By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )
A LITTLE HELP ON THE HILL: Another day, another set of meetings on Capitol Hill. ABC's Mary Bruce notes that today President Obama makes his third and final trip to the Capitol this week. At 12:45 p.m. ET he meets with the Senate Republican conference, followed by a 2:15 p.m. ET meeting with the House Democrats. This afternoon Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks at a welcome ceremony for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon.
WHY BUDGETS ARE LIKE DREAMS: ABC's Chris Good notes that when conservative House Republicans and liberal Democrats in the House Progressive Caucus each released their broad budget plans this week, what we really saw was a window into two drastically different visions of the future. Republicans, led by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, issued a 91-page doctrine of fiscal conservatism that claims to balance the budget in 10 years. The House Progressive Caucus, led by Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., released their own 19-page blueprint that lowers the deficit (but doesn't eliminate it) by raising taxes while pumping investments into all the infrastructure, education, and public welfare programs liberals love. It's a tale of two budgets, and America's alternate futures couldn't be more different. Read more: http://abcn.ws/X9H3r5
A PAPAL WELCOME FROM THE WHITE HOUSE: President Obama yesterday issued the following statement after the election of Pope Francis: "On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I offer our warm wishes to His Holiness Pope Francis as he ascends to the Chair of Saint Peter and begins his papacy. As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than two thousand years-that in each other we see the face of God. As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day."
ABC's JONATHAN KARL: Talk about white smoke: I am told, by Republican sources, that President Obama got standing ovations at the beginning and end of his meeting yesterday with House Republicans on Capitol Hill - his first such meeting in four years. There were tough questions and no breakthroughs, but a source inside the closed-door meeting called it "very cordial" and told me that virtually every House Republican who stood up to ask a question began by saying, "Thank you for coming" and "You are welcome here anytime." Some added, "We need to work together." The biggest laugh line: The president informed the group that there was white smoke at the Vatican, and Rep. Billy Long of Missouri yelled out, "Does that mean the White House is open for tours?" Obama responded: "No, but the Vatican is." This was Obama's first visit to Capitol Hill to meet with House Republicans in four years. He has met with them a total of four times, the most recent being at the White House 2011. Here's more about yesterday's big meeting: http://abcn.ws/Ybx2ts
ABC's RICK KLEIN: There they will all be (mostly) in one place, several generations lost about the next race. Perhaps the only thing attendees at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference can agree on is the "conservative" label. Beyond that, question about who's not there (Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, GOP gay-rights groups) are competing with questions about who is (lots of future stars, sure, though nobody figures to get more coverage than Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin). Attention and talk will turn to 2016, including the straw poll winner who almost certainly won't be the party nominee. But of more immediate concern to the gathered conservative flock is how attendees interact with their allies on Capitol Hill. The red meat is set to be served at the first time in the Obama presidency that Republicans are breaking bread with the president. The message coming from CPAC is highly unlikely to involve bargains with President Obama, grand or otherwise.
ABC's DEVIN DWYER: Behind closed doors, deep in the Capitol crypt, President Obama on Wednesday offered a rare glimpse at his conflicted feelings ahead of a final decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Obama said his ruling on the project would come "soon," according to House Republican sources in the meeting. But despite some recent signs and speculation that he may be inclined to green-light the deal, Obama reportedly recited a litany of reasons to reject it. "He said there were no permanent jobs, and that the oil will be put on ships and exported and that the only ones who are going to get wealthy are the Canadians," Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska told AP. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, another pipeline supporter, said Obama also questioned overall job-creation estimates for pipeline construction, saying it "is not going to create as many jobs as you hope." The president is expected to receive a formal recommendation on the project from the State Department later this spring. Then it's all up to him.
ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ: The Senate Judiciary Committee considers its final gun measure - the assault weapons ban - today. But if the controversial bill passes committee, likely on a party-line vote, it faces an uphill battle in the full Senate just like the background check bill the committee voted for on Tuesday. If they want any chance to pass the Senate, both bills will require changes in language in order to get Republicans and moderate Democrats on board. And will President Obama step in to help push the bills through? The president, who has focused on the budget and sequester in recent weeks, has remained relatively silent on guns while the measures have been developed and debated in committee, instead deploying Vice President Joe Biden to make the pitch on guns. At least one leading Democrat on the gun front wants more assistance from the president. "I'd like to see everybody doing more," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sponsor of the assault weapons ban, told the AP when asked if she'd like to see the president help out more. "Yes, absolutely, we need help."
ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE: How involved will the president be in the 2014 political cycle? According to at least one top Democrat he's already helping. At a presentation to Democratic allies and the press Wednesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., had this to say: "He made commitments that he would help us raise the resources we need," Israel said. "The White House is very good on the president's commitment…And the president is very good on the president's commitment." Israel added that President Obama has asked the DCCC to "keep him apprised on some of our recruiting priorities and we've been sharing that information with the White House and they have been very receptive." More on Israel's remarks: http://abcn.ws/ZIXnAw
WHAT WE'RE READING
"OBAMA'S OUTREACH IS NICE, BUT WHERE'S THE LEADERSHIP?" a Washington Post Op-Ed by House Speaker John Boehner. "So it was a good meeting. House Republicans welcomed the chance for a frank exchange of ideas with President Obama on Wednesday. Outreach is always positive, and more Republicans in this town need the opportunity to have an open dialogue with our president. I hope these discussions continue. Yet, while this may have been the first time some of my colleagues have heard the president's arguments so personally and directly, I've heard them all many times before. If we're going to find bipartisan solutions, the president will have to move beyond the same proposals and Democratic dogma. For all of Washington's focus on the president's outreach to Republicans, it's his engagement with members of his own party that will determine whether we succeed in dealing with the challenges facing our economy." http://wapo.st/Z3oo2G
-THE FUTURE, ACCORDING TO THE GOP: Under Paul Ryan's plan, most people take some kind of a hit, and the government survives to serve future generations because it's restrained in the near term, reports ABC's Chris Good. Tax reform lowers rates on people and corporations (including high incomes) while stripping out deductions and credits. National defense remains fully funded, but Medicare is essentially voucherized for people turning 55 now; Medicare survives and health-care costs are restrained, as patients turn down unnecessary procedures, saving the system from fiscal ruin. Medicare is block-granted, giving states more flexibility to do with the funds as they please. "Obamacare" is repealed, meaning no one has to buy health insurance, but also that the government spends a lot less helping people buy it. Tort reform means doctors don't get sued as often, the government only gives welfare to people meeting the full set of work requirements; job-training programs and "career scholarships" help people get to work, and the federal government accounts more accurately for the money it loans out. http://abcn.ws/X9H3r5
-THE FUTURE, ACCORDING TO DEMOCRATS: In the future according to the House Progressive Caucus, the Bush tax cuts expire for everyone making over $250,000, and millionaires and billionaires see their tax rates jump from 45 percent. The federal government invests more in infrastructure, creating jobs, and unemployment claims can be made for almost two years (99 weeks). A public-option health system is adopted, while no benefits are cut in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Generic drugs become more available, as name-brand drug companies are barred from paying generic makers to delay sales in patent settlements. States receive more money through block grants to hire police, firefighters, and teachers, and states also get more money for Medicaid. A new cap-and-trade system limits greenhouse-gas emissions on a large scale. Corporate tax credits that can benefit oil and gas production are rolled back. America swiftly withdraws from Afghanistan, eliminating emergency war funding and saving billions from the federal budget, while the military cuts contractors, spends less on bases, and slowly shrinks its force through attrition. http://abcn.ws/X9H3r5
CPAC PRIMER: Today marks the start of a three-day gathering of conservative leaders and activists from around the country. The Conservative Political Action Conference - CPAC, for short - is organized by the American Conservative Union and has become an annual focal point bringing together establishment figures, new leaders, grassroots types and, in particular, the younger generation of conservatives. It kicks off this morning at the Gaylord National Hotel in National Harbor, Md. just outside Washington, DC.
-WHO'S GOING: A whole lot of big-name speakers like Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan Rand Paul and many more. Numerous other lawmakers from Capitol Hill will also address the gathering and attendees will also have a chance to hear from a host of unelected officials who have a prominent role on policy and other matters within the conservative orbit: the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre, American Crossroads head Steven Law, American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist and Heritage Foundation president and former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.
-WHO'S NOT GOING: The two most-talked-about names who don't have speaking slots at this year's CPAC conference are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (although McDonnell plans to participate in a prayer breakfast associated with the conference on Friday morning). American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas did not mince words about why Christie was not invited this year: "This past year he strongly advocated for the passage of a $60-plus billion pork barrel bill, containing only $9 billion in disaster assistance and he signed up with the federal government to expand Medicaid at a time when his state can ill afford it, so he was not invited to speak … Hopefully he will be back in top form next year. We would be delighted to invite him again in that case." Nevertheless, the exclusion of politicians like Christie and McDonnell and the inclusion of someone like Donald Trump has already led some conservative pundits to declare that "CPAC is dead." There are other big names who will be absent too, including House Speaker John Boehner, Arizona senator and former GOP nominee John McCain, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and more. ABC's Chris Good compiled a list of the "13 Top Republican You Won't See At CPAC": http://abcn.ws/WmHmBu
-MITT'S MOMENT: Mitt Romney has chosen this year's conference as the venue for his first major speech since losing the 2012 election. He offered a preview of his post-election thoughts during a recent interview on Fox News Sunday, but his remarks to the gathering (scheduled for 1 p.m. ET on Friday) will be his chance to set a tone for his future role within the Republican Party. Everyone will be watching to see whether he focuses on lessons learned from 2012, what he would be doing differently if he were in the White House, his vision for the future or all of the above. Recall that in his Mar. 3 Fox interview, he said: "As the guy who lost the election, I'm not in a position to tell everyone else how to win," but added: "I'm not going to disappear." Notably, CPAC is something of a fraught venue for Romney. It was at the same conference in 2008 that he dropped out of that year's Republican presidential primary. And last year it was at CPAC where he declared himself "a severely conservative Republican governor" - a comment that did not win him much praise on the right.
-ON THE LIGHTER SIDE: CPAC is not just about serious speechmaking and politicking. This year's conference, for example, features a panel called "Fight Club 2013," a debate between liberal heavyweight Paul Begala and conservative pundit Tucker Carlson. There's another panel titled: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plastic Water Bottles, Fracking, Genetically Modified Food, and Big Gulp Sodas," and yet another called "Getting Hollywood Right." One attendee has even released a helpful guide for fellow conference-goers, "What to Wear at CPAC" (business suits, button-downs, pumps and loafers are in; rompers, halter-tops, tee-shirts and Tom's shoes are out). And the nightlife should prove interesting too: on Friday, for example, CPAC is hosting what they are calling the Obama Zombie Apocalypse Party. The motto: "First they come for your brains, then they come for your ballots."
MCCONNELL AD TARGETS WOMEN. There's nothing like getting a head start. His re-election contest may be 20 months away, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., possibly fearing an Ashley Judd candidacy, already has an ad targeted specifically at women voters that will run this week in his home state. ABC's Shushannah Walshe reports that the ad, which includes a television, radio and online component, includes McConnell's wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, looking directly into the camera as she criticizes "far left special interests." "You've seen the ads attacking my husband," Chao says in the 30-second spot, which will begin running Thursday in Lexington and Louisville. "As Mitch McConnell's wife, I've learned to expect them. Now, far-left special interests are also attacking my ethnicity, even attacking Mitch's patriotism, because he's married to me." Chao is hitting back after a group called Progress Kentucky, a super PAC aimed at defeating McConnell, posted tweets last month that highlighted Chao's Chinese ancestry. After first defending the tweets, criticism from both sides of the aisle (including possible candidate Judd) led them to apologize and delete the tweets. http://abcn.ws/WaUs69
@newtgingrich: The Obama proposal to reopen only for school groups is absurd. Children visiting with their parents don't count?
@robertcostaNRO: Ken Cuccinelli isn't an upbeat speaker. Very focused on history, principles. Little talk (so far) of his GOV race.
@samsteinhp: John McCain on the 40th anniversary of his release from prison in North Vietnam http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323826704578356004118901318.html …