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First thoughts: Byrd passes away

Sen. Robert Byrd -- the longest-serving member of Congress -- passes away at the age of 92… His death could complicate the Democrats' math in the Senate… Kagan's SCOTUS hearing begins today at 12:30 pm ET… Previewing the GOP line of attack against her… Was the past week a turnaround for the White House, or a mirage of one (Friday's job numbers will be key in answering that question)?… Breaking down Obama's answers at yesterday's press conference (on the deficit/debt, Afghanistan, and Kagan)… And Giannoulias gets subpoenaed in Blago's corruption trial.

*** Byrd passes away: In the middle of the night, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D) -- the longest serving member of Congress (from 1953-2010) -- passed away. He was 92. And much like Ted Kennedy's death nearly a year ago, Byrd's passing complicates the math for Democrats in the Senate, at least temporarily. Democrats now have a 58-41 majority in the chamber, so two votes shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster. That could make passing the financial reform legislation -- which seemed more than likely this week, with President Obama hoping to sign it into law before July 4 -- a bit more difficult than first thought. It also might deny Elena Kagan an additional vote for her confirmation to the Supreme Court. Democratic West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin will have the ability to fill Byrd's seat, but it is unclear whether that replacement can serve out the remainder of Byrd's term (which is up in 2013), Politico writes. However, a Manchin adviser tells First Read that he doubts there will be a special election in November.

*** Kagan's big day: Speaking of Kagan, beginning today at 12:30 pm ET, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds its hearings on her bid to succeed John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, we'll see the opening remarks from the senators who sit on the committee, from Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown (who will introduce her), and then from Kagan. Tuesday and Wednesday feature the Q&A; and Thursday will bring us the witnesses who will testify for and against Kagan's nomination. But this won't be the only highly publicized confirmation hearing this week. On Tuesday, beginning at 9:30 am, the Senate Armed Services Committee holds its hearings on David Petraeus' nomination to be the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

*** Previewing the GOP attacks: On TODAY this morning, NBC's Pete Williams previewed the Kagan hearings, pointing out that although she was easily confirmed as U.S. solicitor general (Republicans Coburn, Collins, Gregg, Hatch, Kyl, Lugar, and Snowe voted for her), she'll face much tougher questions this week. Among them: Harvard Law School's policy towards military recruiters, her lack of judicial experience, her views on abortion and gun rights, and even her argument 15 years ago that the Supreme Court nomination hearings shouldn't be a "charade" and that nominees should offer up full and honest answers. The latest GOP attack on Kagan has been describing her as a "political adviser" and "political operative" for her work in the Clinton White House (though that work wasn't much different than Chief Justice John Roberts' work in the Reagan administration). Our latest NBC/WSJ poll showed 29% supporting Kagan's nomination, 23% opposing it, and 47% who didn't know enough to say -- meaning that this week's hearings are going to be important.

*** A turnaround or a mirage? What a difference a couple of weeks can make. After being besieged, first, by criticism of its handling of the Gulf spill and, then next, by criticism from Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Afghanistan, the White House begins this week with a pep in its step. This comes, of course, after President Obama fired McChrystal over the controversial comments he and his team made to Rolling Stone, replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus. And it comes after the House and Senate finalized an agreement on the financial reform legislation, with Congress expected to vote on this final package this week and with Obama expected to sign it into law before July 4 (yet that was before Byrd's passing. But this week's job report -- on Friday -- will bring us news that will determine if we're really seeing a turnaround of sorts for the White House, or if last week's relatively good news was an exception to what has been a difficult spring and summer. One other thing: Not only is there some pep in staffers' step, but there's a resignation that they know something unexpected is coming. And this may be a good thing for them; they seem to finally be in a comfortable rhythm for the unexpected.

*** 'I'm doing it because I said I was going to do it': In his press conference concluding his G-8/G-20 trip to Canada, President Obama gave this statement in response to a question about the steps his administration has taken/will take to reduce the deficit. He mentioned his call for a discretionary spending freeze, PAYGO, and his debt-reduction commission. And then he said this: "One of the interesting things that's happened over the last 18 months as president is, for some reason, people keep on being surprised when I do what I said I was going to do. So I say I'm going to reform our health care system and people think, well, gosh, that's not smart politics, maybe we should hold off. Or I say, we're going to move forward on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and somehow people say, well, why are you doing that, I'm not sure that's good politics. I'm doing it because I said I was going to do it… And people should learn that lesson about me, because next year when I start presenting some very difficult choices to the country, I hope some of these folks who are hollering about deficits and debt step up, because I'm calling their bluff."

*** Obama on Afghanistan: Also during yesterday's press conference, Obama gave this response about Afghanistan and when the U.S. will leave: "My focus right now is how do we make sure that what we're doing there is successful, given the incredible sacrifices that our young men and women are putting in. And we have set up a mechanism whereby we are going to do a review..., and that by next year we will begin a process of transition. That doesn't mean we suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us."

*** Obama on Kagan: And Obama was asked about Kagan's SCOTUS nomination. His answer: "I am absolutely confident that if you give a fair reading of Elena Kagan's record and her performance in every job that she's had, what you see is somebody with an extraordinarily powerful intellect; somebody with good judgment; somebody who understands the impact that laws have on individual Americans; somebody who is able to broker understandings between people of very difficult ideological bents… So as I examine some of the arguments that have been floated against her nomination over the last several weeks, it's pretty thin gruel. Having said that, I expect that my Republican colleagues and my Democratic colleagues should ask her tough questions, listen to her testimony, go through the record, go through all the documents that have been provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and then vote their conscience."

*** Americans' views on Israel: We had so many interesting numbers in our new NBC/WSJ poll that we didn't have time last week to talk about all of them. Today, we look at the American public's attitudes toward Israel after that country's raid on a flotilla headed for Gaza. In the poll, 61% -- an all-time high in the poll -- say they sympathize more with Israel than with Arab nations. Also, a plurality of 34% believe Israel's actions against that flotilla was justified, compared with 29% who say they weren't justified, and 32% who don't know.

*** Alexi and Blago: Turning to the midterms, Illinois Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias has said that Rod Blagojevich's attorneys "have subpoenaed him to testify at Blagojevich's corruption trial. Giannoulias said Sunday that he introduced a friend of President Barack Obama's to a union official. The friend, Valerie Jarrett, allegedly was Obama's choice to replace him in the Senate after he was elected president. Prosecutors say Blagojevich sought favors from the White House in return for Jarrett's appointment and delivered the message through the union official."

*** More midterm news: In Arizona, it was announced that John McCain and J.D. Hayworth will face off in back-to-back debates on July 16 and 17… In California, Carly Fiorina has launched an ethnic outreach tour… And in Massachusetts, Charles Baker (R) is gaining ground on Gov. Deval Patrick in that state's gubernatorial contest, pew a new Boston Globe poll.

Countdown to AL run-off: 15 days
Countdown to GA primary: 22 days
Countdown to OK primary: 29 days
Countdown to KS and MO primaries: 36 days
Countdown to CO and CT primaries: 43 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 127 days

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