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First Thoughts: Why immigration reform has a better chance than guns

NBC/WSJ poll on why immigration reform has a better chance of passage than gun control… The more details GOPers hear about a path to citizenship, the more they support it… But GOP respondents overwhelmingly oppose stricter gun laws… NRA’s opposition to Manchin-Toomey doesn’t add up… It’s not just progressives who are attacking Chained CPI -- NRCC Chair Walden is, too… Walden’s attack explains 1) why reforming entitlements is so difficult, and 2) why it hurts the GOP’s credentials in being serious about entitlement reform… And more NBC/WSJ poll: Obama’s approval drops to 47%, and sequester appears to have limited impact (so far).

*** Why immigration reform has a better chance of passage than gun control: The issues of guns and immigration -- once again -- headline today’s political news. At 11:00 am ET, per NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, the Senate will hold its first procedural on the Democratic-backed guns legislation. NBC’s Kasie Hunt adds that it’s expected it will get the 60 votes needed to clear that procedural hurdle, but the National Rifle Association said last night that it’s opposes the legislation, including the Manchin-Toomey compromise on background checks, and that it plans to consider scoring that and other amendments. In other political news, the so-called Gang of Eight bipartisan group of senators continues to finalize its compromise immigration-reform legislation, which is expected to be released in the coming days. And our new NBC/WSJ poll helps explain why immigration reform has a MUCH better chance of passing this Congress than any gun legislation does (even Manchin-Toomey): It has much more support from Republicans.

*** The more details GOPers hear about a path to citizenship, the more they support it: According to our poll, 64% of all respondents say they favor allowing undocumented immigrants to have the opportunity to become legal American citizens. That includes 82% of Latinos, 80% of Democrats and 54% of political independents supporting a path to citizenship. But 51% of Republicans oppose it, versus 47% who back it. Yet when told that the pathway to citizenship would require paying fines and back taxes, as well as passing a security-background check, support grows -- with 76% of total respondents and even 73% of Republicans backing the path. Also in the poll, a majority of all respondents (54%) agree with the statement that immigration adds to the nation’s character and strengthens it by bringing diversity and talent to the country. In a 2010 NBC/WSJ survey, fewer than half agreed with that statement, and in 2005, a plurality said that immigration weakened the nation. As NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) tells First Read, “These more positive attitudes provide more leeway for lawmakers to build support for change on this issue.” And this growing support comes at a time when the economy has been flat or worse. The bigger takeaway on the immigration numbers is this: It’s all about HOW reform is sold. If the public hears about the penalties and believes the penalties are real, then this legislation will sail through. But if Washington muddies things and somehow the idea that a path to citizenship doesn’t include any fines or penalties or is seen as “too easy,” problems COULD arise, at least among Republicans. And that would mean problems getting this bill passed in the House would arise with it.

*** GOP respondents overwhelmingly oppose stricter gun laws: The NBC/WSJ poll also shows positive attitudes about gun control: 55% want stricter laws covering the sale of firearms. That’s down 6 points from the Feb. 2013 NBC/WSJ poll -- conducted after Obama’s State of the Union address that contained  a call to action on gun control -- but it’s essentially unchanged from the Jan. 2013 poll. Yet there’s a wide political divide to these numbers: 82% of Democrats favor stricter gun laws, while just 27% of Republicans do. So if Republican respondents are split (47%-51%) on the general idea of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a combined 71% want gun laws either to be kept the same or made less strict. Strikingly, there’s also a considerable gender gap when it comes to gun control: 65% of female respondents in the poll want stricter gun laws, versus just 44% of men who want the same. It’s easily one of the largest policy gender gaps we’ve seen in years.

*** NRA’s opposition to Manchin-Toomey doesn’t add up: Sticking with the gun debate, something doesn’t add up about the National Rifle Association’s apparent opposition to the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey compromise on background checks. Our understanding was that both senators were working with NRA, and they wouldn’t have moved forward without the organization’s support -- or at least support not to actively oppose. But then the NRA released its letter last night. In addition to saying that it opposes the overall gun-control package, it added: “The NRA will oppose any amendments offered to S. 649 that restrict fundamental Second Amendment freedoms... This includes the misguided ‘compromise’ proposal drafted by Sens. Joe Manchin, Pat Toomey and Chuck Schumer. As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools. Given the importance of these issues, votes on all anti-gun amendments or proposals will be considered in NRA's future candidate evaluations.” Now MAYBE there’s a little wiggle room in “will be considered,” but that seems like a stretch. We invoke the immortal philosopher from “Dumb & Dumber,” who said after being told he had a 1-in-a-million shot: “So you’re saying there’s a chance?”

*** It’s not just progressives who are attacking Chained CPI: The other intriguing story out there is Rep. Greg Walden’s opposition to the Chained CPI entitlement fix to Social Security. Walden happens to chair the GOP’s House campaign committee, and he said this on CNN yesterday: “I thought it was very intriguing in that [Obama’s] budget really lays out kind of a shocking attack on seniors, if you will. We haven’t seen all the detail yet, so we’ll look at it, but I’ll tell you, when he’s going after seniors the way he’s already done on ObamaCare, taking $700 billion out of Medicare to put it into ObamaCare and now coming back at seniors again, I think you’re crossing that line very quickly here in terms of denying access to seniors for health care in districts like mine certainly and around the country.” Walden added, “I think he’s going to have a lot of pushback from some of the major senior organizations on this and Republicans as well.” But here’s the rub: Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell SUPPORT Chained CPI.

*** Two points on Walden’s comments: Despite word we’re hearing that Walden is way off the GOP reservation when it comes to Chained CPI, Walden is standing behind what he said. “Chairman Walden supports the budget passed by House Republicans that preserves and protects Medicare and Social Security while also balancing the budget in 10 years. He disagrees with President Obama’s political plan that hurts current seniors just so he can pay for more wasteful spending,” the NRCC said in a statement. FWIW, we hear this clarification is not sitting well with members of the GOP leadership either. But this entire episode raises two points: One, it shows why reforming entitlement programs is so difficult, because the political parties are ready to pounce on any type of change that’s unpopular. (Note: Walden, as NRCC chair, is probably reading plenty of polls that indicate changing Social Security is unpopular with liberal seniors, moderate seniors, and conservative seniors) Two, Walden’s comments hurt the GOP in its effort to be taken seriously about entitlement reform. In the past two elections, the party has attacked Obama and the Democrats for “raiding” $716 billion from Medicare, but then uses those cuts to help balance its budget. And now as it’s demanding that Obama get serious about entitlement reform, its campaign chairman is already pouncing politically on changes to Social Security.

*** Just askin’: Walden could be providing a fascinating clarifying moment for the White House: It’ll find out who wants to work with the president and who doesn’t. By the way, who speaks out publicly against Walden and backs up the president, who doesn’t? Also, has Walden given the president a “walk away from talks” free card?

*** Obama’s approval rating drops to 47%: Turning back to our new NBC/WSJ poll, here’s another headline from the survey: Despite majorities backing the broad outlines of his legislative priorities on immigration and guns, President Obama confronts a pessimistic public and declining poll numbers. Only 31% of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction – a decline of 10 points since Dec. 2012. His overall job-approval rating stands at 47%, which is down three points since February and which represents the first time he’s been below 50% since just before the 2012 election. In addition, 47% approve of the president’s economic handling (up 3 points from February), and 46% approve of his handling of foreign policy (down 6 from Dec. 2012). Essentially, the president’s numbers are back to pre-campaign levels. The big hit the president took was among independents: A majority now disapproves of the job he’s doing.

*** Sequester’s limited impact (so far): Lastly, the NBC/WSJ poll finds that only a combined 16% of Americans say the automatic across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect earlier in the year have impacted them either “a great deal” or “quite a bit.” By comparison, a whopping 75% say the cuts to military and non-military programs have affected them “just some” or “not much.” But a plurality of respondents -- 47% -- believe the cuts will mostly harm the economy, versus 30 percent who say they won’t have an impact.

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