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First thoughts: Kennedy's letter

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Kennedy's letter: When Arlen Specter switched parties earlier this year, giving Democrats 60 Senate seats, we noted that Democrats didn't necessarily have a filibuster-proof majority due to the health of Dem Sens. Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy. Well, in a letter to Massachusetts state leaders, it appears that Kennedy is concerned that there could be times during the health-care debate this fall when Democrats don't have 60 votes. The Boston Globe: "In a personal, sometimes wistful letter sent Tuesday to Governor Deval L. Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Kennedy asks that Patrick be given authority to appoint someone to the seat temporarily before voters choose a new senator in a special election… 'I strongly support that law and the principle that the people should elect their senator,' Kennedy wrote. 'I also believe it is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election.'"

*** Thinking about the future: Sources close to Kennedy tell NBC's Kelly O'Donnell that he sent the letter, dated July 2, "because he is thinking about the future and what best serves the interests of the state." Sources add that Kennedy's wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, an attorney, is not interested in being selected as a potential interim successor, "Vicki is focused on the Senator and her family, not a Senate seat." Asked if the letter is an indication that Kennedy's health is further deteriorating, aides discouraged any suggestion of that saying, "The letter does not mean something is imminent." It's also worth noting, O'Donnell says, that the governor of Massachusetts received the letter only yesterday despite the July 2 date, per Kennedy aides.

*** The Law of Unintended Consequences: The Boston Globe reports, however, that there's some resistance to changing the state's succession law, which calls for a special election to occur five months after a Senate vacancy -- but doesn't allow for a governor to appoint someone to fill the seat in the interim. Just five years ago, when John Kerry was running for president, the state changed its succession law to prevent Mitt Romney from being able to select a Republican to fill Kerry's seat if Kerry had won the election. Hence the current law on Massachusetts' books right now. The good ol' law of unintended consequences: Sometimes lawmakers get a tad too cute in their attempts to manipulate processes like this, and this was one of those cases.

*** Reconciliation: How serious are Democrats about pushing health care through the budget reconciliation process? Very serious. The president has signaled for MONTHS, not days, that he's willing to go this route. In fact, he hinted at it in an interview with NBC News two weeks ago in Elkhart. The question is whether the threat of reconciliation is about keeping Republicans at the table talking, or whether it's a serious option. We can tell you this: We know the president's experience in the Senate has convinced him that the 60-vote threshold seems a bit absurd to him sometimes. If you can get 55 votes for something, you should be able to get your bill out of the Senate, according to those who have talked with him about this issue. By the way, as the White House has shown public flexibility on the public option, it's worth noting that we STILL can't find a single Republican who has praised the president for suggesting that the public option is optional. Instead, it seems they want to go for the political kill.

*** Obama and the public option: Speaking of the public option, senior White House aides are a little frustrated with the coverage this week of the president's stance on this issue. They believe that his position hasn't changed; in fact, they have emphasized behind the scenes that the president has ALWAYS indicated the public option was negotiable. So what he said last Saturday in Colorado was not new. Of course, it's how he said it and that he did so in public -- which came as a surprise to the most ardent supporters of the public option. Many on the progressive/liberal left did NOT realize how optional the public option was with the president. What will the president say about it today at 2:45 pm ET heads over to the DNC to participate in a health-care strategy session -- by phone and online -- with his Organizing for America grassroots supporters? Before that, Obama will discuss health care on Michael Smerconish's conservative talk-radio show, which today is being broadcast from the White House.

*** Defining the public option: By the way, here's another issue regarding the public option: Just what is it? Is it an expansion of Medicare? Is it a separate entity? Is it a new entity? Is it something akin to Freddie and Fannie? It does seem to be one of these policy initiatives that means different things to different folks. True experts on this issue have an idea, but now it has become political hot potato -- over the role of government -- and some of the loudest voices both sides of the issue are probably incapable of giving a good description of what the policy will do. Perhaps this is yet another example of how the White House has made things MORE difficult by not having a defined plan to push/defend.

*** Grassley looking for a way out of the talks? So Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley now says he wants to narrow the scope of the bill. Is he looking for a way out of the talks? Does he wants Democrats and the White House to essentially kick him out of the talks? It sure looks like it. How much more does he have to say that seems to be counter-productive to the bipartisan talks and the White House's agenda before the White House will finally say, "OK, fine, Sen. Grassley -- you're released!!??!!?? The Senate Finance Gang of Six holds a conference call meeting tonight. Will this be the night Grassley backs out? Is that the signal he's sending? So he's negotiating in the press?

*** Afghanistan's election: Polls have already closed in Afghanistan's presidential election, with preliminary results due on Aug. 25 and final results due on Sept. 3, per NBC's Dax Tejera. The New York Times says turnout was uneven "with higher participation in the relatively peaceful north than in the troubled south, where insurgents threw up makeshift roadblocks in one area to warn off voters. In the southern city of Kandahar, witnesses said, insurgents hanged two people because their fingers were marked with indelible ink used to denote that they had voted." Wow. More from the Times: "The major question at the election, diplomats and analysts said, is whether President Hamid Karzai will succeed in winning over 50 percent of the vote in the first round, securing a victory, or be pushed into a second, more unpredictable round of voting. A vast field of 34 opponents and a last-minute surge by his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, as well as Taliban intimidation in the volatile south, which is Mr. Karzai's base, threatened to chip away at the president's support."

*** Not worth fighting for? Sticking with the situation in Afghanistan… Last month, in conversations with NBC/WSJ poll respondents about the economy and health care, we told you about a few folks who -- without prompting -- brought up the war in Afghanistan as something that might not be worth escalating or spending money on during these tough times. Today, a Washington Post/ABC poll seems to have found even wider agreement on the issue of  whether this is the "good war" as some have referred to it as. According to the poll, a "majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country." This is potentially a HUGE turning point in public opinion on the war, and one that could have massive political and policy implications just when the administration is debating whether to send even more troops to the war zone. 

*** Blackwater back in the news: NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports that government officials confirm reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post that the CIA subcontracted its secret assassination program to Blackwater, the controversial security program that has in the past drawn fire for using excessive force in Iraq. A senior official tells Mitchell that Blackwater -- since renamed as Xe Services -- was hired at an earlier stage but not in the later stages of the program, which never was "fully operational." The official says the program "never took anyone off the streets."

*** The dog days of August: What is about August and tough times for American presidents? As we've noted before, this is the third summer in a row that hasn't been all that kind for Barack Obama. In August 2007, he was trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls. In August 2008, his lead over John McCain narrowed, spurring plenty of Democratic backseat driving and second-guessing. And in August 2009, he appears to be losing the health-care fight. But Augusts also have been unkind to other recent presidents and presidential candidates. It was August 2001 when George W. Bush unveiled his stem-cell policy that produced plenty of criticism. That same August came the presidential daily briefing entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike In U.S." In August 2005 came Hurricane Katrina. And it was the Swift-boat campaign of August 2004 that crushed John Kerry's presidential campaign. And remember that certain August in 1998 with Bill Clinton…

*** August break: Speaking of August… In addition to us not publishing our morning note tomorrow, First Read also will be off for the rest of next week. With President Obama in Martha's Vineyard and with Congress on its recess, we're thinking the Washington noise will be a much lower decibel level.  But we will update the First Read Web site if news warrants. The morning dispatch will be back bright and early Monday, Aug. 31. 

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 75 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 439 days

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