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First Thoughts: GOP's weak position on the sequester

GOP’s weak political position on the sequester… Just look at the polls, the lack of compromise, and the message… That said, Democrats have their own sequester problems, too… Rick Scott accepts Medicaid expansion… Look who’s coming to CPAC -- almost everybody… And when it comes to politicians, almost nothing surprises us anymore. See the Pete Domenici story.

Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, addresses the media following a Republican Conference meeting on Feb. 5, 2013 at the Capitol. From left are: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Conference Vice Chairman Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Rep. Susan Brooks, R-In., and Conference Chairman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

*** GOP’s weak position on the sequester: Yesterday we asked this question about the political back-and-forth regarding the looming automatic budget cuts that are set to take place on March 1: What if the sky doesn’t fall? But here’s the opposite question: What if it does? And if that’s the case, Republicans stand to pay the steepest political price. It’s not even close right now. For starters, look at the numbers from the first two national polls taken after the State of the Union. The new USA Today/Pew poll: “President Obama starts his second term with a clear upper hand over GOP leaders on issues from guns to immigration that are likely to dominate the year… On the legislation rated most urgent — cutting the budget deficit — even a majority of Republican voters endorse Obama's approach of seeking tax hikes as well as spending cuts.” Also in this poll, the president’s approval rating is at 51%, while the approval for congressional GOPers is at 25%. And here’s Bloomberg’s poll: “… Obama enters the latest budget showdown with Congress with his highest job- approval rating in three years [55%] and public support for his economic message, while his Republican opponents’ popularity stands at a record low [35%].” So these are the numbers when the White House’s P.R. campaign to avert the sequester has only begun and before the expected layoffs and furloughs.

*** Where’s the compromise? Besides the polling numbers, Republicans find themselves in a weak position -- politically -- because they’ve yet to propose ANY kind of compromise that recognizes they don’t control the White House or the U.S. Senate. By contrast, Obama has offered up entitlement cuts (chained CPI for Social Security is apparently still on the table), and he has indicated a willingness to make additional cuts to Medicare (he said so in the State of the Union). But Republicans are refusing to budge on any tax revenues (via closing loopholes, etc.), even though House Speaker John Boehner offered them up during the fiscal-cliff debate. “House Republicans, shrugging off rising pressure from President Obama, are resolutely opposing new tax increases to head off $85 billion in across-the-board spending reductions, all but ensuring the cuts will go into force March 1 and probably remain in place for months, if not longer,” the New York Times says. Interestingly, Karl Rove has proposed a sort of compromise for House Republicans to offer: “pass a continuing resolution next week to fund the government for the balance of the fiscal year at the lower level dictated by the sequester—with language granting the executive branch the flexibility to move funds from less vital activities to more important ones.” In other words, force the Obama administration to choose which programs and entities get funded. Of course, this comes with political risk as many Republicans will fear that the Obama administration will essentially fund what he wants at the expense of programs or projects important to Republicans.

*** A muddled message: In addition to the GOP’s poll numbers and its inability to propose a compromise, a third Republican shortcoming in this sequester debate is the message. Conservative writer Byron York sums the problem of House Speaker John Boehner describing the looming cuts as a policy “that threatens U.S. national security, thousands of jobs and more,” but isn’t earnestly trying to avoid it. “Could the GOP message on the sequester be any more self-defeating?” York asks. “Boehner could argue that the sequester cuts are necessary as a first — and somewhat modest — step toward controlling the deficits that threaten the economy. Instead, he describes them as a threat to national security and jobs that he nevertheless supports. It’s not an argument that is likely to persuade millions of Americans.” As we’ve pointed out in the past, if a party’s opinion writers -- like York and Rove -- are arguing that the party isn’t pursuing a wise course, you’re typically losing the debate.

*** Democrats have their own sequester problems: Of course, none of this is to say that Obama and the Democrats have handled the sequester politics swimmingly. The same polls that show Obama’s approval rating above 50% could easily fall during this latest fiscal standoff. What’s more, the public isn’t engaged in this battle like it has been in previous ones. (Per that USA Today/Pew poll, “barely a quarter have heard a lot about the scheduled cuts, while about as many have heard nothing at all.)  And as the New York Times notes, senior Senate Democratic aides complained that the Obama White House should have demanded a better way to handle the sequester during the fiscal-cliff negotiations. “In late December, as the White House and Senate Republicans closed in on a deal to head off a far larger wave of automatic tax increases, Senate Democrats had urged the president and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to hold out for a better deal on the automatic spending cuts.” But if the sequester sky does fall, Republicans hold the weaker hand. And Democrats -- this DCCC video targeting House Republicans is an example -- are on the offensive.

*** Rick Scott accepts Medicaid expansion: Beyond the upcoming sequester, the other big political story today is Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) saying that his state will accept Medicaid expansion under the federal health-care law. While other GOP governors have refused the expansion (like Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell yesterday), Scott’s decision is significant because -- as Politico writes -- he’s “the biggest symbol of grudging Republican acceptance that Obamacare is the law of the land.” More from that article: “Scott had campaigned against the health legislation even before he began running for office, and Florida led the 26 states that fought it in court.” So Scott, who’s facing a VERY difficult race for re-election next year, isn’t just simply a conservative governor of a swing state; he’s the guy who spent MILLIONS of dollars to stop the health-care law. There’s an interesting pattern developing, and one that isn’t that surprising: Just about any Republican governor in a blue or purple state that Obama carried (or nearly carried) seems to finding a way to compromise on health care, either in setting up exchanges or on Medicaid. The lone exception is McDonnell, but he’s NOT running for re-election and the next election he faces may be with Republican primary voters in 2016.

*** Look who’s coming to CPAC: Yesterday, we also learned -- via NBC’s Sarah B. Boxer -- that Mitt Romney will be addressing CPAC next month, which will be his first public (and political) speech since his concession to Obama on Election Night. And Romney’s participation begs this question: Just who isn’t coming to CPAC? Not only will potential 2016ers (like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan) be addressing the conservative confab, but so will folks many Republicans have moved on from (like Romney and Sarah Palin). The only prominent Republican we can see who won’t be addressing CPAC appears to be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. This is all a recognition of how mainstream CPAC, which used to be considered the anti-establishment wing of the party, has become.

*** Nothing surprises us anymore about politicians: Lastly, we mention this story because it’s proof that NOTHING -- and absolutely nothing -- surprises us about politicians anymore. “Former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici told the Journal on Tuesday he fathered a son outside of his marriage over 30 years ago, revealing a secret kept for decades. Statements given to the Journal by Domenici and the son’s mother, Michelle Laxalt of Alexandria, Va., identified the son as Adam Paul Laxalt, a Nevada lawyer. Michelle Laxalt formerly was a prominent government relations consultant and television political commentator in Washington, D.C. She is a daughter of former U.S. senator and Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt,” who served with Domenici in the U.S. Senate. A little history lesson on Laxalt for our younger readers: He was essentially Ronald Reagan’s best friend in the U.S. Senate (almost on the ticket if you believe some reports back in 1980). And Domenici was a real possibility to be Bush 41’s VP in 1988.

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