Morning Briefing: January 24, 2012

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney exchanged more blows at last night’s NBC debate as Gingrich has surged to a statistical tie with Romney in national polls, according to Gallup, with 28 percent backing Gingrich to Romney’s 29 percent. At the same time, a Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that Romney’s unfavorable rating among independents has risen above 50 percent for the first time since 2006. Gingrich’s unfavorable rating among independents is 53 percent.

Gingrich’s former consulting firm released his contract with mortgage giant Freddie Mac yesterday, but the document “shed little light on Gingrich’s duties.” The contract covered one year of Gingrich’s consulting, and though he wasn’t registered or named as a lobbyist, it “appears he was being paid to aid Freddie Mac’s lobbying agenda.”

Romney also finally released his tax returns, showing he made $21.7 million in 2010 and $20.9 million last year — “virtually all of it profits, dividends or interest from investments” — for a tax rate of 13.9 percent, which is lower than that of many middle class Americans.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee want a representative of Koch Industries to testify at Wednesday’s hearing on the Keystone XL pipeline. “We make this request so that committee members can understand whether Koch is positioned to be a ‘big winner’ if the pipeline is approved, as some news accounts have reported,” the Democrats wrote.

Activists and consumer advocates say President Obama is “settling too soon, for too little” as the administration pushes to finalize a deal with large banks over their foreclosure abuses. The $25 billion settlement could benefit up to a million homeowners, but it amounts to “not much more than a slap on the wrist,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D).

The staunchly anti-choice National Right to Life has created a Super PAC to take on President Obama on abortion issues. David O’Steen, the group’s executive director, said the political action committee, called the Victory Fund, will focus on defeating Obama and choosing a “pro-life president.”

According to a new Reuters analysis, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s (R) pardons heavily favored white convicts. Largely overlooked in the controversy surrounding Barbour’s pardons were the racial disparity — of the 222 acts of clemency he granted, almost two-thirds were for white prisoners, although the prison population is predominantly black.

Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) made history in nominating the first openly gay justice, Bruce A. Harris, to New Jersey’s Supreme Court. Harris is now also the only African-American on the court. While Christie said his choice “signals just how far we all have come,” he insisted the nomination does not reflect a reversal in his opposition to marriage equality.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday that the police cannot track a suspect with a GPS device without a warrant. The high court stated that placing a device on a vehicle for the purpose of monitoring movements is covered by the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

And finally: Comedian and political visionary Stephen Colbert has tragically ended his exploratory committee for president of the United States of South Carolina after garnering a surprising 6,300 votes in last weekend’s primary. “Of all my exploratory committee members, I’m going to miss Roll of Quarters most. But that’s because I haven’t done laundry in, like, a month,” Colbert tweeted.

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