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First Thoughts: Next up

The next big political fights: the debt ceiling, the FY 2012 budget, and entitlement reform… Obama to deliver speech on entitlement reform on Wednesday… The winners and losers of Friday’s spending deal… Boehner was the big winner… Obama once again played mediator… The losers: the Democratic left, Mitch Daniels and the “trucers,” and Washington, DC… NBC News -- along with National Journal, the St. Pete Times, and the Florida Council of 100 -- announce a GOP presidential debate… Ayers to Palwenty… Palin goes birther?... And New Hampshire Dems say “thank you” to Mitt Romney on eve of anniversary of MA’s health-care law.

From NBC's Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Next up: Despite all the drama and last-minute negotiating before Friday night’s budget deal, the spending fight was small potatoes compared with what’s coming. Next up will be more contentious battles over raising the debt ceiling, the FY 2012 budget, and possibly entitlement reform (now that Obama will give a speech later this week on long-term deficit/debt reduction). Raising the debt ceiling will be particularly difficult. As we mentioned on Friday, the American public doesn’t support it. In our NBC/WSJ poll, only 16% said that Congress should raise the debt ceiling, versus 46% who said it shouldn’t. What's worse for those stuck with trying to sell the need to raise it: When respondents were told that the U.S. would default on its debt payments if the debt ceiling WASN’T raised, that 16% increased to just 32%, while the anti-number jumped a tad higher, to 62%.

*** Addressing entitlement reform: Speaking of that Wednesday speech, as one of us reported on “TODAY” this morning, Obama is expected to call for cuts in defense, Medicare, and Medicaid spending -- along with letting the tax cuts expire for those making more than $250,000 a year. “We’ve got to decide -- and it’s going to be a tough fight -- how are we going to reduce the deficit, get on a more sustainable fiscal trajectory, but in a way that doesn’t compromise our ability to grow the economy or create jobs?” White House senior adviser David Plouffe said on “Meet the Press” yesterday. That the White House is going to address entitlement reform is just more evidence that everything it’s doing is with independents in mind, and that it wants to cast Obama as the rational reformer. But are we going to hear from the left on this? The White House -- once again -- is poking at his base. How long before they break? On the other hand, Paul Ryan’s own entitlement plan could give Obama the cover he needs…

*** Budget deal’s winners and losers: We were convinced that a government shutdown -- at least in the short term -- wouldn’t have benefited anyone. Democrats (and probably quite a few independents) would have blamed Speaker Boehner and the Tea Party. President Obama, meanwhile, would have taken a hit for being unable to bring together the differing parties, as he campaigned to do in 2008. But given that Boehner, the White House, and Senate Democrats were able to reach a deal on Friday night and avert a shutdown, all the principals all can claim credit. Yet some were bigger winners than others.

*** Boehner was the biggest winner: To us, the biggest winner was Boehner, mainly because his job was the hardest. As our latest NBC/WSJ poll showed, while majorities of Democrats and independents want their leaders to compromise, an overwhelming majority of Republicans prefer them to hold their ground. So perhaps the biggest takeaway from the budget agreement was that Boehner, despite his Tea Party base, could cut a deal and get credit from both Democrats and Republicans. The question is whether this gives him breathing room with his base to cut future deals with Democrats on future battles. But the process was messy, and despite the public happy talk from everyone that this proves the town can work, this wasn't a process that built up trust, especially on the staff level. Yes, the president and the speaker have more of a rapport, but there was some frustration that apparent deals agreed to by the principles were regularly unwound when the details were worked out. Not sure this was a roadmap for how these folks will work together effectively in the next few months.

*** Obama the mediator: The Obama White House was a winner, too. As he’s done before -- most notably last December’s tax-cut deal -- the president was able to bring Democrats and Republicans together. Yet unlike with the tax cuts, Obama wasn’t able to get ANY goodies in return (like the payroll tax cut and the jobless benefits). He was in the unenviable position of making a deal LESS worse for his party. (Elections have consequences, right?) Obama hopes that the agreement serves as a template for future battles. “It’s my sincere hope that we can continue to come together as we face the many difficult challenges that lie ahead,” he said after the deal was struck. The danger for Obama and the Democrats, as Politico notes, is that the GOP agenda is driving the national debate.

*** The losers: In our eyes, there were three big losers. The first is the Democratic left (the conversation isn't over whether there should be budget cuts, but rather how big should they be -- and is there a single policy that was being debated or was it all about dollars?). A second are Mitch Daniels and other "trucers" (the budget deal was a reminder how all issues, even fiscal ones like Friday night's deal, still hinge on social issues). And a final loser was Washington, DC (that the deal bars even local money from covering abortions is a reminder how DC's 500,000-plus residents remain subject to Congress' whims; the city, as it has been in the past, was tossed under the bus).   

*** Neither winners nor losers: Senate Democrats: they get their own category. Why? They had a hard time getting on the same page at the White House. It was never clear who was charged with taking point on the negotiations, Senate Democrats or the White House. And whenever Senate Democrats did PUBLICLY lay down markers, they were undercut by the White House or House Republicans or both. That said, thanks to the unifying force of the Senate Democratic women, Harry Reid seemed to successfully bring the abortion and women's health issue front and center in the debate at the last minute which helped push House Republicans to give in on the Planned Parenthood issue.

*** Time to announce another debate: NBC News, National Journal, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Florida Council of 100 are announcing today that they will co-sponsor a GOP presidential primary debate early next year. It will be held at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, which is the site of the Republican’s 2012 convention. It would be the first time that presidential primary candidates will debate in the SAME arena where one of them will return to accept the nomination. The exact date depends on the timing of the first big three contests, but the event is expected to be the first major debate following the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Florida has been DECISIVE in every presidential election this century, including 2008 when John McCain essentially ended the Republican primary fight with a victory in that primary. 

*** Ayers to Pawlenty: First Read has learned that Nick Ayers, who previously served as the Republican Governors Association’s executive director, will become campaign manager of Tim Pawlenty’s exploratory committee. This hire is significant for a couple of reasons. One, this is a potential fundraising bonanza for T-Paw, because Ayers has secured checks from the biggest GOP donors. Pawlenty raising his first $10 million won’t be hard; it’s the next $10 million that will be difficult. And that’s where Ayers could help. Two, this is a blow to Haley Barbour, given that Ayers was his executive director when Barbour chaired the RGA. Many insiders will read this move as potential evidence Barbour may be having second thoughts. Remember, the single worst attribute to have when running for president, according to last week's NBC/WSJ poll, was "lobbyist."

*** Palin goes birther? Last week, looking at her poll numbers, we wrote off Palin for 2012. And now she’s jumped off the cliff. "I think that [Obama] was born in Hawaii, because there was the birth announcement put in the newspaper," Palin said on FOX. "But obviously there is something there that the president doesn't want people to see on that birth certificate, that he sees going to great lengths to make sure it isn't shown. And that's perplexing for a lot of people.” In fact, Obama has provided documentation of his birth in this country. By the way, does Palin know that her 2008 running mate wasn’t born in one of the 50 U.S. states?

*** 2012 watch: Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of Massachusetts’ health-care reform becoming law, and New Hampshire Democrats are holding “thank you” events for Mitt Romney… Both Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul are in Iowa.

Countdown to NY-26 special election: 43 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 123 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 211 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 301 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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