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First Thoughts: Running in place before the recess

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

Congress runs in place before the August recess, as Democrats and Republicans brace themselves for the political fights ahead in the fall… Byron York: GOP is “divided every which way.”…. The most intriguing political story over the last three months? John McCain’s return as a dealmaker in Washington… Obama has lunch with Hillary… And criticism of Weiner keeps on coming.

*** Running in place before the recess: A month ago, many of us had circled this week on our calendars as the window for Congress to complete -- or at least make progress on -- key issues before departing on its August recess. For instance, the assumption back then was that the House of Representatives would roll up its sleeves on immigration reform, and that Democrats and Republicans would continue to have conversations about resolving some of the thorny budget issues. But just days before Congress is to leave Washington (and not return until after Labor Day!), there’s almost no real activity. Immigration reform? It’s hit a brick wall in the House. (Perhaps the first real votes will be in October, that’s right October!?!?!) Progress on the budget? No way. Resolving the impasse over the farm bill? Forget about it. Indeed, as it faces a record-high disapproval rating in the NBC/WSJ poll, Congress is doing two things right now: 1) packing its bags for its month-long break, and 2) laying the groundwork for the fall fights on all of these issues.

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

*** And bracing the fight ahead in the fall: It’s not just Congress laying the groundwork for the fights in the fall. In his interview with the New York Times, President Obama talked plenty about the economy, the budget battles, and other issues (like race and the Keystone pipeline). But if one thing stood out to us, it was Obama stiffening his backbone for the fall. “If Congress thinks that what I’ve done [taking executive action in delaying Obamacare’s employer mandate] is inappropriate or wrong in some fashion, they’re free to make that case. But there’s not an action that I take that you don't have some folks in Congress who say that I'm usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency. And I don't think that's a secret. But ultimately, I’m not concerned about their opinions -- very few of them, by the way, are lawyers, much less constitutional lawyers.” Obama also said this about the budget battle: “[O]ne of the challenges, as I said in the speech, is that there’s almost a knee-jerk habit right now that if I’m for it, then they’ve got to be against it. And I think there are a lot of Republicans who are frustrated by that, because they want to be for something, not just against something. But they’ve got to work through that pattern that’s developed over the last couple of years.” Maybe a fall showdown will be averted, but right now the body language of BOTH the president and congressional Republicans seems to be pointing to one thing: an ugly impasse.

*** United we stand, divided we fall? As Republicans brace for the political fights ahead in the fall, there is one place where they are united -- bashing Obamacare. But after that, there’s plenty of GOP division. On CNN yesterday, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) was the latest Republican to disagree with the threats to shut down the government. And regarding national security politics, Rand Paul -- after being criticized by King and Chris Christie -- fired back: “The people who want to criticize me and call names, they are precisely the same people who are unwilling to cut the spending - and they are, Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme all my Sandy money now.’ Those are the people who are bankrupting the government and not letting enough money be left over for national defense - and it's precisely those people who are making us weak on national defense.” Paul added, “I didn't start this one and I don't plan on starting things by criticizing other Republicans. But if they want to make me the target, they will get it back in spades." The New Hampshire Union Leader also criticized Christie. As conservative Byron York puts it, “[T]he party is divided every which way. And at least some of that division is entirely understandable. It’s what happens to parties when they don’t have a leader. And Republicans, after two straight presidential losses, have no one who even approaches national leadership. So factions appear and divisions worsen.”

*** John McCain 5.0: The most intriguing political story over the last three months? John McCain’s return as a dealmaker in Washington. A few days ago, we noted the pattern of McCain being a thorn in both Obama’s and George W. Bush’s side in their first terms but then a dealmaker during their second terms. (Is the explanation simply that he needs a few years to get over losing to the man who defeated him in the previous election?) Consider all of McCain’s recent activity: 1) co-authoring the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, 2) dining with Obama on the budget, 3) criticizing Republicans for not going to conference with Democrats on the budget, 4) brokering a compromise over Obama’s executive-branch appointments, and 5) praising the president’s race speech and agreeing that “Stand Your Ground” laws should be revisited. The latest example of McCain working across the aisle: On Tuesday beginning at 9:00 am ET, he appears at event sponsored by the AFL-CIO (!!!) highlighting the value of citizenship in the immigration debate. Over the past 15 years, McCain has been described as a liberal, RINO, conservative, maverick, fiery Obama detractor. But ultimately, the best explanation may simply be he’s an institutionalist…

*** The most overhyped non-event of the day: At noon, President Obama welcomes former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the White House, where they will have lunch. Per NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, the lunch is simply to allow the two to catch up (but we wonder if they’ll be talking about the Middle East peace talks, maybe even Anthony Weiner’s woes). Yet despite all the attention the lunch is getting, Obama’s other event today is probably more meaningful: Later in the afternoon, the president meets with civil-rights leaders to discuss the Voting Rights Act (in the wake of the Supreme Court gutting a major part of it) and protecting Americans’ right to vote. Attorney General Eric Holder and Labor Secretary Tom Perez also will participate in the meeting.

*** Criticism of Weiner keeps on coming: As NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reported on “TODAY,” the criticism of Anthony Weiner -- as well as calls for him to drop out of New York’s mayoral race -- keeps coming in. “He is not going to be the next mayor of New York, he is wasting time and space,” David Axelrod said on “Meet the Press” yesterday. “Americans believe in second chances, but not third chances.” Democratic mayoral rival Christine Quinn added, “I think it's become very clear that former Congress Member Weiner has a pattern of reckless behavior, an inability to tell the truth, and a real lack of maturity or responsibility. I don't think he should be mayor. And I think the voters, if he stays in the race, will make that very clear.” Here’s something to chew on regarding both Weiner and embattled San Diego Mayor Bob Filner: Political parties have become so weak, it’s harder and harder for party elites to push these guys out of office or a political race. Neither party has the standing anymore to strong arm the result they want or need. We saw it last year when Republicans tried (unsuccessfully) to force Todd Akin out, and we’re seeing it play out now in both San Diego and New York, where the Democratic Party establishment is getting nowhere.

*** “The Clinton playbook”: We touched on this late last week, and Maureen Dowd did the same on Sunday, but the Weiner story only highlights the wrong parts of the Clinton history that Hillary wants Americans to dwell on as she considers a 2016 bid. As Dowd writes: “Now, defining deviancy downward, Señor and Señora Danger [Anthony Weiner and wife Huma Abedin] are using the Clinton playbook. The difference is, there’s nothing in Weiner’s public life that is redeeming. In 12 years in Congress, he managed to get only one minor bill passed, on behalf of a donor, and he doesn’t work well with people. He knows how to be loud on cable and wave his Zorro sword in our faces.” More: “They love Huma, but the Clintons, now showcasing philanthropy and public service preparatory to Hillary’s 2016 run, are not happy about getting dragged into the lewd spectacle that is a low-budget movie version of their masterpiece. The former president is distancing himself, one associate said, noting, ‘He’s not getting anywhere near that grenade.’” Every day Weiner stays in and there’s another Huma-Hillary reference, it seems some Clinton person is whispering openly to a reporter just how upset Clinton World is. Today, it’s in the New York Post, where Clinton confidantes blind quote Weiner to death, realizing the optics for Hillary are not good.

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