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First Thoughts: Political Undercurrent Penetrates Olympic Opening

<p>First Thoughts: With the beginning of the Olympics, some big political issues are just as prominent as the events.</p>
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With the Winter Olympics set to begin in Sochi, Russia, it’s worth noting how these games -- like other Olympics before them (1936, 1968, 1980, 1984) -- have become as much of a political story as an athletic one. For starters, there are the serious security concerns. Indeed, the United States has just publicly warned airlines with direct flights into Russia that explosives could be hidden in toothpaste tubes. Then there’s the story about gay rights (and the lack thereof in Russia), with the United States’ official delegation to the Olympics consisting of some well-known gay athletes. (Could this be something akin to the ’68 Games?) By the way, Billie Jean King will no longer be attending because of her mother’s failing health. And then there’s the political story of Vladimir Putin himself. These Olympic Games are Putin’s show, and no world leader has tried to poke the United States (and President Obama) in the eye more than Russia’s president -- not extraditing Edward Snowden, supporting the Assad regime in Syria, writing that much-talked-about New York Times op-ed. Putin has a lot on the line. Get ready for the Olympic Games, but also get ready for lots of political sidebars over the next three weeks.

House GOP running out of options on the debt ceiling

Returning to politics inside the United States, it appears that House Republicans are running out of options when it comes to demands for raising the debt ceiling. As NBC’s Frank Thorp reported yesterday, House GOP leaders decided they would NOT be able to get the 217 votes needed to pass a debt-limit increase with either 1) a repeal of the “risk corridors” in the health-care law, or 2) approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Washington Post adds that House Republicans are now mulling the ask of restoring some of the military cuts included in the recently passed budget deal. (So that’s a spending increase, though it would be offset by a corresponding cut.) But some House conservatives are suggesting that Republican leadership allow a vote on a clean debt-ceiling increase -- passed mostly with Democratic votes -- instead of being unable to deliver on something major in return. "The problem is we're going to tell the American people that we're fighting for all these great things and then we'll capitulate in the end, and that's what I don't want," Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) said yesterday, per Thorp.

A thaw in Obama’s relations with congressional Dems?

It’s more than fair to say that there’s been quite a bit of Democratic griping when it comes to the Obama White House’s congressional relations. Democratic members have complained they don’t hear enough from the president and his team. But after five years of griping, we can report (based on numerous conversations on the Hill) that members are saying the White House appears to be finally listening. Over the last six weeks, the president has given them more and more access (see yesterday’s appearance at the Senate Dem retreat); Obama’s new congressional liaison (Katie Fallon) has made a good first impression; and the addition of John Podesta as a counselor to the president has been a plus, these Democrats say. The biggest proof for these Democrats that the White House is listening? The president’s State of the Union; it was an agenda that the party on the Hill could rally around. What’s more, Obama has told members that he’s more than happy to stay away from their states and districts, if that helps them. As one Democratic senator told the Washington Post, "He said he knew he is not popular in some of the states, so he would not be offended if he were not invited to visit them this year. But he said he could be helpful in some parts of some states."

Democrats try to force Christie to give up his RGA chairmanship

Embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie today heads for a Republican Governors Association fundraising trip to Texas, and he travels to Chicago next week. And Democrats have one political goal with these trips -- trying to make life so miserable for Christie (and GOP governors) that he gives up his RGA chairmanship. The New York Times: “In the kind of scene that Democrats said would play out wherever Mr. Christie traveled this year, Texas party activists will hold a news conference denouncing him and linking his woes to the state’s leading Republican candidate for governor, Greg Abbott. The message to Republicans thinking of appearing with Mr. Christie: His problems will become your problems.” And as it turns out, Abbott will not be appearing with Christie during his swing through the Lone Star State.

Taking the political temperature in Colorado

Are Democrats seeing a pot bump? It’s just one poll, but yesterday’s Quinnipiac poll showing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s (D) approval rating up to 52% and him leading all his potential 2014 challengers (including Tom Tancredo, 48%-39% and Secretary of State Scott Gessler, 46%-40%) has to make Democrats feel a bit better about November. What accounts for these better numbers? A pot bump after the implementation of legalized marijuana? A year removed from the gun-control legislation? A statistical blip? As we’ve said before, Colorado -- a swing state Democrats have essentially owned since 2004 -- is a big political barometer for 2014 and beyond. Democrats holding on to the governorship, as well as Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-CO) Senate seat, would be a sign that the party is still well-positioned in this battleground state in the next presidential contest. But losing those races would be a big boost to the GOP. Despite these positive poll numbers for Hickenlooper, here are some that show that he’s not out of the woods: 45% of Colorado voters want him re-elected, and 45% don’t. If you’re an incumbent, you want that re-elect number closer to 50%. By the way, while this is the first public poll to show some Democratic recovery in this state, we’ve heard about some private polling showing similar Democratic gains. And again, the only intervening event has been the implementation of the pot referendum. It’s gone smoothly so far; and the folks we talk to are not sure they want to admit it’s a pot bump, but it may be the best explanation.

Ellmers reacts to Clay Aiken’s candidacy

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) says she welcomes former “American Idol” star Clay Aiken to the race for her congressional seat, but hopes that it doesn't come down to a sing-off if Aiken wins his primary, NBC’s Frank Thorp notes. "I hope that's not going to be the case, because I will surely lose," Ellmers joked to NBC News about the possibility of a sing-off between her and Aiken. Ellmers was confident with her standing in the district, which is heavily Republican, saying that Aiken "has just as much right to run for office as I did when I ran for office initially with no political background." Ellmers added to Thorp: "I welcome [Aiken] to the race… He'll have his hands full with a primary, I have a primary myself, and as things move along we'll see what happens in the general." Aiken, by the way, will appear on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” this morning.

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