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First thoughts: Progress or problem?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Senate progress -- or problem? Per NBC's Ken Strickland, the bipartisan group of Senate Finance Committee negotiators repeated a familiar refrain yesterday -- we're making progress on the health-care bill, but still don't have an agreement. While strongly reaffirming that no deals had been struck, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe hinted at the direction the senators were going. "We don't mandate employer coverage at least in some of the initial proposals," she remarked after the meeting. "As I said, we haven't agreed to any of the specifics, but these are the ones that are on the table." It also appeared the group, Strick adds, has rejected the idea of a government-run insurance program and is instead focusing on the so-called "co-op" plan. Indeed, the AP confirms those hints. "[P]articipants were on track to exclude a requirement many congressional Democrats seek for businesses to offer coverage to their workers. Nor would there be a provision for a government insurance option, despite President Barack Obama's support for such a plan." But does the lack of an employer mandate, as well as no public option, scare away liberals in the House? Will it look like massive or incremental reform? One could see how folks could make both arguments. However, the government expansion outlined by Snowe probably doesn't attract any more Republicans than are at the table right now.

 Video: MSNBC's Ed Schultz and a political panel discuss the Republicans' alternative to a public option for President Barack Obama's health care reform plan.

*** Still a stalemate in the House: Meanwhile, over on House side yesterday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested -- as we reported yesterday -- that the House won't pass a health-care bill until after the August recess, notes NBC's Luke Russert. "I have said that I wanted the bill to pass before we left for the August recess, to honor the request of the president to make that commitment," Pelosi said at a news conference yesterday. "But I've also said that members need the time they need to not only get this bill written, but also to have plenty of time to review it. I've also said that we need to see the direction that the Senate is going, so that we can do as much work in advance of September so that when we come back we'll be able to go to conference and be a good way down the road." Well, the House Democrats now get their first look at where the Senate is headed (see above). And specifically on the issue of the co-op, we've heard very little from the House side about it. Interestingly, the White House has publicly not taken a position on the idea. Behind the scenes, we can tell you that they are intrigued by it.

Video: MSNBC's Carlos Watson is joined by the Financial Times' Chrystia Freeland and NBC's Savannah Guthrie to discuss whether a bipartisan bill can be reached in the House.

*** AARP, yeah you know me: After a brief respite, President Obama returns to the subject of health care today, when he participates in an AARP-sponsored tele-town hall beginning at 1:30 pm ET. Here's how the town hall works: Questions will come from AARP members via phone and email, as well as a live audience of 40 members and volunteers. Per AARP spokesman Drew Nannis, the phone-in portion of questioning will function "kind of like a radio talk show." The AARP will contact "hundreds of thousands" of members around the country with a robocall 10 minutes before the event. If the listeners have a question, they can push a number and get connected to operators who put them in a queue for questioning. Nannis adds that the AARP has conducted eight previous tele-town halls, each of which attracted 60,000 to 70,000 callers -- and that was without the president. Meanwhile, the Washington Post sums up the political challenge for Obama: "Although polls have consistently shown that just over half of Americans think the health-care system is in need of reform, a substantial majority say they are satisfied with their own insurance and care. Any hope of change will require their support, according to experts and advocates across the ideological spectrum." And without any new details to push (like public option vs. co-op or employer mandate or not), can the president advance the argument?

Video: Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, discusses how close the Senate Finance Committee is to reaching a final draft on the health care reform bill.

*** 'I love you, man': NBC learned yesterday that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police officer Crowley will have their beer at the White House with President Obama on Thursday at 6:00 pm ET. Will the White House allow for a full-fledged pool spray, or try to limit the meeting to still photos only? The debate is taking place behind the scenes.

Video: Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about President Barack Obama's invitation to Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley and discuss the controversial arrest of the professor.

*** Sotomayor's first vote: There's expected to be little drama when the Senate Judiciary Committee formally votes on Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination at a hearing that begins today at 10:00 am ET. (The actual vote might not happen until 11:30 am or noon.) Democrats already have a 12-7 majority on the committee. And at least one Republican on the panel -- Lindsey Graham -- has said he'll vote for her.

So all signs point to a 13-6 vote. (By comparison, John Roberts' Judiciary vote was 13-5, and Samuel Alito's was 10-8.) With Sotomayor on track to be confirmed by the full Senate by Aug. 7, it's worth remembering that she didn't immediately look like a slam dunk (at least compared to the other finalists), with that YouTube of her stating the court of appeals "is where policy is made" and with the Supreme Court about to weigh in on the New Haven firefighter case. Here's what we wrote the day her nomination was announced, on May 26: "The big question: Will she survive the confirmation process? Some Senate Democrats worry she'll be a heavier lift than others he could have nominated (like Diane Wood or Elena Kagan)." Of course, some behind the scenes will look at the 65-68 confirmation votes Sotomayor is likely to get and say, "Well, Wood would have gotten 75; Kagan too." But does that really matter in the end?

*** Middle East and Iran: There's some real action happening in the Middle East. Four key officials are in the region: Def Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Special Envoy George Mitchell, and newly minted special Middle East White House adviser Dennis Ross. But Israel isn't publicly ready to set aside its right to deal with Iran's nuclear capabilities itself. Here's the AP: "Israel hardened its insistence Monday that it would do anything it felt necessary to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, just the ultimatum the United States hoped not to hear as it tried to nudge Iran to the bargaining table." The Wall Street Journal adds, "A simmering dispute between the U.S. and Israel over Iran's nuclear program burst into the open on Monday, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Israel, called for continued diplomatic engagement with Tehran, while Israeli officials repeatedly warned of a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities." Of course, some might argue that Israel had to sound tough publicly. As Gates said when in Jordan, Israel will give the U.S. space when it comes to Iran. But the question is: Does Israel have U.S. diplomacy efforts on a timetable?


Video: During his visit to the Middle East, Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Israel to be patient while Iran reconsiders its security interests. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

*** I fought the law and the law won: Vice President Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder head to Philadelphia today to announce $1 billion in grants -- via the stimulus -- dedicated to finance the hiring and retention of law enforcement officials across the country. Biden and Holder will be joined by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (up for re-election in November), Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. The announcement, of course, comes after the Gates-Crowley-Obama flap. But it also comes as the AP notes that four large American cities -- Houston, New York, Pittsburgh, and Seattle -- are getting no cop funding from the program. By the way, speaking of the recovery effort, the AP also gives Republicans a fresh new article to beat up the administration when it comes to how they calculate job creation numbers.

*** 2010 Watch: Republicans had the rare Senate situation where they had a couple of incumbents who, on paper, were weaker candidates than new recruits. First, they caught a mild break in Florida when Mel Martinez decided to retire -- and ended up with Charlie Crist. And yesterday, in Kentucky, Jim Bunning announced that he wouldn't run for re-election -- although Secretary of State Trey Grayson (while probably stronger than Bunning) is no Charlie Crist. Democrats have their own retirements they are rooting for… They already got one in Roland Burris. The next one COULD be -- though no one in the party will say this publicly yet -- Chris Dodd. By the way, the hits keep on coming for Dodd: A Countrywide official DIRECTLY contradicts the claims by Dodd and Kent Conrad regarding their special mortgages. Oh, and Dodd has a major lobbying association (PhRMA) spending money on his behalf. Even supposed good news -- a special interest group SUPPORTING him -- is bad news for Dodd these days.

*** Dems courting Latinos: Finally today, DNC Chairman (and Virginia Gov.) Tim Kaine addresses the National Council of La Raza -- a Latino advocacy group that Tom Tancredo assailed when Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination was first announced. According to excerpts of his remarks, Kaine -- who fluently speaks Spanish -- will say: "Hay algo mas que hice luego de su nombramiento: Practique mucho mi espaniol durante las entrevistas que hice por television y por radio." (Translation: "One more thing we did after [Sotomayor's] nomination -- I got to brush up on my Spanish for a few interviews on TV and radio.") As Politico writes, "Republicans' dilemma in connecting with the growing Hispanic electorate will be on vivid display Tuesday: GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote overwhelmingly against confirming Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latino nominee to the Supreme Court. And the Democratic Party chairman will address the nation's largest Latino political group -- partly in Spanish. No national GOP official is speaking. 

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 98 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 462 days

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