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A1: The stories you need to read before your first conference call.

-- Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said Thursday they will move forward with a referendum on independence, even after Russian President Vladimir Putin called for Sunday's vote to be postponed. Putin on Wednesday expressed qualified support for a May 25 presidential election; he said he had pulled back some Russian troops from the Ukrainian border, though U.S. and NATO officials said they had seen no change. (Washington Post)

-- The House on Wednesday voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, the latest step in an effort to expose cover-ups by a White House that Republicans want to paint as corrupt. With the Benghazi committee coming today, Democrats are dubbing this week "conspiracy week." (New York Times, Washington Post) Six Democrats voted to hold Lerner in contempt: Reps. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.).

-- House negotiators are close to reaching a bipartisan compromise on legislation to regulate surveillance of American citizens. The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to advance a bill to bar the NSA from gathering call-detail records; the House Intelligence Committee is planning to take up its own legislation, though it could take up the Judiciary Committee's bill, too. The measures would require phone companies to retain meta-data records, not the NSA. The legislation could hit the floor as early as the week of May 19. (Washington Post)

-- Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is taking his campaign to ban online gaming to the states. Adelson has hired former California House Speaker Fabian Nunez (D) and veteran Democratic strategist Chris Lehane to fight pro-internet gaming legislation in Sacramento, while Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) have all written members of Congress urging them to oppose online gaming. (Washington Post)

-- President Obama told big donors at a DSCC/DCCC fundraiser in Bel Air Wednesday night they shouldn't be distracted by buzz around the 2016 elections. Obama will attend four more fundraisers in California today before heading back to the East Coast. (Reuters) Key moment from Obama's chat with donors: "Nothing is going to happen magically, by the way, that changes in 2016 if we still have the same kind of voting patterns and the same dysfunction that we've got right now in Congress.  We'll be stymied all over again."

-- Copies of Hillary Clinton's memoir, "Hard Choices," have been circulating among National Security Council officials for months, ahead of its June release. Former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has provided advance copies of his book to Treasury and Federal Reserve lawyers, but not to the White House. Geithner's book is due out Monday. Neither memoir is expected to light the fireworks that former Defense Secretary Bob Gates's book did earlier this year. (Associated Press)

-- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) will try to insert language into the pending transportation bill that would create a corridor through northern Nevada for construction of Interstate 11, which would connect Las Vegas and Reno. A southern stretch of I-11, connecting Las Vegas and Phoenix, is nearing the end of a two-year study, and work is expected to begin soon. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

-- Front Pages: WaPo, WSJ, USA Today and NYT all lead with a kinder, gentled Vladimir Putin. President Obama's visit to the Bay Area is the five column lead in today's San Francisco Chronicle. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Hot Springs Sentinel-Record and Fort Smith Times Record all fronted Obama's tour of storm damage.

National Roundup: What's happening outside the Beltway.

-- Pollapalooza: Build KXL Now, a pro-Keystone pipeline group, surveyed several key Senate races. In Iowa, Rep. Bruce Braley (D) leads businessman Mark Jacobs (R) 43 percent to 42 percent, and leads state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) 44 percent to 40 percent. In Kentucky, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) leads Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) 46 percent to 45 percent. Rep. Gary Peters (D) leads former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land 42 percent to 37 percent in Michigan. And Rep. Steve Daines (R) leads Montana Sen. John Walsh (D) 49 percent to 37 percent. (Build KXL Now)

-- Georgia: Two weeks before the Republican primary, the two candidates who scared GOP strategists the most, Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, are flailing at the back of the pack. The front-runners, instead, are David Perdue, a businessman related to the governor who created Common Core, Rep. Jack Kingston (R), a veteran appropriator who's been in Congress for 22 years, and former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who's almost centrist by comparison to Gingrey and Broun. (Washington Post) Senior Republicans think Handel's money has dried up (blame her feud with Gov. Nathan Deal), and her only hope is all-out civil war between Kingston and Perdue. Those two are most likely to meet in a runoff.

-- Arkansas: Disaster relief and politics rarely mix, but when President Obama visited Vilonia, Ark., on Wednesday, Sen. Mark Pryor (D) stood right behind him. Obama praised Pryor's role in recovery efforts after last week's devastating tornado. (New York Times) Democrats will point out Cotton spent Wednesday criticizing the Obama administration before the Federalist Society in D.C. (Arkansas Times)

-- Maryland: In the first of three Democratic gubernatorial debates, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) criticized Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) for not breaking up a spring break party where underage drinking occurred last year, while Gansler attacked Brown's handling of Maryland's botched health care exchange. A third candidate, Del. Heather Mizeur (D), stayed positive. The primary is June 24. (Washington Post)

-- Maine: Rep. Mike Michaud (D) and Gov. Paul LePage (R) are running neck and neck, according to a new Critical Insights survey. Michaud takes 37 percent compared with LePage's 36 percent; independent Eliot Cutler, who finished second four years ago, lags with 18 percent. LePage's job approval rating is a dismal 39 percent, but his floor is solidly in the high-30s. Cutler is a real threat to Michaud's chances. (Critical Insights, pdf) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie campaigned for LePage on Wednesday. (Portland Press Herald)

-- Oregon: Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) leads state Rep. Dennis Richardson (R) by a 48 percent to 36 percent margin in a new DHM Research poll of 400 registered voters. But 49 percent say it's time to replace Kitzhaber, compared with 35 percent who want him re-elected. Sen. Jeff Merkley's approval rating is in positive territory, but 38 percent say they don't know enough about him. And 58 percent say they'll vote to change the state constitution to allow same-sex marriage. (Oregon Public Broadcasting)

-- Nebraska: Gov. Dave Heineman (R) endorsed Attorney General Jon Bruning ® as his replacement, giving Bruning a boost a week before the May 13 primary election. Bruning's top rival, former RNC member and investor Pete Ricketts, has support from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.). (Lincoln Journal Star) Both candidates have spent about $250,000 on television so far.

DC Digest: What's on tap today in DC.

-- President Obama participates in a DNC fundraiser in Beverly Hills, a DCCC fundraiser in San Diego and two DNC fundraisers in San Jose, where he'll stay overnight. Vice President Biden has meetings at the White House all day.

-- The House today will vote to establish a select committee on Benghazi and will begin debate on two education measures sponsored by Reps. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) and John Kline (R-Minn.). Last votes are expected between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

-- The Senate meets for morning business at 9:30 a.m. before voting on cloture motions and nominations of up to three U.S. District Court nominations, one Circuit Court nomination and an Undersecretary of Education. The Senate will vote to confirm a new U.S. ambassador to U.N. organizations in Geneva.

-- Rasika chef Vikram Sunderam this week won the James Beard Award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. (Washington Post) And if you're looking for happy hour ideas tonight, try out some one-of-a-kind microbrews at Savor events around the city. Listings in the Going Out Guide.

TV Time Out: Our exclusive look at who's advertising, and where

-- Kentucky: Okay, this time she means it. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes will kick off her first paid ad today after buying $44,000 in TV time earlier this week. View the ad, a positive spot highlighting her role in passing a military voter law, here. Grimes's campaign says they'll eventually put six figures behind the ad.

-- North Carolina: Yesterday we told you Senate Majority PAC would be quick to hit state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) after he won the GOP primary. On Wednesday, the Democratic group bought $673,000 in airtime for ads that will begin on Friday.

-- Arkansas: Rep. Tom Cotton (R) will spend a little over $120,000 on television ads between today and May 20, mostly on cable ads running in Fort Smith and Little Rock. Fort Smith, along the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, is an important source of Republican voters, and Cotton isn't well-known there. He's spent more on Fort Smith television than in any market except Little Rock.

-- West Virginia: House Majority PAC is up with their latest ad hitting state Sen. Evan Jenkins (R), challenging Rep. Nick Rahall (D). The PAC reported buying $90,000 in television time to air the ad, their sixth on Rahall's behalf.

The Buried Lede: The nuggets that deserve the spotlight.

-- Why prepared testimony matters: "Insurers, appearing before a panel of the Energy and Commerce Committee, testified that the law had not led to a government takeover of their industry, as some Republicans had predicted. Indeed, several insurers said their stock prices had increased in the last few years."

-- "The executives also declined to endorse Republican predictions of a sharp increase in insurance premiums next year, saying they did not have enough data or experience to forecast prices. And they said they were already receiving federal subsidy payments intended to make insurance more affordable for low- and middle-income people." Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) "sounded a bit disappointed at the end of the hearing." (New York Times)

B1: Business, politics and the business of politics

-- Patton Boggs has agreed to pay Chevron $15 million and issue a statement of regret over years of litigation involving toxic drilling waste pits in Ecuador. The litigation had threatened the firm, the nation's biggest lobbying shop, which had already been struggling financially and letting partners go. The settlement will be entirely covered by Patton Boggs' insurance. (Washington Post) Here's some background on how Patton Boggs got sucked into the fight with Chevron.

-- Stocks are up fractionally in premarket trading after the Dow gained 117 points on Wednesday. Asian and European markets traded higher today. (CNN)

C1: The long reads you'll need to check out before tonight's cocktail party.

-- Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has developed a habit of working under cover around his state. But "in an age where new senators go through the supernova process almost instantaneously, the only black Republican in the Senate has chosen to be all but invisible in Washington and, at this moment, even in his home state."

-- While volunteering at a Goodwill in Greenville, an older white woman approached Scott. "You here for court-ordered time?" she asked. "Not this time," Scott said. He didn't identify himself. (Washington Post)

-- Ben Terris adds this detail: “Making something that isn’t seen as likely, achieving that goal sets others to free to dream bigger dreams,” Scott said in an interview. I asked him if he thought that was true of Obama being the first black president as well. “Yes, I do,” he said without hesitating.

C4: The comics page, fun things to read when you're bored at work

-- Today marks the 130th anniversary of Harry Truman's birth. Lots of celebrating going on in Independence, Mo., today. (Kansas City Star)

Attn Matt Drudge: Things conservatives will get outraged by today.

-- "Government officials, reacting to the growing voice of conservative news outlets, especially on the internet, are angling to curtail the media's exemption from federal election laws governing political organizations, a potentially chilling intervention." This according to FEC chairman Lee Goodman, who says he'll fight those attempts. (Washington Examiner) Double whammie: Goodman gets his name out there. Bedard got top-of-the-page attention from Drudge.

-- An EPA employee downloaded more than 7,000 pornographic files onto a government computer and watched them for two to six hours a day, a deputy assistant inspector general told Congress on Wednesday. Bonus: The employee is still on payroll and makes $120,000 a year. (Bloomberg) Seriously, how is this not on Drudge yet?

Attn HuffPo: What outrages liberals today

-- The House GOP's investigation into Benghazi is purely to get at the truth, right? Well, the NRCC is using a select committee headed by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to fundraise. "You Can Become a Benghazi Watchdog Right Now," an NRCC blog post reads. (Politico) For the record, Gowdy said Wednesday he wanted the NRCC to quit raising money off the panel.