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First Thoughts: Bridge-scandal story has only just begun

Bridge-scandal story has only just begun… Some Republicans are standing by Christie; others are raising questions… Dem NJ Congressman: HUD will audit post-Hurricane Sandy marketing campaign… Gates dials down his criticism of Obama, Hillary… Obama to outline NSA reforms on Friday… Health-care story has become much more manageable for the Obama administration… Iran deal takes effect on Jan. 20… McAuliffe begins his tenure as Virginia governor… And FL-13 primary is tomorrow.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gives a news conference in Trenton January 9, 2014.

*** Bridge-scandal story has only just begun: For New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, all the news and scrutiny he received last week wasn’t the beginning of the end of this George Washington Bridge scandal. Instead, it’s looking like only the end of the beginning. The Bergen Record reports that New Jersey Democrats plan to issue a new round of subpoenas as soon as today. “Assemblyman John Wisniewski said he plans to issue subpoenas demanding documents from the governor’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and spokesman Michael Drewniak, along with other aides whose names surfaced last week in documents related to the lane closures in early September.” Wisniewski even dropped the “I”-word -- impeachment. "The Assembly has the ability to do articles of impeachment" if necessary, said Wisniewski, who added, "We're way ahead of that, though.” (Still, mentioning the I-word only ratchets things up.) Other New Jersey mayors who DID NOT endorse Christie, like Hoboken’s Dawn Zimmer, are wondering if they were recipients of political retribution. “With 20/20 hindsight, in the context we're in right now, we can always look back and say, 'Okay, was it retribution?'” Zimmer said. “I think probably all mayors are reflecting right now and thinking about it, but I really hope that that's not the case.” And Christie will receive lots of attention when he travels to Florida later this week. “He's scheduled to visit next Saturday for a series of fund-raising appearances on behalf of the Republican Governors Association to benefit Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign,” the Miami Herald says

*** Some Republicans are standing by Christie, others are raising questions: On the Sunday shows, Republican politicians -- like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rudy Giuliani -- stood by Christie (though including the caveat “if he’s telling the truth”). And so are top Republican strategists in Iowa and New Hampshire, NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports. “‘At the end of the day, he's going to be just fine,’ said David Kochel, who led 2012 nominee Mitt Romney's efforts in Iowa. ‘He showed leadership. He held people accountable,’ said Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.” But there were other GOP and conservative voices acknowledging that the scandal is far from over. Here was former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, Christie’s political mentor: “On the one hand, I think he’s got a lot to offer. I think he’s the most able politician since Bill Clinton,” Kean (R) said in an interview with The Washington Post. “On the other hand, you look at these other qualities and ask, do you really want that in your president?” (So far, there’s no more devastating comment from any Republican than Kean’s comment. Of course, it’s worth noting, Kean’s son and Christie just recently clashed, so this is personal for him, too.) And on Sunday, conservative commentator George Will even compared this scandal to Watergate. And Maureen Dowd made this point over the weekend: Politicians usually will tell the “big lie” if they believe their futures are on the line. That’s the truly big danger here for Christie. At a time when the American public is so distrustful of politics and their politicians, will they give him the benefit of the doubt? 

*** Dem NJ Congressman: HUD will audit post-Hurricane Sandy marketing campaign: And here’s another potential headache for Christie, per NBC’s Frank Thorp: “According to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has told him they will audit a New Jersey tourism marketing campaign paid for with funds for Superstorm Sandy relief. The campaign, which prominently featured Governor Chris Christie and his family during an election year, cost $2 million more than a bid for an ad campaign that would have not featured the governor. According to a release from Pallone's office, the HUD inspector general has told him that ‘they have found enough evidence to justify a full-scale audit of the state's usage of the federal funds,’ which is expected to take months to complete.” 

*** Gates dials down his criticism of Obama, Hillary: Remember when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ book was the big news last week? Well, he appeared on “TODAY” -- wearing a neck brace (from a previous injury) -- and Gates largely walked back the critical tone that appeared in early reviews of his book. He called his accounts “even handed” and told NBC’s Matt Lauer: “I actually agreed with virtually every decision the president made on Afghanistan.” He also dialed down his recollection of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying she opposed the 2007 Iraq surge due to the ’08 presidential campaign. Gates said he recounted that because it was “such an anomaly” coming from Clinton, who he added never discussed domestic politics at any other time when they were working together. Gates also stated that that Obama’s opposition to the surge had never been political.  But Gates DID NOT dial down his statement that Vice President Joe Biden had been wrong about every foreign-policy issue over the past 40 years. “First of all, I think it’s fair to say that, particularly on Afghanistan, the Vice President, he and I were on opposite sides of the fence on this issue,” Gates told NPR. “And he was in there advising the president every day. He was, I think, stoking the President’s suspicion of the military. But the other side of it is, frankly, I believe it.”

*** Obama to outline NSA reforms on Friday: Other news to watch this week: President Obama will deliver his speech on reforming the NSA on Friday. “President Obama will deliver his highly anticipated speech on reforms to the National Security Agency on Jan. 17, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday,” the Washington Post says. “Carney did not elaborate on what the president will say when he outlines his vision for changes to the NSA’s vast surveillance activities. The address comes in the wake of disclosures from documents stolen by former government contractor Edward Snowden.” 

*** Health-care story has become much more manageable for the Obama administration: We’ve only had one full business week in the books, but so far, it appears 2014 is starting a lot better for the Obama administration when it comes to implementing health care than they could have hoped for. Before the Christie-Gates-NSA stories, remember health care? Well, that topic is still in the news, but it has become MUCH MORE MANGEABLE for the Obama administration. The critical stories that are popping up, but they all have to do with enrollment issues that seem to be largely in the rear view mirror. Here are two of the articles we saw over the weekend. One: “Gov. John Kitzhaber’s staff hastily ended his scheduled one-on-one interview with KATU News on Thursday morning barely four minutes after it had begun when KATU began asking about problems with Cover Oregon's website.” Two: “More than a year before Maryland launched its health insurance exchange, senior state officials failed to heed warnings that no one was ultimately accountable for the $170 million project and that the state lacked a plausible plan for how it would be ready by Oct. 1,” the Washington Post says. Those aren’t good stories for these Democrats, but they demonstrate how the Obama administration -- for now -- seems to be on much safer political ground that it was last month. Health care has a long way to go, but simply lowering the heat is a big deal right now for the White House.  

*** Iran deal takes effect on Jan. 20: Over the weekend, NBC’s Ali Arouzi confirmed that the limited nuclear agreement with Iran takes effect on Jan. 20. The New York Times has more: “Iran and a group of six world powers completed a deal on Sunday that will temporarily freeze much of Tehran’s nuclear program starting next Monday, Jan. 20, in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions. The main elements of the deal, which is to last for six months, were announced in November. But its implementation was delayed as negotiators worked out technical details.”  

*** McAuliffe begins his tenure as Virginia governor: The Times also covered Terry McAuliffe’s inauguration as Virginia governor, and the Clintons -- who attended the event -- were the obvious subtext. “But as Mr. McAuliffe delivered his address, with the Clintons seated in the row immediately behind their longtime friend, he made no mention of his political patrons. After winning, on his second try, the governorship of his adopted state in November, Mr. McAuliffe on Saturday seemed intent on showing that he was his own man.”  

*** FL-13 primary is tomorrow: And lastly, don’t forget that tomorrow is the special GOP congressional primary in the race to succeed the late Rep. Bill Young (R-FL). The race features former Young aide David Jolly and state Rep. Kathleen Peters, and the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman says that Jolly is the favorite to face off against Democrat Alex Sink in March.  

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