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First Thoughts: The endgame

With three weeks to go to avoid the fiscal cliff, President Barack Obama will travel to a Detroit auto plan and attempt to sell his plan to raise taxes on the top two percent of Americans.

The “fiscal cliff” end game… If there’s going to be a deal, Obama, Boehner, and Congress need to start the heavy lifting ASAP… Kristol vs. the Wall Street Journal on caving on the tax rates… Motoring! Obama delivers remarks at 2:00 pm ET at a Detroit Diesel plant in Redford, MI… And in Michigan, the president will set foot in the state featuring the nation’s latest labor battle… The hits keep on coming for Susan Rice… The upcoming immigration push… Hillary and 2016… And meet Markwayne Mullen.

*** The end game: We’ve told you that the last couple of weeks in Washington’s fiscal debate have mostly been about P.R. and posturing. Like a student in college or a reporter working in the news business, the real work in Congress typically doesn’t happen until there’s a real deadline that’s rapidly approaching. Well, we’ve now entered that deadline phase in the negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. If the plan is to get something passed by Friday, Dec. 21 (right before the Christmas holiday), then the legislation has to be written by Dec. 18. And that means that Obama and Boehner must reach an agreement by Dec. 14-15, if there’s going to be a deal. So the time for posturing and P.R. is over. This week, we’ve reached the phase where both sides will begin rolling up their sleeves to do the heavy negotiating. Both Obama and Boehner know this, which is why they did meet behind closed doors yesterday. The question now is: Will there be a BIG deal that includes serious entitlement hits in addition to major tax reform? Or will it be JUST taxes and a punt until the debt ceiling? There’s not much of an “in between” at this point.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks with reporters outside his office in the Capitol Dec. 7, 2012 in Washington, DC.

*** Kristol vs. the Wall Street Journal: In addition to yesterday’s news that the president and the speaker met, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) became the latest GOP lawmaker to suggest that Republicans acquiesce on raising tax rates on the wealthy to get entitlement cuts. And that’s a stance the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page today criticizes. “So it's a shame that Republicans are playing into Mr. Obama's hands, negotiating in public among themselves, prematurely giving up on the tax issue and undermining House Speaker John Boehner in the process. Mr. Obama isn't going to blink on the budget if he thinks Republicans are going to blink first, and so far the emerging GOP position seems to be to surrender on taxes first and hope Mr. Obama will have mercy on them later on entitlements.” But the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol hits back at the Journal. “Most Republicans will go along soon after January 1 with what will now be the Democrats' tax cutting agenda. If the House Republicans now follow the Wall Street Journal editors over the cliff, the only effect, I'm afraid, will be to turn a manageable tactical retreat in December into a panicked strategic rout in January.” There is good news for Boehner in all of this: The lack of consensus among conservatives gives Boehner more running room to cut the deal he thinks is best, rather than over-worrying about specific conservative constituencies. Remember, the House GOP leadership won’t say it publicly, but they’ve signaled privately that under the RIGHT circumstance, they’d go to the floor of the House with less than a majority of the majority.

Former Michigan Republican Governor John Engler, who is the president of the business roundtable, joins The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd to talk about President Barack Obama's trip the Michigan, the fiscal cliff, and Michigan's 'right to work' law.

*** Motoring! Your White House fiscal-cliff photo-op of the day takes place in Michigan, where the president delivers remarks at a Daimler Detroit Diesel plant at 2:00 pm ET in Redford. Per the Detroit Free Press, Daimler, which owns Detroit Diesel, is announcing “a new investment to expand U.S. production and jobs... The White House said the investment is expected to be $100 million or more and, with it, Daimler Trucks North America will become the first heavy-duty vehicle equipment manufacturer on the continent to build a fully integrated powertrain from on production facility.” So today’s even will be a mixture of the fiscal cliff and this Daimler news.

*** Michigan’s labor battle: Yet when Obama visits Michigan, he’ll be setting foot in the state featuring the nation’s latest labor battle. “With Michigan lawmakers poised Tuesday to give final passage of right-to-work legislation, unions and their supporters plan to mass outside the Capitol that day as part of a last-ditch bid to derail the fast-moving campaign to limit labor's power,” the Detroit News says. “If lawmakers reconcile the bills and pass a final version Tuesday — as expected — Gov. Rick Snyder has said he will sign it, making Michigan the 24th right-to-work state and dealing a major blow to organized labor in one of its traditional strongholds.” Out of all the new Republican governors who were elected in 2010, Michigan’s Rick Snyder was always viewed as the least ideological of the bunch. So when Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, or Rick Scott in Florida were pursuing controversial changes and legislation and confronting the labor movement, Snyder -- who calls himself “one tough nerd” -- stayed away from the ideological wars and focused on the economy. In fact, he even appeared to support Obama’s auto bailout. But now the Michigan governor finds himself knee deep in the same kind of controversy we saw in Wisconsin and Ohio. By the way, while we do expect Snyder to greet the president at the airport, don’t expect to see Snyder with the president at the Chrysler event because it’s taking place at a UAW facility.

*** Hits keep coming for Rice: It’s no longer Benghazi, or even the Keystone XL Pipeline. Critics of Susan Rice are now pointing to the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in the atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The New York Times: “Specifically, these critics — who include officials of human rights organizations and United Nations diplomats — say the administration has not put enough pressure on Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, to end his support for the rebel movement whose recent capture of the strategic city of Goma in Congo set off a national crisis in a country that has already lost more than three million people in more than a decade of fighting. Rwanda’s support is seen as vital to the rebel group, known as M23.” And the Times reports that Rice has been viewed as shielding Kagame. And then there’s a New York Times op-ed from journalist Salem Solomon, who accuses Rice of showing “a surprising and unsettling sympathy for Africa’s despots.” This is the problem for Rice as long as President Obama doesn’t officially appoint her (or John Kerry) to fill the secretary of state position: She’s dangling like a piñata for critics to whack, without an official campaign to defend her. But with the fiscal cliff taking up more and more time and this secretary of state issue becoming such a headache for the administration, there’s a very real chance the president doesn’t announce any new cabinet members until AFTER the new year.

*** The upcoming immigration push: Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times noted that the Obama White House is preparing for a big push on comprehensive immigration reform after the “fiscal cliff” negotiations end. “Senior White House advisors plan to launch a social media blitz in January, and expect to tap the same organizations and unions that helped get a record number of Latino voters to reelect the president. Cabinet secretaries are preparing to make the case for how changes in immigration laws could benefit businesses, education, healthcare and public safety. Congressional committees could hold hearings on immigration legislation as soon as late January or early February.” More: “Democratic strategists believe there is only a narrow window at the beginning of the year to get an initiative launched in Congress, before lawmakers begin to turn their attention to the next election cycle and are less likely to take a risky vote on a controversial bill.”

*** Hillary and 2016: On Sunday, the New York Times ran a “Hillary 2016” story, and we all should prepare for these kind of stories once a month until she decides to run (or not) for president. “Right now, aides and friends say, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plan looks like this: exit the State Department shortly after Inauguration Day and then seclude herself to rest and reflect on what she wants to do for the next few years. Those who have invited her for 2013 engagements have been told not to even ask again until April or May.” The Times does make this important point: If she does want to keep the presidential door open, her options are limited. “The more serious she is about 2016, the less she can do — no frank, seen-it-all memoir; no clients, commissions or controversial positions that could prove problematic. She will be under heavy scrutiny even by Clinton standards, discovering what it means to be a supposedly private citizen in the age of Twitter. With the election four years away — a political eon — she will have to tend and protect her popularity, and she may find herself in a cushy kind of limbo, unable to make many decisions about her life until she makes the big one about another White House try.”

*** Meet Markwayne Mullin: NBC’s Carrie Dann has profiled 10 new members to watch in the next Congress. Today’s profile: Markwayne Mullen. When his father's illness forced Mullin to quit college and take over the family plumbing business, the 20-year-old and his wife turned a flailing enterprise into a small eastern Oklahoma empire. Mullin, now 35, won the House seat vacated by retiring Rep. Dan Boren, running under the banner "A rancher. A businessman. Not a politician!" The Tulsa native -- a social conservative who vehemently opposes "amnesty" proposals -- has promised to take a no-frills attitude to the halls of Congress. Casually dressed on election night, he joked with supporters that he defied his campaign staff's request that he wear a suit to deliver his victory speech. "They got me this far, and boots are going to take me all the way there and bring me all the way back" from Washington, he said.

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