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First Thoughts: A tale of two Senates

A tale of two Senates on display last night… Obama’s dinner with 12 GOP senators vs. Rand Paul’s filibuster… Paul’s filibuster actually forces a debate… Principle vs. politics… Obama’s dinner gets positive reviews, but it raises three questions… And Obama follows that dinner with lunch with Paul Ryan and Chris Van Hollen… And Messina defends OFA.

*** A tale of two Senates: On a day when much of Washington was snowed in -- or rained/slushed in, as it turned out -- we saw a night of contrasts among Republican senators. On the one hand, President Obama dined with 12 GOP senators at a fancy boutique hotel, where they talked about ways to end the budget impasse between Democrats and Republicans. It was a hat tip to the “good old days” that many folks in DC claim existed but sometimes is exaggerated. On the other hand, there was Rand Paul, who was later joined by some of his colleagues, mounting a nearly 13-hour old-school filibuster against Obama’s pick to head the CIA due to the administration’s drone policy. In many ways, it was a tale of the Old Senate vs. the New Senate. One was warm and cordial, behind closed doors, and attended by those who have had a history of working across the aisle; the other was boisterous, great for TV, and largely fueled by the Tea Party (Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz). To be sure, there were some key exceptions to this dynamic: Tea Party Sen. Ron Johnson joined the Obama dinner, while a Democratic senator (Oregon’s Ron Wyden) took part in the Paul filibuster. Still, the contrast was striking, and it highlighted the two tensions inside the U.S. Senate -- the desire to work together and the desire to hold things up, whatever the reason.

Charles Dharapak / AP

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., walks off the floor of the Senate to applause after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director on Capitol Hill, early Thursday, March 7, 2013.

*** Marathon Man: Say what you will about Rand Paul’s marathon filibuster -- whether it was a noble cause, a vanity project with 2016 overtones, or a protest over a hypothetical -- but it makes the case for filibuster reform requiring senators to actually SPEAK if they want to hold things up. Why? Because it truly forced a debate, in this case over the administration’s drone policy targeting terrorists. Just look at the conversation it started. And compare that with yesterday’s other filibuster, against Obama judicial nominee Caitlin Halligan, whose nomination was blocked without a marathon speaking performance. Guess what: We know a lot more about the administration’s drone policy than why Halligan shouldn’t serve on the D.C. Circuit. (Apparently, the reason for the filibuster against Halligan had to do with the NRA and gun manufacturers.) As the New York Times Gail Collins writes, “Would any Republican have spent a night fending off hunger, thirst and the need for bathroom breaks to stop Halligan’s nomination? We’ll never know. All McConnell had to do was just say no. Harry Reid, the majority leader, needed 60 votes to proceed. End of story. End of Halligan.” 

*** Principle vs. politics: We’ll say one more thing about Paul’s filibuster last night: We’re pretty sure he would have mounted it against a Republican White House, too. (Remember how his father, Ron, railed against the Bush administration’s Iraq war. When it comes to issues that civil libertarians hold near and dear, the Pauls are true believers.) But can you say the same about the other Republicans who participated in the filibuster? Would they have blasted a Republican administration’s drone policy? After all, some of these senators agree with the policy. It was fascinating how some Republican senators seemed to wait to see which way the wind was Tweeting before climbing aboard. We’ll let others guess the motivations some had (2016 was in the air for some, 2014 for others, nabbing a piece of the spotlight for themselves for others). But this was Rand Paul’s moment, no matter how many others tried to climb aboard his bandwagon.

*** Obama’s dinner gets positive reviews, but it raises three questions: As for Obama’s dinner last night, it went very well, according to various NBC conversations with the GOP participants. It was serious. It was respectful. And it was informative. (In fact, one senator told us that he learned, for the first time, the actual cuts that the president has put on the table. Leadership hadn’t shared that list with them before) And the overall suggestion from the dinner was that Obama would have to give cover for any cuts to Medicare, while Republicans would have to pony up additional revenue to get it. But here are the questions no one was able to answer: How do you get to the next step? How do these talks become legislation? And after working around leadership, how do you bring them back into the fold to ultimately try to pass any deal? A final point: You can tell that last night’s dinner had new Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s fingerprints on it. Yes, the expansive dinner was Sen. Lindsey Graham’s idea, and the guest list was also his. But don’t forget that McDonough had a great relationship with Graham (and McCain) when he served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Oh, want more evidence the damage the sequester debate had on Obama? He has just a 45%-46% approval rating in the latest Quinnipiac poll.

*** Last night’s dinner followed by Obama’s lunch with Paul Ryan: And after last night’s dinner, NBC News has confirmed that Obama is having lunch today at 12:25 pm ET with House Budget Committee Chairman (and failed VP nominee) Paul Ryan at the White House. NBC’s Frank Thorp has confirmed that Ryan’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, will also attend the lunch. Per Politico, “The idea for the chat-and-chew came during an extended phone conversation between Obama and Ryan earlier this week... By speaking directly with Ryan, Obama is hoping to enlist a powerful ally in convincing leadership to abandon its insistence on subjecting all future measures on the debt, deficit, taxes and entitlement reform to "regular order," the tortuous committee process dominated by party conservatives, according to a person close to the process.”

*** Messina defends OFA: After President Obama’s Organizing of Action has receiving plenty of criticism -- including from us -- for offering potential access to big donors, former Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina writes a CNN op-ed trying to soften the criticism. He states that Organization for Action is an issue advocacy group, not an electoral one (he even uses the phrase “social welfare” group); he argues that it will disclose all of its donors on a quarterly basis; and he contends that the organization won’t accept donations from corporations, federal lobbyists, or foreign donors. As for the access, Messina adds, “But just as the president and administration officials deliver updates on the legislative process to Americans and organizations across the ideological spectrum, there may be occasions when members of Organizing for Action are included in those updates. These are not opportunities to lobby -- they are briefings on the positions the president has taken and the status of seeing them through.” In other words, these folks will be able to meet with the president. Here’s another thing to consider: While OFA won’t take corporate money, nothing is there to stop, say, a particular CEO from writing a $500,000 check. This op-ed was clearly intended to calm down the critics, but other than eliminating the possibility of corporate donors, it doesn’t get to the larger criticism that campaign-finance advocates are upset about.

*** The end justifying the means: The larger question this op-ed doesn’t answer is why does the president, when presented with a campaign finance fork in the road, always take the one that is the “ends justifies the means” course. By creating and supporting an organization like this, the president is setting a precedent for future presidents to go around their own political parties when searching for support and they are only contributing to what everyone from BOTH 2012 campaigns claim is a problem: the growing role of big money in politics. 

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