. But it's not the "hit the ground running" Monday the White House needs after an overseas trip that wasn't the same overwhelming success as the first three trips.

Video: The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee is suggesting that the Bush administration concealed a CIA counterterrorism program from Congress. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

*** Holder'em: For further proof that the Bush years aren't going away anytime soon, NBC's Williams confirms the story, first reported by Newsweek, that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to look at whether post-9/11 detainees were illegally tortured. But Williams adds that such an investigation would be very narrowly focused and would look only at cases in which CIA officers or contractors went far beyond what was authorized under the "enhanced interrogation" program. "Anyone who followed the legal guidance issued back then would not be investigated," said one official -- nor would those who may have strayed beyond the technical limits but acted in good faith. Instead, the investigation would be limited to a small number of what are described as "egregious" cases that appeared to have crossed far over the line.

Video: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., discusses Attorney General Eric Holder's possible investigation into torture with NBC's David Gregory on "Meet the Press."

*** Pallin' around with Palin: The Palin story isn't going away, either. With an Anchorage dateline, the Washington Times interviewed the soon-to-be-departing Alaska governor, who revealed that she might stump for conservative Democrats. "I will go around the country on behalf of candidates who believe in the right things, regardless of their party label or affiliation," she told the paper. "People are so tired of the partisan stuff." (Wow!) Today's New York Times also has an Anchorage dateline. "Ms. Palin had returned to her home state from the presidential campaign as one of the hopeful prospects in her struggling party… Standing before the Legislature in January, she vowed to retake her office with 'optimism and collaboration and hard work to get the job done.' But interviews in Alaska and in Washington show that a seemingly relentless string of professional and personal troubles quickly put that goal out of reach." Meanwhile, on Meet the Press yesterday, John McCain unequivocally defended Palin, despite the multiple reports about disloyalty during the presidential campaign. McCain clearly decided he wanted no part of the Palin drama. One way to guarantee that: hug her publicly and don't push her away.

Video: Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis talks about Levi Johnston's claims that Sarah Palin resigned from office to pursue other monetary opportunities such as a reality television show and a book.
 
*** Labor day: At 1:15 pm ET today, Obama meets with labor leaders. This meeting comes, according to NBC's Athena Jones, as the Council of Economic Advisers releases a report entitled "Preparing the Workers of Today for the Jobs of Tomorrow" that offers an overview of how the U.S. labor market is expected to grow and develop over the next few years. At 4:00 pm, Obama delivers remarks at an urban and metropolitan policy roundtable. Pegged to Obama's meeting today, the Workforce Fairness Institute is up with a Web site blasting "union bosses." 

*** Jill Biden's surgery: Finally today, Dr. Jill Biden is in Philadelphia undergoing outpatient orthopedic surgery to relieve shoulder pain. Vice President is accompanying her there.

Countdown to Palin Stepping Down: 13 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 113 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 477 days

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