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First Thoughts: What is Boehner doing?

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have never been closer to reaching a fiscal cliff agreement after both made major concessions in recent days, but talks could also fall apart over Boehner's "Plan B" that Democrats unanimously oppose. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

What is Boehner doing with Plan B?... Three reasons why the move is so puzzling… Hillary Clinton is Teflon no more when it comes to Benghazi… It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the Obama national security team (current and potentially future)… Obama to make announcement on the policy process the White House will pursue after the tragedy in Newtown… And (no so) Great Scott: Rick Scott’s tough new poll numbers.

*** What is Boehner doing? That’s our question after House Speaker John Boehner yesterday unveiled “Plan B” -- legislation that would raise tax rates on household income above $1 million but keep them status quo for everyone else -- which the House is scheduled to vote on Thursday. Is Plan B, which comes after President Obama made some of his biggest concessions in the fiscal-cliff debate (chained CPI, moving the income marker to $400,000), a way to strengthen Boehner’s negotiating hand with the White House? Is it to prove a point to his rank-and-file members that they can’t have their entire way in these negotiations? (It’s highly doubtful that Boehner even has the votes to pass Plan B.) Or is it a way to scuttle the talks with the White House? Here’s the answer from Boehner’s office: “Making sure we protect 99.81% of Americans from a tax hike.” What we’re watching today: Do Boehner and House GOP leaders spend more time trying to get votes for Plan B, or do they spend more time negotiating with the White House?

Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images

House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, speaks to the press December 18, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

*** Three reasons why the move is so puzzling: There are three reasons why Plan B -- if it’s a serious effort -- seems so puzzling. One, as we wrote yesterday, the two sides are thisclose in getting a deal done. (Where the two sides are publicly is not where they were Monday night; they have both moved in each other’s direction further.) Two, if we go over the fiscal cliff (and time is running out, folks), Republicans might not realize the extent to which President Obama will own the bully pulpit in January. After all, there’s a certain inaugural address on Jan. 21, as well as the State of the Union. And three, are enough House Republicans really going to cast a tough vote -- raising taxes -- without getting any spending cuts or resolution on the sequester in return? And are they going to cast a vote for legislation that breaks a longstanding pledge on taxes that has zero chance of becoming law simply to give Boehner leverage? If Boehner and leadership do pull this off and convince their rank-and-file to vote on legislation that is designed just to give Boehner leverage, it would be quite the political feat. But for what end? Boehner already had one big piece of invisible leverage over the White House: a 2013 domestic agenda. The White House knows not getting a deal now, while politically more damaging for Republicans, probably means he’ll get very little down legislatively next year -- perhaps his ONLY year in a second term to focus on passing legislation.

*** Teflon no more? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has largely been Teflon in all the scrutiny on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi; after all, Republican senators like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte turned their attention more to what U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said on the Sunday shows than toward Clinton’s State Department. But that Teflon quality might be over. Per NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, an independent report released last night faulted Clinton’s State Department for “systemic failures” and “management deficiencies” that resulted in security “that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.” Bottom line: This is not the way Clinton wanted to leave the State Department, and it tarnishes her record. As of now, due to her illness, she won’t be testifying on this matter on Thursday (instead her deputies will). But she has no choice but to make sure she testifies in a fairly high profile way early next year, if simply to clean this up before she leaves.  

*** A rough last couple of weeks for Obama’s national security team: Speaking of national security, this has been a rough past couple of weeks for a national security team -- current or potentially future --- that has been viewed as one of the strengths of Obama’s first four years in office. The examples: This Benghazi report criticizing the State Department, Susan Rice taking herself out of consideration for the secretary of state job, and now the pro-Israel community and even the Washington Post’s editorial page, which are pummeling former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, who’s viewed as Obama’s likely pick to be the next defense secretary. Is there more pressure on Obama to fight for Hagel after what happened to Rice? Or if he fights harder for Hagel than Rice, does that become a problem for some Obama supporters? And why is the administration leaking out names like Rice and Hagel without having an infrastructure to defend them? At a minimum, this all just looks a tad sloppy. 

*** Obama’s post-Newtown effort: At 11:45 am ET, Obama will deliver a statement announcing that Vice President Biden “will lead an effort to come up with policies to address gun violence amid calls for action following the massacre of 26 people including 20 children in a Connecticut grade school last week,” Reuters reports. “The president is not expected to announce major policy decisions, but rather lay out the process by which his administration will move forward, White House aides said.” This announcement comes after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday that Obama supports the thrust of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s assault-weapons ban. Meanwhile, an amazing first from the NRA following a major gun incident: The organization announced it will be holding a press conference this Friday. Normally, its pattern is to lie low and let the storm clouds pass and duck ever having to truly engage in a gun debate so close to a mass shooting. This time, it’s choosing a different P.R. strategy. Why? Political pressure thanks to public statements from lots of pro-gun Democrats? Did they lose memberships? Or have members complain for the first time? Friday will be interesting to see what the NRA has to say.

*** (Not so) Great Scott: A new Quinnipiac poll shows that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is EXTREMELY vulnerable with his re-election on the horizon in 2014. His approval rating sits at just 36%, and a majority of voters (52%) say he doesn’t deserve re-election. Two years is an eternity in politics, but Charlie Crist and others have to be licking their chops.

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