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First Thoughts: Worst. Congress. Ever?

Worst. Congress. Ever?... The Super Committee’s failure is the latest evidence to back up that assertion… The blame game begins over the Super Committee… Then again, gridlock could end up succeeding to produce as much as $6 trillion in deficit reduction… Gingrich and Romney lead the pack in new USA Today/Gallup poll… Crying it out in Iowa… Is Romney playing to win in Iowa?... And Perry targets a different Democrat a day.

*** Worst. Congress. Ever? Last summer, during the height of the debt-ceiling debate, congressional scholar Norm Ornstein wrote an article dubbing this Congress the “Worst. Congress. Ever.” And there’s now even more evidence to back up that assertion. According to Gallup, just 13% approve of Congress’ job (and that percentage is lower in other polls). As far as productivity goes, congressional lobbyist Billy Moore tells First Read that this Congress has enacted just 55 public laws so far this year (and 34 of them merely extended existing laws), compared with the average over the last 20 years of 148 public laws for a first full session. Moreover, back in the spring, Congress almost allowed the federal government to shut down. In the summer, Standard & Poor's cited Congress' brinksmanship over the debt ceiling as its rationale for downgrading U.S. debt. And now, unless a miracle occurs, it appears that the so-called Super Committee won't be able to reach an agreement to strike a deal over how to cut $1.2 trillion or more in spending.

As the self-imposed deadline looms for Congress' debt-cutting "super committee" to recommend more than $1 trillion in budget savings, Congressional leaders conceded that talks were near failure. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

*** The blame game: Of course, everyone is trying to blame the other side for the Super Committee’s expected failure. Republicans -- as well as GOP presidential contenders like Mitt Romney -- are blaming President Obama for not doing more (even though House Speaker John Boehner and the GOP walked away from the president’s grand-bargain offer last summer). Democrats are blaming Republicans for not making a serious effort to place higher taxes and more tax revenue on the table. And Republicans are blaming Democrats for not making a serious effort to reform entitlement spending. But the institution of Congress needs to take a deep look into the mirror. Because of how it works -- legislation has to pass both chambers to get to the president's desk, and 60 votes are now needed to get almost anything through the Senate -- both sides have to come together to get anything done. And right now, that's not happening. Make no mistake: This likely will hurt ALL incumbents; Congress' job rating will get lower (who knew that was possible?); and will make running against Washington all the more appealing.

*** Then again, gridlock could end up succeeding: But while Congress is unable to put politics aside to strike a grand bargain -- or any bargain -- here, there is still some significant deficit reduction going on. The Super Committee’s inability to reach a deal triggers $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years in military and civilian spending. That’s on top of the nearly $1 trillion Congress cut to raise the debt ceiling in the summer. And consider this: If Congress and Obama let the Bush tax cuts expire -- all of them -- that would produce another $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. So if Congress ends up doing NOTHING, you could see $6 trillion in deficit reduction. That said, efforts are already underway to restore military spending cuts, as well as those Bush tax cuts.

*** Gingrich and Romney leading the pack: Turning to the Republican presidential race, a new USA Today/Gallup poll has Newt Gingrich and Romney in the lead, with Gingrich at 22% among registered GOP voters and Romney at 21%. Herman Cain has dropped to third at 16%, and he’s followed by Ron Paul at 9% and Rick Perry at 8%.

*** Crying it out in Iowa: Over the weekend, six of the GOP presidential candidates (Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul, Perry, and Santorum) spoke at a forum sponsored by the Family Leader, and things got a bit emotional. Per a dispatch by NBC’s Carrie Dann, Alex Moe, Andrew Rafferty, and Jamie Novogrod, “Gingrich disclosed a time in the 1990s when he felt that he was ‘failing personally,’ even turning to the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook because he felt ‘truly hollow.’” Gingrich also admitted that his two divorces caused “a great deal of pain,” which he said he deeply regretted. Meanwhile, Cain “choked up when talking about his wife, Gloria, and the struggle he faced with cancer.” And he later “struggled past tears in describing one consequence of his business success. ‘I didn't believe that I was home enough when my kids were growing up,’ he said.” And another candidate who shed tears was Santorum, who discussed his daughter’s struggles for her life. “‘I had seen her as less of a person because of her disability.’”

*** Is Romney playing to win Iowa? One of the Republicans who didn’t attend Saturday’s forum -- Romney -- appears more and more likely to make a play for Iowa. As NBC’s Alex Moe and Garrett Haake reported over the weekend, Romney’s campaign opened an official headquarters in the Hawkeye State. “We’ve got a lot of volunteers and more activity as the caucuses approach and we thought it was time to get a little more space," David Kochel, Romney's top adviser in Iowa, told NBC. "We opened the office several days ago. We don’t plan any grand opening events there.” The New York Times later added that Romney “is now playing to win the Iowa caucuses. Television commercials are on the way, volunteers are arriving and a stealth operation is ready to burst into view in the weeks leading up to the caucuses, the first Republican nominating contest, on Jan. 3.” Romney travels to the Hawkeye State on Wednesday.

*** Perry targets a different Democrat a day: NBC’s Carrie Dann points out that Perry spent the past week criticizing Democrats and Democratic officials. On Tuesday, he took aim at House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. On Wednesday, it was a not-so cordial invitation to debate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. On Friday, it was a stinging rebuke of Attorney General Eric Holder. And in between, he was attacking President Obama. Who’s next? Anyone want to bet it’s Energy Secretary Chu?

*** On the 2012 trail: It’s a busy day in New Hampshire, with Romney, Gingrich, Paul and Huntsman all campaigning there… Huntsman also delivers a speech in DC on the Super Committee’s failure… Santorum stumps in Iowa… And Bachmann meets with Donald Trump in New York City, and she tapes an interview with Jimmy Fallon.

*** Monday’s “Daily Rundown” line-up (with guest host Luke Russert): House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) on the super committee’s finger-pointing and what no deal means with NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell and Jim Miklaszewski… The latest on Egypt with NBC’s Richard Engel and the accused New York City terror plotter with WNBC’s Jonathan Dienst… And more 2012 news with the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, USA Today’s Susan Page and the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page.

*** Monday’s “Jansing & Co.” line-up: MSNBC’s Richard Lui interviews the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and Dana Milbank, the Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs, and Dem Rep. Karen Bass.

*** Monday’s “MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts” line-up: MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts interviews David Goodfriend & Robert Traynham (on Newt’s rise) and CNBC’s Shartia Brantley (on the black 1%).

*** Monday’s “NOW with Alex Wagner” line-up: MSNBC’s Alex Wagner’s panel includes former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, Meghan McCain, Melissa Harris-Perry, and former RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

*** Monday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell (from New York) interviews Super Committee member John Kerry, Sen. Jim Webb, Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, Roll Call’s Christina Bellantoni, the Financial Times’ Gillian Tett, Stu Rothenberg, and NBC’s Richard Engel.

*** Monday’s “News Nation with Tamron Hall” line-up: MSNBC’s Tamron Hall interviews The Hill’s AB Stoddard and The Nation’s Ari Melber, as well as Dem Rep. Luis Gutierrez.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 43 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 50 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 61 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 71 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 75 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 106 days
Countdown to Election Day: 351 days

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