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First Thoughts: Ceasefire in Washington's Budget Wars

<p>First Thoughts: The Senate is expected to raise the debt ceiling Wednesday, clearing the way for a ceasefire in the war over taxes and spending.</p>
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Is the four-year budget war now over? If not, there’s at least a true ceasefire… Why Boehner decided not to charge up the debt-ceiling hill: GOP is sitting pretty heading into 2014… Obama drew a line in the sand -- and stuck with it… Breaking down yesterday’s House vote… Senate now to take up the debt-ceiling hike… Look who else came to last night’s state dinner: a handful of GOP politicians… Another sea change in American politics -- majority support for ending the Cuban embargo… And Republicans win mayoral race in San Diego.

Is the four-year budget war now over? The House’s passage Tuesday of a debt-ceiling increase -- without demanding any concessions in return -- represented a win for President Obama, a loss for the Tea Party and some conservatives, and the status quo for the upcoming midterm elections (which only helps the GOP). But yesterday’s 221-201 vote might have represented something much bigger: the end of four-year budget war between Democrats and Republicans. Or if not the end of the war, at least a long ceasefire given that the demographic demands on entitlement programs aren’t going away. When combined with last December’s budget agreement and passage of the farm bill, Washington and Congress appear to be less dysfunctional than they’ve been in the past. (A few Republicans even attended the State Dinner last night!) So if the budget war is over (or has reached a ceasefire), which side won (or is winning)? Democrats and the Obama White House can crow that they forced Republicans to surrender using the debt ceiling as a negotiating tool, which will benefit future presidents -- both Democrat and Republican. But Republicans can also declare victory by touting that the budget deficit is falling. Indeed, if you want the real reason why the budget war is over or has stopped for the time being, just look at the Congressional Budget Office’s top finding: The deficit this year is projected to be $514 billion, down from $1.4 trillion in 2009.

Why Boehner decided not to charge the debt-ceiling hill: The GOP is sitting pretty heading into 2014: Here’s another reason why the budget war might be over (at least for now): Republicans feel like they’re sitting pretty heading into the midterm elections. That helps explain why House Speaker John Boehner didn’t want to lead his troops up a hill that could produce a lot of casualties. It also helps explain why he’s hit the brakes on immigration reform, because that reform effort only divides his party. Boehner here is acting like the leader of the Republican Party, now concluding that whenever Republicans become the story (whether it’s shutting down the government or engaging in brinksmanship), it doesn’t help the GOP. The REAL reason why some conservatives are disappointed right now is because they know Republicans surrendered using the debt ceiling as a tool in future budget negotiations. Some of these folks are vowing to fight if they regain control of the Senate next year. “Hopefully we can win the Senate, and we can have a completely different conversation,” Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) said, per the New York Times. But yesterday’s “clean” debt-ceiling hike, combined with October’s “clean” increase, makes that more difficult. Precedent perhaps is being set now.

Obama drew a line in the sand -- and stuck with it: While most of the day-after attention here is on Boehner and House Republicans, don’t lose sight of the role President Obama played, too. For the large part of five years, he’s earned the reputation as a bad negotiator and someone who will draw a line in the sand and not stick with it. But after his re-election victory in 2012, he and his team said they would NOT negotiate over the debt limit, they stuck with it, and it produced results. “If we continue to set a precedent in which a president -- any president, a Republican, a Democrat -- where the opposing party controls the House of Representatives, if each time the United States is called to pay the bills, the other party can simply sit there and say, ‘We're not going to pay the bills unless you give us what we want,’ it changes the structure of the government entirely,” Obama said in an interview last year.

Breaking down yesterday’s House vote: Per NBC’s Frank Thorp, all but two House Democrats combined with just 28 House Republicans to pass yesterday’s “clean” debt-ceiling hike. And your First Read team breaks down the vote even further: The two Democrats who voted AGAINST raising the debt ceiling were Reps. John Barrow (D-GA) and Jim Matheson (D-UT) who are two of the most conservative House Dems representing red states (Matheson is retiring at the end of this year, but could very well run for governor in the future). And the 28 House Republicans who voted FOR the debt-ceiling increase were a mixture of GOP leaders (Boehner, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy), blue-state Republicans (Charlie Dent, Michael Grimm), and 2014 retirees (Jon Runyan, Frank Wolf),

Senate now to take up the debt-ceiling hike: Of course, yesterday’s House passage doesn’t mean the debt-ceiling hike is officially through Congress; the Senate still needs to act. And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is vowing a filibuster. “If Republicans stand together, we can demand meaningful spending restraint to help pull our nation back from the fiscal and economic cliff,” he said. But per NBC’s Kasie Hunt, Democratic leaders are still optimistic that the chamber can move quickly to lift the debt ceiling, considering the storm that's bearing down. Bottom line: All members of Congress want to get out of town this afternoon given the snow that’s expected to fall in the Washington area, and those inclinations tend to be HIGHLY motivating.

Look who else came to the dinner: By now, you’ve probably read about all of the Hollywood stars, big Obama donors, LGBT stars, and others who attended last night’s star-studded state dinner at the White House. But don’t forget about these other notable attendees -- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rep. Paul Ryan, Rep. Hal Rogers, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. We’re not saying that the political fevor has broken in Washington, as Barack Obama promised would take place after his re-election. Far from it. But Washington is in a much more functional place than it was two or three months ago.

Another sea change in American politics -- majority support for ending the Cuban embargo: Within the last year, we’ve seen some big changes in the attitudes of the American public -- a majority backs same-sex marriage, another majority favors marijuana legalization, and now a majority of Americans (and Floridians) want normalized relations with Cuba. According to a new survey for the Atlantic Council conducted by Dem pollster Paul Maslin and GOP pollster Glen Bolger, 56% of respondents favor changing U.S. policy toward Cuba, including 63% of Floridians, 60% of Democrats, and even 52% of Republicans. This issue is even playing out in Florida’s highly competitive gubernatorial contest, with Charlie Crist (D) recently calling for an end to the Cuban embargo -- something previously viewed as taboo in Florida politics. “I mean the embargo has been there — what — 50 years now? I don’t think it worked. It is obvious to me that we need to move forward and I think get the embargo taken away.” We’ll see how it plays out in the fall.

Republicans win in San Diego: Finally, last night in San Diego, the city’s Republican-leaning politics -- as well as last year’s mayor scandal involving the incumbent Democrat who had to resign from office -- outweighed California’s changing demographics with Kevin Faulconer (R) beating David Alvarez (D) in the city’s mayoral contest. This was a big win for Republicans. Had they lost, the headline would have been “The GOP needs to pack up and leave the state for good if they can’t even win a mayoral election in San Diego after the disgraceful exit of the previous Democratic mayor. By the way, Faulconer becomes the only Republican mayor of a top 10 U.S. city and the only Republican mayor in a major California city.

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