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First Thoughts: GOP tries to regroup

GOP tries to regroup as RNC begins its winter meeting in Charlotte, NC… Bad news, good news for the GOP… Hillary Clinton testifies -- at last -- on Benghazi… House to vote on extending the debt ceiling… NRA’s LaPierre defends “absolutism”… The center strikes back in Israel… Lautenberg says Booker deserves a “spanking,” though a new Quinnipiac poll shows who’s giving the real spanking so far… And 2016 watch: Rubio speaks at 2:00 pm ET before U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

*** GOP tries to regroup: Two days after President Obama’s inauguration, all the Democratic celebrations, the parades and inaugural balls, Republicans today begin heading to Charlotte, NC for the RNC’s winter meeting, where they will lick their electoral wounds and start to regroup. Here’s the bad news for the GOP: According to the most recent NBC/WSJ poll, the party’s unfavorable rating (49%) is at its highest point since 2008. The Obama White House and Democrats forced the GOP to fold its opposition to raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans (though the agreement extended tax breaks for everyone else). And it has retreated -- for now -- on using the debt ceiling to demand additional spending cuts (and will instead use the budget process for that fiscal fight).

*** Bad news, good news: So that’s the bad news for a party that has lost two-straight presidential contests -- and has lost them decisively. The good news is that politics and circumstances can change. After all, it was just eight years ago when Democrats were coming off their second-straight presidential loss and many were talking about a permanent conservative majority. What’s more, the 2014 midterm season looks potentially bright for the GOP, given the Democratic Senate seats that are up next year and given that the Obama coalition of voters isn’t as likely to participate in elections when the president’s name isn’t at the top of the ticket. And finally, as Obama proved, a charismatic presidential candidate can help turn around a party’s fortunes. The challenge, of course, is finding that candidate, as well as improving the party’s overall brand. So yes, a party’s political fortunes can change. But how it uses its time out of power -- and how it learns from its past losses -- is perhaps the most important component to getting back on the right track.

*** The real action in Charlotte begins tomorrow: That brings us to the upcoming RNC meeting in Charlotte, which happens to be the same city where Democrats held their triumphant convention last year. Per NBC’s Carrie Dann, the real action begins taking place tomorrow, when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks at a dinner and when the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” -- the party’s effort to improve upon what went wrong in the last election -- will discuss its research. And on Friday, the 168 RNC members will elect the party chairman for the next years. It’s widely expected that current RNC Chair Reince Priebus will win re-election.

*** Hillary Clinton testifies on Benghazi: As the RNC begins to huddle in Charlotte, Capitol Hill today braces itself for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s long-awaited congressional testimony on the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Clinton’s testimony -- at 9:00 am ET before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and 2:00 pm ET before the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- comes after an independent study criticized Clinton’s State Department “for a lack of seasoned security personnel and for relying on untested local militias to safeguard the compound,” the New York Times reported at the time. After that report, four top State Department were removed from their posts. While the hearings could get testy, Clinton comes into them in a strong political shape. According to the last NBC/WSJ poll, her approval rating stands at 69%, which is higher than any other outgoing secretary of state measured in a poll since 1948 -- with one exception: Colin Powell in 2004. Also, don’t miss that another 2016 hopeful Marco Rubio will be asking some of the questions today (more on Rubio below).

*** House to vote on extending debt ceiling: Also on Capitol Hill today, the House will vote to raise the debt ceiling for three months. NBC’s Luke Russert reported that House Speaker John Boehner yesterday implored his GOP conference to pass this extension -- under the promise that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will be working on a plan to balance the budget over the next 10 years. "Passing a short-term hike buys time for the House and Senate both to pass a budget,” Boehner said, per a source in the room. Technically, today’s vote is to SUSPEND the debt limit rather than RAISE it. As NBC’s Frank Thorp explains, the legislation suspends the debt ceiling until May 18, so during that time the U.S. government would have no debt limit. After May 18, Thorp adds, Congress would then pass a debt-limit extension to retroactively cover the debt that was incurred during the suspension of the limit. The vote is expected to take place around 12:30 pm ET, and it’s supposed the pass. The Obama White House yesterday said it supports this three-month extension/suspension. By the way, in convincing the rank-and-file to go along with this, Politico reports that Boehner made the pitch, but Ryan made the sale.

*** NRA’s LaPierre defends “absolutism”: The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre made the case yesterday that “absolutism” is a good thing. In an address, LaPierre said, “Obama wants to turn the idea of absolutism into a dirty word. Just another word for extremism. He wants you, all of you, and Americans throughout all of this country, to accept the idea of principles as he sees fit. It’s a way of redefining words so that common sense is turned upside down and that nobody knows the difference… We believe in our right to defend ourselves and our families with semi-automatic firearms technology…  I’ve got news for the president: Absolutes do exist. Words do have specific meaning in language and in law. It’s the basis of all civilization... Without those absolutes, without those protections, democracy decays into nothing more than two wolves and one lamb voting on, well, who to eat for lunch.”

*** The center strikes back in Israel: Yesterday, we wrote that everyone was expecting Tuesday’s Israeli elections to produce a government that was even more conservative than the current government. But that expectation turned out to be wrong. The Washington Post says the elections “weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and raised the prospect of a more centrist government that could ease strained relations with Washington and signal more flexibility in peace efforts with the Palestinians.” More: “With 99 percent of the votes counted, results showed the combined ticket of Likud and the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction losing a quarter of its seats in parliament, along with a surprising surge for a new centrist party, Yesh Atid, which looks set to become a key element of a future coalition. The result meant that Netanyahu, whose faction remained the largest in parliament, would almost certainly have to join forces with Yesh Atid, now second in size. The centrist party’s demands include resuming negotiations with the Palestinians, and an alliance could result in a government less tilted to the right than Netanyahu’s outgoing administration.”

*** Lautenberg says Booker deserves a “spanking”: There’s never a dull political moment in New Jersey, that’s for sure. As National Journal writes, “Sen. Frank Lautenberg made his first public comments about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, comparing him to his disobedient children, and suggesting the upstart mayor needed a ‘spanking.’” Lautenberg told the Philly Inquirer: "I have four children, I love each one of them. I can't tell [you] that one of them wasn't occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK.” But according to a new Quinnipiac poll, New Jersey Democratic voters prefer Booker over Lautenberg by 51%-30%, and a plurality say Lautenberg doesn’t deserve re-election. What’s more, And 71% think his age -- he’s 89 and will be 90 by the 2014 election -- “makes the work too difficult,” versus 21% who say it “gives him the wisdom and experience to do a good job.” The same Quinnipiac poll has Gov. Chris Christie with a whopping 74% job-approval rating.

*** 2016 watch: Rubio speaks to Chamber: Lastly today, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at 2:00 pm ET. The speech is on education and middle-class opportunity.

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