By RICK KLEIN ( @rickklein )
Just about everything you need to know about the position and predicament of the Republican Party is laid bare by the reaction to the budget deal cut by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan.
The hero/heartthrob of fiscal conservatives - the author of principled budgets, a numbers guru and a rising star, the policy heart of a disappointing presidential ticket - is being pilloried for caving to Democrats and catering to the establishment, at a moment that Republicans feel stronger than at any time in the last 13 months.
That makes him a sellout. Unless he's a statesman.
From Paul's perspective - and he's got the backing of House leadership, if not top Senate Republicans - this is the price of fiscal peace. The unexpected image of Ryan and Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray announcing a joint agreement breaks a bad cycle for Democrats and President Obama, but it also forecloses the possibility of a disastrous repeat of the early fall for Republicans.
Lurking behind this week's floor debate is this question: With new tea party challengers still popping up by the day, does the Republican Party feel equipped to let spending fights dominate the winter and spring - and beyond?
As for Ryan's own role and prospects, this is the equivalent of him raising his hand on that long-ago GOP debate stage, with the famous question about who would accept a budget deal that's 10-1 in Republicans' favor. (And here's betting that Ryan will be alone in this among 2016ers, as he would have been if he'd actually been on that stage to raise his hand at the time.)
As the deal hits, FIVE new national polls hit the news cycle, all with President Obama well underwater on job approval. (More on them below.)
The numbers aren't too dissimilar, but they provide alternate reads on political realities nonetheless. Yes, the president is at a weak point - hardly a time for Republican concessions, under one line of thinking. But he's sitting where he is because of the focus on the botched rollout of Obamacare - the kind of focus that risks getting lost if January and February are consumed by budget showdowns.
Fret not - Wednesday brings its dose of Obamacare, too, with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius back on Capitol Hill answering questions for the first time in more than a month.
WHAT WE'RE WATCHING
MORE FROM 'TOP LINE,' with the Madison Project's Drew Ryun. "Big punches" will be thrown within the GOP as groups like his gear up for primary challenges in the 2014 elections against Republicans who they view as not conservative enough, Ryun told us. "I think the 2014 primary cycle is going to be unlike anything that we've seen," he said. "This is going to be the equivalent of a bar room brawl." More: "I think it's going to come down to a battle of tactics," Ryun said. "They're going to have more money; we're going to have more people. And, basically, who employs the best tactics is going to come out on top of these primaries." http://yhoo.it/1cAELeM
VIRAL VIDEO . Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., is getting Internet famous for a clip where she's asked a question about Benghazi. She begins her answer, incorrectly, by telling the audience that the measure is being crafted in the Senate so she doesn't want to get into a discussion about it, ABC's JOHN PARKINSON reports. "Um, I don't have - uh, it's a Senate, I think ahhh," she stammers. "I don't think we have anything about that in the House." Pressed for an answer, Kuster says the forum should stay focused on the Middle East. "Well, I'm certainly not here to talk about it," Kuster answers. "We're here to talk about the Middle East." Then, several people in the audience exclaim, "Benghazi is in the Middle East!" http://abcn.ws/1hL2z3r
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI , R-Alaska, takes a stroll to work in the "snow." http://bit.ly/1e53FGs
PREVIEWING WEDNESDAY'S HILL EVENT. "Kathleen Sebelius isn't going anywhere - but the White House isn't exactly pulling out all the stops to defend her work. That's the reality of Sebelius's uncomfortable status as she returns to the Hill on Wednesday to catch more arrows over Obamacare," POLITICO's DAVID NATHER reports. http://politi.co/1goyGFD
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS. From the House Energy and Commerce Committee: "How much has the administration spent on the health care exchanges? … Who made the decision to not allow 'window shopping' on HealthCare.gov? Did insurance companies ever recommend a delay of the start of open enrollment? How many people have enrolled in a plan on HealthCare.gov?" http://1.usa.gov/18CmdJy
IN ADVANCE - BUT WHAT TOOK THIS LONG? Ahead of her testimony on the Hill today - and anticipating a grilling over accountability for the website fiasco - Sebelius has ordered an inspector general review of the development and roll out of HealthCare.gov, per ABC's DEVIN DWYER. She's also ordering the creation of a new 'chief risk officer' at CMS to ensure better management of taxpayer dollars and is instituting new training procedures. http://1.usa.gov/1d7RfbN
ABOUT THE CASH. "President Barack Obama's health agency said it has spent $319 million building an online health-insurance marketplace through October. More than three years after the passage of Obama's signature health-care law in 2010, it's almost impossible to verify and track that spending through public records," BLOOMBERG's KATHLEEN MILLER and ALEX WAYNE report. http://bloom.bg/JdZ6My
JUST A HANDSHAKE? President Obama's unprecedented handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Mandela memorial service was not a pre-planned encounter, a White House official told ABC's MARY BRUCE. "Above all else, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela, and that was the President's singular focus at the memorial service," the official said. The leaders of the long-estranged Cold War foes had a brief encounter at a memorial service honoring the life and legacy of former South African leader Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Obama and Castro, who both delivered remarks at the ceremony, shook hands and spoke to one another on the podium - and a range of critics, including Sen. John McCain and Sen. Marco Rubio, were none too pleased. http://abcn.ws/1gWCICK
CHANGING HISTORY, OR NOTHING AT ALL? The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Cuba for the more than 50 years since the Communist revolution, led by the current president's brother, Fidel Castro. ABC's NICKI ROSSOLL and ANNETA KONSTANTINIDES note that the handshake at a memorial honoring the life and legacy of Mandela comes at a time when there have been glimpses of diplomatic reconciliation between the two countries. But as history has shown, a handshake can indicate a momentous shift in geopolitics, or it can simply be a polite, or unavoidable, gesture. http://abcn.ws/JbXB1B
NUCLEAR FALLOUT . The Senate confirmed one of President Obama's stalled judicial picks for the D.C. Circuit Court, the first judicial nominee confirmed since the Senate changed the rules to effectively end the use of the filibuster on most judicial nominees. ABC's ARLETTE SAENEZ reports that the Senate voted 56 to 38 to confirm Patricia Millett. "I'm pleased that in a bipartisan vote, the Senate has confirmed Patricia Millett to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, filling a vacancy that has been open since 2005," President Obama said in a statement. Two Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, voted in favor of Millett's confirmation. http://abcn.ws/1bU6KaW
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
BIPARTISAN PHOTOGRAPHY. Obamas, Bushes, and Clintons all on a plane together - and the White House has released photos. (No selfies, but it's not hard to guess which president was showing off his artwork.) http://1.usa.gov/19BvLlk
WHAT WE'RE READING
"Tea party threat again hangs over Republicans' efforts to take Senate," by THE WASHINGTON POST's PAUL KANE. Don't miss: "They're really undermining everything we're trying to do here," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah (saying something he couldn't have said last year). "You can't do it by destroying sitting [GOP] senators." http://wapo.st/IETMBp
IN THE NOTE'S INBOX.
ESCALATION . "Wednesday morning MoveOn.org will announce they are doubling down on their campaign to expand Social Security and escalating their fight with Third Way on the issue with the release of a new 30-second television ad. You can see the ad here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfEuNTEbQCs