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First Thoughts: Cornered

House Republicans find themselves in a corner on the payroll tax cut… And Boehner finds himself on an island… New national WaPo/ABC poll shows Gingrich and Romney all tied up (but how much stock should we put in national polls at this stage?)… Gingrich continues to explain Freddie Mac… A family affair: Gingrich daughter stumps for Newt in SC… Should the Paul newsletters get the same kind of scrutiny as that Perry rock?... And it’s officially two weeks out until the Iowa caucuses.

*** Cornered: To understand how House Republicans have backed themselves into a corner on extending the payroll tax cut, two Senate Republicans running in some of the most competitive contests next year are distancing themselves from the House GOP. “The House Republicans’ plan to scuttle the deal to help middle-class families is irresponsible and wrong,” said Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), who most likely will run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2012. “The refusal to compromise now threatens to increase taxes on hard-working Americans and stop unemployment benefits for those out of work.” And Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who will run against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, added: “What is playing out in Washington, D.C., this week is about political leverage, not about what’s good for the American people. Congress can work out a solution without stopping the payroll tax-cut extension for the middle class.” Bottom line: You know where the politics on this issue are when Brown and Heller are for/against something. Two other veteran senators, Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe, also both up for re-election in states carried by President Obama in ‘08, have joined the chorus of Republicans asking the House GOP to simply vote out the Senate bill.

*** No up-or-down vote: What’s more, House Republicans today WILL NOT allow an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill that extends the tax cut for two months, NBC’s Frank Thorp and Luke Russert report. Instead, the New York Times says, they “will implement a procedural maneuver in which they will ‘reject’ the Senate bill while requesting to go to conference with members of that chamber in a single measure, protecting House members from having to actually vote against extending a payroll tax cut. During the conference meeting among Republican members, some members expressed concern about effectively voting for a tax increase on the eve of an election year, said some who attended.” How many times did House Republicans complain about procedural moves like this when they were in the minority? This move suggest three things: 1) They might lose the vote; 2) they don’t want to vote for something that could be spun into being a tax increase; and 3) they don’t want to have to whip against a tax cut.

*** Boehner on an island: House Republicans aren’t the only ones who have put themselves into a corner; so has House Speaker John Boehner. How did he so badly misread his House GOP conference on this measure? We are pretty confident that there’s no way Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would have left Boehner high and dry on this payroll tax cut -- and given that high five -- if it was undesirable to Boehner. Boehner’s speakership could be badly damaged from this episode. Is he leading or simply trying to stay in front of the crowd?

The Congressional showdown over extending the payroll tax cut, which is set to expire at the end of the year, has revealed infighting between Republicans on Capitol Hill. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

*** All tied up? Turning to the GOP presidential contest, a new national Washington Post/ABC poll finds Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney tied at 30% among Republican voters and GOP-leaning independents. And this survey comes a day after a CNN poll showed Gingrich and Romney tied at 28%. But at this stage of the GOP race -- with two weeks until Iowa and three weeks until New Hampshire -- national polling is usually a LAGGING indicator. After all, at this point four years ago, our national NBC/WSJ poll showed Hillary Clinton with a 22-point lead over Barack Obama, 45%-23% (and he was just weeks away from winning Iowa). And it showed Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney tied at 20%, with Mike Huckabee (the eventual Iowa caucus winner) at 17%, and John McCain (the eventual GOP nominee) at 14%. Whoever wins Iowa and New Hampshire will change the national polls…

*** Explaining Freddie Mac: Meanwhile, Gingrich is still explaining his work for Freddie Mac. And, in politics, if you’re explaining (and still explaining after six weeks), you aren’t winning. “Freddie Mac hired Gingrich Group, which is a firm which had offices in three cities,” Gingrich said yesterday, per NBC’s Morgan Parmet. “Of the total contract, it was a six-year-period contract. Of the total amount they keep talking about, I probably got about $35,000 a year. Now that's less than I was making per speech so that's what my particular interest in it was that amount.”

*** A family affair: It’s also worth noting how Gingrich’s campaign has become a family affair. Yesterday, per NBC’s Ali Weinberg, daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman stumped for her father in South Carolina, where she responded to Gingrich’s past divorces. (Cushman is the daughter of Gingrich’s first wife, Jackie Battley.) “Most families have gone through terrible things, whether it’s divorce or tragedy. That’s life,” she said. “We’ve healed, we’ve reconciled.” She later told Weinberg: “I try to frame it in a way that makes sense and resonates with people,” adding: “Like many families, we had a hard time and we’ve all moved on. And we’re all focused on helping each other.” This is a very important message for Gingrich to get out -- that his family is supportive. This matters a lot to evangelicals, who may be looking for a reason to forgive Gingrich for his past indiscretions. Keep an eye out for some big evangelical endorsements today in Iowa, something Gingrich badly needs. No guarantee he gets them.

*** Those Paul newsletters: Ron Paul supporters often complain that their candidate doesn’t get enough media attention. But if they wanted him treated like a typical front-runner, they might see more coverage like today’s New York Times look at “decades-old unbylined columns in his political newsletters that included racist, anti-gay and anti-Israel passages that he has since disavowed.” One example: “A 1992 passage from the Ron Paul Political Report about the Los Angeles riots read, ‘Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.’” Also: “A passage in another newsletter asserted that people with AIDS should not be allowed to eat in restaurants because ‘AIDS can be transmitted by saliva.’” And: “[O]ne of his publications criticized Ronald Reagan for having gone along with the creation of the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which it called ‘Hate Whitey Day.’” Paul has said that he didn’t write these things in his newsletter and that he disavows them. But just think all the scrutiny that Rick Perry got for that Texas ranch rock. These newsletters are just as problematic -- if not more so…

*** Could Paul winning Iowa kill the caucuses? Politico’s Martin raises that very question. “Paul poses an existential threat to the state’s cherished kick-off status, say these Republicans, because he has little chance to win the GOP nomination and would offer the best evidence yet that the caucuses reward candidates who are unrepresentative of the broader party. ‘It would make the caucuses mostly irrelevant if not entirely irrelevant,’ said Becky Beach, a longtime Iowa Republican who helped Presidents Bush 41 and Bush 43 here. ‘It would have a very damaging effect, because I don’t think he could be elected president and both Iowa and national Republicans wouldn’t think he represents the will of voters.’”

*** On the 2012 trail: It’s another BUSY day: Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum all campaign in Iowa… And Huntsman, Paul, and Romney campaign in New Hampshire… Also in Iowa today, Bob Vander Plaats, president & CEO of The Family Leader, will announce his endorsement at 11:30 am ET.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 14 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 21 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 32 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 42 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 46 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 77 days
Countdown to Election Day: 324 days

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