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First Thoughts: The politics of Newtown -- one month later

The politics of Newtown -- one month later… Colin Powell defends Hagel and also blasts the GOP… Hagel to meet with Schumer this week (and possibly as early as today)… Spare some change? Obama administration nixes the platinum coin idea… Taking a more in-depth look at Hagel’s “Jewish lobby” remark… No Labels holds confab in NYC… And Booker vs. Lautenberg.

As Vice President Joe Biden prepares to unveil proposals on gun violence this week, details are trickling out about some of the likely recommendations. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** The politics of Newtown -- one month later: It was just a month ago today when the country learned about the shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown CT. And today, Vice President Biden meets with Democratic lawmakers before he’s expected to present the Obama administration’s recommendations on guns, violence, and mental health on Tuesday. So what has changed -- politically -- in a month since Newtown? For starters, for the first time since Al Gore lost in 2000, you’ve had a sustained conversation about what the government can do regarding gun violence. That is a difference. Also, you’ve seen the Democratic Party coalesce around gun control more than it ever has before, and it will be a litmus test in the 2016 Democratic primary (see Andrew Cuomo and Martin O’Malley). On the other hand, the National Rifle Association seems like less of a bipartisan organization than it did a month ago. (Remember, interest groups, like AIPAC, are often more powerful when they have bipartisan appeal.) But here’s what hasn’t changed in the month since Newtown: the likelihood of passing real gun reform. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) epitomizes this. Immediately after Newtown, Manchin made headlines for calling for everything to be on the table. Now? He’s backing down ever so slightly. “An assault weapons stand-alone ban on just guns alone will not, in the political reality that we have today, will not go anywhere,” he said on CNN yesterday, per NBC’s Sarah Blackwill.

The families of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as other Newtown, Conn., community members, are demanding change. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

*** UPDATE *** Manchin's office responds to First Read: "Since the tragic shooting in Newtown, Sen. Manchin has not wavered: he believes this country needs to have a conversation where we put everything on the table in a comprehensive way to change the culture of mass violence. If anyone believes there's one cause or one solution to mass violence, they're wrong. So Sen. Manchin has introduced a bill with his colleague John McCain to establish a Commission on Mass Violence, and he has encouraged the vice president to include this commission in his recommendations to the president, so everyone can come to the table."

*** Is air leaking out of the gun-control balloon? The White House is serious about making a push for some new gun laws, with universal background checks serving as the likely centerpiece of what the president asks Congress to pass when guns are brought up at the State of the Union. But you also get the sense that the air is leaking ever-so-slightly out of this balloon that is called gun control -- as those advocating new government regulations start accepting the political realities on Capitol Hill. The wild card here: the victim groups. Just like the 9/11 widows, they could become a powerful force that does move public opinion.

*** Powell: “I think the GOP is having an identity problem”: Colin Powell yesterday appeared on “Meet the Press” to defend Chuck Hagel nomination’s to be defense secretary. But he did more than defend Hagel; he used his appearance to issue a scathing indictment of much of the Republican Party. “I think the Republican Party right now is having an identity problem, and I'm still a Republican… But in recent years, there's been a significant shift to the right, and we have seen what that shift has produced: two losing presidential campaigns.” More Powell: “Everybody wants to talk about, ‘Who's going to be the candidate?’ You've got to think first about what's the party actually going to represent? If it's just going to represent the far right wing of the political spectrum, I think the party is in difficulty. I'm a moderate, but I'm still a Republican. That's how I was raised. And until I voted for Mr. Obama twice, I had voted for seven straight Republican presidents.” Conservatives would argue that moderates like Powell have been the problem, because they have abandoned the party’s conservative principles. Conservatives would also argue that Colin Powell attacking the GOP is not “new”(s); he’s been doing it for some time. But the fact is, conservatives shouldn’t fully bury their head in the sand on Powell and take comfort that he’s never been a reliable supporter of the party. Sure, he lives in the Acela Corridor, and Republicans in the DC-NY nexus are more moderate than the rank-and-file of the party. But realize: Powell has cachet with “center” of American politics, and there seems to be a growing number of moderate Republicans like Powell, Huntsman, Hagel, Scowcroft, Bloomberg who all say some form of the same thing about the GOP -- it doesn’t represent the mainstream. That’s not healthy for the GOP if it hopes to win a presidential election anytime soon.

*** Hagel to meet with Schumer: Yet most of Powell’s appearance was focused on defending Hagel, another Republican. “I think he gets confirmed. I think he's ultimately superbly qualified, based on his overall record, based on his service to the country, based on how he feels about troops and veterans and families. I think he will do a great job as secretary of defense. And I think, in his confirmation hearings, all of these issues that you've raised, that others have raised, he will be prepared to deal with.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Hagel is set to meet this week -- and perhaps as early as today -- with Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has emerged as the Democrat most skeptical about Hagel’s nomination. “Mr. Schumer has told aides and other senators that he could be persuaded to support Mr. Hagel depending on the meeting’s outcome. Mr. Hagel’s nomination has been met with suspicion, and even outright hostility, among Republicans and Democrats who are strongly aligned with Jewish groups. Mr. Schumer plans to ask Mr. Hagel to clarify and in some ways recant statements about Iran and Israel, according to a person with knowledge of the senator’s plans for the meeting.” Schumer has the power to ensure Hagel’s confirmation, but does he have the power to kill it? He might but it’s an open question as to whether Schumer would want to spend the political capital it would take to kill Hagel’s nomination.

*** Spare some change? In addition to the Biden task force and Hagel’s nomination, the other big story is the latest fiscal debate (over the debt ceiling and possible government shutdown). And over the weekend, the Obama administration took the $1 trillion platinum coin off the table. “Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit,” Treasury spokesman Anthony Coley said in a statement. The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn explains that position is more than defensible. “You can safely assume West Wing officials worried that a protracted debate about the coin's propriety was going to make their job more difficult, not less, by interfering with their ability to portray the debate in simple, straightforward terms.” But Cohn also ask that without the coin (or the 14th amendment), how does the Obama White House promise not to negotiate over the debt ceiling?

*** On Hagel’s “Jewish lobby” remark: Speaking of Hagel and with his confirmation hearings likely to take place after the inauguration, First Read will be taking a deeper look at the biggest controversies surrounding his nomination to be defense secretary. Our first entry: Hagel’s “Jewish lobby” remark. The line comes from a 2006 interview with former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. Again, I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel. I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel,” he said. Later in the interview, Hagel added, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator… I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States – not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that. Now I know most senators don’t talk like I do.”

*** Offensive or just poor word choice? Critics have seized on “Jewish lobby,” because the lobbying organization to which he was referring -- the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) -- doesn’t solely consist of Jews and not every American Jew supports Israel. As Powell noted on “Meet the Press,” Chuck should have said Israeli lobby, and not Jewish lobby.” But Hagel isn’t the first person who has used that term. Some, like the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, have said the remark was offensive. “Prejudice—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element.” Others, like writer Peter Beinart, aren’t offended. “So yes, the groups that lobby for America to support the policies of the Israeli government are substantially, but not exclusively, composed of Jews… Hagel was imprecise. Call the Anti-Defamation League.”

*** Just say “No” (Labels): The centrist group No Labels is holding a conference in New York intended “to attract members of Congress and lawmakers from across the political spectrum who want compromise after a lengthy campaign season put Washington in a virtual holding pattern,” the AP reports. The group has announced that Dem Sen. Joe Manchin and failed GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman will serve as national leaders of the organization, and they will join “about a dozen members of Congress … to band together under the ‘No Labels’ alliance that aims to put governing over political orthodoxy.”

*** Booker vs. Lautenberg: Fair or not, Newark Mayor Cory Booker is creating the unmistakable impression he’s trying to muscle current Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) from his job -- well before the seat is up in 2014. Back in December, Booker released a video stating he was eyeing Lautenberg’s Senate seat. Then last week, he filed a statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission to begin laying the groundwork for a bid. And this is all taking place before the 89-year-old Lautenberg has officially announced his plans for 2014 (most assume he will retire). Asked on “Meet the Press” if he has handled this with respect, Booker replied, “This is really early. We've reached out to [Lautenberg]. We even had a trip down here to speak with him, but he wasn't able to speak… This campaign is over a year away… But for me to do a good exploration, to do diligence for running, I have to file that paper.” But here’s the thing: Giving that the filing deadlines for 2014 aren’t even on the state’s election-division website, Booker has PLENTY of time to wait on Lautenberg to make his decision before filing his paperwork with the FEC.

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