02/29/2016 08:35 AM EDT

By Rachael Bade ([email protected] or @RachaelMBade)

GOP SENATORS AIM TO CONFIRM JUDGES – JUST NOT FOR SCOTUS. Burgess starts off our week with a look at the GOP playbook on judges, coming soon: “John Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican and a former Texas Supreme Court judge, was attending Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral this month when he found himself chatting with White House counsel Neil Eggleston. The topic: their mutual interest in confirming judges to lifetime appointments to the federal bench.”

“Even as Senate Republicans vow to block President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick until after the election, GOP leaders are quietly maneuvering to approve lower-level judicial nominees in the Senate pipeline, including several from conservative states who were recommended by Republican lawmakers. The effort, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hasn’t officially sanctioned by scheduling floor votes, threatens to undermine the GOP’s argument in the high court standoff that a president in his final months should be denied a lifetime judicial appointment.” http://politico.pro/1VMLSWj

COMING TODAY: CONGRESSIONAL HISPANIC CAUCUS PAC BACKS CLINTON. Gabriel Debenedetti for POLITICO: “The political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus – CHC BOLD PAC- is set to endorse Hillary Clinton at a press conference at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters on Monday morning, in yet another sign of the presidential front-runner’s strength in Washington and among Hispanic leaders. The move is hardly a surprise considering that most of the caucus members are publicly backing Clinton, but it’s still a useful endorsement as she looks to effectively seal the nomination against Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday.” http://politi.co/1TKtMVA

Meanwhile: “Bernie Sanders Stands Alone as Hillary Clinton Gains Senate Endorsements,” per Jennifer Steinhauer for the N.Y. Times: “Senator Bernie Sanders may find himself mobbed as he moves about the nation stoking the flames of all those feeling the Bern. But back here in the Senate, his embers are cold. About 40 Senate Democrats have lined up behind Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Not one has come forward for Mr. Sanders. Mr. Sanders’s loner status was brought into sharp relief last week when Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, declared Mrs. Clinton his pick ‘I think the middle class would be better served by Hillary,’ he said.” http://nyti.ms/1LOG5tE

LEAP DAY! It’s Feb. 29, 2016. Thanks for reading Huddle, where we’re happy to say the last batch of Clinton emails drops tonight. Reachable here: [email protected] or @rachaelmbade

TODAY IN CONGRESS: House returns at 6:30 p.m. for votes. Senate back for 5:30 p.m. votes

DOUBLE-TAKE: IT WAS A WEEKEND IN SURPRISE ENDORSEMENTS. And both for two candidates Capitol Hill considers the outcasts: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

1.) SEN. JEFF SESSIONS ENDORSES TRUMP. Trump’s first Senate endorsement is a huge blow to Ted Cruz. Sessions was, essentially, one of his only friends in the Senate – but Sessions went for the Donald. Eli Stokols for POLITICO: “Donald Trump won another major endorsement Sunday, surprising the political world when he walked onto the stage for a rally in Madison, Ala., with Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions… ‘I have a little surprise for you,’ Trump told the crowd packed into a stadium, which he estimated as 32,000 people, as he teased the endorsement from Sessions. ‘I have a man who is respected by everybody here, greatly respected. He’s really the expert as far as I’m concerned on borders, on so many things.’…”

“When Sessions took the stage, he was effusive in praising the GOP front-runner. ‘I told Donald Trump this isn’t a campaign, this is a movement,’ Sessions said. ‘Look at what’s happening. The American people are not happy with their government.’ Sessions reminded supporters that politicians have talked about fixing the country’s immigration system for 30 years, ‘Have they done it?’ he asked. ‘No, but Donald Trump will do it.'” http://politi.co/1XTHrdo Watch it on NBC News: nbcnews.to/1Ryv83F

It’s a major blow to Cruz. More from The Post’s Jose A. DelReal and Robert Costa: “Cruz has touted his strict positions on border security and deportation, leaning on his strident commitment to conservative ideology as a key rationale for his candidacy. In the run-up to the March 1 Super Tuesday primary elections, Cruz has tried to undermine Trump’s conservative bona fides on immigration reform, characterizing his plan as ‘amnesty.'” wapo.st/1RyeZLz

2.) GABBARD QUITS DNC, ENDORSES SANDERS. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) told moderator Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” Sunday that she is stepping down as vice chair from the Democratic National Committee to support Sanders. Eric Bradner for CNN: “‘There is a clear contrast between our two candidates with regard to my strong belief that we must end the interventionist, regime change policies that have cost us so much. This is not just another issue. This is the issue, and it’s deeply personal to me,’ Gabbard said… The Hawaii Democrat’s backing for Sanders comes the day after Sanders was blown out by nearly 50 points by Hillary Clinton in South Carolina’s Democratic primary — and two days before 11 states vote on Super Tuesday.” cnn.it/1n9HDIn

Here’s why, per The Fix’s Amber Phillips: “It’s a move that makes little sense on the surface – especially coming mere hours after Hillary Clinton’s shellacking of Sanders in South Carolina’s primary. But digging deeper into Gabbard’s unconventional and sometimes combative approach to politics, her alliance with Sanders starts to add up. Like the man she’s endorsing for president, Gabbard is a wildcard who is willing to put her future with the Democratic Party on the line to speak out against it. Gabbard is probably well aware that her Sanders endorsement could harm her standing within the party’s power structure. But from what we’ve seen from the two-term congressman, she probably doesn’t care.” wapo.st/1QPJFv5

DAILY POLICY DOSE: SENATE READIES FOR BATTLE OVER OPIOID ABUSE. Jordain Carney for The Hill: “Democratic demands for $600 million in emergency funding is threatening to take down a bipartisan bill tackling the nation’s growing opioid addition. Legislation backed by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is coming to the Senate floor this week. Its passage would be a significant victory for Portman, who is in a tough reelection race this year. It would also be an election-year achievement for the Senate, allowing Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to argue the chamber is functioning despite the battle over a possible nominatio
n to the Supreme Court by President Obama. “

“But Democrats are signaling that they’re preparing to fight to include the emergency funding, which is backed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). She represents a state with a serious heroin and opioid problem, something that came to national attention during the state’s presidential primaries. While acknowledging that his caucus wants to tackle the epidemic, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warns that that Shaheen’s amendment should get ‘every consideration.'” bit.ly/1OGBqtA

— Sen. Portman’s Washington Examiner op-ed on his bill: “The numbers are shocking, with more than 100 Americans dying from overdoses every day. Congress can help, and we must act… Recently, my wife Jane and I… toured the hospital’s neonatal intensive-care unit and met with medical experts and addiction specialists who are treating babies born addicted to the drugs their mothers abused during pregnancy… Since 2004, Ohio has seen a 750 percent increase in the number of these babies.” http://goo.gl/gB0mvN

LOUIE GOHMERT FACES HIS BIGGEST CHALLENGE. By Cristina Marcos for The Hill: “Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), one of the most colorful and conservative lawmakers in the House Republican conference, is facing a primary reelection challenge for the first time in his career. On Tuesday, Gohmert will face two rivals hoping to end his 12-year legislative tenure. Both argue Gohmert has become an ’embarrassment’ to the deep-red Texas district because of his wild statements on the House floor and on television and stints like a long-shot bid for Speaker against John Boehner. ‘I think he’s an embarrassment to east Texas,’ rancher Sam Winston told The Hill by phone. ‘He’s not getting anything done.’ …Gohmert is nonetheless seen as the favorite to win on Tuesday, thanks to the wide name recognition he commands as the incumbent.” bit.ly/1KXL3JN

“WHY SPEAKER RYAN FEELS A SENSE OF URGENCY.” Ryan talks hearth health with Luke Russert (both lost their fathers at young ages): “Paul Ryan is driven. He was elected to the House of Representatives at age 28, became a committee chairman at age 40, was his party’s vice presidential nominee at 42 and became Speaker of the House at 46. Behind that drive is not just a will to enact a political philosophy, but a belief that life is short and that time must be used effectively because it can be taken away in an instant. In an interview, Ryan told me that he has lived his adult life with a ‘sense of urgency.’ The reason? Ryan’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather did not live to see their sixtieth birthdays.” http://nbcnews.to/24wJ7hM

WEEKEND SPOTTED: Minority Leader Harry Reid at the P Street Whole Foods with his wife, leafing through apples in the produce aisle. “He was intently picking out the best apples! An interesting juxtaposition among the throng of 20- and 30-somethings,” our birdie writes.

WELCOME TO THE HILL. Alexandra Tripiano is joining the office of Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania after just leaving AEI, where she worked as director of communications operations. (H/t Daniel Lippman).

Transitions. Adam Bramwell starts as chief of staff to his longtime friend Se. Chris Coons Monday. He’s worked 20 years on the Hill, most of that time as general counsel to the Secretary of the Senate; the rest as counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee.

TODAY’S TRIVIA: Comes from me! Who was the first president to be impeached and why? Email me at [email protected]

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