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First Thoughts: A loss of leverage and leadership

Plan B goes down: A loss of leverage and leadership for the GOP… Three remaining options: 1) Obama, Reid, McConnell try to get a quick fix; 2) Obama still shoots for a big deal; and 3) we go over the cliff… Is Boehner’s speakership in trouble?... Does the White House try to save Boehner or break the GOP?... For the GOP, things probably will get worse before they get better… NRA holds news conference at 10:45 am ET… Booker isn’t making friends with Frank Lautenberg… Mitch McConnell vs. Ashley Judd?... And happy trails to you: Mark Sanford appears to be mounting a political comeback.

*** A loss of leverage and leadership: In covering politics, you always want to resist the temptation to overstate things. After all, what’s up one day can go down the next. But it’s difficult to see what took place in Congress last night as anything other than an unmitigated disaster and embarrassing blunder for House Republicans -- all over something that was viewed as a negotiating tactic or PR move. After being closer than ever before in striking a deal with President Obama to resolve the looming tax increases and spending cuts set to take place after Dec. 31, Speaker John Boehner and the House GOP leadership turned their attention to passing “Plan B,” a one-sided plan to raise tax rates on income above $1 million as a way apparently to gain more leverage over the Obama White House. The result: Unable to get enough GOP support, House Republicans pulled the vote and announced they were going home for the Christmas holiday. And now? By demonstrating that they’re unable to corral sufficient votes, they’ve lost any leverage they held in the debate. The biggest thing we’ve learned after last night: No one right now is capable of leading the House Republicans. Outgoing GOP Rep. Steve LaTourette might have put it best. "It's unbelievable, this is horrible," he said, per NBC’s Frank Thorp. "I'm angry, I'm sad for my friend the speaker, and I'm sorry for the country. We deserve better."

Some House Republicans were visibly upset by Thursday night's maneuvering and expressed sadness and frustration on behalf of Speaker John Boehner. NBC's Mark Murray discusses.

*** The three remaining options: So where do we go from here? There are essentially three options. One is that White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell do a quick fix -- maybe taking up the legislation raising tax rates above $250,000 -- and force it through the House. Two is that Obama controls the process, brings everyone together, and sees if he can try to get his big deal. As a Democratic leadership aide tells First Read, “Senate Republicans are probably nearing panic mode, and might break away to give 60 votes for either something similar to the president’s last offer, or a beefed-up version of the Senate bill -- 250K plus AMT, doc fix, UI, extenders etc.” And three is that we go over the cliff, with the possibility of fixing everything retroactively in the first three weeks of January, with Democrats holding more leverage, a stronger Senate majority, and a smaller deficit in the House. Here’s the thing to remember: There is still time to get something done. Then again, it will be interesting to see how the markets react today.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

House Speaker John Boehner speaks to the media on a "fiscal cliff" on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 20, 2012.

*** Is Boehner’s speakership in trouble? That has become a legitimate question in the aftermath of last night. Because House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy were also stained by what took place, it seems to us that the only person who’s capable of toppling Boehner right now is Paul Ryan. But does he -- or anyone else -- want that job? But it’s also possible that Boehner could emerge from this wounded but not critically. So he seems to have three options, and none of them are good. One, he does what the Senate agrees to, even if that means bringing legislation to the floor that doesn’t have majority support from House Republicans. Two, he throws himself on the mercy of the White House. And three, he and his caucus stand their ground and do everything they can to not budge. But that’s about it. Indeed, conservative columnist John Podhoretz tries to cut Boehner a break. "The speaker’s doing what little he can with what little he has." The question is do other Republicans realize that? By the way, this Washington Post story might raise the question of whether leaks on both sides were part of the problem. Because of the tinderbox that is his conference, Boehner didn’t want his negotiating details to become public, but they did, leading to scrambling and “Plan B.”) And just announced: Boehner holds a news conference at 10:00 am ET.

The president plans to work with Congress to prevent tax hikes and spending cuts that are expected to kick in on January 1 after House Republicans rejected a vote on House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" legislation. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

*** Does the White House save Boehner -- or try to break the GOP? The Obama White House also seems to have two options: Do they try and save Boehner, or do they try to break the Republican Party. We saw mixed reactions coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The statement from Press Secretary Jay Carney was conciliatory. “The President will work with Congress to get this done and we are hopeful that we will be able to find a bipartisan solution quickly that protects the middle class and our economy.” But on the other hand, the reaction on Twitter was a bit of gloating. If the White House wants a big deal -- and we think they do -- then saving Boehner could seem to be the safer approach. That said, there will always be the question whether the White House feels Boehner could deliver ANY votes for the big deal. But also don’t lose sight of Mitch McConnell. Even though he has strained relations with the White House, could he be a stronger partner on the fiscal cliff and immigration reform than Boehner? That’s something to chew on. The White House also has to restrain parts of its base -- there is blood in the water, and there are parts of the base who want to go for the kill. The president wakes up today with more leverage than he’s ever had, but he has to be careful how he uses that leverage.

*** For the GOP, things likely to get worse before they get better: Here’s a final point we want to make about last night, and it’s a point our colleague John Harwood made on Twitter: For a defeated party, things usually get worse before they get better. In fact, it’s more than likely that last night won’t be rock bottom for the GOP after its losses in November. As Harwood noted, “Political parties with losing hands don't change until they've absorbed lots of punishment. See Dems, 1968-88. GOP not done yet.”

*** NRA holds news conference: In other news today, the National Rifle Association is holding a news conference in DC at 10:45 am ET the wake of the tragic shootings in Newtown, CT -- which took place exactly a week ago today. Also, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre will appear on “Meet the Press” this Sunday.

*** Lautenberg’s not-so-subtle slap at Booker: It doesn’t look like Cory Booker made friends with Sen. Frank Lautenberg, after Booker released a video yesterday saying he would explore the option of running for Lautenberg’s seat in 2014. Just check out this statement from Lautenberg’s office: "Sen. Lautenberg is focused on passing a critical disaster relief bill for New Jersey and addressing America's broken gun laws. The last several months and weeks have been a painful time for New Jersey and America, and the senator is working on the tough issues we face. This is not the time for political distractions and the senator will address politics next year." Paraphrased for you: “Unlike Cory Booker, I’m not focused on politics right now during these tough times for New Jersey and the country.” And consider this: Booker might have a better relationship right now with Chris Christie than Frank Lautenberg, and that’s a problem for a Democrat. Booker may very well become the next senator from New Jersey, but between this and the "hostage video," this is Strike Two for him on the national stage.

*** McConnell vs. Ashley Judd? Last night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office blasted out this Politico story last night. “McConnell’s campaign has polled some of Judd’s comments and found that the 27-year Senate veteran’s prospective lead in a head-to-head matchup increases from just four points to 20 points once voters understand her political profile, according to a memo provided to POLITICO. The poll found voters like Judd much less when they learn she lives in Tennessee and Scotland, her grandmother referred to her as a ‘Hollywood liberal’ and she suggested it was wrong to breed given widespread poverty in regions around the world.” What is more interesting here -- that McConnell spent money to test Judd, or that McConnell’s folks are going out their way to let us know they did? Don’t forget that this probably helps McConnell raise some money…

*** Happy trails to you… : Finally, NBC’s confirmed the news that former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford -- of Appalachian Trail/Argentine mistress fame -- is planning to run for the U.S. House seat that Tim Scott (R) is vacating after being tapped to serve in the Senate. Folks, South Carolina continues to deliver as offering the best political stories in the country.

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