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First Thoughts: The budget beat goes on

The budget beat goes on… Could the White House have cut a better fiscal-cliff deal?... Is Ryan’s upcoming budget really a serious budget?... The GOP takes center stage over the next eight days (CPAC, RNC autopsy, Iraq war anniversary)… Jeb’s full 360 on citizenship for illegal immigrants… And Obama’s expected Labor pick: Tom Perez.

*** The budget beat goes on: While the biggest political story in the world this week is taking place in Vatican City, the biggest story in Washington this week remains the budget debate -- over whether the Obama White House can still strike a “grand bargain” deal with Republicans. On Tuesday, Obama heads to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Democrats; on Wednesday, he visits House Republicans; and on Thursday, the meetings are with Senate Republicans and House Democrats. Also this week, House Republicans and Senate Democrats are expected to unveil their budgets. One of the big reasons for Obama’s meetings with Democrats and Republicans is to keep the budget momentum going -- to see if Washington can reach some kind of larger budget agreement (to eliminate or soften the sequester cuts) without disrupting the other parts of Obama’s agenda (like on immigration and guns). The more positive momentum there appears to be for now, the less likely it is there’s a disruption before the fall on, say, government funding or debt ceiling. If there’s the sense of stalled momentum on budget, then the acrimony could bleed into other areas, like immigration, and stall everything. That’s what the White House is trying to avoid. But let’s also realize the other motivation for the Obama outreach: The president wasn’t gaining points by being in standoff mode (if anything, he was losing them in the polls). The White House wants that high ground back.

Chuck Todd reports on the House Republican and Senate Democrat budget plans to be released this week and how these dueling plans show two very different approaches to the role of the U.S. government.

*** Could the White House have cut a better fiscal-cliff deal? This was inevitable after Washington’s inability to avoid the sequester spending cuts, but Democrats are beginning to criticize the Obama White House for not cutting a better deal during the fiscal-cliff negotiations. The New York Times: “‘There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking,’ said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. The second-guessing extends to virtually every aspect of the deal: its failure to postpone the automatic budget cuts for more than two months, its failure to raise the federal debt limit and its yield of $600 billion in new tax revenue over 10 years out of $4 trillion of new taxes that would have taken effect had the Bush tax cuts been allowed to expire.” In other words, many Democrats wish the White House would have let all the Bush tax cuts expire after Jan. 1 to put more pressure on the GOP for better deal. But ask yourself: Would the Dow Jones be where it is today had we gone over the cliff? What about February’s jobs numbers? What about progress on immigration reform? And that’s what the White House will argue -- that they got the best deal they could on taxes without disrupting the economy. But the White House did miscalculate the sequester pressure. They really believed that the same group of Republicans who pressed leaders to cave on taxes would press leaders to cave on sequester. That just didn’t happen.

*** Is Ryan’s budget a serious budget? As mentioned above, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will unveil the GOP’s latest budget on Tuesday. Per the Chicago Tribune, it plans to balance the budget in 10 years (thanks in part to assuming the new tax hikes as well as the $716 billion in cuts to Medicare that Ryan and Mitt Romney said they would eliminate); it will transform Medicare into a voucher/premium support system for future seniors (under 55); and it calls for the elimination of Obama’s health-care law. But is this a serious budget? Or is it simply a political document? After all, it calls for repealing Obamacare but assumes the $716 billion in cuts that Obamacare created. It contains the voucher/premium support changes to Medicare that both Ryan and Romney largely campaigned on in 2012 -- and they lost the election. We know why Ryan’s budget includes repealing Obamacare (the GOP base wants it, and Ryan would have received plenty of attention from the media had it NOT been in there). But its inclusion makes it look unserious; Obamacare is the law of the land, and the Supreme Court and the 2012 election decided that. What’s interesting is that Ryan is being fairly open about the political aspects of his budget, admitting some things (like Obamacare) are non-starters. But the fact he has to include them tells you more about how Republicans plan to pass this budget (for now) -- they want 218 Republicans to pass this, period. Save the compromise budget fight for post-reconciliation (if there is such a thing).

Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file photo

President Barack Obama shakes hands with House Speaker John Boehner after delivering his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on February 12, 2013 at the Capitol in Washington, DC.

*** The GOP takes center stage: But while the budget remains this week’s biggest political story, the other one to watch over the next eight days will be the story of the Republican Party -- four months removed from its defeat in 2012. There’s the jam-packed CPAC conference (which takes place from Thursday through Saturday), the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the ’12 election (which comes out on Monday, March 18), and the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war (Tuesday, March 19). Over the next few days, we’ll be looking at the state of the Republican Party by using data from our most recent NBC/WSJ poll. Speaking of the Iraq war, here’s what former Florida Jeb Bush said about his brother George W. Bush on “Meet the Press” yesterday: “So my guess is that history will be kind to my brother, the further out you get from this and the more people compare his tenure to what's going on now. I think -- I think history will be kind to George W. Bush.”

*** Jeb’s full 360 on citizenship for illegal immigrants: Also on “Meet” yesterday, Jeb Bush came full circle on supporting citizenship for illegal immigrants after his new book (which he says he wrote before the 2012 election and before the bipartisan Senate framework came out) opposed it. “I support what Sens. Graham and Rubio and McCain and Flake are doing with their Democratic counterparts. And if they can find a way to get to a path to citizenship over the long haul, then I would support that,” Bush told NBC’s David Gregory. “But this book was written to try to get people that were against reform to be for it. And it is a place where I think a lot of conservatives should feel comfortable, that there's a way to do this and not violate their principles.” So just to trace Bush’s evolution here: He supported citizenship back in 2012 as well as in a January 2013 WSJ op-ed. Then his new book opposed it (though it sounds like he himself never did oppose it). And after criticism of that opposition, he now says he supports it -- as part of the bipartisan Senate framework. Indeed, the L.A. Times reports that the bipartisan group of senators has “privately agreed on the most contentious part of the draft — how to offer legal status to the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants…  The group's current draft is largely in line with President Obama's call to set a pathway to earned citizenship as part of a broader immigration reform package

*** Obama’s Labor pick: Over the weekend, the AP reported that Tom Perez -- who has led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division since 2009 -- is set to become Obama’s next Labor secretary. “Perez' nomination to the Labor Department could come as early as Monday, the people familiar with the process said Saturday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the official announcement has not yet been made. White House spokesman Matt Lehrich declined to comment.” Roll Call says that Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R) is raising objections to Perez over the senator’s investigation into a deal that the Justice Department struck with St. Paul. MN. If Obama nominated Perez, here’s our updated look at the cabinet shuffle:

John Kerry at State (replaced Hillary Clinton)
Chuck Hagel at Defense (replaced Leon Panetta
Jack Lew at Treasury (replaced Tim Geithner)
Ken Salazar at Interior (Sally Jewell nominated)
Lisa Jackson at EPA (Gina McCarthy nominated
Steven Chu at Energy (Ernest Moniz nominated)
Hilda Solis at Labor (Tom Perez to be potentially nominated)
Ray LaHood at Transportation (Julian Castro is most recent person to turn down the post)
Commerce (N/A) (Penny Pritzker appears to be the leading candidate)
U.S. Trade Representative (acting OMB Dir. Jeff Zients is leading candidate, he has yet to say yes)
Director of Office of Management and Budget (Sylvia Burwell nominated) 

And here are the cabinet secretaries who are remaining:

Janet Napolitano (DHS)
Arne Duncan (Education)
Tom Vilsack (Agriculture)
Eric Holder (Justice)
Kathleen Sebelius (HHS)
Eric Shinseki (Veterans Affairs)

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