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First Thoughts: Boehner boxed in

As 113th Congress begins, Boehner finds himself boxed in like never before… But he will still likely win re-election as speaker… The 113th Congress, by the numbers… Assessing the aftermath of the fiscal-cliff deal: Obama emerges as a winner… But is it just a short-term win?... The re-emergence of McConnell… And the re-emergence of Biden.

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House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, walks out after a second meeting with House Republicans at the Capitol on Jan. 1, 2013.

*** Boehner boxed in: Exactly two years ago, John Boehner was the toast of Washington. Fueled by the Tea Party gains in the 2010 midterms and facing a humbled president and Democratic Party, Boehner was elected House speaker. Flash forward to today: Boehner likely will once again win election as speaker. But after passage of the fiscal-cliff deal and the House’s inability to pass a Hurricane Sandy relief package, Boehner finds himself boxed in like never before. Roll Call: “Over the past few weeks, the Ohio lawmaker has been raked over the coals by members of all stripes within his own party — first by those seeking less spending in exchange for tax rate hikes, then by those seeking more spending for disaster aid. The public thrashing came to a head Wednesday when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie … blatantly accused Boehner of political cowardice for pulling a supplemental aid package for those affected by Superstorm Sandy.” (Boehner has since said that getting Sandy relief will be the first legislative priority of the new 113th Congress.) The one true achievement by Boehner and the House Republicans is that they have turned every spending bill into a debate, which wasn’t the case before, and that is an achievement for the party of small government. But here’s the central question to ask: Is the Republican Party in a better position today than it was two years ago? It’s hard to argue “yes” to that question.

*** But he will still likely win re-election as speaker: As noted above, with today’s start of the 113th Congress, the House of Representatives will vote to elect a speaker of the House. While it is likely that John Boehner will be re-elected as speaker, per NBC’s Frank Thorp, we could see the first second ballot for speaker since 1923 if 16 conservatives decide to vote against Boehner. Thorp adds that the 113th Congress will convene for the first time at noon ET, after which the House will vote to elect the speaker. Members will be called by name alphabetically and asked for their vote.  This vote is different than typical votes, which are done electronically during a set period of time. The speaker needs a majority of all votes cast to be elected.  If all members were to vote, Boehner would need 217 votes, unless there are members who are absent for the vote, or members who vote "present" (for no one). By the way, it seems that the House No. 2 Republican, Eric Cantor, was caught selling out the king in the Sandy mess. Here was Christie at his press conference: “I was called at 11:20 last night by Leader Cantor and told that authority for the vote had been pulled by the speaker.” Just askin’, but when Cantor decided to share with Christie his version of what happened to Sandy relief, did Cantor know Christie would go public?  Remember all those stories about Cantor and Boehner becoming closer? Um, yeah… how do you spell a-w-k-w-a-r-d?

As the 113 Congress convenes, 82 House freshmen and a dozen new senators will be sworn in on Thursday. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** The 113th Congress, by the numbers: The 113th Congress’ partisan breakdown will be as follows: In the House, per NBC’s Frank Thorp: 233 Republicans, 200 Democrats, two vacancies (Tim Scott and Jesse Jackson Jr.) That means once those two seats are filled, it will likely be 234-201.) That’s a slightly narrower breakdown than the 112th, which ended with 240-191, four vacancies. In the Senate, Democrats will continue to control the Senate – but with a slightly larger 55-45 majority (including two independents who will caucus with the Democrats). As NBC’s Carrie Dann reported last month: A record-breaking 20 women will serve in the Senate, while 78 will be seated in the United States House. There will be 16 Iraq and Afghanistan vets of the new members. There will also be four new members who are LGBT, almost doubling the number of openly gay lawmakers. And remember, for the first time in history, white men will NOT make up the majority of the House Democratic caucus. Also, today marks the return of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) after his stroke. Per the Chicago Daily Herald, Kirk “plans to climb the 45 steps of the U.S. Capitol without the aid of a handrail.”

*** Assessing the aftermath of the fiscal-cliff deal: A win for Obama: Yes, liberals and Senate Democrats think President Obama gave up too much for a deal. And, yes, there's another fiscal fight coming up (more on that below). But he got a deal, proving that the GOP "fever" did break, at least for a while. He also delivered on a campaign promise to raise the taxes on the wealthy (although had to compromise from $250,000 to $450,000), and he got Republicans (!!!) to give him cover in raising taxes -- something Bill Clinton was never able to do. And he protects a fragile, yet growing, economy. It’s hard to see how that isn't a win for the president.

*** But is it just a short-term win? The question is how long that win lasts. After all, we’ll have another fiscal showdown in two months over the debt ceiling, government operations, and the sequester. So what happened over New Year's was a partial surgery -- the patient and the doctors still need to come back to finish the job. Yes, Republicans now have more leverage heading into this debt-ceiling fight. But two things happened over New Year's that are significant: 1) Republicans proved they could support an increase in tax rates and 2) House Republicans also proved that you don't need a "majority of the majority" to bring legislation to the floor. And there is now a path forward for future deals, as the New York Times notes, with the White House working with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But can that last? And who speaks for Republicans? Those are questions over which the Obama White House will have to wrestle.

*** The re-emergence of McConnell: Speaking of the Senate minority leader, so much for the early thought that the Senate -- and Senate Republicans -- wouldn't be a key factor in the negotiations. Given how much the GOP was going to be blamed for going off the cliff, McConnell protected his party, and it allows it to fight on better terrain two months from now. McConnell, who faces re-election in Kentucky next year, pens a Yahoo op-ed saying that he will now be pursuing spending cuts. “Was [the fiscal-cliff deal] a great deal? No. As I said, taxes shouldn’t be going up at all. Just as importantly, the transcendent issue of our time, the spiraling debt, remains completely unaddressed. Yet now that the president has gotten his long-sought tax hike on the ‘rich,’ we can finally turn squarely toward the real problem, which is spending.” Can McConnell politically handle making the right mad by becoming the dealmaker in a year he has to prep for his own re-election in very red Kentucky? And if not McConnell, who? And who speaks for Republicans? If Boehner isn’t going to do anymore one-on-one talks with the White House (and why should he at this point, the trust between the two offices is just awful at this point), who is Boehner’s wing man? Cantor? (See Sandy story.) McCarthy? (He’s tight with Cantor.) Perhaps it’s Paul Ryan? (But does he have his own ambitions?) The White House would certainly like to know; they LOVE the Biden-McConnell gambit, but could other partnerships be created? Say, Geithner-Ryan on the debt ceiling? Or how about Obama-Rubio on immigration?

*** The re-emergence of Biden: Has there been a more underappreciated vice president? Yes, he's the butt of jokes and "The Onion" parodies. But the guy delivered in reaching across the aisle. The whole point in Obama hiring Biden was to have him as his congressional go-to guy; For some reason, many in the West Wing are hesitant to let Biden be Biden and play this role until the very last minute. While Biden allowed himself to be rolled by staffers every now and then in the West Wing, in a second term (with his own eye on the Oval), we’re guessing Biden’s going to less inclined to take a backseat come March.

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