First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Rand Paul's Sunday night rally
The Senate officially convened on Sunday evening for votes on the Patriot Act, but the session essentially served as a campaign rally for Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator gets to notch a win this morning after his blockade in the Senate halted the renewal of the National Security Agency's authority to collect telephone metadata, starting at midnight last night. As a presidential candidate in need of grabbing attention, shoring up support from libertarian-leaning voters and expanding his fundraising base, it was a very successful night for him - and he's sure to declare victory over an establishment that miscalculated the country's mood on surveillance issues. Paul's problem: His ultimate position isn't going to win. The Senate is poised to pass the USA Freedom Act within a few days, which would maintain the metadata collection but move responsibility for the storage of the information to phone companies. That's hardly a slam dunk for Team Paul.
But the fight's not over yet
Yes, the USA Freedom Act strikes a middle ground that's amenable to most Republicans and the Obama administration, and yes, it's expected to pass later this week. But this fight ain't over yet. It's not yet clear that phone companies will be happy to comply with a law that's going to require subpoenas and lots of legal debate; after all, their customers are the same public that's dramatically shifted in its view of the balance between civil liberties and national security in the past decade or so. It's good PR for the phone companies to fight for more clarification, citing the privacy rights of their consumers. Just because the headlines this week will show that the bill has passed won't mean that everything's hunky-dory here. There are a lot more details to work out on how this will work in the real world. Why wouldn't a telecom company be incentivized, at least as a marketing stunt, to publicly fight the government mandate on holding on to their customers' metadata?
Enter Lindsey Graham
And speaking of Rand Paul, Sen. Lindsey Graham officially jumps into the presidential race this morning. Graham's candidacy is hardly a subtle counterpoint to Paul's libertarian push -- it's clear that this run is born primarily out of stopping Rand Paul and others from pushing the party even further away from the hawkishness that defines folks like Graham and John McCain. The South Carolina senator believes that no one is defending his foreign policy positions, and he's certainly got the credentials and rhetorical skill to potentially kick Paul down a few notches. But a candidate whose greatest tool is the zinger one-liner could miss his best chance to use it if he doesn't qualify for the GOP debates where he'd share a stage with his foil. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham each need each other in their own way as a sparring partner, but will they both make it to a level playing field for the fight?
The other Graham factor is the Palmetto State
The other big aspect of the Graham candidacy is how it impacts South Carolina. Does it drive some candidates away? Does Graham specifically hurt someone like Jeb Bush who likely shares a similar establishment-like supporter base in the Palmetto State? Graham may not be mistaken for a front-runner any time soon, but he could have an outsized impact if only for how he scrambles the math in South Carolina.
If you have to say it…
If you complain in the New York Times that you're having trouble fundraising, it's a pretty transparent all-call to the donors who read the paper that they need to start opening their wallets. In the New York Times this weekend, a pretty blatant call for Hillary Clinton SuperPAC donors: "In planning sessions and one-on-one meetings with donors, Mr. Ickes, who is a Priorities USA board member, and other Clinton supporters are discussing how to raise as much as $300 million for Democratic outside groups… This ambitious goal will require the emergence of a new class of at least 20 Democratic donors who can give $5 million or even $10 million each." Team Clinton wouldn't be going public if they felt they were building the support they needed to compete against the GOP side, which Democrats argue has a deeper bench of politically-active billionaires willing to pick a horse and shell out big bucks. Also, don't miss Maureen Dowd, who describes the pro-Hillary movement in Hollywood as a "forced march." Hope n' change, this ain't.
Bernie Sanders pulls his punches again
One of us (!) questioned the Democratic presidential candidate over the weekend about Hillary Clinton's past positions, and -- once again -- he didn't launch a real attack on her. Asked if he takes Clinton at her word after her shifts on trade, same sex marriage, the Iraq War and other issues, Sanders would only say "I have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. I have enormous respect for her, and I like her. And what I hope … is that the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign on the enormous issues facing the American people." By the way, be careful of believing the Clinton campaign's professions that they're losing sleep over Sanders' strength. They'd much prefer a strong Sanders -- whose success has a pretty defined ceiling -- than a strong Martin O'Malley, who launched his campaign on Saturday.
A new Iowa poll
If you needed another data point on whether Clinton's financial and news-cycle woes are hurting her with Democrats, here's a new Iowa poll from Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register. Clinton is the first choice for 57% of Democratic caucus-goers, UP a percentage point from January. Bottom line: what has the Acela corridor up in arms has NOT impacted her with Iowa Dems. The big change: Sanders has replaced Elizabeth Warren as the Clinton alternative, surging to 16% from just five percent early in the year. On the Republican side, Scott Walker leads among Iowa Republicans at 17%, while Rand Paul and Ben Carson weigh in at 10 percent apiece. Here's the thing that amazes us with Walker's lead -- his name ID still isn't at saturation, despite holding a lead in polls in the state all year. Almost a quarter of Iowa GOP caucus-goers still don't know enough about him to form an opinion.
Washington mourns Beau Biden
And finally today, a loss that transcends politics. On Saturday night, Vice President Joe Biden lost a child for the second time in his life. Beau Biden, who had served as the attorney general of Delaware and was poised to be the state's likely future governor, died of terminal brain cancer on Saturday night. The vice president's life has already been marked by tragedy; his Senate career literally began at the bedside of his two boys as they recovered from the devastating car accident that killed their mother and baby sister. Throughout his career, Joe Biden's thoughtful remarks on the agony of losing a loved one have typically been overshadowed by his more frequent role as the butt of jokes for his chatty, sometimes over-cheerful persona. But with the death of Beau Biden, it's worth remembering the grief that forged his father's career, and the void left by his own too-early exit from public service.
OFF TO THE RACES: New poll numbers in Iowa
The Wall Street Journal reports that Dick Cheney is ramping up a new foreign policy push. MORE: "By weighing in, Mr. Cheney is bound to make himself a flash point in the 2016 debate, stoking further questions about which policies of the George W. Bush administration Republicans embrace and which they reject, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the bulk collection of phone records and interrogation policy. That could prove particularly uncomfortable for Jeb Bush, who has struggled to define himself apart from his brother."
CLINTON: Maureen Dowd talks to Tinseltown players about the would-be first female president: "Hollywood is mostly united behind Hillary, with a few Bernie outliers and Elizabeth dreamers. But it's a forced march."
The Des Moines Register poll finds that Democrats aren't bothered by issues that have been pushed as controversies, but they do think they could hurt her in the general election.
CHRISTIE: The Washington Post ed board calls out Christie's "about face" on Common Core. MORE: "The Republicans who have shown the most sense and spine on Common Core are former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. They recognize that there is nothing objectionable in improving school standards and in wanting students, no matter where they live, to have the skills needed to succeed in college or pursue careers."
FIORINA: She's out with a new video describing her momentum within the GOP field.
From msnbc.com, Fiorina says she takes "no delight" in raising questions about Hillary Clinton.
KASICH: He continued to hint at a presidential run during an appearance on Meet the Press, touting his resume.
GRAHAM: The AP previews his presidential announcement, citing the risks and potential rewards of his foreign policy positions.
O'MALLEY: He launched his own presidential bid over the weekend, vowing to fight hard in New Hampshire.
More, from NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell: "With the backdrop of a divided city based on race and class behind him, O'Malley jumpstarted his campaign on the theme of inclusion."
PAUL: The New York Times describes his lonely stand in the Senate. "His tactics were publicly shunned by some of his Republican colleagues, and he did not attend a Republican strategy session before a critical vote to move forward on a replacement surveillance bill passed by the House. For much of the rare Sunday session of the Senate, he stood apart from other senators, dressed in khakis, a blue blazer and Nubuck shoes, clustered with two like-minded House Republicans, Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky."
SANTORUM: He said on Meet the Press that the Supreme Court shouldn't have the last word on the gay marriage fight.
OBAMA AGENDA: Kerry suffers broken leg
Secretary of State John Kerry is grounded after breaking his leg in a bicycle accident.
The News Journal remembers Beau Biden: "To long-time friends, Biden had superior qualities only those closest to him got to see. He eschewed privilege that came with his name. Many didn't know the true Beau because he was intensely private, especially for a leading political figure. They describe a man of great humility who dedicated his public service work to the less fortunate. And Biden, 46, was a dedicated family man and a steadfast friend, they say."
Worth a re-read: Joe Biden's candid 2012 speech to military families who had lost a loved one, via the Washington Post.
CONGRESS: Patriot games
Here's NBC's wrap-up of the NSA fight last night. "The National Security Agency's authority to collect troves of bulk telephone metadata under the post-Sept. 11 USA Patriot Act expired at midnight Monday after Republican senators were unable to make a deal."
And more on the USA Freedom Act, from the Washington Post: "The USA Freedom Act is the product of months of compromise between Republicans and Democrats, the administration and privacy groups. Under it, the NSA would stop gathering billions of call records — their times, dates and durations, but not their content. Instead, the phone companies would be required to adapt their systems so that they could be queried for records of specific terrorism suspects based on individual court orders. The bill also would renew other expiring investigative powers that the FBI says are critical."