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First Thoughts: What happens if the sequester sky doesn't fall?

What happens if the sequester sky doesn’t fall?... To count, we’re now on our 5th and 6th fiscal standoffs since 2011… Brace yourself for the Supreme Court to eliminate all federal campaign contribution limits… The more things change on immigration (see McCain and Rubio working on reform), the more some things stay the same (see yesterday’s McCain town halls)… On the gun debate and presidential leadership… Frank Fahrenkopf sounds off… Breaking down some of the RNC’s post-2012 recommendations… And all tied up in Virginia.

*** What happens if the sequester sky doesn’t fall?  Another day, another back-and-forth over the looming automatic budget cuts -- the so-called sequester -- set to commence on March 1. In an attempt to try and score some P.R. points (at least with conservatives), House Speaker John Boehner has penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed placing the blame for these upcoming cuts squarely on President Obama. “The president's sequester is the wrong way to reduce the deficit, but it is here to stay until Washington Democrats get serious about cutting spending… So, as the president's outrage about the sequester grows in coming days, Republicans have a simple response: Mr. President, we agree that your sequester is bad policy. What spending are you willing to cut to replace it?” Well, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer has responded with a “setting the record straight” blog post pointing out 1) Obama does have a plan to replace the sequester cuts, 2) Boehner had boasted in the past that the sequester was leverage to extract entitlement cuts, and 3) the House GOP has yet to pass a plan in this Congress to replace the sequester. And today, Obama is conducting interviews with eight local TV stations (including some military-heavy markets like San Antonio and Honolulu) to pressure Republicans to come to an agreement to avoid the sequester. But here’s a question we have: Is the public listening anymore?

*** To count, we’re on our fifth and sixth fiscal standoff since 2011: After all, we’re now on our fifth fiscal standoff since Republicans took over the House in 2011 (the threatened government shutdown, the debt ceiling, the Super Committee, the fiscal cliff, and now the sequester). And later in March, we’ll see our sixth standoff (another battle over shutting down the government). Each time in the past, Democrats and Republicans have come to some sort of agreement that avoids the looming fiscal disaster but that also kicks the larger can down the road. So what happens if the sky doesn’t fall -- immediately -- after March 1? In fact, the New York Times notes that while these looming sequester spending cuts will have an impact on the economy, they’re unlikely to have an immediate effect. “Rather, they will ripple gradually across the federal government as agencies come to grips in the months ahead with across-the-board cuts to all their programs.” If that’s the case, does this kind of public campaign we’re seeing (Obama arguing that essential jobs will be lost, Republicans pinning the blame on the president) actually work? It’s something to chew on as both sides begin to wage a furious P.R. campaign before March 1. By the way, check out Wall Street -- record highs all over the place. Translation: Wall Street has stopped fearing Washington. They now only hear “posturing” when the two sides talk, and if Wall Street doesn’t believe the threats coming out of Washington, then the public might not be far behind.

*** Brace yourself for the Supreme Court to eliminate all campaign-contribution limits: As NBC’s Pete Williams reported yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to delve into the controversial issue of money and politics -- again. This time, the court agreed to take up a challenge brought by an Alabama man who claims it's unconstitutional to prevent him from giving more than $46,200 to candidates and $70,800 to PAC's and political committees, Williams notes. The Alabama man doesn’t challenge the limit on contributions to an individual candidate, but he does claim it's unconstitutional to prevent him from contributing to as many candidates as he wishes. What every political observer should brace for, especially after the Citizens United decision, is that the Supreme Court could potentially eliminate ALL federal contribution limits. Indeed, note that the Republican National Committee joined the Alabama man on this court challenge. And as NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports (more on this below), one of the RNC’s recommendations after the GOP’s losses in 2012 is giving the parties a bigger role in fundraising vs. outside groups – and one way to do this is to eliminate the contribution limits.

*** The more some things change, the more they stay the same: On the one hand, the politics behind achieving immigration reform haven’t been more promising as they are right now. Yesterday, we learned that President Obama called three of the four Republican senators working on a bipartisan effort to achieve comprehensive immigration (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio). And Rubio’s office issued an encouraging statement, especially after it had complained the Obama White House hadn’t sought its input on reform. "Sen. Rubio appreciated receiving President Obama's phone call to discuss immigration reform late tonight in Jerusalem," Rubio’s spokesman said. "The senator told the president that he feels good about the ongoing negotiations in the Senate." (Can’t help but wonder how much of this is both sides doing what they have to do on the theatrics front.) On the other hand, it appears that the politics also haven’t entirely changed since reform tanked in 2005-2007. Just see the reaction from McCain’s two town halls yesterday in Arizona. The AP: “Some audience members shouted out their disapproval [at McCain’s call for a legal path for illegal immigrants. “One man yelled that only guns would discourage illegal immigration. Another man complained that illegal immigrants should never be able to become citizens or vote. A third man said illegal immigrants were illiterate invaders who wanted free government benefits.”

*** On the gun debate and presidential leadership: While the Obama White House has taken sort of a backseat in the immigration debate -- at least for now -- to let Congress work its will, it’s striking to note the active role it has taken in the gun debate after Newtown. Ask yourself this question: Where would this issue be, even the chance at getting universal background checks, without the president putting his shoulder behind the issue. This is an example of why presidential leadership does matter in politics. The irony in all of this: Guns were never an issue Obama campaigned on during the 2012 election. Every two or three days, there’s a new gun event being pushed by the White House. Yesterday, it was the Biden Facebook townhall, which gave social media its quote of the day: If you want to protect yourself, get a double-barrel shotgun,” he said, per Roll Call.

*** Frank Fahrenkopf sounds off: Speaking of the 2012 election, don’t miss one of the old-guard Republican establishment figures -- former RNC Chair Frank Fahrenkopf -- sounding off on his party, Washington, and the media during a talk in Las Vegas. As Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston writes, Fahrenkopf “presented a blizzard of by-now familiar statistics of how Mitt Romney had his clock cleaned by President Obama among minorities and young people.” (“And I thought McCain’s campaign was the worst I’d seen in modern history,” Fahrenkopf said.) More: “Fahrenkopf said the GOP should take the position that the country needs ‘sensible, fair, immigration reform.’” And: “Fahrenkopf couldn’t resist a criticism of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s embrace of Obama during Hurricane Sandy, providing this cringe-worthy description: ‘He kissed him. He didn’t have to French-kiss him. I think he went overboard.’”

*** Breaking down some of the RNC’s recommendations after their 2012 losses: Meanwhile, NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports that Republican Party officials studying how to rebuild the party in the wake of 2012 losses are hoping to release their set of recommendations by mid-March -- and the list of fixes is already beginning to take shape. Some of these recommendations, per Hunt: 1) expanding the map and increasing voter contact; the party needs a plan that's not dissimilar to former DNC Chairman Howard Dean's 50-state strategy as it tries to expand the map beyond traditional red states; 2) changing campaign finance. The GOP team worries about how much new campaign finance law has weakened the national party structure, handing more power to outside groups on both sides of the aisle -- and giving a louder voice to both the left- and right-wing; and 3) limiting presidential primary debates.

*** All tied up in Virginia: Finally, turning to this year’s gubernatorial contest in Virginia, a new Quinnipiac poll finds the race is pretty much tied – whether or not GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling decides to mount a third-party challenge. In a straight head-to-head match-up, the poll has Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli tied at 38% among registered Virginia voters. And in a three-way race, it’s McAuliffe at 34%, Cuccinelli at 31%, and Bolling at 13%. Folks, Bolling is polling at 13%, and he hasn’t even announced. If he gets any kind of serious financial support, he can become a real threat. Do NOT take this candidacy lightly. This is not some spoiler in the works. Democrats shouldn’t be rooting for Bolling to get in because they simply think he’ll split GOPers and indies with Cuccinelli. Bolling is positioning himself to the left of some of the state’s more mainstream GOPers, including Gov. Bob McDonnell.

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