* Looming special election becomes major referendum on GOP’s Medicare plan:

With the battle for the House seat in New York’s 26th district coming down to the wire, don’t miss Philip Rucker’s on-scene account of Chuck Schumer campaigning there over the weekend and telling voters that the GOP candidate would dismantle Medicare — an early taste of what we’ll be seeing in 2012.

This is why the battle for this seat — which will be settled on May 24th — is seen by both sides as having such high stakes: It will help establish the playbooks for the Congressional elections next year.

* Bush torture dead-enders grasping at straws: Post fact checker Glenn Kessler digs into the battle between John McCain and former Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey, and finds that the latter is employing “sleight of hand” and “straining to make a connection” between torture and Bin Laden’s killing

* If Obama won’t draw line on debt ceiling, what will he draw a line on? With the U.S. government set to hit the debt ceiling today, Paul Krugman, giving voice to a question that has long perplexed the left, wonders why Obama won’t say “No” to the GOP’s demand for a deal on a debt ceiling hike, since it’s the clearest example of a hostage situation you could ask for.

Another way to put this: How did Obama and Dems allow a “deal” on the debt ceiling to become the compromise, middle-ground position when everyone on both sides has already agreed it must be raised?

* Deal near on debt ceiling? Administation officials tell John Dickerson that talks on a debt ceiling deal are “cordial,” and that the parties are agreeing to spending cuts that would evenly impact constituents on both sides. As Dickerson says, this is mostly kabuki, and a “deal” on what everyone has already agreed must happen is inevitable.

* Inside the debt ceiling talks: The Wall Street Journal has a glimpse of what Dems are prepared to put on the table in the quest for a deal.

* Debt ceiling fight allows Dems to be Very Serious: Also don’t miss Digby’s argument that Dems are acquiescing in the debt ceiling fight because they want to agree to more spending cuts to prove how Serious they are.

* Obama seen as competent leader despite struggling economy: The new Politico poll finds that despite widespread disapproval of Obama’s handling of the economy, he is being insulated from that disapproval by general impressions of his competence and leadership qualities.

* Newt flip flops on Ryan Medicare plan: The latest Newt Gingrich flip flop: Newt got attention over the weekend for claiming that Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan is too “radical,” but a mere two weeks ago he claimed he would have voted for it.

Just to be clear, Newt is kicking off his run for president without a coherent position on one of the central political and policy questions of the moment. No, we don’t have to take this man seriously, no matter how many times we’re told otherwise.

* How Newt will deal with adulterous past: It’s already clear that he will cast his admission of repeated extramarital affairs, one of his greatest vulnerabilities for 2012, as a tale of redemption.

* How to succeed in today’s GOP: E.J. Dionne boils down why GOP 2012 hopefuls like Mitt Romney and T-Paw are rapidly jettisoning their once-sensible positions: You can’t succeed in today’s GOP unless you completely abandon the belief that anything the federal government ever does can be a good thing.

* Kohl retirement puts Dems on defense: Herb Kohl’s retirement means Dems have to defend five open Senate seats and a total of 23 seats overall, while Republicans will only have to defend 10 seats. The GOP needs all of four seats to take back the Senate.

* Progress on use of the word “torture”: It’s good to see the New York Times public editor urging the paper’s reporters and editors to use the word “torture”:

This approach avoids the appearance of mincing words and is well grounded in Americans’ understanding of torture in the historical and moral sense.

* And today in Trump 2012 hucksterism: Via Taegan Goddard, this has to be the best one yet. In a comically obvious bid to lay the groundwork for Donald Trump’s announcement that he’s not running for president, a “source” tells the Trump-friendly New York Post that NBC brass is pleading with him not to run and to keep his reality TV show going.

What else is happening?