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First Thoughts: Drones take center stage

Drones to take center stage at Brennan hearing … Strange bedfellows in defense of drones … Republicans get delay of Hagel vote ... Rubio to deliver SOTU response ... What’s behind Chris Christie talking so much about his weight … What does Jeb Bush’s trying to buy the Marlins say about his presidential aspirations? … Another Menendez shoe drops … Obama to National Prayer Breakfast, then huddles with House Democrats.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

John Brennan, nominee for CIA Director, arrives at a meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill, Jan. 31, 2013.

*** Drones take center stage: President Obama’s pick to head the CIA, John Brennan – the current White House counter-terrorism adviser -- hits Capitol Hill today for what’s likely to be a contentious confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee at 2:30 pm ET. Brennan is certainly going to get tough questions, especially from Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, but what could be more remarkable is we’re likely to learn more about America’s drone war in a public setting than we ever have before. It may be technically a confirmation hearing for Brennan, but he will also be up there defending America’s drone program, as someone who’s worked in both of the last two administrations, for both a Democrat and a Republican. Other items are sure to come up, including torture (remember, that’s what scuttled Brennan’s potential confirmation for the same job in 2009); Benghazi; and the issue of accusation Republicans circulated last year accusing Brennan and others of leaking some national security nuggets to politically help the president.

*** The surprising lack of congressional outrage: Contention aside, it’s likely Brennan will be confirmed. But the White House, by saying last night it would brief Congress on the classified legal justifications of the targeted killing of Americans, made a decision not to have a confrontation -- mostly with Democrats. Wyden on TODAY this morning called the move a “step in the right direction.” What’s been surprising about this entire episode has been the lack of outrage from Congress. Don’t they want the administration to have to justify their actions even in AFTER-action settings? It’s amazing that it took Brennan’s confirmation hearing to convince the White House to allow even a FEW members of Congress to read the ACTUAL legal memos and not just a “white paper.”

*** Political whiplash: You’ll be forgiven if you’ve had political whiplash with Republicans defending Obama on the issue. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and even ex-Bush U.N. Amb. John Bolton gave full-throated defenses of Obama’s use of drones even in the targeting of American citizens-turned-al Qaeda operatives. Graham yesterday said, per NBC's Kasie Hunt, that he was "totally supportive” of the actions. Bolton called it “entirely sensible” and “derived from the Bush administration approach to the War on Terror.” This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. This is an Executive branch vs. Legislative branch issue. There are still important and serious questions to be asked about the United States use and increased use a program that can catch (and has caught) civilians in the line of fire. But the big difference between this and, say, the political opposition to the torture memos is you had prominent voices on the right opposing this (John McCain), who were feeding the media back in the day. It’s not like Hillary Clinton is sitting in the Senate criticizing the drone program. That’s essentially what McCain did to Bush. But, as we learned then and see now, the public also seemed to overwhelmingly favor the use of drones overseas to target terrorists. In a Washington Post/ABC poll last year, 83% said they approved; it’s when they’re used domestically that people start to have privacy concerns.

*** Republicans get their Hagel delay: Republicans yesterday pushed for a delay of Chuck Hagel’s committee confirmation vote. And they got it. A vote was supposed to take place today, but it was put off by Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) to try and answer Republicans’ questions over Hagel’s finances, speeches, and even a 2007 sexual harassment claim between staffers in Hagel’s office that didn't involve Hagel. (Hagel's former chief of staff said she'd handled the matter, and the senator was never informed of it.) All indications have been that Hagel has the votes, but delay’s never a good thing, especially when some many Democrats are quietly more nervous today about Hagel than they were before because of his shaky confirmation hearing performance. Any delay can create uncertainty. This may be just Levin trying to keep his committee in check. By the way, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on the attacks in Benghazi today before Armed Services at 10:00 am ET with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. Last week, Graham threatened to put a hold on Hagel’s confirmation vote until Panetta testified on Benghazi. Well, Panetta’s testifying today…

*** Rubio to deliver GOP State of the Union response: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), widely thought to be considering a 2016 presidential bid, will deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Tuesday. In his remarks, "he'll likely mention immigration, but it won’t be the focus of the speech," an aide told First Read. "His speech will focus on the Republican Party’s agenda to grow the middle class. Immigration will likely be mentioned as one way to grow the economy, but the speech really is about the Republican Party’s commitment to limited government as the best way to help the middle class, and how it differs from the President’s plans for bigger government." Rubio will speak in both Spanish and English. Considering what issues are at the forefront and what problems the GOP is facing, as they try and rebuild their brand, picking Rubio to do this is a no-brainer.

*** History hasn’t always been kind to State of the Union responders: Nothing is harder than following a president. So this is not without risk for Rubio. State of the Union responses haven’t been so kind to presidential aspirants. Here are just the last few:

2012: Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN)
2011: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)
2010: Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA)
2009: Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA)
2008: Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS)
2007: Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA)
2006: Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA)
2005: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)
2004: Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

So counting Rubio, four of the five Obama State of the Union responders look like a 2016 Iowa caucus lineup: Rubio, Ryan, McDonnell, Jindal. But the last eventual party nominee to deliver a response was Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) in 1996. And the last person to deliver one and go on to be president was Bill Clinton in 1985 when he was governor of Arkansas. By the way, Rubio will be the first senator to deliver the response since Webb in 2007. Six of the last 10 have been governors.

*** What’s behind Christie’s ‘healthiest fat guy you’ve ever seen in your life’ push: We’ve seen a lot of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) this week, talking about -- and joking about -- his weight. We also saw him get serious in a back and forth with an Arizona doctor – and former White House doctor – who suggested Christie lose weight because she’s afraid he’d die in office. Christie took offense. It makes for good cable fodder, but let’s not miss the bigger picture. Why did this topic come up? Christie decided to bring it up. This is about Christie trying to confront, ON HIS TERMS, what would be one of his biggest obstacles if he launches a presidential bid in 2016. He knows this is a hurdle; he knows it’s not an insignificant one. The biggest thing is he has changed his tone on this, becoming much more open about it, even hinting that he’s on a program and that people would notice if it’s working relatively soon. As late as last year, Christie’s standard response was essentially: my weight is my business, period. Not anymore. If you needed a hint that Christie is trying to get it together to run for president, this is it. There’s every chance Christie can use his battle with weight issues to connect to average Americans. It’s something everyone can relate to. But Christie has to look like he DOES care about this issue. And this week, he’s done a 180 and indicated he cares.  

*** Just asking…: …but doesn’t the fact that Jeb Bush THIS OFFSEASON made a “large offer,” to try and buy the Miami Marlins baseball team, send a signal he’s not all that interested in running for president? Trying to buy a baseball team doesn’t exactly say your focus is prepping for a presidential run…Then again, the Marlins never actually “sold” the Marlins to its current owner. They “gave” him the team (but that’s a rant for one of us that we’ll save for Twitter!).

*** Menendez watch: The Washington Post: “Sen. Robert Menendez raised concerns with top federal health-care officials twice in recent years about their finding that a Florida eye doctor — a close friend and major campaign donor — had overbilled the government by $8.9 million for care at his clinic, Menendez aides said Wednesday. Menendez (D-N.J.) initially contacted federal officials in 2009 about the government’s audit of Salomon Melgen, complaining to the director overseeing Medicare payments that it was unfair to penalize the doctor because the billing rules were ambiguous, the aides said.” This has always been the danger for Menendez. It’s not the story about prostitutes as much as it could become more about these other stories.

*** Obama's day: President Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast before heading to Northern Virginia to speak at the House Democrats’ Retreat in Leesburg, Va.

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