State of the Scandal (The Note)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )


  • CHRISTIE RETURNS TO THE SPOTLIGHT: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has kept a low profile since his nearly two-hour press conference last week where he apologized and denied having any knowledge of close aides plotting the politically motivated lane closures leading to the George Washington Bridge, ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE notes. But he can't lay low any longer as he's scheduled to deliver his State of the State address today to both bodies of the state legislature. All eyes will be on how much, if any, of his speech is spent addressing the unfolding scandal now known as "bridgegate," but one theme of the speech will be working together over politics. Christie's State of the State is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. ET.
  • WHAT HE WILL SAY: An aide to Christie said the governor will "focus on how in New Jersey we've made the choice to work together over the last four years. … He will ask the legislature and the people of the state to resolve to make the same choice and continue to put politics aside when it comes to the work at hand and put the people first," an aide in Christie's office told ABC News, noting he will also focus on a property tax relief initiative as well as safer streets and communities. Other excerpts from his speech focus on education: "Despite the improvements we are seeing in Newark and Camden, I believe we need to take bigger and broader steps to adjust our approach to K-12 education to address the new competitive world we live in," Christie will say according to portions of his remarks prepared for delivery. "Our school calendar is antiquated both educationally and culturally. Life in 2014 demands something more for our students.It is time to lengthen both the school day and school year in New Jersey."


ABC's RICK KLEIN: It's not just that the real-life "Alpha House" will need a new live-in landlord. It's that a veteran, respected lawmaker - one who has everything to gain from Democrats retaking control of the House - is getting out at the end of the year. The retirement announcement by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., won't change the balance of power in the House. But it does speak to the growing realization among fact-based Democrats that retaking the House is out of reach this year. (Does anyone think that Miller - among the last of the "Watergate babies," a liberal champion, close ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi - wouldn't stick around if he saw the chance to get a gavel back?) Miller's is only the 4 th Democratic retirement among the 13 total House members hanging it up in 2014. Yet Miller's decision stands as a stark statement that Democrats have no realistic prospects of taking back control of the House.

ABC's JEFF ZELENY: There's finally an end in sight to the high budget dramas that have paralyzed Capitol Hill for more than a year: a $1.1 trillion spending bill House and Senate negotiators unveiled last night. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who leads the Appropriations Committee, summed it up best by saying the deal brings an end to "shutdown, slowdown, slam-down politics." This agreement fills in the blanks on the bipartisan budget deal that passed late last year. It still faces much criticism and opposition in the House and Senate, but there seems to be just enough bipartisan support in both chambers to pass. Another sign of lessons learned from the government shutdown, particularly for Republicans who want to stay above the fray in this mid-term election year and not give Democrats fresh ammunition to use against them.


DYSFUNCTIONAL MARRIAGE: DOES CONGRESS NEED A DIVORCE MEDIATOR? Whether they like it or not, Congress is getting a marriage counselor. Carol Bailey, a Seattle family law attorney and mediator, has spent her career helping couples transform dysfunctional relationships into productive ones. And, now, she's volunteering her services on Capitol Hill. "I realized one day it's just like a family, it really is," Bailey said of Congress in an interview with "The Fine Print's" JEFF ZELENY. Bailey has authored a guide, " Easing Congressional Gridlock: A Divorce Mediator's Guide for the Union That Can't Dissolve," in which she outlines 10 tips for lawmakers on how to stop bickering and start working toward positive solutions. And this week, she's come to Washington to distribute her brochure, along with a pocket-size card that summarizes the tips for members to carry in their wallets. For more of the interview with Bailey, including the story of what inspired her to bring her brochure to Congress, check out this episode of "The Fine Print."


OBAMA ASKS CONGRESS TO HOLD OFF ON NEW IRAN SANCTIONS. President Obama reiterated his call yesterday for Congress to hold off on imposing any new sanctions against Iran, just one day after a final deal for Iran to curb its nuclear program was announced, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ reports. "It's going to be difficult. It's going to be challenging, but ultimately, this is how diplomacy should work," Obama said at the end of a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of Spain Mariano Rajoy. "My preference is for peace and diplomacy, and this is one of the reasons why I've sent a message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions; now is the time for us to allow diplomats and technical experts to do their work," he later added. "We will be able to monitor and verify whether or not the interim agreement is being followed through on, and if it is not, we'll be in a strong position to respond. But what we want to do is give diplomacy a chance and give peace a chance." Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday that a six-month interim agreement with Iran will begin on Jan. 20, at which point Iran will grant International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors daily access to two major power plants and will halt enrichment of Uranium to 20 percent. Iran is expected to receive about $7 billion over the course of the deal.

NOTED: President Obama had nothing but praise yesterday for former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, despite his scathing critique of the president and Vice President Joe Biden featured in his upcoming book, "Duty." "Secretary Gates was an outstanding secretary of defense, a good friend of mine and I'll always be grateful for his service," Obama told reporters after a meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister. The president opted not to comment on Gates' criticisms, instead noting that their work together on Afghanistan produced the "right strategy.

CHRIS CHRISTIE FACES YET ANOTHER CONTROVERSY OVER SANDY ADS. On the heels of damaging revelations about politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge - a scandal dubbed bridgegate - Christie faced another controversy yesterday, according to ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE. Christie was hailed as a hero for the way he dealt with Superstorm Sandy, but the ads that ran across the state and the country last summer featuring him and his family welcoming visitors back to the Jersey Shore are now part of a federal investigation, and the advertising firm that didn't get the bid is questioning why - especially since their offer was cheaper. The feds are looking into whether money intended for Sandy relief was inappropriately used for the TV ads, sources said. The winning bid, by advertising firm MWW Group, for the controversial "Stronger than the Storm" ads that featured Christie and his family, was more than $2 million more than the runner up, Sigma Group, the largest advertising firm in the state of New Jersey. The ads were part of the $25 million federal recovery package. Shannon Morris, the president of Sigma Group, said she still has no idea why their bid was not selected and it was "apples to apples" to the bid that was selected from MWW, but did confirm their pitch did not feature Christie. "None of our creative included the governor at all," Morris said. "Our creative focused on featuring the people and businesses at the New Jersey Shore."

WHY A FELLOW GOVERNOR STILL WANTS HELP FROM CHRISTIE. Who wants a visit from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this weekend? Florida Gov. Rick Scott does, ABC's ABBY PHILLIP reports. Before last week's bridge scandal struck Christie, Republican Scott was set to kick off his 2014 re-election campaign with a bang. Christie, the newly minted chairman of the Republican Governors Association who just won re-election by a landslide, planned to swing through the Sunshine State flexing his notoriously skilled fundraising muscle on behalf of one of the more endangered Republican governors this cycle. All that is still true. Now, however, it comes with an extra dose of scandal. Nevertheless, the Republican Party of Florida and the Scott campaign say the fundraisers in Naples, Fla., Friday and Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando Saturday are still on. "Governor Christie has taken responsibility for the situation and we are looking forward to having him down in Florida," Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said. Bringing in the big bucks for candidates and the party committee is a key part of Christie's job description as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. It's also one that, at least for now, he can still do. It requires talking to the elite and the loyal, which, at least for the moment, is relatively safe territory.

OBAMACARE SIGN-UPS SEE DECEMBER BOOST, BUT YOUTH ENROLLMENT LAGS. Obamacare kicked into high-gear in December, with nearly 1.8 million Americans signing up for private health insurance, according to figures released yesterday by the Department of Health and Human Services, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ and DEVIN DWYER reports. But in the latest sign of the law's sputtering start, the figures remain short of the administration's enrollment targets, particularly among young people. From Oct. 1 through Dec. 28, nearly a quarter of the nearly 2.2 million individuals who selected a health care plan through the state and federal exchanges were between the ages of 18 and 34, Health and Human Services said. Health industry experts have estimated that around 40 percent of enrollees must be young adults for the president's signature health care plan to keep premiums in check. The administration said the demographics released yesterday were "similar" to their expectations but said it anticipated more young people would sign up for health care plans closer to the March 31 deadline. But the latest figures show that the Obama administration continues to lag behind its enrollment targets. Health and Human Services projected, based on a Congressional Budget Office analysis, that 3.3 million Americans would purchase 2014 health plans through the exchanges through December. It appears that sign-ups are more than a million behind pace.

LONGTIME 'LANDLORD' MOVING OUT OF CONGRESSIONAL FRAT HOUSE. California Democratic Rep. George Miller, a liberal lion of the House and close confidant of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, has decided to retire at the end of this term, he announced in a statement on his website yesterday, notes ABC's JOHN PARKINSON. "This is a great institution and I cannot thank my family and my constituents enough for having given me the honor and privilege of representing my district in Congress these past 40 years," Miller, who won 20 elections to the House, wrote in the statement. "Now, I look forward to one last year in Congress fighting the good fight and then working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me. What a wonderful experience this has been." Miller, 68, was elected in 1974 at age 29. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who along with fellow Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois has shared a messy group house on Capitol Hill for years with Miller, tweeted that he is looking for a new roommate to fill Miller's room.


2014's FIRST PRIMARY IN THE SUNSHINE STATE. Today, Florida's 13th Congressional District will hold a primary election that will determine which candidates will ultimately battle it out in the district's special election in March, ABC's ALISA WIERSEMA notes. The late Republican Congressman Bill Young, who died in October, previously occupied this seat for more than four decades. The overall outcome of this race could serve as a bellwether for this year's midterm elections. President Obama narrowly carried the Republican-dominated district in both 2008 and 2012. Going into today's primary, former Washington lobbyist, David Jolly is the GOP frontrunner against state Rep. Kathleen Peters. Jolly served as Congressman Young's longtime political adviser and is endorsed by his widow, Beverly Young, while Peters is supported by Young's son, Bill Young II. This difference of opinion within the Young family has been a source of tension in the months leading into the primary, but is most likely not going to affect today's voting outcome. Democratic candidate Alex Sink is running unopposed.


LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THE POTATOES JOHN KERRY GAVE HIS RUSSIAN COUNTERPART. Yep, those are two giant potatoes from Idaho. Secretary of State John Kerry met on Monday in Paris with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to discuss Syria, and before they sat down at a long table with their respective teams, Kerry gave some massive potatoes to Lavrov as a gift, ABC's CHRIS GOOD notes. Kerry spent part of the Christmas holiday week with his family at one of their houses, in the ski town of Ketchum, Idaho, and apparently Lavrov had mentioned the fame of Idaho potatoes. So Kerry brought two of them along to Paris. They were, in Lavrov's words, "impressive." After Lavrov asked if he needed to keep the brown wrapping paper, a female adviser seated to Kerry's right joked, "protection?" WATCH:


@JoeBrettell: Worth noting if #Christie survives intact, he'll have a pretty powerful case in 2016 that he capably withstood the Dems best shot

@OpenSecretsDC: BIG news: We're now able to show which #lobbyists weighed in on which bills, and the agencies they visited. .

@ZekeJMiller: Must Read: Hillary Clinton's Unapologetically Hawkish Record Faces 2016 Test via @TIMEPolitics

@thegarance : A very self-assured fox was prancing around the Capitol grounds yesterday. …

@politicalwire: Some Democrats Tried to Stop Investigation Into Christie …

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