By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )
ABC's JEFF ZELENY: There's a debate underway to raise the nation's debt limit once again, but it pales in comparison to the heat generated the last time lawmakers faced this high-stakes challenge. The huffing and puffing from both sides is muffled, even though rank-and-file Republicans are just as skeptical of giving another one-year extension to raise the country's borrowing power. Their demands to get concessions from the administration, in exchange for their support, are almost certainly a deal-breaker. So this time, Republicans may disappoint Democrats and not even give them a big fight - or bold headlines, being accused of taking the government to the brink of default. Speaker John Boehner is floating alternatives to fellow Republicans, including a plan to restore funding for military pensions. But in the end, even most Republicans privately concede that a clean debt ceiling increase will pass. This may cause heartburn among some outside conservative groups, but it will also bring a dose of disappointment to some Democrats, who were hoping to pick a political fight they could win.
ABC's RICK KLEIN: No Mass. (Unless maybe…) In separate interviews on CNN Wednesday, two former presidential nominees - one Democrat, one Republican, and both from Massachusetts - were as definitive as they could be in saying they would not seek the presidency again. There was hardly a clamor for either John Kerry or Mitt Romney to give it another whirl. Both parties can probably thank their former nominees for realizing that, and not further complicating loyalties and creating internal divisions. Does this mean the Bay State is dealt out of presidential politics for a while, that that other curse known in New England (of Dukakis, Ted Kennedy, Kerry, and Romney - not Ruth, Ted Williams, Buckner, and Bucky) will be dormant? Astonishingly for such a small state, the answer to that is no: Sen. Elizabeth Warren has "Warren Democrats" on her flank even as she says she won't run for president. Gov. Deval Patrick, he of the school of Axelrod, is due another what-does-he-do-next round of speculation. Then there's Scott Brown, who may or may not state-hop back to the Senate - or focus entirely on 2016.
ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE: As head of the Republican Governors Association, Chris Christie expected to be out of state fundraising quite a bit, but he did not expect the current dark storm clouds to follow him from New Jersey to Texas, where he is today. Fundraising for the RGA in Dallas and Fort Worth, the Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa will be shadowing him as DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz did at fundraisers in Florida last month. And the Dallas Morning News is reporting both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott won't be by Christie's side, something Democrats are also jumping on. It's something Christie could not have imagined in November when he won that landslide victory and Democrats could hardly land a punch, but since Bridgegate it's a whole new world for Democrats both in New Jersey and nationally. The investigations around the lane closures is not going anywhere and neither are the Dems who will be likely following him at his upcoming fundraising stops in Chicago, Massachusetts, Georgia, Connecticut, and Utah. Christie will also speak at the NRSC winter retreat in New York City later this month as well as events in DC, including speaker at CPAC where he was snubbed last year.
HOW REPUBLICANS HAVE CO-OPTED OBAMA'S FAVORITE 2014 TALKING POINT. It all started on Jan. 14 when President Obama signaled his willingness to bypass an uncooperative Congress by reaching straight for the pen on his desk. "I've got a pen and I've got a phone," Obama said, noting, "We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we're providing Americans the kind of help that they need." The slogan stuck. Other White House officials, including Press Secretary Jay Carney and Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer, have been repeating it in briefings and in TV appearances, and on the eve of the State of the Union Address, the White House even tweeted out a photo of the president's pen. But, as ABC's ERIN DOOLEY notes, even as the Obama team has hammered away at the president's newest talking point, the GOP has found ways to hammer him with it. Speaker of the House John Boehner released a meme juxtaposing Obama's phone and pen with a copy of himself brandishing the U.S. Constitution. On Tuesday, the Senate Republican Conference released a video spoofing the phone-and-pen approach. The montage suggests the president "use that phone he keeps talking about" to request that Senator Harry Reid pass fast-track trade-promotion authority legislation, which would allow the president to negotiate international trade agreements without fear of congressional amendment or filibuster. "#GotAPhone?" the video asks. In keeping with the hashtag theme, several Republicans have suggested Obama "#UseThePen" to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. http://abcn.ws/LT5mdR
'AMERICAN IDOL' V. CONGRESS: WHICH IS THE BIGGER POPULARITY CONTEST? American Idol runner up Clay Aiken has decided to run for U.S. Congress in his home state of North Carolina. So it's probably a good time to finally clear up the confusion: Is politics really like "American Idol"? Since the show took the country by storm in 2002, it's not uncommon to hear politics compared to an Idol-style popularity contest-and not necessarily in a good way. On the other hand, "American Idol" is about as undemocratic as they come. There's no Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul to give Aiken a quick pass into the general election from a crowded Democratic primary, and when America votes, it's one person, one vote in this country - no text messaging or phone calls from the voting booth allowed. ABC's ABBY PHILLIP takes a look at where reality TV and political reality intersect: http://abcn.ws/1lBqCoe
FORMER WHITE HOUSE OFFICIALS BACK KEYSTONE. While President Obama has been publicly vague about his views on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, several former White House officials are now pushing for the project's approval, going well beyond the administration's official stance. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry haven't openly taken sides on the issue, saying they don't want to get ahead of the decision-making process, which has included research and input from various federal agencies and the public. But on Wednesday, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar became the latest White House alumnus to say he supports the pipeline, which would begin in Canada's oil sands and extend to the Gulf of Texas. It's become a hot political topic for environmentalist opponents and business-minded supporters. Speaking at an energy conference in Houston, Salazar was quoted by FuelFix.com as saying, "At the end of the day, we are going to be consuming that oil. So is it better for us to get the oil from our good neighbor from the north, or to be bringing it from some place in the Middle East?" And, as ABC's ALI WEINBERG reports, Salazar isn't the only White House official to go beyond his boss on the issue: http://abcn.ws/N7xtGS
BILL CLINTON ARRIVES TO CALM DEMOCRATIC 'BED-WETTING'. The bed-wetting has begun. It may not be a pleasant image, but that's the phrase used inside Obamaworld when Democrats start worrying about their political fortunes. And nine months before the midterm elections, the worry is intensifying, particularly given the latest batch of bad news for the new health care law, ABC's JEFF ZELENY writes. David Plouffe, the president's former campaign manager and top political adviser, first coined the term 'bed-wetting' back in 2008 when Democrats began openly fretting about their political challenges. He said the mood today inside the party is starting to remind him of the same moment. When asked whether the bed-wetting phase of the 2014 campaign season was starting, he laughed and declared: "Ha. Of course it is." Democrats are indeed anxious, particularly with Republicans only six seats away from winning control of the Senate in November. By any calculation, it's a tough political map. Democrats are defending Senate seats on unfriendly terrain across the South and other states where President Obama either lost decisively or struggled to win. That set the stage for a contentious closed-door policy retreat and strategy session yesterday that Senate Democrats had with the president. In addition to Obama, the guest speaker was Bill Clinton. http://abcn.ws/1bvBEEV
AD MONEY POURS INTO KEY SENATE RACE. The Arkansas airwaves will soon be abuzz with political ads, with the first salvo in a contentious battle for the Senate seat set to be fired off today, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ notes. Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity are scheduled to air new dueling ads on the same day. Pryor, the lone Democrat in Arkansas' congressional delegation, will face one of the toughest Senate races in the country this year - maybe the toughest. Both the GOP establishment and the tea party have rallied behind Rep. Tom Cotton, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan with a pair of Harvard degrees on his resume. Pryor's campaign unveiled two new ads focusing on Cotton's position on Medicare. The spots are part of a six-figure statewide ad buy, and will each feature a woman voicing her concerns about Cotton's Medicare stance. Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, a Republican outside group with ties to the Koch Brothers, is jumping into the Arkansas ad fight as well. Starting today, it will air $606,000 worth of ads statewide to highlight Pryor's support of Obamacare. http://abcn.ws/1jgPjVl
@MarkHalperin: 1 of the 1st signs that @JebBush is serious about running in '16 will be when/if a super PAC backing him starts up (w/his approval)
@NKingofDC: How Obama, seeking a big trade deal, faces a Congress increasingly leery of trade: http://on.wsj.com/N54a82
@tackettdc: "Sixty parties in 60 days" Gov. McAuliffe's bi-partisan rallying cry http://wapo.st/1kWqZWI
@ZekeJMiller: This week's @TIME cover http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2164806,00.html … pic.twitter.com/5g4vRjbp20
@mikiebarb: Hillary Clinton does not shop like the rest of us at Bergdorf: http://pagesix.com/2014/02/05/hillary-clinton-goes-on-private-shopping-spree-at-bergdorfs/ …