By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )
DEBT BATTLE BREWING: After the House of Representatives passed a budget and a stop-gap measure to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year yesterday, ABC's John Parkinson notes that Congress is now poised to turn its attention to a fresh battle over a looming debt limit increase. House Speaker John Boehner said he plans to negotiate from a principle that any increase is matched dollar-for-dollar with spending reductions and reforms, although he downplayed the risks he is willing to take in negotiations. "Dollar for dollar is the plan," Boehner, R-Ohio, said, acknowledging he has some rare influence over Democrats on the issue. "There might be some [leverage] there, but I'm not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government." But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Boehner's hard line on the debt limit is "a road to poverty" and House Democrats will continue to demand a clean debt limit increase. http://abcn.ws/YumqWY
GUN FIGHT: Next month the Senate will consider a comprehensive gun control package, which includes universal background checks and a gun trafficking measure. ABC's Arlette Saenz and Sunlen Miller report that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the gun legislation Thursday evening, and it will face a vote when the Senate returns from recess on April 8. "I hope negotiations will continue over the upcoming break to reach a bipartisan compromise on background checks, and I am hopeful that they will succeed," Reid said in a statement. "If a compromise is reached, I am open to including it in the base bill. But I want to be clear: in order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks." But the comprehensive gun package will face an uphill battle due to the universal background check portion of the bill, originally introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., which Republicans worry will lead to a national registry of guns. http://abcn.ws/Z6tT0W
THE ROAD TO REFORM: Senators hashing out the immigration reform bill had initially set a goal of introducing a bill by late March. But, Fusion's Jordan Fabian points out that lawmakers will head home for a two-week-long Easter recess on Friday, meaning that the earliest they could put forth a bill is early April. That has caused some members of Congress to voice concern. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee tasked with handling the immigration bill, chided negotiators for their slow pace of work. "Because we do not yet have legislative language to debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee will not be able to report a comprehensive immigration bill by the end of April, which was my goal," Leahy said on Wednesday. And some groups that represent undocumented immigrants have grown restless with the pace of work in the Senate. A group of two-dozen immigrant activists on Thursday occupied the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leader of the "Gang of Eight," and several were arrested, the Washington Post reported. http://abcn.ws/YtbprQ
THIS WEEK ON 'THIS WEEK': Obama 2012 campaign manager JIM MESSINA faces off with former Bush Deputy Chief of Staff KARL ROVE, only on "This Week" Sunday. Messina, chair of the newly-formed Organizing for Action and Rove, a Fox News contributor who helped found American Crossroads, join the "This Week" powerhouse roundtable to debate all the week's politics at home and abroad, from the battles in Washington over guns and gay marriage, to President Obama's trip to Israel and the crisis in Syria. Plus, in this week's Sunday Spotlight, director ALEXANDRA PELOSI and former New Jersey Gov. JIM MCGREEVEY discuss their new HBO film "Fall to Grace" about McGreevey's life and work since his controversial exit from office. See the "This Week" page for full guest listings. TUNE IN SUNDAY: http://abcnews.go.com/thisweek
ABC's JONATHAN KARL: Over and over again on his overseas trip, President Obama has emphasized America's never-ending support for the state of Israel. But he is concluding the trip with a challenge to the Israeli people - to once again re-start the effort to make peace with the Palestinians. So far, it's been a trip high on symbolism, but low on any progress toward peace. In his only major speech, President Obama sought to bypass political leaders in Israel and talk directly to the next generation, telling a group of 600 Israeli college students to put themselves in the shoes of young Palestinians. "Look at the world through their eyes," Obama said. Obama will wrap up his trip in Jordan with a meeting with King Abdullah. The number one issue is the conflict in Syria, which has already sent some 400,000 refugees across the border to Jordan.
ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE: After saying earlier this week he was undecided on whether to sign a ban against gay conversion therapy into law, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has said he is now against the practice. His Democratic challenger in this year's gubernatorial race, Barbara Buono, immediately pounced on his comments, and the spat shined a light on just how tricky social issues can be for a governor up for re-election, especially for a Republican in a blue state like New Jersey. It was similar to another controversy that erupted this week when Ohio's GOP Gov. John Kasich announced his support for civil unions, but then almost immediately backtracked with a staffer clarifying that when he said "civil unions" he didn't mean civil unions. Turns out Kasich is actually against them despite broad support in the country. The missteps all come during the same week the Republican National Committee released their "autopsy" report on the 2012 election cycle calling on more openness - and specifically counseling greater outreach to the gay community.
ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ: Just two days after the Senate stripped the assault weapons ban from its comprehensive gun package, Vice President Joe Biden joined forces with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the families of victims of the Sandy Hook Shooting to push for gun regulation. Biden made the case for the assault weapons ban by invoking the memory of the Newtown massacre saying, "For all those who say we shouldn't or couldn't ban high-capacity magazines, I just ask them one question: Think about Newtown. Think about Newtown. Think about how many of these children may, or teachers may be alive today had [Adam Lanza] had to reload three times as many times as he did." But while Biden argued for the controversial gun legislation, it's unclear whether the administration will flex its muscle with Congress to help push this bill through.
OBAMA IN THE MIDDLE EAST: President Obama toured key sites in and around Jerusalem today, before traveling to Jordan. ABC's Mary Bruce, traveling with the president, reports that Obama visited the grave sites of Theodor Herzl and Yitzak Rabin and tours Yad Vashem. After a private lunch with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama traveled to Bethlehem where he toured the Church of the Nativity with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Then, Obama's off to Amman, Jordan where the president spends the afternoon meeting with King Abdullah. The two leaders hold a joint press conference at 11:45 am ET. Watch Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl's "Good Morning America" report: http://abcn.ws/15zrbl7
WHAT WE'RE READING
"THE SECRET GINGRICH-SANTORUM 'UNITY TICKET' THAT NEARLY TOPPLED ROMNEY," by Bloomberg Businessweek's Josh Green. "It's one of the great untold stories of the 2012 presidential campaign, a tale of ego and intrigue that nearly upended the Republican primary contest and might even have produced a different nominee: As Mitt Romney struggled in the weeks leading up to the Michigan primary, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum nearly agreed to form a joint 'Unity Ticket' to consolidate conservative support and topple Romney. 'We were close,' former Representative Bob Walker, a Gingrich ally, says. 'Everybody thought there was an opportunity.' 'It would have sent shock waves through the establishment and the Romney campaign,' says John Brabender, Santorum's chief strategist. But the negotiations collapsed in acrimony because Gingrich and Santorum could not agree on who would get to be president. 'In the end,' Gingrich says, 'it was just too hard to negotiate.' … 'I was disappointed when Speaker Gingrich ultimately decided against this idea, because it could have changed the outcome of the primary,' Santorum says. 'And more importantly, it could have changed the outcome of the general election.' The discussions between the two camps commenced in early February, just after Gingrich got trounced in Florida." http://buswk.co/GingrichSantorum
"REPUBLICANS ADMIT THEY HAVE PROBLEMS, BUT CAN THEY FIX THEM," by the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter. "The folks at the RNC, Chairman Reince Priebus especially, deserve credit for putting their warts and all out there for everyone to see and judge. However, identifying a problem is one thing. Fixing it is another. Even the authors of the RNC report admitted that 'it is not just tone that counts. Policy always matters.' And, here is where the road ahead is a tough one for the GOP. It's not simply that Mitt Romney bombed among Latino and African Americans voters, it's that these Americans continue to hold a dismal view of the GOP. In a January Pew Research poll, 62 percent of non-whites, including Hispanics, said they viewed the Republican Party unfavorably, including 32 percent who viewed the GOP very unfavorably. On the flip side, 67 percent viewed the Democratic Party favorably - including 26 percent who perceived the Democratic Party very favorably. Republicans will also need to spend resources to research many of the assumptions about where these voters sit on key policy issues. Many Republicans point to the 'entrepreneurial spirit' of immigrant voters, but this doesn't mean that they dislike government." www.cookpolitical.com
THE DAILY JUDD: ENTER BILL CLINTON. Former President Bill Clinton has spoken to both Ashley Judd and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes about the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky, encouraging them both to take a hard look at the race. ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE reports that Clinton encouraged Judd to enter the race and promised he would help her, according to several Kentucky political sources. That conversation happened sometime between the November election and President Barack Obama's second inauguration. Earlier this month Clinton met with Grimes, who is also weighing a bid, after he spoke at an event for former Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford in Owensboro, Ky., according to multiple political sources in the state. Clinton encouraged Grimes to consider taking on McConnell, adding as he did with Judd that he would support her. The conversation was described as "candid" and "frank" with Clinton saying "all options are available" to the 34-year-old secretary of state and that she has "unlimited potential." He did add that "bigger is always better," meaning that the Senate seat would be a better choice than running for the U.S. House in the sixth district or waging a gubernatorial bid in 2015. Both are options Grimes is said to be considering. The same sources stressed that despite the time gap, Clinton wasn't choosing Grimes over Judd or changing allegiances, but that he expressed encouragement to both, believing it's unlikely that both would enter the race. News of Clinton's meeting with Grimes was first reported by Politico. http://abcn.ws/11og3XR
BACKSTORY: The Clintons are longtime friends and allies of Grimes's father, Jerry Lundergan, a former state party chairman, and Grimes herself who became secretary of state in 2011 after beating her primary challenger who was backed by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. Allies of hers say she is considering this race, but has not made a decision. Jerry Lundergan was a strong supporter of Bill Clinton, but also of Hillary Clinton's presidential bid in 2008, and they remain close. However, the Clintons are also close to Judd, who publicly backed Hillary Clinton over then Senator Obama in 2008 and even campaigned with Bill Clinton on behalf of Hillary in March 2008. Just days before the Texas primary, Clinton and Judd campaigned together standing in the back of a pickup truck at a private airport hangar in Abilene, Texas. She entertained the crowd, while Clinton was hours late due to a lightning storm. http://abcn.ws/11og3XR
SUPER PAC WARS: FORMER ROMNEY CAMPAIGN MANAGER FORMS GROUP TO COMBAT DEMOCRATS. The world of political opposition research got a little more crowded on Thursday with the formation of a new Republican super PAC aimed at roughing up Democratic candidates, particularly the 2016 presidential contenders. The group, headed by Mitt Romney's former campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, plans to expose political opponents "for pandering, flip-flopping, corruption, conflicts of interest and more," according to talking points obtained by ABC News. The group will be called "America Rising" and it is meant to be the Republican answer to the Democratic super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, which launched during the 2012 cycle with a similar mission. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," American Bridge president Rodell Mollineau said in an interview. "A few words of caution: It's not as easy as it looks." Mollineau said the group's founders, including Rhoades and two former Republican National Committee officials, will soon confront "a bevy of operational financial political considerations." And he pointed out that American Bridge has a two-year head start and one presidential election cycle under its belt. http://abcn.ws/YrIXH1
THE TEAM: Joining Rhoades in the venture are former RNC spokesman Tim Miller and former RNC research director Joe Pounder, both of whom are experienced GOP political hands. The organization will have two arms - one to provide campaigns, advocacy groups and party committees with research and tracking intelligence and another that will spearhead communications, social media, and digital advertising. The group says it will not run television ads. THE SITE: http://americarisingpac.org/
WHITE HOUSE: MISSED IMMIGRATION DEADLINE NO CAUSE FOR ALARM. A top White House official is not concerned about the pace of work on immigration reform in the Senate, despite the fact that a group of lawmakers will miss a self-imposed deadline to put forth a bill, reports Fusion's JORDAN FABIAN. Cecilia Muñoz, the White House's point person on immigration, said on Thursday that the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" continues to make progress and she expects them to introduce legislation in a matter of weeks. President Barack Obama has said that he would introduce his own immigration bill if talks grind to a halt in Congress, but Muñoz said now is not the time to do so. "We haven't set a firm date," Muñoz, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told ABC/Univision after a luncheon in Washington, D.C. "The good news is that the Gang of Eight seems to be making progress. We are engaged with them. We are encouraged by their progress." http://abcn.ws/YtbprQ
POLITICAL BRACKETOLOGY: OBAMA PICKS TOP SEEDS, RUBIO LOVES UPSETS. Politicians have unleashed their NCAA picks, and no Final Four has gone unturned for latent political meaning, writes ABC's CHRIS GOOD. President Obama has carved out a niche as the nation's top political NCAA predictor, holding his annual tete-a-tete with ESPN's Andy Katz. But this year it's a Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who's leading the bracketology charge with a set of picks that should probably turn some basketball-knowing heads. Here are the NCAA brackets of three incredibly powerful people, and one person who influences the lawmakers who do the actual voting. http://abcn.ws/Xtryu6
@MarkLandler: As Obama visits biblical Bethlehem, a sandstorm disrupts his travel plans. Sky over Amman darkening as well.
@SenJohnMcCain: Must-read Jon Kyl @WSJ: "America's Nuclear Deterrent - and Defenses - Are Eroding Fast" http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323415304578370783312615740.html …