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First Thoughts: Obama's big win

Obama gets a big win with the tax deal’s passage (he’ll sign it into law this afternoon)… But the irony of this big win: It represents Obama breaking one of his biggest campaign promises… Reid pulls the omnibus… McCain and Kirk gloat, and McCaskill fires back… New START and DADT repeal are still alive (cloture vote on DADT is tomorrow)… White-collar Republicans vs. blue-collar Republicans… Romney and the tough Boston press corps… And after today, your First Read morning dispatch will be on holiday, returning on Jan. 3… Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.

*** Obama’s big win: The compromise tax agreement, which the House passed last night (by a 277-148 vote) and which will be signed into law sometime this afternoon, represents President Obama's biggest win since health care -- and that was back in March. (So if you’re counting, that’s almost nine months ago…) Yes, the financial reform legislation was a triumph, as was Elena Kagan's SCOTUS confirmation. But neither was as BIG a win as this tax deal was. To get it passed, Obama used the bully pulpit (the presser, TV interviews); the White House's message shop kicked into high gear (those numerous endorsement emails); and Team Obama utilized its surrogates (Vice President Biden, Bill Clinton).

*** And its big irony: Of course, there's plenty of irony that this big win also represents Obama breaking one of his biggest campaign promises -- namely, ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. But as we've maintained over the past two weeks, the deal was as good as Democrats could get, especially with Republicans set to gain control of the House and pick up extra Senate seats in January. The passage also is a big win for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, who had to whip their members to support the deal, despite growing conservative resistance to it. The question: Does the Obama-McConnell-Boehner alliance on this tax deal prove to be the new normal in the next Congress? Or is what we saw the exception? We’ll find out soon enough.

*** Reid pulls the omnibus: But Senate Democrats -- and also the Obama administration -- suffered a defeat last night when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided not to bring the so-called omnibus appropriations bill to the floor. The reason: Reid didn’t have the GOP votes, given Republicans’ complaints about the $8 billion in earmarks in the legislation (even though some of these very Republicans had their own earmarks in it). Sen. John McCain, who led the crusade against the omnibus, declared victory after Reid pulled the legislation. But that didn’t sit well with some Democratic senators, NBC’s Ken Strickland reports.

*** McCain and Kirk gloat; McCaskill fires back: Per Strick, as McCain was speaking after Reid's announcement, the Arizona senator was asked a question by his GOP colleague, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. "For the most junior member, for those who are not understanding, what happened? Did we just win?" Kirk asked. (He had previously served 10 years in the House.) At that end of his exchange with McCain, you can hear Kirk say, "Congratulations." Strickland observes that rarely -- if ever -- do members publicly gloat on the Senate floor after a political or legislative victory. And the Kirk-McCain exchange did not play well with Dem Sen. Claire McCaskill. "For senators to get on this floor and say, 'We won,' and, you know, do this kind of stuff when you know how many Republicans worked hard on provisions in that bill..." McCaskill also said: "What's offensive to me is that we've gotten into this bad habit of trying to score cheap political points.” By the way, killing an earmark doesn't mean cutting spending; it simply means the money can't be DIRECTED to a specific project. The hope by anti-earmark advocates is that ending the practice will make senators less spend-happy if there's no more political benefit for it.

*** START and DADT repeal are still alive: Despite the omnibus’ defeat -- Congress will now have to fund the government with a Continuing Resolution -- Democrats have the ability to pick up two more legislation wins: ratification of New START and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Strick reports that, on Saturday, the Senate will vote on the stand-alone DADT repeal bill, as well as the DREAM Act (whose prospects for passage are much less likely). If DADT gets the 60 votes -- and it very well could -- it would be the last of the major hurdles for before passage. Strick says that, assuming it gets 60 votes tomorrow, there would likely be another vote to follow it. But that would need only a simple majority of 51 votes to become law. The House has already passed this exact version. Watch the DADT vote carefully. How many GOP senators will hold back to see if it does get its 60 and then decide to vote for the repeal and it goes to 75-80 votes?

*** White-collar Republicans vs. blue-collar Republicans: In the cover story of the latest issue of National Journal, Ron Brownstein sees the 2012 GOP field shaping up to be a contest between the managers (e.g., Romney) and the populists (e.g., Palin). “The populists thunder; the managers reassure. The populists stress their social values; the managers tout their economic competence. The populists rage at the elite; the managers mingle easily with them.” More: “Republicans have typically picked nominees who fit the manager mold more closely than the populist one… But the demographic balance of power inside the GOP coalition is shifting downscale, a change that could provide a greater opening for the populists, including Palin if she runs.” We're seeing this split inside the GOP in the latest NBC/WSJ poll. Remember, party members are evenly divided on the idea of compromise when necessary. And that divide, once you dig deeper, seems to be along socio-economic lines within the party, rural, working class Republicans are more skeptical of compromise than the white-collar suburban Republicans.

*** Romney and the tough Boston press corps: Speaking of Romney, it appears that he will have to endure something he confronted in 2007-2008 (and which John Kerry also faced in 2003-2004): a very tough Boston political press corps. The latest example: The Boston Globe’s Lehigh takes aim at Romney’s positions on New START and the tax deal as pandering: “[F]or those eagerly awaiting the new, improved 2012 Romney, a word of caution: Don’t get your hopes too high. So far, the prototype suffers from many of the same flaws that plagued the 2008 model Mitt.” And so it begins for Romney… As the only candidate who can be called "a" front-runner, he's going to get a lot more stories like this than the John Thunes or even Haley Barbours of the world.

*** A final note: Our morning First Read dispatch will be on holiday over the next two weeks, but it will return on Monday, Jan. 3. However, as always, we’ll update our blog as news warrants -- especially regarding the outstanding legislative items Congress is considering during the lame duck. So be sure to check our Web site often. Happy Holidays. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. And Happy Bowl Season.

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