A split between Japan and the U.S. on the nuclear crisis … Is the U.S. moving toward military action in Libya? … The next steps on the budget and what a high-stakes month it will be … The president catches flak for brackets and “sunshine.” … Haley’s get in New Hampshire (is he top tier or Phil Gramm?) … And remembering Richard Wirthlin, the father of modern-day campaign polling.
From NBC's Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, Ali Weinberg, and Carrie Dann
*** Worse than they’re letting on: It was clear yesterday from the testimony of the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the White House briefing that the U.S. government no longer trusts the information coming out of the Japanese government on the nuclear crisis. But officials can’t say that outright because this is such a delicate situation, and Japan is such a key ally. The news out of Japan last night: the government tried dumping water from helicopters (that largely missed) and shooting high-pressure water cannons at the buildings (but they couldn’t get close enough). The U.S. is advising Americans not to get within a 50-mile radius of the nuclear site. The U.S. government also issued a voluntary evacuation order for families of U.S. government personnel in the affected areas of the country. The British government is also telling its citizens in Tokyo and to the north that they “should consider leaving the area.”
*** Moving toward military action in Libya? A day after four New York Times reporters went missing in Libya and Gadhafi forces went on the offensive in a town in the West, the situation there remains dire and getting worse for the opposition rebels. And after what seems like weeks of internal debate, the Obama administration is now ramping up pressure, pressing the case with the United Nations for a tough resolution that includes a "by any means necessary" open-ended clause paving the way for air strikes. Secretary of State Clinton is hopeful one will come “no later than” today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at yesterday’s briefing. Carney stressed that any action needs to be “international in nature” and that it has to be “clear that this is not the West or the United States dictating an outcome.” It appears the United States and Western allies could be moving toward some form of military action in Libya, but want the cover of the U.N. to do it. The question becomes what if the resolution DOESN’T pass in the U.N.?
*** The next step on the budget: The Senate is set to vote on and pass -- likely this afternoon -- the continuing resolution that passed the House Tuesday that would fund the government through April 8. The last CR, which expires Friday, passed the Senate March 2 by a 91-9 vote with five Republicans and three Democrats (plus one independent who caucuses with the Dems) voting against it. The five Republicans: Crapo (R-ID), Hatch (R-UT), Lee (R-UT), Paul (R-KY), and Risch (R-ID). The four Dems: Harkin (D-IA), Levin (D-MI), Murray (D-WA), and Sanders (I-VT). This time, at least two more Republicans -- DeMint (R-SC) and Rubio (R-FL) -- have publicly come out against it, but several others could vote against it as well. But how many Republicans does it wind up being -- just the seven? 10? 15? And watch the Democrats’ number, too. It’s going to be more than four and could get up to as many as 10. (The reason the vote was pushed back to today instead of yesterday was because of a small-business bill with amendments, including a controversial one that would curb the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. Once that one’s done, they’ll move to the CR.)
*** A high-stakes month: Just how consequential is the next month? Check out this timeline: April 8: the current CR expires; April 15: Tax Day -- Americans’ tax refunds could be delayed if the government shuts down; April 15: Also the first day Treasury says the government could hit the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Republicans won’t vote to raise the debt-ceiling “unless President Barack Obama agrees to rein in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” AP reports, adding that McConnell’s “laying down a high-stakes marker just weeks before the debt ceiling is reached.” And maybe that’s House Speaker John Boehner’s way out on the budget -- to save face by saying there’s a firm commitment from the White House to tackle entitlements and then pass a CR through September that might be something less than what “his party’s rebellious wing” -- as the New York Times’ Hulse called it -- would want.
*** Where do we go from here? Democrats insist they’re not starting from scratch on the longer-term budget negotiations. There haven’t been any high-level meetings like the one with Vice President Biden two weeks ago, but there have been ongoing meetings at the staff level that kicked into high gear after the failed test votes last week. Democrats have said they’re willing to go beyond the $10 billion that’s already been cut. But there hasn’t been an indication yet what Boehner’s path is to move off (or if he will move off) the $61 billion figure. The White House proposed about $25 billion in cuts from the 2012 budget -- and that has provided areas for both sides to agree on to cut from the last two stopgap measures. But both sides are going to have to make tough choices on their priorities. Democrats don’t want to draw any hard lines in the sand, but their priorities: 1. Education (Head Start), 2. Infrastructure (TIGER Grants), and 3. Science/research (cancer research/NIH).
*** Bracket-ed: Republicans had a field day yesterday with the president’s appearance on ESPN, laying out his NCAA bracket and then attending a DNC event for big-money fundraisers at a Washington hotel last night at a time when Japan is in a nuclear crisis and the situation in Libya remains dire. It’s notable that the ESPN appearance was the president’s only one of the day, and that they ironically canceled an event in which the president was to receive an award in conjunction with “Sunshine Week,” to promote government transparency. That prompted Twitter ribbing from White House reporters, like, “Let the Sunshine?” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The president is obviously engaged on the crises, taking an 11:00 pm ET phone call with prime minister of Japan and doing work behind the scenes. The White House is taking solace in the fact that “Real America” isn’t paying much attention to these snipes. But they should be aware that perception could become reality for swing voters, especially if some of this starts landing in late-night monologues; the last few days haven't been stellar ones for those in charge of Obama's presidential image. Paging Michael Deaver?
*** Haley -- top tier or Phil Gramm? This news from New Hampshire reporter James Pindell: “The man who steered John McCain through two New Hampshire Primary victories tells WMUR that he would help Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s campaign in New Hampshire.” It’s a big get for Barbour. Will Barbour be a true top-tier player or Phil Gramm? Either is likely. Gramm had all the best people you could have and all the money, but he had a tough personality to sell and never actually caught fire with voters -- even as Gramm had the media intelligentsia (and the GOP establishment) convinced he was a major player.
*** DeMint gives Romney some health-care cover: Check out conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who backed Mitt Romney in 2008, giving Romney a measure of cover on his health-care plan. DeMint argues that what's being lobbed against Romney as so-called "Romney-Care" was a good idea that was “essentially hijacked by the Democrat Leglislature.” DeMint is neutral so far in 2012. Could be this be a hint that he'll be with Romney when he's ready? And if so, is this enough cover? It's quite the help already.
*** Remembering Richard Wirthlin: Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin died yesterday at the age of 80. Wirthlin was a member of Reagan’s inner circle from his California governor days, but more than just an adviser, he reshaped how American politics and campaigns are waged. He provided “reams of data that shaped more than the public has ever realized how Reagan presented himself to Californians and the nation,” Politico writes. He really was the first real campaign pollster on the Republican side of the aisle. He laid the groundwork as the first of the successful campaign pollsters. GOP pollster Glen Bolger, who worked for Wirthlin in his first cycle doing polls, shares some of his reflections with First Read: “Dr. Wirthlin was one of the pioneers of modern political polling and consulting. His work for Ronald Reagan in both campaigns and throughout his Presidency was ground-breaking. To have a chance to have learned from the best was inspiring. He will always be remembered by his family, his friends, his clients, and his former employees.”
*** A ‘Pioneer’: NBC/WSJ pollster Bill McInturff calls Wirthlin a “pioneer.” He adds, “Very few people get to say they were ‘there at the creation.’ Richard was. Richard helped not only create the world of political polling we know today, but the role and status of political consulting. He was an academic economist who brought intellectual rigor to political polling. He was always restlessly looking for the newest, latest, best ideas in research that could be applied to politics. Lance Tarrance, Vince Breglio, Gary Lawrence, Frank Luntz, and our firm's founding partners all worked for him, and in that way as well, his influence is enduring through multiple generations of American politics. The entire polling and political consulting community owes him a great debt. Finally, those who knew him can attest to his devotion to his family and the Mormon Church. Richard worked longer and harder than anyone, but still found time to devote enormous time to his faith and family.” Any decent pollster on the GOP side of the aisle these days traces their roots to Wirthlin; many of these folks consider Wirthlin their mentor. Wirthlin also had one other trait missing from a lot of consultants these days; he actually believed his clients were the principal, not himself. Wirthlin's work and character will be missed.
*** 'A man of integrity': GOP pollster Neil Newhouse on Wirthlin: "First and foremost, Dick Wirthlin was a man of integrity. He lived for his family and his work and he nurtured those around him, making them better people and better researchers. He set a standard that others can only strive for. His influence in the field of survey research continues through the work of those who had the opportunity to work beside him. There is no question that the success of our firm stands on Dick's broad shoulders. Our firm and the consulting community owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dick Wirthlin."
*** The Internet and politics: According to a Pew poll out this morning, “More than half of all voting-age adults used the internet politically in one way or another during the 2010 campaign—the first time more than half the population has done so in a midterm election;” “The audience for online political video has grown dramatically since the previous midterms, with Republican voters showing marked increases in online video consumption; And get this: “For adult Americans who go online, the internet is the second-most prominent source of campaign news, behind television but ahead of newspapers.” That’s good news for First Readers.
*** Obama’s Day: President Obama’s schedule is pretty St. Patrick’s Day-centric. He greets the Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shoKH') of Ireland at the White House, attends a Friends of Ireland Luncheon hosted by House Speaker John Boehner at the Capitol at 1:15 pm. Vice President Biden will also attend. Obama then hosts a reception at the White House later in the evening.
*** On the Trail: Newt Gingrich attends the Wild Irish Breakfast in Nashua, NH… Rick Santorum is in Uniontown, PA… Michele Bachmann will also be in the Granite State for an evening reception at a private home.
Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 1 day
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 148 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 236 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 326 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up