Thursday, March 8, 2012

ANXIETY IN AFGHANISTAN - 54% of Americans Favor Pulling Out Now

Monday, March 12, 2012

Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama was briefed this morning on the rising levels of antagonism and anxiety in Afghanistan since an American Army sergeant left his post early yesterday morning, gunned down nine children and seven adults in three Kandahar villages, then set their bodies on fire.

Since 11 the president has been promoting his efforts to reduce American reliance on foreign oil in Cabinet Room interviews with TV news anchors from Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, Des Moines, Orlando, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. At 2:50 he’s meeting in the West Wing with a group of mayors in town for the annual National League of Cities congressional fly-in.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 2 for speechmaking only; the next amendment votes on the highway bill are tomorrow.

THE HOUSE: In recess this week.

ANXIETY IN AFGHANISTAN: The murderous middle-of-the-night Panjwai rampage will dramatically increase the volume of calls for an accelerated and comprehensive withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan — from the American public, their lawmakers and the Afghan people, too. It’s been less than a full day since the sergeant’s alleged shooting spree made headlines around the world, but it’s already clear the politics in both countries will make it extremely unlikely a significant number of U.S. forces will be on the ground a year from now — let alone by the end of 2014, the deadline NATO now has for finishing the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government.

A Washington Post-ABC poll released Sunday (but taken last week) found 54 percent support for pulling the troops out even before Afghan troops are prepared to take over security. (In a first, Republicans in that poll were split on whether the decadelong war has been worthwhile.) The numbers are going to soar now that the sergeant (he has not been named publicly) has been taken into custody, the Taliban is vowing quick and bloody revenge, and President Hamid Karzai is saying the killings “cannot be forgiven.” And the same goes for congressional sentiment; last week 24 senators signed a letter signaling their readiness to oppose more money for Afghanistan’s government and security forces — even as tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain deployed there. That bipartisan number will go up by nightfall.

In other words, what was once the centerpiece of the global war on terror has now become the most pressing international headache for Congress, Obama and his would-be GOP successors. (Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich signaled an interest yesterday in a speedy withdrawal; Mitt Romney did not.) The shootings come right on the heels of a series of “green on blue” incidents where Afghans killed U.S. military personnel, and amid the still-smoldering Afghan rage over the recent Koran burnings at Bagram air base.

RACE TO THE TOP: Rick Santorum predicted today that he would win the presidential nomination if he can prevent Mitt Romney from securing a majority of delegates before the convention opens 24 weeks from today. Newt Gingrich said he would continue his campaign all the way to Tampa even if he doesn’t win both of tomorrow’s Southern primaries — a reversal of what his aides had said in recent days. And Public Policy Polling surveys over the weekend (both with 4-percentage-point margins of error) show the contests in both states as three-way statistical ties: In Mississippi, the numbers were Gingrich 33, Romney 31, Santorum 27 and Ron Paul 7. In Alabama, it was Romney 31, Gingrich 30, Santorum 29 and Paul 8.

“They are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who’s been outspending his opponent 10-to-1 and can’t win the election outright,” Santorum said about the convention voters on NBC’s “Today.” “What chance do we have in a general election if he can’t, with an overwhelming money advantage, be able to deliver any kind of knockout blow to other candidates?”

The Republican nominee has to win at least 1,144 delegates, and Romney has amassed about 40 percent of that total. (He won 39 this past weekend by doing best in a pair of territorial contests, while Santorum secured 36 on the strength of his decisive win in Kansas.) Santorum’s delegate total is 19 percent of the magic number, Gingrich has 9 percent of what’s necessary and Paul 4 percent. “We’re closing the deal, state by state, delegate by delegate,” Romney said on Fox this morning, while Santorum told NBC that the election is “not about math, it’s about vision.”

Either way, the former Pennsylvania senator’s best shot at scoring the biggest come-from-behind win in modern GOP presidential history would come if Gingrich drops out and leaves him as the only mainstream conservative alternative to Romney. The former Speaker’s team had been signaling that would happen if he did not win both the Alabama and Mississippi primaries tomorrow. But Gingrich now says he’ll keep campaigning even if that doesn’t happen (and he declined yesterday to predict that it would). His campaign, meanwhile, is trying a new gambit for igniting his candidacy — spreading word that Gingrich is considering asking Rick Perry to be his running mate in coming days. (Ronald Reagan made a similar move much closer to the convention in 1976, but promising to have the much more moderate Sen. Dick Schweiker of Pennsylvania on the ticket did not boost him past President Ford.)

A CHANCE FOR RECONCILIATION: With one week to go before the promised rollout of Paul Ryan’s latest budget blueprint, Republicans remain nowhere near consensus on the any of the top three issues that require agreement for the party to shape the fiscal policy debate this election year: Should domestic programs be pushed to live with even less than was agreed to last summer? Is the campaign season the right time to engage on the future of Medicare and other entitlements? How should Congress move to reclaim ownership in the deficit reduction process in order to avoid across-the-board cuts of $109 billion (half to defense) 10 months from now?

With the House in recess this week, it’s tough to see how Ryan and the rest of the majority’s leadership will be able to gauge caucus sentiment on these questions with sufficient precision to come up with a budget plan next week. But they insist the process is on track — and they are actively considering a budget that calls for a deficit-reducing reconciliation bill this spring that seeks significant slowing in the rate of growth for both Medicare and Medicaid. (The move would be a hollow gesture toward bold election year action, though, since Reid has made clear the Senate won’t even consider a budget, and adoption there would be a requirement for getting the reconciliation process started.) As for the best way to avoid sequestration, the Republicans want to compel the House to vote on a plan to cut the deficit by the same amount with deeper-than-planned domestic cuts and trims from mandatory spending. Democrats want to adopt the Obama budget approach, which is to replace the automatic cuts with mandatory savings and revenue increases.

PERFECT TIMING: Jay Inslee’s Puget Sound congressional seat will remain vacant until the end of the year. The eight-term congressman ensured that by waiting until the weekend to announce he was resigning to focus on his gubernatorial campaign against Washington’s Republican attorney general, Rob McKenna. A special election would have been required had Inslee left the House before March 6; his resignation will take effect next Tuesday. (The timing means there won’t be a replay of what happened the last time a veteran Democratic congressman quit so that he could avoid the time-consuming cross-continental flights between the Capitol and the gubernatorial campaign trail; when Neil Abercrombie left the House in 2010, his Hawaii seat was occupied for several months by a Republican.) Recent polls have shown Inslee trailing McKenna, but about a third of the state’s electorate still says it doesn’t know enough about either of them to have an opinion in the race. Both campaigns have more than $2 million in the bank.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Mitt Romney (65); Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, a Democrat who’s retiring after 24 years as a senator from North Dakota (64).
— David Hawkings, editor

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