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First thoughts: A consequential week

A consequential week for Obama -- tax deal, New START, Af-Pak… The Dems’ tax-cut dilemma… Be sure to watch the GOP side during today’s Senate vote on the tax deal… Steele to hold conference call tonight to announce whether he’ll run for re-election (the smart money is he won’t run)… Bloomberg says “no way, no how” on presidential bid… But Bloomberg and other centrist pols participate at today's launch of No Labels… Key federal court ruling on health care is expected to come out… And Obama signs Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law at 10:25 am ET.

*** A consequential week: This is shaping up to be another consequential week for President Obama and his administration. There’s the tax-cut deal, which will see its first Senate vote today and which has become a big test of the president’s leadership after his party’s midterm losses. There’s the New START treaty, which the Senate will consider after the tax deal and which the administration sees as a must-pass measure for its international credibility. And then there’s the White House’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review, which also will consume Obama’s time this week and which remains the most important issue few in Washington are talking about. What happens this week, and HOW it happens, could definitely impact his presidency, even if most of the country isn't paying much attention (because of the holidays or the weather).

*** The Democrats’ tax-cut dilemma: On the tax deal, do some Democrats realize that perhaps the biggest danger of not cutting this deal is ceding the economic debate to the GOP for at least one election cycle, if not more? Play it out: Dems decide to fight and get nothing when the tax cuts expire at the end of the year. Then, on Jan. 6, the new GOP-led House “comes to the rescue” and passes legislation to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. So say the economy recovers a bit but not gangbusters. Well, the GOP will criticize Democrats for creating uncertainty at fragile time. Or say the economy recovers gangbusters in 2011-12, the GOP will have an argument to take much of the credit. Bottom line: If Democrats line up and try to kill the compromise, the political price they could pay might be much higher than they fathom as they'll be on the wrong side of the economic argument -- no matter the outcome. At least they can control the process for now.

*** Watch the GOP votes: Most of the public anger over the tax-cut deal, of course, has come from the Dem side. But when the Senate holds its first test vote on the legislation at 3:00 pm ET, it will be interesting to see which Senate Republicans vote against it. Remember, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has said a "vast majority" of his caucus would support this deal. We'll define "vast" as 25-30 GOP senators. But is that a high bar? After all, the bill has a price tag of nearly $900 billion, and it isn’t paid for -- meaning that it will add that amount to the budget deficit. In fact, columnist Charles Krauthammer last week provided the conservative argument to vote against the deal: “Obama is no fool. While getting Republicans to boost his own reelection chances, he gets them to make a mockery of their newfound, second-chance, post-Bush, Tea-Party, this-time-we're-serious persona of debt-averse fiscal responsibility.” As one Democratic Hill aide predicted to us, the tax-deal vote COULD become a primary issue for Republicans in 2012 (a mini TARP?). Then again, as John Boehner suggested on “60 Minutes” last night, many Republicans don’t consider tax cuts adding to the deficit. “Washington does not have a revenue problem. Washington has a spending problem.”

*** Passage with “relative ease”? Still, most observers expect that there will be more than 60 votes to defeat the filibuster on the tax-cut agreement. The Washington Post: “Despite the lingering reservations of many Democrats, the latest tallies by party leaders suggest that the Obama-GOP package will clear the Senate with relative ease, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told CNN's ‘State of the Union’ on Sunday. ‘We're counting votes in the Senate,’ he said. ‘Harry Reid and I have been on the phone over the weekend and I can say that we have a good cross-section of the Senate Democratic caucus, from left to right, who are prepared to accept this,’ he added.” What’s the over-under? 65 votes? 70 votes?

*** Steele the one? Politico broke the news over the weekend that RNC Chairman Michael Steele will hold a conference call tonight with RNC members to discuss his re-election plans. The smart money: He won’t run (but wouldn't it be just like Steele to hint one way and then surprise folks by running?). Here’s Politico: “Steele … has built no known reelection team or structure, making the prospect of a campaign unlikely in the face of competition that grows fiercer by the day. But allies said Steele has not revealed his plans, and the chairman has been nothing if not unpredictable.” If Steele doesn’t run, do we see some bigger names get into the race? Right now, here’s your field: Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis, former Bush administration official Maria Cino, Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus, former RNC political director Gentry Collins, and former Missouri GOP chair Ann Wagner. Then again, as some Republicans have pointed out, didn't the 2010 cycle prove that the RNC is irrelevant?

*** Bloomberg’s “No way, no how” for 2012: On “Meet the Press” yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pretty much ruled out a presidential bid in 2012, despite making some moves (like his big political speech last week) that suggest otherwise. “I'm not going to run for president, for the, the job,” he told NBC’s David Gregory. “I've got a great job. I'm going to finish out my 1,100 and whatever number of days it is left to go, and I'll leave the politics to the experts.” When Gregory followed up to see if there was wiggle room, Bloomberg added, “No way, no how.”

*** No Labels’ launch: However, today Bloomberg and other centrist politicians -- like Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, and former Rep. Tom Davis -- are participating at the launch today of No Labels, a political group seeking to bring together Americans to find common ground on issues. The launch begins at Columbia University at 9:00 am ET.

*** Court watch: Here’s another political event to watch today: the expected federal court ruling in Virginia on the Obama health-care law. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who filed this particular suit, will hold a news conference two hours after the ruling by Judge Henry Hudson comes out. The liberal group Health Care for America Now (HCAN) released this memo to reporters: “To date, 14 federal district judges have rejected lawsuits seeking to invalidate the new law. While the Virginia case is important and has drawn strong media interest, it is no more important than the many other rulings by judges of equal rank who have determined that the law is constitutional or have issued dismissals on procedural grounds. The fundamental issue is essentially the same in all these cases – whether the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to require everyone to have coverage. So far, the judges say yes.”

*** Obama’s day: At 10:25 am ET, President Obama -- along with the first lady -- signs the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law at an elementary school in DC. Later in the day, he participates in a service project with LA Lakers coaches and players. And after that, he delivers remarks marking the Lakers' NBA championship last season.

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