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First Thoughts: Increasing polarization

Increasing polarization helps explain why we’re on our fifth -- and counting -- fiscal showdown… That said, GOP Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA) joins Obama on his trip to Virginia to warn against the sequester cuts… Attention Bob Woodward: Cantor tells the New Yorker that it was their plan to let the 2012 election decide the spending/taxes debate… It’s NBC/WSJ poll day!!!... Second time the charm for Chuck Hagel? Senate to hold vote on his nomination around noon ET… Gun issue dominates today’s IL-2 special primary… Republicans vs. Republicans in Virginia… Chris Christie not invited to speak at CPAC… And Lone Star rising?

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, responds to President Barack Obama's remarks to the nation's governors earlier today about how to fend off the impending automatic budget cuts, Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, on Capitol Hill.

*** Increasing polarization: This current political battle over the looming automatic budget cuts known as “sequester” has become the fifth fiscal showdown -- and counting -- between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans since 2011. Part of the reason for this conflict is due simply to divided government, with Democrats controlling the White House and Senate and with Republicans in charge of the House. (After all, it was divided government that produced the political showdowns of the late 1990s, as well as 2007-2008.) But there’s something else going on, too: increased political polarization in Congress, even in the U.S. Senate. According to National Journal’s 2012 vote ratings, for the third year a row, “no Republican member of the Senate had a more liberal voting record than any Democrat—just as no Democratic senator had a more conservative record than any Republican.” And in the House, only 10 Democrats had a more conservative score than the most liberal Republicans, while just five Republicans were more liberal than the most conservative House Democrat. In other words, there are few ideological crossovers (like liberal/moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats) anymore. Democrats are liberal; Republicans are conservatives; and there’s little ground in between. For over two decades, since National Journal started these rankings in 1982, it was the norm for there to be a handful of ideological crossovers in the Senate. Now, it’s the norm for there to be purity. 

*** Rigell, it, just a little bit: All of that said, President Obama has a surprise guest when he travels to Newport News, VA -- a huge shipbuilding community -- to warn of the sequester cuts at 1:05 pm ET, especially as it relates to the defense industry: local Republican Congressman Scott Rigell (R-VA). Also in attendance will be Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Dem Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). And today’s event won’t be the only bipartisan meeting. As NBC’s Mike Viqueira, Kasie Hunt, and Kelly O’Donnell report, GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham will head to the White House this afternoon at 3:35 pm ET to discuss immigration with the president. But those examples are exceptions rather than the rule. By the way, there are NO talks scheduled before Friday’s sequester kicks in. Just a lot of media events designed to lay the groundwork for the negotiations in March. That said, don’t be surprised, if simply for appearances sake, there is a last minute meeting at the White House before Friday -- simply because both sides need to be seen as pretending to try to stop the sequester, even if there aren’t any serious proposals right now to do so.

*** Attention Bob Woodward: In his profile of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the House GOP caucus, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has this scoop, especially as it relates to the current sequester fight: Cantor admitted he talked House Speaker John Boehner out of accepting Obama’s grand-bargain deal during the debt-ceiling battle of 2011. “Cantor told me that it was a ‘fair assessment’ that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama’s deal,” Lizza writes. “He said he told Boehner that it would be better, instead, to take the issues of taxes and spending to the voters and ‘have it out’ with Democrats in the election.” Lizza adds: “The bet failed spectacularly. Just as Cantor had urged, Obama and Romney spent much of the campaign debating tax and spending policies that the House Republicans had foisted on the Romney-Ryan ticket. What’s more, by scuttling the 2011 Grand Bargain negotiations, Cantor, more than any other politician, helped create the series of fiscal crises that have gripped Washington since Election Day.” So this reporting -- which Boehner’s and Cantor’s offices dispute, saying that they walked away from the 2011 talks after Obama asked for more revenue -- begs the question: If Cantor and Republicans decided to let the election determine the spending/budget debate, why are revenues off the table for them, even after the fiscal-cliff deal?

*** NBC/WSJ poll day! How do Americans view the current political debate over the sequester? What are their impressions of President Obama and the Republican Party? What do they think about immigration and gun control? Beginning at 6:30 pm ET, we’ll have answers from our brand-new NBC/WSJ poll.

*** Second time a charm for Hagel? At noon ET, the U.S. Senate is expected to reconsider Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be President Obama’s defense secretary, according to a top Democratic Senate aide. If he gets 60 votes -- which he was unable to get earlier this month, becoming the first cabinet secretary pick to be successfully blocked by a filibuster -- final passage would occur either today or tomorrow. As we wrote on Friday, all signs are pointing to Hagel getting 60-plus votes. And here are the five lessons we’ve learned from the Hagel fight: 1) political betrayal is a worse sin than being a member of the opposing party; 2) getting 60 votes remains the standard in the Senate; 3) confirmation hearings, while maybe not decisive, do matter; 4) Benghazi has become a catch-all Republican fallback, with McCain and Lindsey Graham earlier saying they wanted more answers on the subject before they support moving Hagel’s nomination along; and 5) Hagel has been wounded by the entire process. Here’s a sixth point worth making, as we’ve done before: The extra week-plus that Republicans got after filibustering Hagel seems to have revealed only that a bogus group like Friends of Hamas never existed.

*** Gun issue dominates today’s IL-2 special primary: On this VERY busy day (sequester, poll, Hagel), there’s an additional story worth paying attention today -- the Democratic primary in the race to fill Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Chicago-area congressional seat. In this multi-candidate field, Cook County Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly appears to be the front-runner, thanks in large part to the issue of guns, especially after Newtown and the gun violence in Chicago. (See the TV ads here, here, and here.) As one of us wrote last week, this special primary has highlighted three points: One, the NRA has become anathema to many Democratic donors (hence the TV ads blasting Kelly’s opponents, like former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, for getting an “A” with NRA). Two, Michael Bloomberg’s organizations have become a countervailing force (see the $2 million-plus they’ve spent in this race). And three, do these things apply outside of urban areas like Chicago (that’s the big question moving forward after today if Kelly wins, and it’s something that Jessica Taylor of the Rothenberg Political Report questions). Polls close at 8:00 pm ET.

*** Republicans vs. Republicans in Virginia: The state of Virginia is in today’s political news beyond President Obama’s trip to Newport News, VA today. For starters, conservative pundit Erick Erickson is heavily criticizing Virginia Bob McDonnell for raising taxes in the state’s bipartisan transportation deal. “On Friday, March 15, 2013, at 8:00 a.m. Bob McDonnell will go to CPAC and address the Faith & Freedom Coalition Prayer Breakfast. For those of you who attend this event, you will be sitting staring at a liar,” Erickson writes. By the way, McDonnell will be on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” today.  In addition, Politico’s Martin writes that GOP business leaders aren’t all that pleased with Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli. “Two prominent northern Virginia business leaders got into a heated exchange with Virginia Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ken Cuccinelli in front of a few hundred top GOP donors at a closed-door meeting Friday.” These two stories highlight the current fight within the GOP between the pragmatic conservatives and the ideologues.

*** Christie not invited to CPAC: We mentioned this last week, and it’s getting more pickup after another First Read piece noted it: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wasn’t invited to speak at CPAC.

*** Lone Star rising? And finally at 11:00 am ET, a group of top field strategists who worked for the Obama campaign will hold a conference call announcing the effort -- called Battleground Texas -- to try to turn the Lone Star purple in future years. (San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will be on this call.) As Politico wrote last month, the organization “plans to engage the state’s rapidly growing Latino population, as well as African-American voters and other Democratic-leaning constituencies that have been underrepresented at the ballot box in recent cycles. Two sources said the contemplated budget would run into the tens of millions of dollars over several years - a project Democrats hope has enough heft to help turn what has long been an electoral pipe dream into reality.”

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