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First Read's Morning Clips

A roundup of the most important news stories of the day

OBAMA AGENDA: Unity or split over Ukraine?

From the AP: "President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are trying for a public display of unity despite a potential split over arming Ukrainian fighters to wage a more effective battle against Russian-backed separatists. That was the unstated point of Monday's meeting at the White House, where Merkel was to brief Obama on upcoming talks aimed at reviving a peace plan for besieged Ukraine."

John Kerry said on NBC's Meet the Press that there's "no doubt" that the United States will send more aid to Ukraine. (But that was regarding economic aid, not military aid.)

Breaking overnight: "HSBC bank 'helped clients dodge millions in tax'"

From NBC News: “Afghan intelligence officials said they had killed a former Taliban commander who recently defected to ISIS on Monday, the first time the government has publicly acknowledged the extremist jihadi group's presence in the country.”

CONGRESS: GOP’s budget challenge

The Wall Street Journal writes that "the GOP will face a challenge negotiating a budget conservative enough to pass the House without proposing politically unpopular cuts that could cause heartburn for Senate Republicans, whose states often represent a broader political spectrum. Democrats in either chamber are unlikely to provide many, if any, votes for a budget used to map out GOP goals."

The Hill previews Obama's big Keystone veto.

OFF TO THE RACES: Wide open in Iowa

"Political observers in Iowa say that the field is wide open and that numerous candidates have a legitimate shot to win or do well enough to come out with momentum," writes the Washington Post. "That is partly because moderates in the Iowa Republican Party, led by Gov. Terry Branstad, have reasserted themselves into the caucus process after watching social conservatives dominate in 2008 and 2012."

Writes Ramesh Ponnuru in the New York Times: "Inequality does not appear to be an issue that moves voters, and even if it did, Republicans would not be able to come up with an agenda that does much to reduce it."

CARSON: Ben Carson told FOX News that he's eyeing setting up an exploratory committee this month and formally committing to a run in May.

CRUZ: On CNN Sunday, he said he's looking at 2016 "very, very seriously," and he shrugged off criticism from fellow Texan Rick Perry.

JINDAL: “Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is in Washington Monday to unveil a series of education reforms as part of his 2016 presidential preparations. But his proposals call for scaling back Washington's role in education while promoting increased parental choice for children's schools, better measures to assess teacher performance, and more autonomy for individual schools over their own operations,” writes National Journal.

PAUL: The New York Times: "As he works to build a broad national following, Mr. Paul is trying to stitch together very disparate worlds. There are those who are young, more affluent and likely to vote Democratic. There are the establishment, center-right elements of the Republican Party. And there are his most ardent libertarian fans who are no doubt more comfortable with the Busch-Light-and-blue-jeans sensibilities of the Ron Paul movement."

Rand Paul on his rough week: "You can say I’m thin-skinned or I’m just sometimes not happy if things aren’t reported accurately."

PERRY: From the Des Moines Register: "Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is exploring an Iowa caucus bid for the Republican presidential nomination, has joined the board of a company planning to build a controversial Bakken oil pipeline across 18 Iowa counties."

RUBIO: Marc Caputo writes for POLITICO about Marco Rubio's twice-weekly gig as a political science lecturer at Florida International University.

WARREN: The Working Families Party wants Elizabeth Warren to run for president.

And around the country…

ALABAMA: "Hours before Alabama was set to become the first state in the Deep South to legalize same-sex marriage, the state's top justice Sunday night ordered local judges to ignore federal court orders to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was not immediately clear what effect the order from Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy S. Moore might have – beyond tempting a constitutional showdown with federal courts who oversee the state, or a possible reprimand."

MASSACHUSETTS: The New York Times interviews Rep. Seth Moulton, a veteran who came to oppose American involvement in the Iraq War.

MICHIGAN: The Detroit Free Press delves into that story about the man who walks 21 miles to work. "Robertson's extreme commute is shocking and reflects a fundamentally broken mass-transit system. But his job? His job is the new normal in manufacturing. Globalization forces producers into a desperate, penny-for-penny competition for customers."

OREGON: The Oregonian: "A new batch of emails released Friday show Cylvia Hayes directed state employees how to implement a new policy while she was being paid $25,000 by an advocacy group to promote it. The emails appear to erase any doubt that, as first lady, Hayes was taking money in her private role and pushing the same policy in her public one. The governor's office has conceded only that Hayes' roles as first lady and policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber and as a private consultant put her in a gray area."

SOUTH CAROLINA: The State asks: "Gov. Nikki Haley is back in campaign mode, trying to win over skeptics of her hybrid income-tax cut and roads-funding plan. But can she legally spend money raised for her successful re-election bid last year to push the first major initiative of her second term?"


*** Thursday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the New York Times’ Mark Landler and Amy Chozick, the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, NBC’s Richard Engel and msnbc’s Amanda Sakuma.