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First Thoughts: The negotiators

Top Talkers: The Morning Joe panel – including NBC News' Andrea Mitchell, Bloomberg News' Al Hunt and former RNC Chair Michael Steele -- discusses the tense New Year's week that resulted in a last-minute House passage of a deal to avert the fiscal cliff and the swearing in of the 113th Congress.

Who are the negotiators in the next (and upcoming) fiscal showdown?... Boehner’s tenuous grip on his caucus… Three divisions inside the GOP… Reforming the filibuster… December jobs report: 155,000 jobs added, unemployment rate at 7.8%... House GOP tries to do damage control on Hurricane Sandy relief… Congress counts the electoral votes… Gabby Giffords to visit Newtown, CT... And "Meet" has McConnell.

*** The negotiators: Looking ahead to the latest fiscal showdown -- over the debt ceiling, sequester, and government operations -- we posed this question yesterday: Who negotiates for the Republicans? (Is it House Speaker John Boehner, who has said he will no longer negotiate one-on-one with President Obama? Is it Senate Minority Mitch McConnell? What about House Budget Chair Paul Ryan?) But today, we pose this very same question for the Democratic side: Who negotiates for the Obama White House? Consider that the White House’s chief negotiator during the fiscal-cliff fight, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, has previously stated he plans to stay in his post until around the inauguration -- so late January. But is that realistic? We also know that Geithner assumed, when he made that pledge to leave in January, that an end of the year deal would include a debt ceiling extension. But that didn’t happen. So are we really going to see a new Treasury secretary before March? Is that even feasible? Does the White House want a confirmation process in the middle of negotiations over the big March cliffs staring the country in the face? Of course, the White House may believe that by simply moving current White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to Treasury, nothing really changes on the negotiating front. But remember, congressional Republicans weren’t necessarily big Lew fans. Given all of this, does anyone believe that Geithner won’t stay through March if the president asks?

Former Obama senior campaign advisor David Axelrod and NBC's Chuck Todd discuss the four Republican Party members who openly voted against John Boehner being elected as speaker of the House. The panel also debates what items the White House and Congress must solve this term.

*** Boehner’s tenuous grip: As expected, Boehner won re-election as speaker. But also as expected, it wasn’t easy. As the New York Times writes, his re-election came “amid open dissent from conservatives on the House floor that signaled that the turmoil and division of the 112th Congress is likely to spill into the newly constituted 113th.” More: “[D]iscord was on plain display in the roll call vote for speaker as Mr. Boehner weathered defections from the rank and file to defeat Ms. Pelosi by a vote of 220 to 192. Other nominees — among them the defeated House member and Tea Party firebrand Allen B. West of Florida; Mr. Boehner’s own second-in-command, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia; and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell — drew 14 protest votes from members of both parties.” GOP Congressman Hal Rogers put Boehner’s situation this way: “It’s a little bit like being the head caretaker of the cemetery. There are a lot of people under you, but nobody listens.” Had there been a realistic alternative to Boehner, he might not have survived. But that’s what saved him. Bottom line: Boehner has a very tenuous grip on his caucus right now. In fact, the situation is analogous to where Newt Gingrich was in early 1997 -- and that didn’t turn out well for Gingrich.  

*** The three divisions inside the GOP: So at the very time Republicans hold more leverage in the next fiscal fight -- because tax rates are now off the table -- they’re also more divided than ever. The New Republic’s John Judis explains that there are three current divisions inside the Republican Party. One is the divide between Senate Republicans (who were willing to sign on to the fiscal-cliff deal) and House Republicans (who weren’t). Two is the divide between the GOP interest groups (Grover Norquist and the Chamber of Commerce backed the Senate bill, while Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation were against it.) But the third divide is the most fascinating: geography. “In the House vote on the fiscal cliff, Republican House members from the deep South opposed it by 83 to 10, while Republicans from the Northeast favored it by 24 to one, and those from the Far West by 17 to eight.” Journalist Dante Chinni, of Patchwork Nation fame, makes a similar point: Republicans representing richer and more densely populated districts were more likely to vote for the fiscal-cliff deal than GOP members from other districts. That’s right, the Republicans with fewer folks in the 1% who are seeing their taxes rise were the most likely to vote AGAINST the deal.

Roger Wollenberg / Getty Images, file

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) emerge from the White House to speak to the media on November 16, 2012.

*** Reforming the filibuster: Speaking of divisions, the U.S. Senate is divided on changing the rules governing the filibuster. The Senate will likely changes the rules; the question is by how much. The Hill: Liberal Democrats on Thursday introduced a resolution to dramatically overhaul the Senate’s filibuster rules. The sponsors, Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa), called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to put the reform in effect by using the nuclear option, which they call the ‘constitutional option.’ This maneuver would allow Reid to change the Senate rules with a simple majority vote, instead of clearing the 67-vote threshold needed to change rules under regular order.” More: “The most ambitious element is a call to establish the talking filibuster rule. Now senators can delay legislation for days and require a 60-vote majority to resume action merely by telling their leader or another colleague that they object to it.”

*** 155,000 jobs added in December, unemployment rate at 7.8%: The AP on today’s jobs report: “U.S. employers added 155,000 jobs in December, a steady gain that shows hiring held up during tense fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington. The Labor Department says the unemployment rate stayed at 7.8 percent last month. November's rate was revised higher from an initially reported 7.7 percent.”

*** Damage control: After not passing Hurricane Sandy relief before the 112th Congress adjourned, House Republicans today are trying to do some damage control. Politico: “Chastened by the debacle over Hurricane Sandy aid, House Republicans are moving quickly to win approval this week of a $9.7 billion increase in financing to pay flood insurance claims arising from the October storm… The Senate approved the same flood insurance increase last week as part of a larger $60.4 billion disaster aid package backed by the White House… Friday’s vote is a first step to try to begin to reconstruct it now in the 113th Congress. And Boehner has promised Northeast lawmakers a second series of votes on Jan. 15 on additional aid, but more immediate action was needed on the flood insurance request.” Per NBC’s Frank Thorp, the House will vote on this flood-insurance legislation around 10:55 am ET.

*** Counting the electoral votes: NBC’s Thorp also reports that Vice President Biden today will preside over a Joint Session of Congress in the House chamber to count the electoral votes for president and vice president. The session, which generally takes about 45 minutes, is required under U.S. Code, and is simply a formality to tally the number of electoral votes and enter them into the congressional record. Four Senate pages, Thorp adds, will carry two mahogany boxes containing the "certificates of vote" to the House chamber, and the votes are counted by four tellers who will read out the votes by state in alphabetical order. By the way, as Bloomberg reports (and as the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman has tracked), Obama ended up winning 51.1% of the popular vote to Romney’s 47.2%, which makes Obama the first president since Eisenhower to win at least 51% in back-to-back elections.

*** Giffords to visit Newtown: Finally today, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords will visit Newtown, CT. As NBCNews.com reported yesterday, “Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords, who survived a shooting at a campaign event in Arizona two years ago and now advocates stricter gun laws, plans to be in Newtown, Conn., on Friday for a private late afternoon meeting. Giffords plans to be at a home in the town where 20 first-graders and six staffers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a spokesperson for Gov. Dan Malloy's office told NBCConnecticut.com.”

*** McConnell to appear on "Meet": On Sunday, NBC's David Gregory interviews Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on "Meet the Press."

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