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First Thoughts: Flooding the zone

The White House tries to flood the zone with its legislative priorities… Hagel on track to win Senate confirmation… McCain and others oppose filibustering him -- a move which would have been unprecedented for a cabinet nominee… Cantor to deliver 1:00 pm ET speech to redefine his party and himself… And on drones and executive power: NBC’s Isikoff uncovers DOJ memo justifying drone killings of U.S. citizens believed to be operational leaders of al Qaeda.

*** Flooding the zone: Exactly one week away from President Obama’s State of the Union address, the White House has spent the early days of the second term flooding the zone with its legislative agenda. Last week, the president delivered his big immigration speech in Las Vegas. Yesterday, he spoke about gun violence in Minnesota. Today, he’s meeting at the White House with progressive, labor, and business leaders to discuss immigration reform and the budget situation. What’s going on here: The Obama White House wants to overload Washington’s political circuits in an effort to see what it can get through Congress -- without letting Congress define what issues get addressed. After all, Republicans want to solely talk about the budget before the March budget showdown (see yesterday’s multiple coordinated responses by House Republicans on the White House’s announcement it would be late with its budget). Yet by flooding the zone, Team Obama -- with the bully pulpit and the State of the Union at its disposal -- wants to widen the political dialogue beyond that one issue. This “flooding the zone” concept is how the Obama White House operated in the first six months of the first term, and it’s where he got most of his legislative achievements. When the White House got bogged down on ONE issue (health care, debt ceiling, etc), officials determined they lost some of their political capital.

Ben Garvin / Getty Images

President Barack Obama speaks before a crowd of local leaders and law enforcement officials at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center on Feb. 4, 2013 in Minneapolis, Minn.

*** Hagel on track to win Senate confirmation: Despite his rough Senate confirmation hearing last week, Chuck Hagel appears to be on his way toward becoming President Obama’s third defense secretary. Why? Because John McCain and other GOP senators say they won’t filibuster Hagel, meaning that all he needs is a simple of majority of U.S. senators to win confirmation (and there are 55 Democrats in the Senate). The New York Times: “Several Republican senators — notably John McCain — said Monday they would oppose a filibuster of former Senator Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense, moving the nominee much closer toward approval.” However, as one of us wrote yesterday, a filibuster against Hagel would have been unprecedented: No presidential cabinet nominee has ever been required to attain the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. Nine have lost simple up-or-down votes -- the last being John Tower’s 1989 nomination to be defense secretary amid accusations of womanizing and alcohol abuse. Twenty-one nominees have been withdrawn by presidents, most recently former Sen. Tom Daschle (taxes), who was Obama’s pick to head Health and Human Services in 2009, and Bernard Kerik (undocumented housekeeper) before that in 2004 under George W. Bush. But while confirmation for Hagel is in sight, the bigger question (as we asked yesterday) is whether Hagel has the credibility and stature to work with the GOP on issues that matter to the Pentagon.

*** Cantor’s effort to redefine GOP and himself: At 1:00 pm ET, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will deliver a speech to the American Enterprise Institute to begin branding his party -- and himself -- beyond the divisive budget debates. As National Journal previewed yesterday, Cantor “plans to ask Congress to require universities to warn students when their academic majors lack employment opportunities; to repeal the tax on medical devices, a provision of Obama’s health care overhaul; and to shift spending from political sciences to ‘hard’ sciences such as cancer research.” According to excerpts of his remarks, the GOP leader is expected to say: “Our solutions will be based on the conservative principles of self-reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family, and accountability in government. Our goal – to ensure every American has a fair shot at earning their success and achieving their dreams.” More: “Government policy should aim to strike a balance between what is needed to advance the next generation, what we can afford, what is a federal responsibility and what is necessary to ensure our children are safe, healthy and able to reach their dreams.” As Politico points out, this is not the first time Cantor has tried to rebrand himself and the party.

*** On drones and executive power: As NBC’s Michael Isikoff first reported last night, a confidential Justice Department memo “concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al-Qaida or ‘an associated force’ -- even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.” Isikoff adds, “The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the  September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.” The publication of this memo will likely: 1) add fireworks to John Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday to head the CIA, and 2) spark a public debate about this issue. There hasn’t been much of an outcry about this beyond the civil-liberties community, because the public wants to go after bad guys (like al-Awlaki). But the story does raise important questions: What are the checks on this power? How much faith do you put in executive branch in not abusing this? Expect these questions to come up at Brennan’s confirmation hearing. Congress has been surprisingly silent on this issue, very few members have demanded more transparency or oversight. Perhaps this memo will spark more Congressional interest.

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