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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 11/30/2010

Raised stakes, lowered expectations ahead of bipartisan summit

By Felicia Sonmez and Aaron Blake

1. President Obama finds himself in an odd quandary on the day of his much-anticipated bipartisan sit-down with congressional leaders.

On the one hand, what had already been a high-stakes meeting (before some last-minute rescheduling) has become an even more closely scrutinized affair thanks to the myriad issues confronting Congress as it enters the final stretch of its lame-duck session.

On top of that, the summit is Obama's first bipartisan, bicameral meeting with congressional leaders since Republicans' sweeping wins earlier this month; others expected to be in attendance include Vice President Biden, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew.

The tone both sides strike at the meeting will give hints as to whether the White House intends to curtail its agenda -- and whether congressional Republicans are willing to compromise on theirs -- at a time of divided government.

On the other hand, by late Monday it appeared that both sides were working hard to play down expectations, starting with the length of the meeting itself. The gathering is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. and last no more than an hour, making it unlikely that any comprehensive deals may be made.

And according to White House aides, the summit isn't even a "summit" anymore, but rather "just one meeting" of several.

Republican leaders, too, in setting out their goals for the meeting, placed their focus squarely on one main issue -- the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts -- and played down the possibility that agreement might be reached on other issues.

In an op-ed in Tuesday's Post, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) advocated again for a permanent extension of the tax cuts for all income levels and accused Democrats of having "misplaced priorities" by pushing legislation unrelated to jobs and spending.

Democrats' "focus for the brief post-election 'lame duck' session is on controversial items such as immigration, a repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' more spending and environmental regulations," Boehner and McConnell write. "Indeed, their actual legislative plan for the rest of the lame-duck session is to focus on anything but jobs."

What all of this points to is that the takeaway from Tuesday's summit may simply be that it took place, and that it's the first of many steps to come. But with the clock ticking on the lame-duck session, will either side begin to ratchet up the pressure -- and if so, when?

2. Former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) could face a feisty primary if and when he seeks a return to the Senate, and it could come in the form of Corey Stewart, the GOP Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman.

Stewart, in a TV appearance Monday, guaranteed that Allen will run and proceeded to question his time in office and his political stature.

"Sen. Allen was a great governor of Virginia. He really was," Stewart said. "But his record in the United States Senate was mediocre. And I don't think most people in Virginia think of him as a great United States senator. They think of him as a great governor."

Stewart also said that Allen's base has eroded since his last campaign in 2006, even though he remains formidable.

"He's going to have a tough time, but yes, he's absolutely the frontrunner," Stewart said.

Allen is widely expected to run for Sen. Jim Webb's (D-Va.) seat. It's less clear whether Webb will seek a second term.

Stewart faces a less-than-ideal timeframe for a potential Senate bid, given that he must seek reelection to his current post in 2011. After that, he said, he will make a determination about running for Senate.

3. The recount of the Minnesota governor's race began Monday, with Republican state Rep. Tom Emmer's campaign employing an aggressive effort to challenge ballots cast for former Sen. Mark Dayton (D).

By the end of the day, Emmer's campaign was challenging several times as many ballots as Dayton's, according to numbers released by Dayton's campaign.

Dayton's numbers indicate that it challenged 89 ballots, compared to 427 for Emmer's campaign. What's more, Emmer's campaign had 863 challenges immediately denied because they were deemed frivolous, compared to just 27 for Dayton.

Dayton's campaign also estimates it made a slight gain in the early stages of the vote-counting - less than 200 votes overall. Considering Dayton leads by nearly 9,000 votes, the recount would have to yield much more significant inconsistencies or fraud for Emmer to make a comeback.

Still, Dayton's campaign urged Monday that it respects Emmer's right to pursue a recount and that it wants Dayton's win to be legitimized beyond a doubt.

4. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) remains largely unknown to New Jerseyans and has plenty of work to do building his brand as he prepares for his 2012 reelection bid, according to the new poll.

The PublicMind poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University finds that Menendez is viewed favorably by 31 percent of people in his home state, compared to 25 percent unfavorable and 29 percent who had no opinion or said they were unsure.

Having a hard name recognition number (favorable rating plus unfavorable rating) below 60 is very unusual for an incumbent senator and suggests Menendez remains a blank slate to many voters.

"Those are fairly anemic numbers for an energetic guy who has already served nearly six years," said Peter Woolley, who conducted the poll for FDU.

Of those who do know him, he's not overwhelmingly popular, either. That means there are a lot of votes out there for whoever might challenge Menendez.

Potential GOP challengers include Menendez's 2006 opponent, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.. as well as Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos and state Assemblyman Jay Webber, who is also the state party chairman.

5. Illinois Republican Mark Kirk was sworn in as the Senate's newest member Monday night, nearly four weeks after edging out state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) in the race for President Obama's former Senate seat.

The five-term congressman became the first of more than a dozen new GOP senators to be seated after winning both the regularly scheduled election for a full six-year term and a special election for the remaining weeks of Obama's unexpired term.

Speaking with reporters after the swearing-in ceremony about his goals for the lame-duck session, Kirk said that he plans to introduce a bill in the Senate as early as Tuesday that would aim to cut spending. He also said that he has requested seats on the Appropriations, Commerce, Banking and Agriculture committees once the 112th Congress convenes. (In the meantime, Kirk takes on the committee assignments of his predecessor, Democrat Roland Burris.)

With the addition of Kirk, the power balance in the Senate now stands at 56 Democrats, 42 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats. Kirk's departure from his House seat will leave the current balance in the lower chamber at 255 Democrats, 179 Republicans and one vacancy.

Burris's departure from the Senate, meanwhile, means that the upper chamber is without any African Americans for the first time in nearly six years.

By Felicia Sonmez and Aaron Blake  | November 30, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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