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Behind debt-limit retreat, a GOP eye on retaking the Senate

WASHINGTON — Sens. Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, two Republican leaders facing primary challenges, knew they would take an immediate political hit from the Republicans’ Tea Party wing by voting to clear the way for a debt-limit increase. They also knew that their willingness to cast that vote would enhance their party’s chances of gaining a majority in the Senate next year.

“It was not an easy exercise, but it keeps the focus on the issues we want it to be on,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who argued that by putting the debt limit fight behind it last week, his party had robbed Democrats of an opportunity to portray Republicans as reckless. “We dodged a bullet here.”

Democrats acknowledge that the Republican retreat on the debt issue was politically wise and represents yet another factor in the mounting concerns over their own Senate prospects. Democrats are counting on bursts of political extremism to wound Republican candidates. The move by McConnell, of Kentucky, and Cornyn, of Texas, showed that at least some Republicans have learned from past defeats.

“They seem to want to be on their best behavior in an election year,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

Republicans feared that an impasse over the debt limit would have set off a reaction in the financial markets and spurred days, if not weeks, of negative attention on Republicans over their threat of a government default. McConnell and Cornyn chose to expose themselves to primary attacks to fend that off.

Democrats were already contending with serious structural challenges in their fight to hold the Senate, given that they are defending, in the historically difficult sixth year of holding the White House, seven seats in states that Mitt Romney carried in the 2012 presidential election.

Now, with more than eight months to go before Election Day, outside pro-Republican groups have spent more than $20 million on commercials in Senate races, a figure that has alarmed leading Democrats.

—Carl Hulse and Jonathan Martin, The New York Times

Jailed Russian critic of Sochi Olympics now on hunger strike

SOCHI, Russia — An environmental activist critical of the Olympic Games who was sentenced to three years in prison last week has gone on a hunger strike, members of a public oversight committee who met with him in jail said Monday.

Yevgeny Vitishko, a member of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, a regional environmental activism group, has refused food since Feb. 11, calling his sentence politically motivated, Anna Mitrenko, a member of the oversight committee, confirmed.

“It is a step of desperation,” Vladimir V. Kimayev, the head of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, said in a telephone interview. “This man has been put in a hopeless situation. He has been sentenced for no reason.”

Vitishko was given a sentence of three years in a penal colony for defacing a fence surrounding a vacation house that he claimed belonged to the region’s governor and was built illegally in a national park.

While he was given a suspended sentence, similar to parole here, in 2012, an appeals court invoked the tougher sentence Wednesday, saying that Vitishko planned to violate a travel ban by coming to the Olympic Games.

Vitishko’s case has been a rare moment of conflict during an Olympics where Russia has sought to play down internal criticism over a number of delicate issues including the cost of the games, a recent law banning “homosexual propaganda” among minors, and a blizzard of construction that has transformed the cityscape of Sochi and the ecology of the region surrounding it.

—Andrew Roth, The New York Times