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First thoughts: Going big

White House and congressional Democrats go big (and we thought last year was busy!)… Obama meets at WH with congressional to discuss SCOTUS pick at 10:30 am ET… Obama has already "begun conversations" about replacing Stevens, and he's looking for a "consensus builder"… GOP changes its tone on financial reform bill… First Read profiles Merrick Garland… Jim DeMint vs. the NRSC… For the NRCC, it's the majority or bust… Mitt Romney's living in California… Marco Rubio is under federal investigation… And Arlen Specter appears on "Daily Rundown," while Chris Dodd is on "Andrea Mitchell Reports." 

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg 
*** Going big: So much for the idea that Democrats were going to scale back and coast into the midterms. Consider: The Senate is furiously working to pass its financial reform legislation; the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman energy bill is supposed to be introduced on Monday; Sen. Scott Brown (R) said, per the Wall Street Journal, that President Obama told him Congress is going to move forward on immigration next month (does the new Arizona law almost force the White House's hand on this?); and then there's that little SCOTUS vacancy Obama has to fill. Back in January, after the GOP's victory in Massachusetts, there was plenty of talk that Democrats would go small, not big. But they're presently acting as if there's no tomorrow -- which, of course, could very well be the case after Nov. 2.

*** Beginning the SCOTUS conversations: Speaking of filling that SCOTUS vacancy, President Obama and Vice President Biden will meet in the Oval Office with congressional leaders at 10:30 am ET to discuss replacing retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. Attending the meeting: Senate Majority Leader Reid, Senate Minority Leader McConnell, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy, and Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Sessions. According to NBC's Savannah Guthrie, a White House official confirms that Obama has "begun conversations" with prospective Supreme Court nominees. To be clear, though: No formal interviews have taken place, nor will they occur before the president's meeting today. After the meeting at the White House, the president will reach out and "consult with" other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well. As for the timing of Obama's pick, the official said that it's likely to come in May, although the White House isn't ruling out a decision next week. 

*** Finding a 'consensus builder': NBC's Kelly O'Donnell is hearing the same thing from her sources on Capitol Hill: No selection is imminent, and the president will continue to work on the selection over the "next several weeks." Obama's meeting today, O'Donnell adds, is described as an opportunity for Hill leaders to offer their own advice, but it isn't expected to be a "floating names session." The president is expected to discuss the type of person he is seeking -- someone who can be "a consensus builder" who can "persuade others" to reach consensus on the court. Obama also is expected to press his timeline with lawmakers. According to sources, he will emphasize that if he announces a choice before May 26, the date Sotomayor was named, he expects confirmation completed before the August recess. There is NO desire among Senate Democrats for this confirmation process to drag on. In fact, Senate Democrats are expected to push the White House to name a nominee sooner rather than later, so Leahy could wrap up the committee hearing portion of this process BEFORE the July 4 recess. A nominee named, say, in the first week of May would make this a realistic timeline.

*** And the bar's been set: At a pen and pad briefing with reporters yesterday, NRCC Chair Pete Sessions pulled no punches when it came to the so-called "expectations game." He said anything short of winning the majority this year is nothing more than a "warm bucket of spit." Sessions also revealed that the GOP would indeed release a Contract with America, "painting a picture" of what a House GOP majority will look like and some deliverables that Sessions says voters can hold the party accountable for. This new Contract, Sessions said, would likely be unveiled after Labor Day. As for Sessions' race by race take, he touted a few things: 1) geographical balance in their target races; 2) the flood of "new" candidates, i.e. those folks who have NEVER held elective office; and 3) the need to improve in the suburbs. In short, it was a VERY confident Sessions presiding over this briefing.

*** GOP changes its tone: Turning to the Senate debate over the financial reform bill, the momentum is clearly pointing to passage. The Washington Post writes, "Key Senate Republicans on Tuesday began to back away from their sharp criticism of proposed new financial regulations and expressed optimism that a bipartisan deal on a bill that would drastically change the way Wall Street operates could emerge in the coming days." More: "After a week of attacking the proposals as paving the way for new taxpayer 'bailouts,' Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor that he was 'heartened to hear that bipartisan talks have resumed in earnest.' Later, after a meeting with fellow Republicans, he told reporters that while he believes that there are still serious flaws in the legislation, 'I'm convinced now there is a new element of seriousness attached to this, rather than just trying to score political points… I think that's a good sign.'" By the way, Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd will appear on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports," which airs at 1:00 pm ET.

*** Meet Merrick Garland: In the next of our brief profiles of Obama's potential SCOTUS picks, we take a look today at Merrick Garland, who sits on U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Garland is widely respected across the ideological spectrum. Lawyers, who have argued before him, regard him as "fair" (though left-leaning), "polite," even-tempered, "pleasant," "brilliant," and "painstakingly thorough."... It seems his whole life and career have been geared toward the Supreme Court: He's a Phi Beta Kappa Harvard law grad; he clerked on the court for Justice William Brennan; he worked in the Carter, Bush 41, and Clinton administrations; and he oversaw the Tim McVeigh and Unabomber prosecutions. In 1997, Clinton appointed him to the D.C. Circuit, which is seen by many as a stepping-stone to the Supreme Court. 
*** Pros and cons: Conservatives have praised Garland, saying he "may well be the best that conservatives could reasonably hope for from a Democratic president." But despite that bipartisan praise, the left likely wouldn't be as thrilled with a Garland pick as someone they would view as more clearly liberal (like, say, Diane Wood), particularly at a time when Democrats have 59 senators. And he would be replacing a justice considered to be one of the court's leading liberals. Garland is seen as a careful judge, but he also would apparently fit the Obama empathy mold. Said one lawyer, according to the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary: "He is an unusually empathetic man. He is very much aware of the impact of his decisions on real people."  One other pro some are arguing for Garland: that he might have the backbone to go toe-to-toe with John Roberts in a way that could even make him a consensus builder with, say, Anthony Kennedy. This issue of the "Roberts Court" is something that is of concern to the president, and some believe he views this court pick as an opportunity to find someone to "check" Roberts.

*** DeMint vs. the NRSC: Yesterday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) endorsed Marlin Stutzman for Indiana Senate -- over the NRSC's preferred candidate, Dan Coats. And it's not the first time this has happened: In Florida's Senate contest, DeMint backed Marco Rubio when the NRSC was still firmly behind Charlie Crist (of course, that's since changed); In Colorado, DeMint favors Ken Buck over Jane Norton; and in California, he's supporting Chuck DeVore over the two establishment favorites, Tom Campbell and Carly Fiorina. DeMint's endorsements in these races have certainly created a DeMint-vs.-NRSC storyline. But that storyline could very well take a hit if, say, the underdog Stutzman loses to Coats in the May 4 Indiana primary and loses by a LOT, which is VERY possible. Ditto if Norton beats Buck, and if DeVore loses to Campbell or Fiorina. Then again, DeMint would be viewed as a GOP kingmaker if one of these underdogs ends up winning in their primaries.

*** West Coast Mitt? Did anyone else know that Mitt Romney was living in California? The AP's Johnson writes, "Since losing his presidential bid in 2008, Romney has gone West Coast. It's part of a personal and political repositioning as he looks to avoid campaign trouble spots and reorder his life ahead of a second White House campaign in 2012. Romney not only sold his family home in Belmont, Mass., but he bought a house -- for $12 million -- in the northern San Diego community of La Jolla. He traded a snowy commute for early morning beach strolls amid the dog walkers. And he's become a familiar face at California political events, addressing the state Republican convention last month and campaigning on behalf of his former Bain Capital protege, Meg Whitman, a candidate for governor." 

*** Rubio under investigation? Down in Florida, while all the attention is on Charlie Crist -- will he run as an independent? Will he end his campaign? -- don't miss this story concerning Rubio and the entire state GOP: "Federal law enforcement agencies have launched a criminal investigation into the use of American Express cards issued by the Republican Party of Florida to elected officials and staff, according to sources familiar with the inquiry… Meanwhile, in a separate inquiry, the IRS is also looking at the tax records of at least three former party credit card holders -- former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, ex-state party chairman Jim Greer and ex-party executive director Delmar Johnson -- to determine whether they misused their party credit cards for personal expenses, according to a source familiar with the preliminary inquiry." This is a reminder that Rubio, despite his popularity with the GOP base, isn't that well known and not completely vetted. And it's not helpful to him in trying to woo indie voters in a general if attack ads can factually claim "under federal investigation."

*** Impacting the FL GOV race: By the way, this story is perhaps more damaging to the GOP when it comes to the gubernatorial race. Why? In Florida, the state parties are the conduit for running the general election campaigns. This investigation handcuffs the GOP. And this investigation doesn't JUST touch Rubio; it also touches Crist, since it was his handpicked chairman, Jim Greer, who was running the party when many of the expenses were incurred.

*** Why cutting budgets isn't easy: Yesterday, New Jersey voters went to the polls to decide on the budget in their school districts -- a routine vote that typically passes by large margins with voter turnout around 15%. This year, however, a majority of the budgets, 54%, were voted down, which hasn't happened since 1976. The vote brought a higher turnout, driven by Gov. Chris Christie's $820 million cut in aid across the state's 590 school districts. New Jersey has an almost $11 billion budget deficit, and the cuts are designed to help reduce state spending by 5%. But the vote's result demonstrates the difficulty of following a "cut first" path to a balanced budget, especially when those cuts come at the expense of children's education.

*** Super Senate Tuesday: Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (D), who faces off against primary challenger Joe Sestak (D) on May 18, on the appears on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown" this morning.

*** More midterm news: In Florida, John McCain -- who probably wouldn't have won the GOP presidential nomination without Charlie Crist's endorsement -- says he won't support Crist in his Senate race if he runs as an independent… In Indiana, the GOP Senate candidates last night participated in a debate where they largely agreed on the issues… And in Nevada, Harry Reid's campaign is pouncing on comments that Sue Lowden (R) made on a Nevada news show, where she touted a bartering system for health-care services…

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 13 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 20 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries, and PA-12 special: 27 days
Countdown to HI special election: 31 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 195 days

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