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First Thoughts: Budget battle resumes

Budget battle resumes… On drones and executive power: Congress vs. the public… Obama’s Spring Break -- to Israel… President today to tap female CEO to replace Salazar as head of Interior Dept… GOP focuses more on changing tone than changing policies… But one exception: Eric Cantor now supports the DREAM Act… And the “Oh, crap” moments from the 2012 campaign.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports on President Barack Obama's budget plan.

*** Budget battle resumes: Goodbye fiscal cliff and debt ceiling; hello to the effort to delay or suspend the sequester -- the automatic defense and other spending cuts set to take effect on March 1. Roll Call: “This time, the scale may be smaller but the game is the same — in the president’s eyes, either congressional Republicans agree to more new tax revenue or they will bear responsibility for the economic damage and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs from the sequester taking effect.” In his brief remarks yesterday, President Obama tried to send two other messages besides the demand for more revenue to delay the sequester. First, the White House wants to dispel the notion that it’s comfortable with the sequester, something that many Democrats (and some Republicans) thought was NOT clear. “Deep, indiscriminate cuts to things like education and training, energy and national security will cost us jobs, and it will slow down our recovery,” Obama said. Second, Obama signaled that once the sequester is delayed, he wants Congress to work its will resolving the outstanding budget issues. “Congress is already working towards a budget that would permanently replace the sequester. At the very least, we should give them the chance to come up with this budget instead of making indiscriminate cuts now that will cost us jobs and significantly slow down our recovery.” What does this mean? The White House is prepared to see Congress work the old-fashioned way: The Senate passes a budget (with White House input), the House passes a budget (maybe all of this done before the August recess at the latest), and then the House and Senate actually negotiate a budget to send to the president for his signature. So no more Boehner-Obama talks, no more Biden-McConnell discussions.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

President Barack Obama calls on Congress to pass a small package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the larger, automatic "sequester" cuts from going into effect during an announcement in the White House briefing room, Feb. 5, 2013.

*** White House vs. House Republicans -- again: For their part, House Republicans are opposing any more revenue to delay the sequester. “We believe there is a better way to reduce the deficit, but Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes,” Speaker John Boehner said yesterday. “The president’s sequester should be replaced with spending cuts and reforms that will start us on the path to balancing the budget in 10 years.” But Republicans are divided here. Some, particularly those in the Senate (like John McCain) don’t want the sequester to take place, given its cuts in defense spending. But many House Republicans (like Paul Ryan) are becoming more and more comfortable with the sequester taking place -- as a way to cut spending. Meanwhile, Politico reports that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “warned Senate Republicans in a private meeting on Tuesday that spending cuts the GOP seeks are going to require a fight. ‘Nobody said cutting spending would be easy, we need to fight,’ McConnell told Republicans on Tuesday, according to a source with knowledge of the statement.”

*** On drones and executive power: Congress vs. the public: The drone story remains in the news today, and there are two ways to look at this issue. One, the Obama White House has a political problem with Congress here, especially with John Brennan’s confirmation hearing to lead the CIA taking place tomorrow. A senator to keep an eye on here is Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). But two, the White House doesn’t seem to have as much of a political problem with the public. As we wrote yesterday, the public -- like it did in the Bush years -- is content to go after the bad guys, regardless of concerns about a slippery slope. And here is a reason why this drone story might not extend beyond the Brennan hearings: The political opposition has been mostly quiet. As we’ve seen with other political controversies (say Benghazi or Fast and Furious), one party heavily leaning into a story extends its life, no matter the merits. But we’re not seeing that from the GOP, at least not yet. The scrutiny so far is coming from the left and the news media, and that’s it. We’re really surprised at the lack of outrage from Congress so far. Why aren’t more members of Congress upset that a second branch of government doesn’t have any oversight over this executive branch program?  

*** Obama’s Spring Break -- to Israel: As we reported yesterday, Obama this spring will make his first visit to Israel as president, and he also will travel to the West Bank and Jordan. (Obama made a stop to Israel during his 2008 presidential campaign.) The New York Times notes the potential politics behind Obama’s visit, given the rocky relations between the president and Israeli PM Netanyahu. “While Mr. Obama won a clear victory in November, Mr. Netanyahu emerged from elections last month in a weakened state. His party won enough seats for him to retain office, but he will be forced to recruit centrist lawmakers for a coalition that might temper his policies. He has until March 16 to present his new government.” The Israeli press is reporting that Obama’s visit will take place on March 20. By the way, No way the president would agree to go to Israel unless Netanyahu wasn’t promising SOME progress on the peace talks. And given Netanyahu’s new precarious domestic political situation, it seems inevitable that there would be a jump start in the peace talks.

*** Obama to tap female CEO to replace Salazar at Interior Department: NBC News confirms this scoop from the Washington Post: “President Obama on Wednesday will nominate Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) chief executive Sally Jewell to head the Interior Department, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified because the public announcement has not yet been made. The choice of Jewell — who began her career as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp. and worked as a commercial banker before heading a nearly $2 billion outdoors equipment company — represents an unconventional choice for a post usually reserved for career politicians from the West.  But while she boasts less public policy experience than other candidates who had been under consideration, Jewell — who will have to be confirmed by the Senate — has earned national recognition for her management skills and support for outdoor recreation and habitat conservation.”

*** Let’s talk about tone, baby… Let’s talk about you and me: After their defeats last November, do Republicans modify their policies? Or their tone? NBC’s Mike O’Brien writes that most Republicans -- so far -- have opted for Door No. 2, deciding “that a more articulate re-statement of the party's long-held principles will suffice in their effort to attract new voters to the GOP.” And that’s probably to best way to view House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s speech yesterday to the conservative American Enterprise Institute. With one exception (more on that below), Cantor’s address was mostly a repackaging of policies he and other Republicans have previously backed, albeit with a much softer and more inviting tone. Yet here is the challenge for Republicans as they focus more on tone than policies: Majorities of Americans rejected some of the party’s central principles, according to the exit polls from the November presidential election. For instance, 60% said income tax rates should either go up on all Americans or those with incomes above $250,000; 59% said abortion should be legal in all or most cases; and 65% favored giving illegal immigrants a path to legal status. It’s rare to find politicians in Washington who believe their political beliefs cost them an election or a policy defeat; they almost ALWAYS blame communications.

*** To DREAM the impossible DREAM: The one clear policy shift that Cantor signaled in his speech, however, was on the topic of immigration. He appeared to back the primary thrust of the DREAM Act, despite voting against that legislation in 2010. “One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents,” Cantor said, per NBC’s Luke Russert. “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.” That shift by Cantor tells you that the politics of immigration have changed. Another example: At the House hearing yesterday on immigration reform, House Republicans said they favored a path to legal residency -- but not citizenship -- for illegal immigrants, the New York Times notes. That’s a significant policy difference, which will be debated in the weeks ahead. But it’s also a sign that this is 2005-2007, when even a discussion of legal residency produced cries of “amnesty.” By the way, Republican Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada hold a conference call at 10:00 am ET to announce the formation of the Future Majority Caucus -- an effort by the Republican State Leadership Committee to recruit and elect more female and minority Republican candidates to statewide office.

*** The “Oh, crap” moments of 2012: Yesterday, at the University of Chicago, one of us moderated a panel with top officials from the Obama and Romney campaigns. We asked them what their “Oh, crap” -- cleaned up here for language -- moments of the campaign were. Eric Fehrnstrom of the Romney campaign answered Gingrich winning South Carolina; Beth Myers of the Romney camp said it was Romney’s three-state loss to Santorum (on Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri); Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said it was the close primary race in Michigan; Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said it was their worry that Romney might wrap up the nomination after the New Hampshire primary. And speaking of “Oh, crap” moments, NBC’s Luke Russert explored what happened to that empty chair Clint Eastwood spoke to at the GOP convention in Tampa. As it turns out, the chair now sits in RNC Chair Reince Preibus’ office. 

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