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First Thoughts: How we got here

President Barack Obama meets with Congressional leaders regarding the debt ceiling, Wednesday, July 13, 2011, in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama meets with Congressional leaders regarding the debt ceiling, Wednesday, July 13, 2011, in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington.Charles Dharapak / AP file photo

With the clock ticking until the sequester cuts, explaining how we got here… Failed assumptions, failed Grand Bargains… Boehner to appear on “Meet”… When does the sequester take effect? Answer: Anytime before 11:59 pm ET on March 1… Senate confirms Lew as Treasury secretary, while John Brennan gets bumped to next week… And why Iowa is so important to 2014.

*** How we got here: With Washington headed -- inexorably -- to Friday’s deadline when the automatic across-the-board spending cuts take effect, there’s a natural question to ask: How did we get here and why didn’t the sequester work as intended? Well, here’s our quick answer: First, Republicans, fueled by the Tea Party and their gains in the 2010 midterms on a message of cutting back the size of government, demanded that they would raise the debt limit only accompanied by equal spending cuts. (Prior to that, debt-ceiling increases had been fairly routine exercises for all past administrations.) Second, after agreeing to some spending cuts, the Obama White House and congressional Republicans couldn’t agree how to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion over 10 years (to raise the debt limit by that much because the White House wanted to avoid another debt-ceiling showdown before Nov. 2012), so they created the sequester. That mechanism ($600 billion cuts in defense spending cuts that Republicans weren’t supposed to like; $600 billion in non-defense spending cuts that Democrats weren’t supposed to like) was intended to be so draconian that it would force the two parties to make a deal. As we know, it was the brainchild of Jack Lew, a veteran of the budget wars of the ‘80s, the first time the word “sequester” entered the Washington lexicon.

*** Failed assumptions, failed Grand Bargains: Third, the assumption that the cuts would force a compromise turned out to be incorrect. Whether it was during the Super Committee, the fiscal-cliff negotiations, or now, those spending cuts -- especially on defense -- weren’t enough to strike a deal. As it turns out, the deficit-hawk wing of the GOP got only larger in both the House and Senate. Fourth, all attempts for a Grand Bargain failed: In 2011, both sides retreated to let the election decide the fiscal fight. And at the end of 2012, they dealt only with the expiring Bush-era tax cuts (and not the sequester or increasing the debt ceiling again). Fifth and finally, that fiscal-cliff deal on the Bush tax cuts created a TREMENDOUS amount of intra-party blowback for House Speaker John Boehner, which only made resolving this sequester standoff even more difficult. (After all, remember that it wasn’t too long ago when the big discussion in DC was whether Boehner would lose his speakership.) And just as importantly, folks like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn -- who are both up for re-election next year and both have colleagues from their states who have become Tea Party stars (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz) – are probably more reluctant to make a deal than ever before. Bottom line: The Senate escape hatch that saved the day during the fiscal-cliff fight isn’t there right now.

*** Sequester is here to stay: So ultimately, the big miscalculation on the White House’s part on sequester was that defense spending would be a forcing mechanism. It is not and will not be. And, as things stand right now, they are wrong to believe the Republicans are going to break like they did at end of 2012. The law was on the president’s ideological side at the end of 2012. That’s why the GOP broke on taxes. In this case, the law is on the Republicans’ ideological side. It is easier for them to defend the sequester at home because they can say, “We said we’d cut spending and the size of government, the president tried to stop us but we wouldn’t let him.” A bad spending cut for many Republicans is easier to defend than any supposed fair tax hike on anyone. So if the White House really wants to stop the sequester, they might have to come up with their own set of $85 billion in spending cuts for this year to replace it. In this political environment, there is no way Boehner, McConnell and Cornyn can politically survive doing anything short of that. The president can still get more revenue down the road on tax reform, but he may have to fold on sequester if he wants a chance at winning in the long run. But that’s also a hard thing to ask a president who just won re-election on this very issue.

*** Boehner to appear on “Meet the Press”: Speaking of Boehner, the House GOP leader on Sunday will sit down for an exclusive interview with NBC’s David Gregory on “Meet the Press.”

*** When does the sequester take effect? By the way, when do the sequester cuts go into effect? As NBC’s Peter Alexander notes, we all know it happens this Friday, March 1. But when exactly does it take place? In simple terms, per Alexander, it doesn’t take place until the president signs the sequester order, which must happen anytime before 11:59 pm ET on Friday, March 1.

*** On the White House vs. Woodward dust-up: To be honest, we don’t have much more to say in the dust-up between the Obama White House and the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, except for these three points. One, political reporters should always go out of their way NOT to become part of the story. Two, you shouldn’t pick fights with folks who can buy ink by the barrel (or in today’s age, have unlimited bandwidth) and have banked credibility over decades to earn the benefit of the doubt. And three, if you’ve been in this business long enough, you’ve probably received emails more incendiary and threatening than “I think you will regret staking out that claim.” In fact, the email exchange between Woodward and White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, has since become public, and it’s hard to conclude that Sperling was attempting to intimidate Woodward.

*** Lew confirmed, Brennan bumped until next week: Recapping yesterday’s activity in the Senate, former White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew won confirmation to be Treasury secretary by a 71-26 vote, per NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell. Meanwhile, NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports that the Senate Intelligence Committee moved a vote on John Brennan's nomination as CIA director until next Tuesday. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the committee vice chairman, said Wednesday night that the panel had bumped the Brennan vote until next week.

*** Why Iowa is so important for 2014: The big 2014 news yesterday was Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA)’s decision NOT to run for the Senate, which potentially gives conservative Rep. Steve King (R-IA) a clearer shot to being the GOP nominee if he decides to run. Here’s why next year’s Iowa Senate race is so important: If you take this seat off the map for Republicans – and it’s very premature to do that – then they almost have to run the table on all their other Senate opportunities to win back the Senate. Remember, Republicans have to pick up six seats to take control of the upper chamber. If you give them West Virginia (Rockefeller retiring) and South Dakota (possible Tim Johnson retirement), then Republicans still needs to win four out of these five seats where Dems are probably running for re-election: Alaska (Begich), Arkansas (Pryor), Louisiana (Landrieu), Montana (Baucus), and North Carolina (Hagan). In other words, if Iowa is in play for Republicans, they don’t need to knock off as many Dem incumbents. If it isn’t in play, then they almost have to run the table. One other point here: King would probably have little chance of winning a Senate contest in a presidential year, but he does have a chance in a midterm cycle, so folks ought to be careful making assumptions.

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