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First thoughts: To be bipartisan or not?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** To be bipartisan? We know you've heard this before, but it does seem like the Senate Finance Committee is getting closer to a bipartisan deal on health care. The Washington Post reports the emerging deal "would shave about $100 billion off the projected trillion-dollar cost of the legislation over the next decade and eventually provide coverage to 94 percent of Americans… It would expand Medicaid, crack down on insurers, abandon the government insurance option that President Obama is seeking and, for the first time, tax health-care benefits under the most generous plans." This news comes as the bipartisan working group -- Democrats Max Baucus, Jeff Bingaman and Kent Conrad, and Republicans Mike Enzi, Chuck Grassley and Olympia Snowe -- meets with President Obama today at the White House at 11:15 am ET.

Video: Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, talks about the health care reform negotiation process and why a taking a comprehensive look at the entire reform package is more important than setting deadlines.

*** Or not to be bipartisan? Yesterday, in his interview with NBC News, Obama said it was his hope to get a bipartisan bill. But he also said he's not willing to wait forever. "I am glad that in the Senate Finance Committee there have been a couple of Republicans … who've been willing to negotiate with Democrats to try to produce a bill," Obama said. "But they haven't yet. And I think at some point, some time in September, we're just going to have to make an assessment." More: "I would prefer Republicans working with us on that, because I think it's in the interest of everybody. It shouldn't be a partisan issue... Look, the bottom line is the American people, the American economy, and the federal budget, have to have some sort of reforms in the health-care system. And failure is not an option this year." Just askin', but how are the president and Democrats responsible for whether the bill is bipartisan when only three Republicans are willing to come to the table? Also just askin': Will the GOP leadership concede, in a political sense, any deal with just three Republicans is bipartisan?

Video: "The Ed Show" guest host Lawrence O'Donnell speaks with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about right wing efforts to spin fake grassroots protests as real dissatisfaction with Obama's leadership on health care.

*** Sotomayor and Clunkers: Today, the Senate completes its big work before departing for its August recess. According to NBC's Ken Strickland, the final confirmation vote for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is set for 3:00 pm ET. With all Senate Democrats set to vote for her (minus the absent Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy), plus at least eight Republicans (Lamar Alexander, Kit Bond, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, Judd Gregg, Dick Lugar, Mel Martinez, and Olympia Snowe), she's set to receive at least 66 votes, which is more than the 58 Alito got but less than Roberts' 78. The only key undecided vote is Ohio Republican George Voinovich. And if Voinovich does support her, that will mean that FOUR of the party's five retiring senators so far will have voted her, suggesting the role politics -- especially primary politics -- is playing here on the GOP side. Once the Senate finishes voting on Sotomayor, Strick says, it will turn to "cash for clunkers." The final vote on that will take place later this evening.

Video: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., discusses Republicans' votes against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, who has more federal judicial experience than any other nominee in the last century.

*** All about Fairfax: If you want to know why McLean, VA is the location for President Obama's rally tonight at 7:10 pm ET for Virginia gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds (D), consider this: In the attorney general race Deeds lost by just about 300 votes in 2005, he underperformed Tim Kaine -- who was at the top of the ticket that year -- by almost 10,000 votes in Fairfax County, where McLean happens to be. As it turns out, Deeds lagged Kaine in all the big Northern Virginia counties, in the African-American Hampton Roads area, and near Richmond. By contrast, Deeds, who hails from rural Bath County, did better than Kaine in the western and southwestern part of the state.

*** Is geography destiny? Indeed, Deeds' race against Bob McDonnell (R), who won that '05 attorney general race, flips the usual Dem-vs.-GOP map in Virginia. In the past few years, Kaine, Jim Webb, and Barack Obama used (more or less) a simple formula to winning this battleground state: rack up HUGE margins in Northern Virginia, be competitive in the Richmond and Virginia Beach areas, and try to improve your margins in rural Southwest Virginia. But Deeds hails from Bath County in the western part of the state -- which he overwhelmingly won in 2005, but which Kaine lost -- and McDonnell grew up in Northern Virginia, which gives him an attachment to the state that someone like, say, Jerry Kilgore (R) didn't have four years ago. In short, November's marquee race could very well come down to this: Does Deeds match the Kaine-Webb-Obama performance in Northern Virginia? Or does McDonnell match what he achieved in 2005?

*** Striking the balance: But geography isn't Deeds' only challenge. Per non-partisan Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth, Deeds is facing a political environment where Democrats aren't as enthusiastic as they were a year ago, where Obama isn't as popular as he was three months ago, and where Deeds is trying to distance himself from Obama's policies on energy and card check. Holsworth adds that Deeds is still trying to negotiate how he balances tapping into the excitement still surrounding the president but also keeping his distance on some of the policies. And that's one of the more interesting things to watch for tonight.

*** Obama's perception problem, part 2: Yesterday, we mentioned how some Americans are conflating the stimulus with the auto and bank bailouts. And here's another perception problem for the White House: There are those who believe that the tax increases on the wealthy -- either through health-care reform or through the expiration of the Bush tax cuts -- are coming this year. One of the questions that the president received from an Elkhart resident was why he was raising taxes during a recession. Obama's answer: "We have not proposed a tax hike for the wealthy that would take effect in middle of recession." Folks, the hikes aren't coming until later. And if the economy hasn't turned around by then, then Obama has a MUCH bigger problem than a tax increase.

Video: David Lane, CEO of grassroots organization ONE, discusses Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tough words for Kenyan leadership, whose government is plagued with corruption and poverty.

*** Hillary's "tongue-lashing": NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports that Secretary of State Clinton, while in Kenya, continued to speak out against the Kenyan government's corruption and tolerance of political violence. She urged the audience at a University of Nairobi town hall to take more active roles in cleaning up their government. Kenyan newspapers are headlining what they are calling the secretary's "tongue-lashing." This is continuing with the Obama administration's theme of responsibility and better governance begun by President Obama in his Accra speech. Also, Clinton is meeting with the President of Somalia, whom the U.S. is trying to support in its efforts against that country's Islamist movement. She then heads to South Africa later today.

*** Odds and ends: Elsewhere today, Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer already gave a speech this morning on the economy, arguing that the stimulus is working. "It is providing a crucial lift to aggregate demand at a time when the economy needs it most. And we anticipate that the effects will build through the end of this year and the beginning of the next," she said. Also today, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, will deliver remarks at 11:00 am ET on the administration's policies to counteract terrorism.

*** TGIT -- Thank Goodness It's Thursday: A note to our readers: Beginning tomorrow, we won't be publishing our First Read morning news analysis and round up on Fridays this August. However, we'll certainly update the Web site when news warrants (like when tomorrow's job numbers come out). We're still going to be around on Fridays this month, but we just won't be setting our alarm clocks for 5:00 am on those mornings…

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 89 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 453 days

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