First Thoughts: Landing with a THUD

Landing with a THUD: House GOP leaders pulling appropriations bill signals they don’t have the votes for the upcoming fiscal fights… When things fall apart -- for Mitch McConnell… The ATF finally gets its man… Obama defends Summers during his pep talk on Capitol Hill… It’s Pryor vs. Cotton in AR SEN race… And Cuccinelli: “There are some bells you can’t unring.” 

*** Landing with a THUD: We’ve made this point before, and we’ll make it again: Congressional Republicans aren’t on the same page right now on, well, ANYTHING. The latest example took place yesterday when House Republicans pulled their THUD appropriations bill (funding the Transportation and HUD departments). As Roll Call writes, “Top Republicans decided to halt debate on the House’s version of the bill, probably never to be seen again, once they realized it had no chance of passage... The bill foundered not only because a couple dozen conservative Republicans thought it would spend too much, but also because a small but pivotal number of Republican moderates had joined virtually all the Democrats viewing the depth of the proposed cuts as too deep.” And don’t miss this significant quote from House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY): “With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget [the Ryan budget] it adopted just three months ago. Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: Sequestration, and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts, must be brought to an end.” There’s one conclusion to draw from this development: House Republicans simply don’t have the votes. And if they can’t pass this bill, it’s hard to imagine how they can pass any kind of legislation relating to funding the government, which only strengthens the White House’s hand in the upcoming fiscal fights.

The Capitol Dome is seen on Capitol Hill, Nov. 9, 2012. Larry Downing / Reuters

*** Waving the white flag -- or coming close to it: House Republicans will claim they have not waved the white flag yet when it comes to negotiating with the White House and Democrats on the budget, but this is pretty darn close. The fact is, Republicans -- be it Ted Cruz and his push to draw a line in the sand on health care, or House Republicans trying to appropriate money BELOW sequestration levels -- don’t have a negotiating strategy yet to rally around. And if they don’t find one, they’ll find themselves rolled by the White House and Senate Democrats on much of these deals come October. One more thing: Judging by this action yesterday, it’s pretty clear to us, there isn’t going to be a government shutdown, not enough Republicans have the stomach for it.

*** Where do they go from here? So here’s the question -- what do Republicans do now? On the one hand, there is so much energy on the right. For example, on Capitol Hill today at 11:30 am ET, numerous conservative groups (Tea Party Patriots, Club for Growth, Heritage Action, Citizens United) are holding an event demanding that Republicans vote to defund Obamacare. Their argument: “You fund it, you own it.” On the other hand, Republicans simply don’t have the votes to defund it, especially in the Senate. That’s their dilemma right now, and it’s something they’re going to have to spend their August contemplating. How do they channel this conservative energy, but use it to accomplish realistic goals? Of course, here’s the irony in this entire discussion: With the previous cuts in spending and with the deficit falling, Republicans have already won the larger fiscal war. Their problem -- they haven’t been able to declare victory, and certainly not in a way that satisfies a still very hungry conservative base.

*** When things fall apart … for McConnell: The group For America, which also will be in attendance at that Capitol Hill event at 11:30 am ET, is up with a video describing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a “chicken” for not joining the GOP forces calling to defund Obamacare. A month ago, McConnell had a strong command over his Senate GOP conference; a month ago, he had no general-election challenger; and a month ago, he had no GOP primary. Now everything has fallen apart for the GOP leader. And the one thing his team had been trying to avoid -- a primary challenge -- has now become a reality. He’s in a big political bind: McConnell has a Republican conference that now regularly breaks with him on enough things that it only energizes some of the conservative skeptics who have been trying to go after McConnell for years. We’re guessing there’s no one that might be looking less forward to the August recess and the coming fall budget battles than Mitch McConnell.

*** The ATF gets its man -- finally: Meanwhile, the Senate was able to confirm another Obama executive-branch appointee -- but just barely. NBC’s Kasie Hunt: “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has its first Senate-confirmed head in seven years, after the upper chamber voted 53-42 to approve Byron Todd Jones for the post. But the nomination was almost sunk earlier Thursday, when the Senate came close to rejecting President Barack Obama's nominee, jeopardizing the fragile deal that's allowed other controversial nominees to be confirmed. Senate leaders were forced to hold open a procedural vote for hours to wait for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to arrive in Washington and cast the 60th vote... The nomination would have failed if not for last-minute, on-the-floor arm-twisting -- all visible on the chamber's cameras -- to try and sway Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.” The confirmation of Jones might seem like a small deal, but it’s pretty remarkable given the inability to confirm ANYONE for that ATF job. And it was made possible by the NRA decided not to score the vote. This is the first time the NRA has done that -- a reminder that they, too, know they can’t just always look like they are obstructing anything related to guns.

*** Obama defends Summers during his pep talk on Capitol Hill: The biggest news from President Obama’s visit on Capitol Hill yesterday? The question he received about the surprisingly public campaign for Fed chair. The dispatch from NBC’s Frank Thorp and Carrie Dann: “Aides tell NBC News that Obama was first asked about Summers in the meeting by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., a member of the House Financial Services Committee and a critic of the former Treasury head. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., characterized Obama’s response as a ‘powerful’ and ‘full-throated defense.’” ‘He was the Rock of Gibraltar in trying to work through policies to turn the economy around, and I'm not going to stand idly by and let his name be disparaged and his reputation trashed because people have a political agenda about who should or should not be the Chairman of the Federal Reserve,’ Obama said of Summers, according to Connolly.

*** It’s Pryor vs. Cotton in Arkansas: Also yesterday, we learned that Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) -- as expected -- is challenging Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), which creates a VERY competitive and potentially VERY contentious Senate race. Two things worth noting here: One, first-term members of Congress don’t have the greatest record in immediately winning promotion to the Senate. Two, Arkansas has become such a difficult state for Democrats in the Age of Obama. Which force ultimately wins out -- Cotton’s relative inexperience (plus the fact he comes from the House), or Arkansas increasingly becoming a more GOP-leaning state? 

*** Cuccinelli: “There are some bells you can’t unring”: Lastly, in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, Bob McDonnell’s ethics woes continue to remain a problem for Ken Cuccinelli. “Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says he's glad Gov. Bob McDonnell is returning all the gifts he received from a major political donor. But he has no plans to repay the more than $18,000 in gifts he received from the same benefactor,” the AP says. “Cuccinelli told reporters Wednesday that Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams didn't give him the kind of gifts that can be returned. Among the gifts from Williams listed in Cuccinelli's financial disclosure statements are a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving dinner, private jet trips and vacation lodging. Cuccinelli said, ‘There are some bells you can't unring.'”">Click here to sign up for First Read emails.

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