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First Thoughts: All posturing and rhetoric - but no action

What the sequester debate has turned into: all posturing and rhetoric -- but no action… The debate also has turned into about what Bob Woodward wrote over the weekend… GOP message on sequester is all over the place… What a busy week it will be -- Obama to VA, Hagel confirmation vote, IL-2 special, NBC/WSJ poll, and sequester deadline… And Team Obama promises additional access for big donors, contradicting a key message from ’07-’08.

With less than 100 hours until the budget ax falls on Friday, President Barack Obama will meet with the nation's governors on Monday and later take his campaigning to Virginia. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** All posturing and rhetoric -- but no action How do we know that the looming automatic cuts set to take place on Friday probably will go into effect, at least in the short term? The answer: Everything right now in this debate over the so-called “sequester” has been reduced to rhetoric and posturing -- but not action. While both the Obama White House and congressional Republicans have warned about the dangers associated with these cuts, and have blamed one another for their creation, this weekend saw no new plans of compromise, no new meetings, and no real work as Congress stayed on its recess. Nothing, and we mean nothing, seems to be imminent on even a deal to start TALKING about a deal. So this lack of urgency belies the rhetoric and posturing. If these cuts are so drastic or so ill-considered, why weren’t House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over at the White House this weekend? Where was President Obama’s compromise offer? But here’s what’s really going on: Both sides are laying the groundwork to see who bleeds the most after March 1 once the spending cuts take effect as a way to see who holds the negotiating upper hand. Yet here’s also the stark reality: No side has a real end game or knows how this will play out. And for now, congressional Republicans are content with status quo, which means the White House has to be willing to change the calculus during the budget talks at the end of the month. Can they?

*** Debating Bob Woodward: Another example of how the sequester fight has been reduced to rhetoric and posturing is that the central argument over the weekend was what a political reporter -- namely the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward -- wrote on Friday night. Woodward, who wrote a book about the 2011 debt-ceiling standoff, penned a WaPo op-ed contending (as he’s done before) that the sequester was the White House’s idea. But he made this (new) additional charge: that the White House is moving the goal posts, because getting revenue was never part of the sequester. Republicans gleefully circulated the Woodward piece, while the White House and liberals fought back. Our take is that Woodward is on solid footing in asserting that the sequester was the White House’s idea to deal with the GOP’s demand for spending cuts to raise the debt ceiling. But Woodward is on much shakier ground when he insists that the White House never wanted revenue to replace the sequester. After all, the whole point of the sequester and the creation of the Super Committee was the INABILITY of getting a deal on taxes. All that said, it’s never a good day when one side is debating a political reporter, no matter the ground on which that reporter is standing.

*** GOP message is all over the place: But it’s also not a good place when one side’s message is all over the place, and that’s the situation where Republicans currently find themselves in this sequester debate. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, Boehner called the spending cuts “dramatic,” arguing that they threatened “U.S. national security, thousands of jobs, and more.” But then when the Obama White House began its campaign noting how deep these cuts would be, Republicans countered that the White House was trying to scare the public. And then over the weekend, Republican governors were contradicting that message. “The uncertainty of sequestration is really harming our states and our national economy,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R). Added Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R): “We've got Raytheon [in Arizona], and we don't know exactly what that's going to do, but it's going to cost a lot of job results.” And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R): “I think there should be limited government, but I don't like random changes. If you look at my budget, I didn't do across the board cuts. A lot of times politicians talk about 10% across the board, I didn't do that.” So here’s the GOP’s muddled message: First, these cuts could cost jobs and money; second, the Obama administration is trying to scare the American people about these cuts; and third, these cuts could cost jobs and money. What’s happening here: Congressional GOPers are split. Some of the old guard of the GOP (and the leadership) believe sequester is bad and will hurt the economy and hurt the government. Some of the Tea Party types and other conservatives are so frustrated by the inability of Washington to EVER cut spending, they’d take sequester over nothing. This also explains why Boehner has not been able to put together a new sequester replacement bill.

Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama answers a question from a reporter during his meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, in the Oval Office of the White House.

*** What a week that’s coming up: It’s worth noting that the debate over the sequester isn’t the only political story that will be taking place this week. As NBC’s Mike O’Brien writes, the nation’s capital “is bracing for a politically consequential week ahead,” and here are the events we’ll be watching:

Monday, Feb. 25: Obama’s remarks to the National Governors Association beginning at 11:05 am ET.
Tuesday, Feb. 26: Obama travels to Virginia to warn about the looming cuts… Our new national NBC/WSJ poll comes out… The Senate is expected to vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary… And the special Democratic primary to fill Jesse Jackson Jr.’s (D-IL) vacated congressional seat takes place.
Wednesday, Feb. 27: The Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the challenge to the Voting Rights Act
Thursday, Feb. 28: Pope Benedict XVI holds his final day as pope
Friday, March 1: Sequester cuts take effect.

*** Team Obama promises additional access for big money to OFA: When he first announced his presidential bid in Springfield, IL six years ago, Obama stressed the need to curb the influence of special interests in Washington. "The cynics, and the lobbyists, and the special interests [have] turned our government into a game only they can play,” he said. “They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills. They get the access, while you get to write a letter. They think they own this government, but we're here to take it back." But the New York Times report over the weekend -- that donors who contribute and raise $500,000 to Obama’s Organizing for Action will get special access to the president -- runs counter to that ’07 promise. If you’re a big business wanting additional contact with the president (lobbyists and PACs are precluded from donating), you’re going to pony up $500,000-plus. The Obama folks can rationalize this all they want (you’ll be disclosing the donors, you’ll also be accepting small-donor money, this is the campaign-finance world we live in after Citizens United), but offering this kind of access to big donors was PRECISELY what Obama was campaigning against in 2007-2008. Every political strategist involved in the 2012 presidential campaign on BOTH sides of the aisle believes the campaign-finance system is a mess. And yet we continue to see a perpetuation of the so-called flawed system. This is how a bad system becomes worse. Wonder what Candidate Obama would say about this?

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