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First Thoughts: Democrats poised to deploy the 'nuclear option'

Senate Democrats poised to deploy “nuke option” to get up-or-down votes on Obama’s judicial nominees… Debating the residual forces in Afghanistan… Christie takes over the RGA reins… The GOP governors’ rebranding efforts… Q-Poll: Crist leads Scott by 7 points in Florida… Q-Poll also shows Dem struggles in Colorado… Mary Cheney on sister Liz’s candidacy: “I am not saying I hope she loses to Enzi”… And cocaine is a hell of a drug: Radel takes a leave of absence. But will GOP leaders drop the hammer?

Chuck Todd explains how the change in the Senate's filibuster rules could clear the way for several of Obama's judicial nominees.

*** Senate Democrats poised to deploy “nuke option”: It’s true in physics and in politics: For every action, there’s an opposite and equal reaction. And so after Senate Republican filibustered President Obama’s nominees to sit on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals -- not on concerns about ideology or qualifications, but over the president’s ability to appoint ANYONE to these vacancies -- Senate Democrats are poised to change the rules via the so-called “nuclear option.” And while this may seem like a threat you’ve heard before, this time it seems as if there isn’t any deal that will derail this likely action. Senate Democratic aides confirm to First Read that they’re expected to vote today to change the rules to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for all executive appointments, except to the U.S. Supreme Court. Such a move requires just a 51-vote majority, so Democrats could lose four of their colleagues and still win the vote. Senate Republicans counter that if Democrats go through with this change, they’ll reciprocate the next time they control the White House and the Senate -- including for Supreme Court picks. “If [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] changes the rules for some judicial nominees, he is effectively changing them for all judicial nominees, including the Supreme Court,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said yesterday, per the Washington Post. But Harry Reid believes he does have 51 votes, especially since he convinced Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to climb on board this nuke-option train. She had been an influential holdout in the past.

*** Debating the residual forces in Afghanistan: The other big story today is out of Afghanistan. “Afghanistan's president said he backs a security deal with the United States but told a gathering of elders on Thursday that if they and parliament approve the agreement it should be signed after next spring's elections,” USA Today writes. As we wrote yesterday, it’s not surprising that the U.S. will keep a residual force in Afghanistan -- to train Afghan troops and as an important anti-terrorism outpost so close to Pakistan. But what has been surprising is the growing left-right coalition that’s opposed to such action. Just check out this joint statement yesterday from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rand Paul (R-KY), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Mark Begich: “It is long past time to end the longest war in American history and bring our sons and daughters home. The American people deserve to weigh in and Congress should vote before we decide to commit massive resources and thousands of troops to another decade in Afghanistan. These are resources that could be used here at home creating jobs, improving education, and cutting the deficit.” Of course, this is the same left-right coalition we saw during the Syria and NSA debates. But it’s a growing coalition in the Senate, perhaps big enough to represent a majority if public opinion is with them, which right now it appears to be the case.

*** Christie takes over the RGA reins: It’s the second and final day of the Republican Governors Association conference in Arizona, where New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) takes over the reins of the group for next year’s gubernatorial races. As Christie told NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell covering the meeting in Arizona: "I'm getting good responses from donors and from my fellow governors. So I'm looking forward to it and its going to be a great year. Thirty-six races – it’s gonna be fun." Christie on whether his colleagues are urging him to look beyond 2014: "Oh nooooo, everyone here is laser focused, Kelly, on 2014. So no one even mentions anything else.” And Christie on his No. 1 priority: "Elect and re-elect Republican governors. That's priority one, two and three, that's it. When you're chairman of this organization that's it.”

*** The GOP governors’ rebranding effort: What’s also evident at the RGA meeting is the effort by GOP governors to rebrand the Republican Party. Their message: We’re the folks focused on solving problems in a conservative way; we’ve put conservative ideas into action; and we’re not as focused on President Obama and Washington as our Hill Republican colleagues. But that’s an easier thing for them to do since the Tea Party is MUCH more focused on federal races (for president, Senate, House) than gubernatorial ones. Just look at this web video that one of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) conservative rivals is running against him in South Carolina. If you’re Christie or another Republican governor, you’ve never had to deal with the Tea Party base the same way someone like Lindsey Graham has. But that will change as soon as you run for president.

*** Poll: Crist leads Scott in Florida: Now as RGA chairman, Christie will focus on a race like this one -- Charlie Crist (D) leads Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) by seven points among registered voters, 47%-40%, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. What’s more, Scott’s approval rating is just 42%. As we wrote yesterday, Florida is one of the GOP’s most vulnerable seats in 2014. But the good news for Republicans: The wealthy Scott has millions and millions to spend. And while Scott’s poll numbers aren’t good, they continue to incrementally get better; he’s very vulnerable but still not as vulnerable, for instance, as Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett.

*** Rocky Mountain High -- or Low? Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac poll released earlier in the week shows that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) has some work to do to win re-election next year. Per the survey, only 42% said the Democrat deserves to be re-elected in 2014. That said, his approval rating -- at 48%-46% -- is higher, and he leads his potential GOP rivals in hypothetical matchups (but gets below the 50% that’s always safer for an incumbent). In addition, Quinnipiac found Sen. Mark Udall (D), also up for re-election in 2014, leading Ken Buck (R) by three points in a potential matchup, 45%-42%. Bottom line: Democrats have dominated Colorado since 2004. But the early polling suggests they’ll have to fight tooth and nail to keep it that way in 2014. Ever since Hickenlooper pushed on gun control, Democrats have found themselves in a tougher political climate, but some Democrats are convinced this latest downturn for them is more about health care than guns.

*** Mary Cheney on sister Liz’s candidacy: “I am not saying I hope she loses to Enzi”: In the latest in the Cheney-vs.-Cheney family feud, Politico’s Jason Zengerle gets these comments from Mary Cheney on her sister’s Senate bid in Wyoming. “In a series of emails to me this week, as the news of her break with her sister spread, Mary wrote, ‘I’m not supporting Liz’s candidacy.’ She later clarified: ‘By supporting, I mean not working, not contributing, and not voting for (I’m registered in Virginia not Wyoming).’ The best she could say of the sister who was once her close friend and confidante was a final postscript: ‘I am not saying I hope she loses to Enzi.’”

*** Cocaine is a hell of a drug: Finally, as NBC’s Frank Thorp reported last night, Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) said he was taking a leave of absence and donating his salary to charity after pleading guilty to possession of cocaine. The question is if the GOP leadership drops the hammer on Radel. Remember, GOP leaders forced ex-Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY) to resign after his racy photos. Why not the same for cocaine charges?

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