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Posted at 7:46 AM ET, 02/14/2011

The spending battle begins

By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake

President Obama delivers his budget to Congress today, marking the formal beginning of a critical battle with House Republicans over federal spending that is likely to frame the coming 2012 presidential campaign.

While reducing spending by the federal government is a certainty, the when, where and how of the cuts remain a point of considerable contention between the two parties.

Obama's budget is aimed at reducing the national debt by $1.1 trillion in the next 10 years through a combination of cuts, spending freezes and tax increases.

House Republicans are aiming for quicker cuts -- to the tune of $61 billion over the next seven months -- a move aimed, at least in part, at appeasing the new tea party-aligned members of their conference.

The two sides have been circling one another warily ever since the election, knowing that when political punches are thrown, it could get bloody -- and quick.

On the Sunday talk shows, neither side wanted to strike the first blow -- rhetorical or otherwise.

"We have a responsible plan that's before Congress," said White House budget director Jacob Lew in an interview with CNN's Candy Crowley. "We look forward to working with Congress. We think that there is a way to reduce spending. We all agree we need to reduce spending."

And, on "Meet the Press" House Speaker John Boehner stayed away from making any threats about the lengths Republicans would go to in their demands were not met.

"Our goal is to reduce spending," Boehner told host David Gregory. "It is not to shut down the government."

The fight to come is made all the more politically perilous for all of the players involved because the public's ambivalence about how to address the country's debt problems.

In a new Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent said reducing the federal budget should be the government's higher priority while 46 percent said the government should prioritize spending to help the economy bounce back.

Not surprisingly, the issue divides along partisan lines, with 70 percent of Republicans prioritizing deficit reduction and 64 percent of Democrats opting for more spending to help the country out of its economic problems. Independents are split almost evenly on the question, with 51 percent calling deficit reduction a more important priority.

The Pew poll also suggests the devil is in the details when it comes to cuts, as even those supportive of the the general idea of a reduction in spending are less willing to name specific areas to ax. The only area where a plurality of the Pew sample favored reductions in spending is on "economic assistance to needy people around the world." So there's that.

Circle March 4 on your calendar. That's when the current continuing resolution that funds the federal government runs out. If the two sides can't agree to some sort of funding framework for the final seven months of the year by then, we could be headed to a government shutdown.

The last time that happened -- in 1995 when neither President Bill Clinton nor House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) blinked -- it fundamentally altered the political landscape, handing Clinton momentum that he carried all the way through his 1996 reelection.

Could it be deja vu all over again this spring?

Jeff Flake to announce Senate bid: Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) will kick off a campaign today for retiring Sen. Jon Kyl's seat, the Arizona Republic reports. He plans to make it official at 8 a.m. local time, at the same Phoenix hotel where Kyl announced his retirement.

Flake won some critical early support from the powerful Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative group in Washington that often plays heavily in GOP primaries. Former congressman John Shadegg was considered another strong Republican contender, but he announced on Friday that he would not run. Other potential candidates include Rep. Trent Franks, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and state Senate President Russell Pearce.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) may run even as she recovers from a near-fatal assassination attempt.

Romney beats Huntsman: Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman would be trounced by Mitt Romney in his own state, according to a Deseret News/KSL poll released this weekend.

In a hypothetical match-up, 56 percent of Utahans would vote for the former Massachusetts governor while only 26 percent would choose Huntsman.

Among Republicans, Romney is even more popular: He beats Huntsman 72 percent to 15 percent.

Both Huntsman and Romney are Mormons, and Romney has deep family ties to Utah. He graduated from Brigham Young University and ran the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002. A Republican consultant recently told Politico that Romney was seen as "a knight in shining armor" while the more familiar Huntsman "doesn't seem like all that big a
deal."

Fixbits:

Sarah Palin has hired a chief of staff -- a move that suggests she may be getting closer to running for president.

Gingrich says he'll probably decide whether to run for president by the end of the month.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) said he hasn't ruled out a run for Sen. Bill Nelson's (D-Fla.) seat.

At a Saturday night speech in his hometown of Louisville, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared, "The legislative agenda of Barack Obama is over."

On "Meet The Press," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it's not his responsibility to correct people who don't think Obama is an American citizen. "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think," he said.

Sharron Angle plans to talk to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) before deciding whether to challenge him in the 2012 primary: "I've got many options and I'm not ruling out anything," she said. Rep. Dean Heller (R) is also considering running.

Roll Call has a helpful chart of fourth quarter fundraising numbers for senators and their potential 2012 opponents.

Must Reads:

"CPAC Winners and Losers" -- Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

"Nevada could be daunting test for Romney" -- Matt Viser, Boston Globe

"Roberts, Alito no sure bets against health care mandate" -- Robert Barnes, Washington Post

"Next among Harry Reid's worries: Retirements in the Senate" -- Karoun Demirjian, Las Vegas Sun

"The GOP's Pauline conversion" -- James Antle, The Guardian

"No argument: Thomas keeps five-year silence" -- Adam Liptak, New York Times

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake  | February 14, 2011; 7:46 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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