By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )
ABC's RICK KLEIN: Senator, we hardly knew ye. Sen. Mike Johanns' surprise retirement adds to a remarkably long list of senators getting out early, particularly this far in advance of traditional retirement season. It's now five announced Senate retirements, in addition to two senators who resigned this year to take other jobs (one public-sector, one private-sector). With the possible exception of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who would have stood for reelection at age 90 and already faced a possible primary challenge, none of those seven seemed in serious jeopardy of losing their seats next year. That means they're getting out not because they're afraid they'll be thrown out, but because there are other things they want to do. They may be the last to realize it, but being a senator actually isn't looking all that fun - or, at least, not as much fun as it used to be.
ABC's CHRIS GOOD: Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles are at it again. This morning, they're pushing a re-hashed plan to slow the nation's debt growth and put it on a more stable path, essentially fitting their old plan into a new timeline and pushing leaders in Washington, D.C., to adopt a piecemeal approach to fiscal reform. Taking into account actions that Congress and President Obama have taken in the last two years, Simpson and Bowles say tax and spending reforms don't have to happen all at once. Counting the 2011 budget talks and the recent tax deal as steps one and two, Simpson and Bowles issued a call for two more big steps - which include measures like lowering the growth of Medicare and Medicaid payments to providers, lowering drug costs, enacting Social Security reforms, adopting a "chained CPI" to reduce the growth of Social Security payments and other spending tied to inflation, and reforming the tax code. http://abcn.ws/15rSTD3
ABC's MICHAEL FALCONE: Marco Rubio is checking all the boxes. Fresh off delivering the Republican response to the president's State of the Union address last week (never mind, the dehydration), Rubio finds himself in the Middle East where he is touring several countries, including Israel. Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, has taken care to highlight America's "truly special" relationship with Israel, as he did in a statement announcing his trip over the weekend: "We must continue to do all we can to support this beacon of democracy, religious freedom and free enterprise in the heart of an unstable region." He'll have an immigration fight on his hands when he returns to U.S. soil, but until then, he's burnishing his foreign affairs credentials in a volatile part of the world - one more step on the path toward 2016.
WHAT WE'RE READING
"DEMOCRATS' MAN FOR BATTLES WILL LEAD NEW SENATE CHARGE," by The New York Times' Jonathan Weisman. "After two grueling election cycles, Guy Cecil, the brains behind the Democrats' improbable Senate showings in 2010 and 2012, was expected to set aside his political combat boots for tasseled loafers and a sinecure somewhere in this city that pays handsomely for success. Then his old boss, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, reluctantly took the helm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, looking at another brutal map for Democrats eager to stay in control of Congress's upper chamber. He had one demand: Keep Guy Cecil aboard. 'It was critically important that Guy stay in the job,' said Mr. Bennet, now reunited with Mr. Cecil, the former chief of staff who spent the last months of his 2010 campaign sleeping in the senator's Colorado basement. 'He is just excellent at what he does.' Mr. Cecil's return as executive director of the committee is notable in a city accustomed to political consultants cashing in for big money 'downtown' - at lobbying firms and with influence peddlers off Capitol Hill." http://nyti.ms/W6OnmN
SEQUESTRATION: WASHINGTON'S WEIRD IDEA. It's the dirtiest word in Washington right now: "sequester." Formerly wrapped up in the "fiscal cliff" that was poised to wreck America's economy at the end of the year, the dreaded "sequester" is the spending half of that taxes-and-spending equation: It amounts to across-the-board budget cuts that will strike in March barring an agreement on deficit reduction. The "sequester" is yet another deadline in a long line of fiscal-policy stalemates that have hounded the U.S. political system in the last two years. Because its origins were esoteric and convoluted, the "sequester" is shrouded in a degree of Washington policy mystique. ABC's Chris Good demystifies the sequester: What is it? Where did it come from? What's the deadline? What will be cut? http://abcn.ws/ZalOHt
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT - TWO VIEWS OF THE SEQUESTER:
-PAUL RYAN: 'NO LEADERSHIP' FROM DEMOCRATS. House Budget Committee Chair Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., blamed the White House and Senate Democrats for failing to avert automatic spending cuts scheduled to take place next month, saying, "there's no leadership on the other side of the aisle and therefore no agreement." "The Senate hasn't passed a bill to replace the sequester. The president gave a speech showing that he'd like to replace it, but he hasn't put any details out there. So that is why I conclude I believe it's going to take place," Ryan said in an interview Sunday morning on "This Week" about the $85 billion in automatic cuts scheduled for March 1. "What we've always said is let's cut spending in smarter ways to replace this sequester," Ryan told ABC News Chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl. "We [the House] passed two bills doing that and we've heard nothing in response from the Senate Democrats or the president." http://abcn.ws/12WqIN9
-WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 'THIS SHOULD NOT BE A SOCIAL SCIENCE EXPERIMENT.' Newly-appointed White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said finding savings in the federal budget was "not impossible," but continued to stress the need for a "balanced" package that would protect the middle class by avoiding automatic spending cuts that would impact education, mental health services and the "devastating list of horribles" that would impact the Pentagon. "We're going to insist on doing this in a balanced way," McDonough on "This Week." "This should not be a social science experiment. This should be a question where we ask ourselves 'what is most important to the economy, what is most important to the middle class families of this country,' and that's the way the president is going to do this." http://abcn.ws/12WqIN9
MARCO RUBIO STOPS IN JORDAN ON MIDDLE EAST TRIP. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is on a tour of the Middle East this week, which will include a stop in Israel, reports ABC's Arlette Saenz. Rubio met Monday with King Abdullah II in Jordan along with other members of the Jordanian government to talk about the Syrian war and the economic and security cooperation between the United States and Jordan. Rubio also met with former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected to Jordan last year. This marked Rubio's first ever trip to Jordan. The Florida senator, who is accompanied on the trip by his wife Jeanette, will make his second trip to Israel at the end of the week, when he will meet with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House announced earlier this month that President Obama will visit Israel this spring. http://abcn.ws/XhhtDf
SOUTH CAROLINA TV AD WARS: MARK SANFORD VS. THE WORLD. Mark Sanford wants you to know that he has learned from his mistakes and will try to change Washington if he gets there. That's the message of his first TV ad, now visible on cable airwaves in Charleston, S.C., where the former governor is attempting the political comeback of the decade, notes ABC's Chris Good. With more ads to come, Sanford has reserved $160,000 worth of TV time before the March 19 primary, according to his campaign. Sanford, who famously resigned the governorship amid an Argentinian affair, faces 15 other candidates in his race to reclaim the state's First Congressional District, which he represented from 1995 to 2001, before assuming the governorship. Just about every kind of local pol has come out to oppose him: current and former state legislators; a sheriff; a personal-injury lawyer; a former JAG officer; a former Secret Service agent; a school-board trustee; and a local high school teacher, to name a few. "Our message is simple: I've learned a lot over the past few years about grace and forgiveness, but one thing hasn't changed. And that's my absolute commitment to watching out for taxpayers and getting spending under control," Sanford wrote in an email to supporters announcing the new ad. http://abcn.ws/12DnOgk
MICHELLE OBAMA'S 'MID-LIFE CRISIS.' First Lady Michelle Obama joked in an interview set to air today that her now-signature bangs weren't a fashion statement but a result of a "mid-life crisis." "This is my mid-life crisis, the bangs," the First Lady, 49, said in a preview clip for Wednesday's "Rachael Ray Show." "I couldn't get a sports car. They won't let me bungee jump. So instead, I cut my bangs." The First Lady made fashion waves when she first sported the bangs in a photo uploaded to her Twitter account on her birthday last month, just before Inauguration weekend, and the president quickly admitted he's a fan of the new hairdo, saying it was the "most significant" event of the weekend. http://abcn.ws/XoxUfM
IN THE NOTE'S INBOX:
-IN THE MONEY: DEMOCRATS TOUT CONGRESSIONAL FUNDRAISING. From an aide to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: "Despite being in the minority, DCCC started 2013 (January) by raising nearly $1.7M more than NRCC and begins the cycle ahead of NRCC in cash-on-hand by $1.8M. For the first time since just after Democrats lost the House in 2010, House Democrats now have a cash-on-hand advantage against the NRCC ($4.6M to $2.8M). This is the latest proof that Democrats start 2014 in better shape than the start of 2012. The DCCC now has 30 percent less debt than January 2011. The DCCC also has more cash-on-hand than January of 2011 and raised more this month than any January in history."
@brianjameswalsh: A very funny & clever video from Sen. McConnell's campaign this AM on Democrat recruiting efforts. Watch here…. http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=12pLYOJXMKA&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Ffeature%3Dplayer_embedded%26v%3D12pLYOJXMKA …
@HotlineJosh: Major flaw with this @mikeallen @JimVandeHei front-pager: idea that good White House coverage is premised on access http://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/obama-the-puppet-master-87764.html?hp=t1 …
@JohnJHarwood: Oscar might want to switch from "I thought my beautiful girlfriend was a burglar" defense to "steroids made me do it" defense