Feedback
Politics

First Thoughts: Obama Administration Divided Over Syria?

Image: John Kerry

Secretary of State John Kerry talks about Syria, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, at the State Department in Washington. Kerry urged the Syrian opposition to attend a conference next week in Switzerland aimed at finding a political resolution to the civil war there, which has claimed more than 120,000 lives. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Obama administration divided over Syria?... Where was Obama’s cabinet after the State of the Union?... President heads to nearby Maryland tout broadband/wireless initiative at 11:30 am ET… Is OFA diverting resources away from the DNC?... Wrapping all of the Christie-related developments from last night… On last night’s Sink-vs.-Jolly debate in FL-13… Top Obama operatives critical of Hillary’s early 2016 positioning… And Scott Walker heads to Texas.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro.

FIRST THOUGHTS.

*** Obama administration divided over Syria? For the past week, we’ve been writing about intra-party divides -- Republicans on immigration, Democrats on trade. But now here’s a different divide: One of President Obama’s top cabinet members is reportedly criticizing the administration’s handling of Syria, especially after the administration has touted Syria turning over its chemical weapons. Per the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin: “Secretary of State John Kerry has lost faith in his own administration’s Syria policy, he told fifteen U.S. Congressmen in a private, off-the-record meeting, according to two of the senators who were in the room. Kerry also said he believes the regime of Bashar al Assad is failing to uphold its promise to give up its chemical weapons according to schedule; that the Russians are not being helpful in solving the Syrian civil war; and that the Geneva 2 peace talks that he helped organize are not succeeding. But according to the senators, Kerry now wants to arm Syria's rebels.” Kerry’s office has denied any split here. "At no point did he, during the meeting, did Secretary Kerry raise lethal assistance for the opposition," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday. "At no point did he state what, I think, was quoted, that the process has failed." And, of course, the two senators who were in the room with Kerry -- Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham -- are huge proponents of further U.S. intervention in Syria. But this is the latest Middle East headache for the administration. And if you are looking for the rationale for why U.S. policy on Syria MIGHT change and change soon, look no further than this overlooked comment from DNI James Clapper last week: “The Syrian militant group tied to al-Qaida, the al-Nusra Front, wants to attack the United States and is training a growing cadre of fighters from Europe, the Mideast and even the U.S., the top U.S. intelligence official told Congress.”

*** Where was Obama’s cabinet after the State of the Union? Speaking of Obama’s cabinet members, observers have criticized the White House for often underutilizing the cabinet, especially when it’s trying to amplify a message. And this remains a legitimate criticism. Consider the activity (or lack thereof) after the president’s State of the Union address last Tuesday. According to a First Read review of cabinet secretary travel, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today is holding a roundtable discussion on climate change at the University of Washington. Also today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack are on a panel discussing the “Promise Zones” Obama touted in his State of the Union. And on Thursday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Vice President Biden attend a transportation-infrastructure event in Philadelphia. But that’s it for the State of the Union-themed cabinet activity since Obama’s speech last week. Yes, President Obama hit the road for two days after his speech (to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Tennessee). Yes, he’s holding an event today on promoting broadband/wireless access for students (more on that below). And yes, some of the cabinet members are overseas (like Kerry), working on the debt limit (like Treasury Secretary Lew), or working on signing up folks for health-care coverage (like HHS Secretary Sebelius). But if you were expecting a full cabinet blitz after the State of the Union, you didn’t get it. And that’s been a mystery for some time, especially when you have some pretty big heavy hitters.

*** Obama heads to nearby Maryland tout broadband/wireless initiative at 11:30 am ET: Meanwhile, Obama today heads to Adelphi, MD to deliver remarks at 11:30 am ET on “connecting 99% of students to next-generation broadband and wireless technology within five years,” the White House says. This is his ConnectED initiative. But it’s worth remembering that it’s essentially a replay of announcement the White House did back in June 2013. See here.

*** Is OFA diverting resources away from the DNC? So far this 2014 election cycle, Democrats mostly have been outraising Republicans -- the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has hauled in almost $15 million more than the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has the edge over the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The DCCC also will release a memo today touting that its candidates have outraised GOP ones. But there is one exception to all of this: The Republican National Committee has outraised the Democratic National Committee, $73 million to $63 million. (And the DNC also has more than $15 million in debt compared with $0 for the RNC.) Yet here’s another figure to chew on: President Obama’s Organizing for Action raised $26 million last year, which raises this question -- is OFA taking money away from the DNC? Yes, OFA can accept unlimited checks from wealthy donors, while the DNC and RNC cannot (and some of the big-money checks OFA is getting are from maxed-out DNC donors). Then again, the average 2013 contribution to OFA was just $37, so not all of these donations are from big-money folks; in fact, they’re from Obama’s army of grassroots donors. But that brings up another question: Why doesn’t OFA turn over that grassroots army to the DNC? The DNC has not been a great small-donor organization, and it appears Team Obama isn’t exactly helping the effort as well as it could.

*** All of the Chris Christie-related developments from last night: Participating in a radio Q&A, the governor “acknowledged that his office had been subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney in New Jersey in relation to the bridge scandal that has rocked his administration,” NBC’s Mike O’Brien reports. He also dismissed the questions about his knowledge of the Fort Lee, NJ lane closures as “just a game of gotcha.” Said Christie: "The most important issue is, did I know anything about the plan to close these lanes? Did I authorize it, did I know about it, did I approve it — did I have any knowledge about it beforehand?" But around the same time as the Q&A was being conducted, former Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelley -- who wrote the words “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” -- invoked her 5th Amendment rights in refusing to turn over documents subpoenaed by state investigators.

*** House Republicans continue to want something in return for debt-ceiling hike: And here’s the latest in the debt-ceiling debate, per the Washington Post: “Several House members told The Washington Post on Monday that Republican leaders have narrowed their list of possible debt-limit strategies to two options: trading a one-year extension for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, or trading a one-year extension for repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s risk corridors. Both plans, which were first discussed last week at the House GOP’s annual retreat in Cambridge, Md., will be debated further Tuesday morning, when House Republicans meet at the Capitol. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is said to be open to either approach, as long as it can win heavy GOP support.” But here’s what House Republicans face in opposition: The White House maintains, as it has in the past, that it won’t negotiate over raising the debt limit.

*** About last night’s FL-13 debate: Want to know why so many political observers are paying close attention to the special FL-13 congressional election between Alex Sink (D) and David Jolly (R)? It’s because the two candidates in this swing district are test-driving many of the messages we could see in November. At last night’s debate, Jolly hit Sink on health care, per NBC’s Sarah Blackwill. “It was founded on a premise that now has been called the lie of the year, and how a candidate can favor Obamacare is beyond me. I would favor repealing it immediately.” Here was Sink’s response: “This Affordable Care Act has not been perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but my position is it should not be repealed because we cannot go to where we were before.” More: “We have to fix what's wrong with the act, and one of the reasons I'm running for Congress is to go to Washington and work with others -- work across party lines -- and fix them.” And here was Jolly defending his opposition to raising the minimum wage: “Barack Obama is not an economist and neither are most members of Congress. I think it's silly that we let Congress arbitrarily choose a wage rate. Let's decide on what the wage should be, index it to inflation, take it out of the hands of politicians once and for all.”

*** Top Obama operatives critical of Team Hillary’s early 2016 positioning: Turning to 2016 news, Buzzfeed has a piece with folks in Obama World criticizing Hillary Land’s positioning so far. “Top advisers and former aides to Barack Obama say Hillary Clinton is repeating the mistakes she made in 2008, building a machine in lieu of a message and lumbering toward the Democratic nomination with the same deep vulnerabilities that cost her the nomination eight years earlier.” The biggest problem in Hillary Land right now -- which we’ve noted before -- is that there are TOO MANY people involved. And the criticism that’s not becoming public has the message: “It’s time to rein in some of these people.”

*** Walker heads to Texas: Lastly, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker today heads to Dallas to raise money from Harlan Crow.

Click here to sign up for First Read emails. Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone. Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics, @DomenicoNBC

OBAMA AGENDA:Touting ConnectED

“President Obama is set Tuesday to announce more than $750 million in charitable commitments from technology and telecom companies for a new effort to bring high-speed Internet to the classroom,” The Hill writes.

Exhausting all options by March… The Washington Post: “Treasury Secretary Jack Lew urged Congress on Monday to act quickly to raise the federal debt limit, saying he will run short of cash to pay the nation’s bills by the end of the month without additional borrowing authority. Enforcement of the debt limit is suspended, but it will come back into force Friday under the terms of a deal lawmakers struck in the fall. That leaves Lew bumping up against the limit in tax-filing season, he said Monday, when he will have far less flexibility to juggle the books and ward off disaster.”

The Hill: “White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice strongly criticized Israel Monday night for attacking John Kerry after he warned failed peace could lead to a boycott of Israel by other countries.”

AP remembers Joan Mondale, “who burnished a reputation as ‘Joan of Art’ for her passionate advocacy for the arts while her husband was vice president and a U.S. ambassador, died Monday. She was 83. … An arts lover and an avid potter, Joan Mondale was given a grand platform to promote the arts when her husband, then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale, was elected Jimmy Carter‘s vice president in 1976. Carter named her honorary chairwoman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, and in that role she frequently traveled to museums, theaters and artist studios on the administration’s behalf. She lobbied Congress and states to boost public arts programs and funding.”

CONGRESS: Farm bill passage expected

“Congress is on the verge of dramatically overhauling federal farm and nutrition policies affecting a broad range of issues, from how food is packaged and sold to how the government helps poor people pay for their groceries,” the Washington Post reports. “After three years of arduous haggling, the Senate is expected to give final passage Tuesday to a new five-year farm bill that the House passed last week. President Obama is expected to sign it when it gets to his desk. The $956.4 billion package has sailed through Congress in recent days with little opposition, making it a rare bipartisan accomplishment in an otherwise rancorous and unproductive era.”

AP: “Congress is poised to send a massive, five-year farm bill that provides food for the needy and subsidies for the nation's farmers to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature. The Senate was expected to pass the almost $100 billion-a-year compromise bill Tuesday; the House passed it last week. The bill provides a financial cushion for farmers who face unpredictable weather and market conditions, while also continuing to subsidize services for rural residents and communities who have hit hard times in recent years. The majority of the bill's cost is food stamps, which supplement meal costs for 1 in 7 Americans.”

NBC’s Tom Curry: “The biggest and most publicized portion of the bill is nutrition assistance, mostly food stamps, which will be cut by $8 billion.” More: “The Congressional Budget Office says the bill will cut deficits by nearly $17 billion, compared to prior law. Last year’s House version of the farm bill would have gone much further, cutting deficits by $50 billion.”

Robert Costa: “Republican leaders have narrowed their list of possible debt-limit strategies to two options: trading a one-year extension for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, or trading a one-year extension for repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s risk corridors. Both plans, which were first discussed last week at the House GOP’s annual retreat in Cambridge, Md., will be debated further Tuesday morning, when House Republicans meet at the Capitol. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is said to be open to either approach, as long as it can win heavy GOP support.”

National Journal: “Members of Congress and their aides took more free trips around the world in 2013 than in any year since new restrictions were put in place after the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.”

Legistorm’s analysis: “Lawmakers and their staff broke a record for taking the most privately funded trips since 2007, when reforms came into effect after a major lobbying scandal. In 2013, members of Congress and their staff made nearly 1900 trips costing $6 million, breaking the record for the most privately sponsored travel since rules were tightened in 2007. By comparison the previous post-reform high was 2011, when privately financed travel cost $5.8 million for 1600 trips.”

Time: “In just four months, Republicans have shifted their Obamacare strategy from “repeal” to ‘repeal and replace.’ That’s a twist in tone and policy ahead of the 2014-midterm elections that recognizes the public’s weariness of government obstructionism and approval of some aspects of the health care law. The Republicans’ move is a politically savvy calculation, after three years and 47 votes in the Republican-controlled House to defund and dismantle the law, plus a government shutdown led by Obamacare-obsessed members that sank the party’s approval ratings to record lows.”

OFF TO THE RACES: Immigration, Keystone divide party bases

“Republicans may need immigration reform to avoid extinction in the long run, but there's a growing fear within the party that bringing it up now -- as House GOP leaders have laid the groundwork to do by releasing a pro-reform blueprint -- would depress conservative voter turnout and damage their standing in the 2014 elections,” Talking Points Memo writes.

Said on House GOP aide: “No way it happens. I just don't see it going anywhere. I think 2014 is a slam dunk to us otherwise and this would really piss off the base."

The Hill: “Environmental groups are warning President Obama that his liberal base might stay home on Election Day if he approves the Keystone XL oil pipeline.”

“Every vulnerable Senate Democrat up for re-election in 2014 voted with President Barack Obama at least 90 percent of the time in 2013, according to CQ Roll Call’s latest vote studies, released Monday.”

But David Hawkings notes, “The atmospherics offered plenty of clues, but the numbers don’t lie: The House was an even more polarized and partisan place last year than it was when the tea party class of Republicans took over the place two years before. And that’s in part because those lawmakers have grown even more antagonistic to President Barack Obama’s agenda — and even more willing to toe the party line. That is among the central takeaways from CQ Roll Call’s analysis of 2013 congressional voting patterns, the latest installment in an annual study that began six decades ago.”

“It won’t be easy, quick, or simple, but Mitch McConnell can likely force a vote one way or another on President Obama’s climate-change rules,” National Journal writes. “The Senate minority leader last month invoked a rarely used legislative tool—the Congressional Review Act—to try to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule clamping down on carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants.”

Hillary Clinton’s teaming up with Univision on her “Too Small to Fail” initiative.

Stu Rothenberg with some long-view perspective: “Not a single Democratic seat up next cycle is in a state that was carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. In fact, only two of the states, Colorado and Nevada, could even be characterized as competitive. By contrast, seven Republican senators up in 2016 sit in states Obama carried in 2012 — Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and an eighth sits in a state Obama carried in 2008, but narrowly lost in 2012 (North Carolina). It’s too soon to know if Democrats can win any or all of those states, and with the notable exception of Illinois, they are competitive states, not reliable Democratic bastions. That makes them different from the current cycle, when many of the Democratic Senate seats up are in substantially red states.”

ARKANSAS: The Farm Bill could be a factor in the Arkansas Senate race, NBC’s Tom Curry writes: “The farm bill is an issue in the tossup Senate race in Arkansas, the nation’s leading rice-producing state. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat seeking his third term, attacked his Republican opponent Rep. Tom Cotton, the only member of the Arkansas congressional delegation to vote against the bill last week. … Cotton said the bill costs too much and ‘fails to make real reforms – lacking even common-sense work requirements that would provide job training to able-bodied adults receiving food stamps.’”

CALIFORNIA: The San Diego-area CA-52 is now a “Pure Toss Up” instead of Democrat Favored, per Rothenberg.

GEORGIA:The Hill reports that a GOP poll shows Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) leading a seven-candidate field for Georgia Senate. Gingrey gets 19% followed by Karen Handel 14%, Rep. Paul Broun 13%, Jack Kingston 11%, David Perdue 8%. The poll is sponsored by Citizens United, which is backing Broun. It was conducted by KellyAnne Conway’s firm inc./Woman Trend.

KANSAS: What’s the matter with Kansas? Nathan Gonzales changes the governor’s race from Safe Republican to Republican Favored, as Democrats have a credible candidate and Gov. Sam Brownback’s approval ratings are struggling.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Scott Brown went shirtless, and it was on the front page of the New Hampshire Union Leader in an event to benefit the Special Olympics.

NEW JERSEY: Former Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelly is refusing to go along with a subpoena from the state committee investigating the bridge scandal, citing the Fifth Amendment. The Record: “She joins Christie’s campaign manager as the second person to put up a roadblock to an ongoing legislative probe.”

PROGRAMMING NOTES. *** Tuesday’s “The Daily Rundown” line-up: Chuck will interview the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) regarding the latest news coming out of Syria. Plus, Chuck will speak with the Director of the White House Policy Council, Cecilia Munoz about the Administration’s agenda over the next few months . Then, we’ll talk trade policy with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). All that plus the latest on Governor Christie with NBC’s National Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff, a packed data bank and Chuck’s Tuesday Takeaway.

*** Tuesday’s “Jansing & Co.” line-up: MSNBC’s Ari Melber, filling in for Chris Jansing, interviews Chicago Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet and White House Reporter for the Washington Post David Nakamura, Fmr. Clinton Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Variety Sr. Editor Ramin Setoodeh, Fmr. WH Political Director for GWB Matt Schlapp and Center for American Progress Action Campaign Director Emily Tisch Sussman, Bianca Bosker, The Huffington Post Senior Tech Editor and Jack Lerner, USC Intellectual Property and Tech Law Clinic, G Willow Wilson.

*** “MSNBC Live” Line-Up at 11:00 am ET: MSNBC’s Richard Lui interviews technology writer Bob Sullivan, Retail & Economic Analyst Hitha Prabhakar , Dr. Rahul Gupta from the Kanawha-Charleston, WV Health Dept., msnbc.com’s Adam Serwer and Allan Levene – a congressional candidate in 4 states! Today’s Agenda Panel includes The Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel, MaddowBlog’s Steve Benen and The Grio’s Zerlina Maxwell.

*** Tuesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” line-up: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Sen. Bob Corker, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza.

*** Tuesday’s “News Nation with Tamron Hall” line-up: MSNBC’s Tamron Hall interviews Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Florida Times Union’s Larry Hannan on the Michael Dunn trial and the Asbury Park Press’ John Schoonejongen.