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First Thoughts: Policy Fights Fly Around SCOTUS Hearings

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Beginning at 10:00 am ET today, the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in perhaps the most scrutinized -- and far-reaching -- case it has considered since the constitutionality of the health-care law in 2012 and the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. At issue today: Whether for-profit companies can refuse to offer certain mandated contraception coverage (under the health-care law) to its employees due to the owner’s religious beliefs. The case raises several fascinating questions. Are for-profit corporations capable of holding and expressing religious beliefs? (Cue Mitt Romney’s “Corporations are people, my friend.”) Or do those rights belong only to individuals? Hobby Lobby et al., says it will cover SOME contraception, just not all of them mandated by law; is that acting within the law as written? If corporations can object to providing some contraception for their employees, could they also object to denying services to gay Americans (because being gay is contrary to their beliefs)? Could they also object to providing immunizations (if they’re Christian Scientists)? What about employees who might not agree with the employers’ religious beliefs? And are contraceptives like the morning-after pill really the equivalent of abortion? What’s also striking here is that the right is using legislation that Bill Clinton signed into law (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) to push its case, while the left is using Antonin Scalia (who authored a majority opinion in 1990 stating that invoking religious liberty is insufficient grounds for being exempt from laws). The Supreme Court will likely issue its ruling in June.

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Weighing the politics of the court’s ultimate decision

If the court rules that for-profit companies should be allowed to be exempt from the contraception mandate, that COULD be something Democrats and the left could politically capitalize on. Remember, the contraception issue has been an important one for the party, especially among swing female voters. On the flip side, if the court rules that companies shouldn’t be exempt, it’s hard to see the right get more fired up about the health-care law than it already is. Bottom line: There may be more to gain for the left by losing than by the right for losing. (And yes, politically, losing on issues before the Supreme Court can be more galvanizing than winning.)

NBC/WSJ poll: Majority opposes allowing employers to opt out of contraception mandate

By the way, the most recent NBC/WSJ poll found a majority of Americans -- 53% -- opposed to allowing employers to opt out from the health-care law's contraception requirement, versus 41% who think they should be exempt. There are some revealing differences here by age, political party, and religion on this question. By a 49%-to-40% margin, seniors believe employersSHOULD BEexempt from the contraception requirement. In contrast, those ages 18-34 say businesses SHOULD NOT BE exempt by a 62%-to-33% margin. What’s more, 72% of Democrats say employers should not be exempt, versus 59% of Republican who say they should be. And among those who say religion is the single-most important thing in their lives, 70% say employers should be exempt. That’s compared with 79% of those who say religion isn’t important to them believe employers should not be exempt.

Obama gets what he needs (barely) out of the G-7

It’s Day 2 of President Obama’s overseas trip, and so far he’s gotten what he needed from the G-7 on Russia and Ukraine -- but barely. In addition to the symbolic move to host a G-7 meeting in Brussels in June (instead of a G-8 meeting in Sochi, Russia), Europeans have promised to come down with hard-hitting sanctions on Russia IF it goes any further. But there are no new punishments for the status quo (that is, Russia’ annexation of Crimea). In other words, the United States and Europe have the guillotine ready to go if Russia goes any further. But the guillotine isn’t going to be used for the most recent offense. As far as today’s schedule for Obama, he holds a joint press conference with the Netherlands’ prime minister at 11:00 am ET, and then he departs for Brussels later in the day.

Calling for an end to the NSA program is different than Congress being able to pass it

Don’t be surprised if this headline -- via the New York Times -- is a question Obama gets today, especially given the attention the issue has received from European audiences: “Obama to Call for End to N.S.A.’s Bulk Data Collection.” From the story: “Under the proposal, [senior administration officials] said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.” This is actually something the president hinted at in his speech in January on NSA reforms; he’s just now formally endorsing the phone company option. But here’s the catch: The administration wants Congress to ultimately decide this, so everyone owns a piece of the reform. And as we’ve seen, getting the most of basic things through the current Congress is no easy task. What’s more, this issue has grand-standing written all over it -- and the more it becomes a political football, the less likely anything gets agreed to. In the meantime? A senior official tells NBC News, the president will continue to sign the order every 90 days allowing the NSA to collect and store this meta-data; nothing changes until Congress acts.

Why reporters shouldn’t focus only on the overall enrollment number

With the March 31 health-insurance deadline now less than a week away, the folks at the Kaiser Family Foundation have an important reminder for all reporters covering the number of Americans enrolled on the exchanges: Just looking at the topline number doesn’t tell the whole story. “While it is true that the greater the number of enrollees the higher the likelihood of a balanced risk pool, six million is not a magic number,” Kaiser says. “How about the percentage of young people? Everyone seems focused on that. Young people benefit the risk pool because they are healthier, but it’s really the percentage of healthy people that make or break the risk pool.” Also: “Under the law risk is pooled at the state level, so what matters is the risk profile in each state and there will be variation across the country with more and less balanced risk pools in different states.” So while many of us are fixated on the topline number -- “Will they reach 6 million?” “Fall short?” -- true success is a much more complicated story.

“Cause, you know, whatever”?

A day later, we assume likely New Hampshire Senate candidate-to-be Scott Brown is regretting his answer to a question if a former Massachusetts senator (and resident) is ready for the challenge to represent New Hampshire. "Do I have the best credentials? Probably not. 'Cause, you know, whatever. But I have long and strong ties to this state," he told the AP. "People know." The AP goes on to say that Brown lived in New Hampshire until he was a year and half before his family moved to Massachusetts. Brown is someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. That paid dividends for him in 2010, but it also didn’t exactly work out in 2012, and it appears to be hurting him early in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent poses a different question for Brown: Does he support or oppose the Medicaid expansion that New Hampshire is considering? So far, there’s been no answer. “If Brown says he opposes the expansion, that would put him at odds with Republicans in the state who support it and allow Dems to argue he would take health coverage away from tens of thousands,” Sargent writes. “But if he supports the expansion, that would put him at odds with some national Republicans.” It’s a VERY tough issue for a moderate like Brown.

Profiling Mississippi’s Cochran-McDaniel primary

NBC’s Kasie Hunt traveled to Mississippi to profile the June GOP primary between Sen. Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel. Here are some of her exchanges with the two candidates:

NBC: Your opponent has criticized you for saying that you weren't sure what the Tea Party was?

COCHRAN: [Laughs] I said I didn't know much about 'em. They were just getting a lot of visibility all of a sudden, and people asked what I thought about 'em and I said, I didn't know much about it. I didn't.

NBC: What do you make of Sen. Ted Cruz? Has he been a positive influence in the Senate?

COCHRAN: There've been ups and downs. [Laughs] He's very active and engaged. I think he brings ideas that we need to stop and listen to and to consider.

NBC: Can you identify any areas where you disagree with the Club for Growth?

MCDANIEL: I can probably identify 20 areas I disagree with my wife on.

NBC: But the Club for Growth?

MCDANIEL: Yeah, I mean we’re not all lock-step in this movement, but we all believe in certain core principles… But no, I can’t think of any group I march lock-step with. I can’t imagine.

NBC: And yet you don’t have any specific examples of ways --

MCDANIEL: You don’t, you don’t lockstep. I mean there’s probably a lot.

Dan Snyder and a lesson in PR

Finally, we end on a sports note, but it’s a lesson in PR and crisis communication: If you’re going to extend an olive branch to your critics, be sure it’s a branch that those critics want. USA Today: “In a surprising move on Tuesday night, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder published a letter online to “Washington Redskins Nation” in which he wrote about traveling to different Native American communities and learning about the struggles of Native Americans in this country, and announced a new foundation that will provide money and support to Native American tribes... Critics on Twitter responded quickly and severely to the letter, with many saying the launch of the foundation looked like an attempt by Snyder to buy his way out of trouble with the problematic name.” The letter clearly was written (and over-written) by consultants; it’s so blatant, it would probably make the most poll-tested politician blush.

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