RNC Debate Will Be Ugly; Obamacare Up First

Steele Will Draw Blood in RNC Debate

“We've never had a debt that big, ever, going into a presidential election cycle."

-- Former Republican National Committee General Counsel David Norcross to The Washington Times on the forecast $10 million debt for the RNC heading into 2012.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele will be throwing lots of punches in today’s crucial debate among candidates for the party’s top job.

A Steele insider tells Power Play that the embattled chairman will “name names” and “make it personal” when he faces off with the four candidates looking to replace him as RNC chairman at today’s debate hosted by The Daily Caller and Americans for Tax Reform.

The debate will be the only chance for the five candidates -- Steele, Wisconsin state Chairman Reince Prebius, former Michigan state Chairman Saul Anuzis, former RNC Co-Chairwoman Ann Wagner and former RNC Deputy Chairwoman Maria Cino – to face off before the 168 members of the committee meet next Thursday to pick their leader for the upcoming election cycle.

Steele’s prospects for obtaining the 85 votes necessary to win the chairmanship have steadily faded.

A Washington Times story today suggests that a soon-to-be-released budget for the committee will outline a nearly $20 million current debt for the committee and forecast a debt of about $10 million at the start of 2012. The largest debt at the start of a previous presidential cycle was $2 million in 2000. The miserable state of the party’s finances have likely sealed Steele’s fate.

Steele has also lost the services of Doug Heye, spokesman for the committee during Steele’s tumultuous tenure. Heye, who flacked for Steele’s 2006 Maryland Senate run, was one of the few constants at the RNC in the Steele era and one of the only members of the Steele inner circle with useful connections to party leaders on Capitol Hill and across the party. In an email announcement, Heye said that he was checking out from the committee, regardless of who won next week’s vote.

Public endorsements suggest that it is now all but impossible for Steele to win another term, but his role in the debate may determine who his successor will be.

The man to watch is Preibus, the frontrunner in public endorsements. The knock on Preibus is that he and Steele are somehow in cahoots. Conservative bloggers and party watchers have tut-tutted Preibus for using the same political consultants as Steele and questioned how Preibus could go from being Steele’s lawyer to reforming the RNC.

The suspicion is that Prebius is either a stalking horse intended to divide the opposition and clear a path for Steele, or that Steele has remained in the race to block for Prebius. For “Talladega Nights” fans, this would be the “shake and bake” strategy. But who’s Ricky Bobby in this scenario? Watch today and find out.

Steele’s main targets today will be Cino and Wagner, who previously held posts inside the RNC and have the backing of former party bigwigs. Remember, the audience here is only 168, and the members of the committee privately express misgivings about a potential return to the Bush-era RNC, which both women represent. Expect Steele today to use their time in party leadership against them.

Gentry Collins, the former RNC political director who blasted Steele’s management in his resignation letter, has dropped out of the race. Wagner and Cino will benefit from his departure, but still undercut each other’s chances by dividing the anti-Steele vote.

Committee members will be watching closely the interplay between Steele and Prebius. It will be up to Prebius to draw some sharp distinctions between himself and Steele. If he doesn’t, the growing number of committee members looking for a clean break from the past will remain skeptical.

House GOP Will Warm up on Obamacare Ban

"[W]atch what happens. As part of our pledge, we said that we would bring up a vote to repeal health care early. That will happen before the president's State of the Union address."

-- Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), incoming chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, on “Fox News Sunday”

Power Play can hear the pitter patter of little wingtips as the largest freshman class in generations scurries across Capitol Hill.

And while there will be lots to do in the year ahead, the first orders of business will be symbolic as the House prepares to get underway on Wednesday. The symbolic acts will include a vote on a bill to repeal President Obama’s national health care law.

This is not exactly news since most Republicans ran on such a repeal and party leaders in Congress have been pledging votes on the subject. But the promise from Rep. Fred Upton, whose committee would likely launch such a measure, that the repeal plan will be voted on this month suggests that Republicans are not going to waste any time.

Leadership aides tell Power Play that the opening days of the Republican House will be a flurry of activity, and that the healthcare repeal vote will be the centerpiece.

“We’re going to get to work right away on fixing what Democrats have broken,” one aide said. “That’s what the American people elected us to do.”

The health care vote will act as a sort of orientation process for the more than 80 freshmen members. The legislation, expected to pass with near-unanimous support from the House Republican caucus, is a dead letter in the Senate.

But the legislation will give the Republican newbies a chance to fulfill a campaign promise and learn how the process works and why people like Fred Upton matter so much to their legislative aspirations.

The other big focus in the first week will be on spending cuts. Republican leaders will offer a bushel basket load of cuts ranging from the small but politically satisfying (de-funding National Public Radio) to the large and complicated (stripping money from Obama’s health care law).

Again, these votes aren’t expected to produce new laws, but will help new members get acclimated, build party unity and start applying pressure to the Senate and Obama.

Administration Hypes Debt Ceiling Vote

“If we hit the debt ceiling, that's the -- essentially defaulting on our obligations, which is totally unprecedented in American history. The impact on the economy would be catastrophic. I mean, that would be a worse financial economic crisis than anything we saw in 2008.”

-- Top presidential economic adviser Austan Goolsbee on “This Week.”

The White House is setting up the vote on whether to increase the nation’s $14.2 trillion debt ceiling as a showdown between President Obama and the new Republican House.

Top Obama economist Austan Goolsbee on Sunday raised the stakes for the vote, not expected until late spring, warning of a panic worse than the one that tanked markets in 2008.

In doing so, Goolsbee sought to reduce the debt ceiling vote’s value as a bargaining chip for Republicans.

By suggesting that not increasing the debt ceiling would be so catastrophic, Goolsbee was looking to de-legitimize the position of many congressional Republicans that they will block the extension of the government’s credit limit if there aren’t major reductions in spending attached.

But conservative Republicans seem adamant on the point, and the debt-ceiling vote is shaping up to be a major test for the president and for the leadership team of soon-to-be Speaker John Boehner.

Boehner and Obama both have motivations to come up with a spending cut package austere enough to allow broad bipartisan support for the debt ceiling measure.

A narrow vote to extend the debt limit in which Democrats and a small portion of the GOP caucus team up might be bipartisan, but would hurt Boehner’s credibility on the right and force Democrats to embrace the label of the party of big debt.

The Issa Man Cometh

“He either needs to stop hurting this administration or leave.”

-- Incoming House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) on “FOX News Sunday” discussing Attorney General Eric Holder.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) will take over the House committee responsible for overseeing the actions of the executive branch having called for the resignation of the attorney general and declaring the current administration “corrupt” in the use of stimulus funds.

An overview of the committee’s schedule passed along to Power Play suggests that Issa’s committee will focus on how stimulus funds were spent, the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the Panic of 2008, Afghan corruption, WikiLeaks and the FDA’s review process.

Watch how Issa interacts with Attorney General Eric Holder. It seems fairly clear that the two are headed for a collision course. Issa called Holder out on “FOX News Sunday” and many of the chairman’s initial lines of inquiry, particularly on Wikileaks, have direct implications for the Attorney General.

Dems Stay the Course After Huge Losses

“…[President Obama] wants me to continue in this spot and that's what I'm going to do with excitement, you know, traveling all around the country, going through the TSA lines like everybody else, going out and being the president's advocate, and promoter.”

-- Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine on “State of the Union” announcing his intention to remain in his post.

After the worst midterm defeat in modern political history, the Democratic Party is not changing its leadership at the top level – not even a little.

House and Senate Democrats are keeping the same leaders and now Tim Kaine has announced that President Obama has asked him to stay on as the head of the Democratic National Committee, presumably through the 2012 cycle.

Inside the President’s team, David Axelrod and David Plouffe remain on top of the political pile, and their deputies remain in place.

Normally, a skunking of the magnitude that Democrats took in 2010 would result in at least a symbolic shakeup to reassure supporters that the folks in charge understood that there was a problem. Not so with the Obama Democrats.

The message from Washington to Democrats across the land: “It’s all good.”