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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Our guide to the nascent Republican presidential primary

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Good morning, Early Birds. We are taking Memorial Day off. We hope you get some time off this weekend, too. We’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday. Enjoy. Tips: Thanks for waking up with us.

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In today’s edition … What we’re watching: Contours of a debt agreement start to emerge … A blast from debt ceilings past on the current default showdown … Supreme Court delivers another blow to Biden’s environmental agenda … but first …

The campaign

Our guide to the nascent Republican presidential primary

The Republican presidential primary field isn’t set yet — but it’s slowly sliding into focus with the entrance of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) this week.

While the Iowa caucuses are still about eight months away, it’s not too early to evaluate the state of the race, with assists from the Post reporters covering each candidate.

Former president Donald Trump

Trump is the unquestioned Republican front-runner right now, leading his rivals by a huge margin in every poll.

His message is that he's Donald Trump.

  • “I am your warrior,” Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, in what our colleague Isaac Arnsdorf tells us is a succinct summary of his 2024 campaign. “I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

As Isaac has reported, Trump has centered his campaign on making his second term an even more aggressive version of his first.

While Trump’s polling lead has grown since he was indicted in New York in March, Trump’s advisers acknowledge there could be political repercussions if he is indicted in Georgia, where he is under investigation for trying to overturn his loss of the state in the 2020 election, or in special counsel Jack Smith’s federal investigations, Isaac tells us.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

DeSantis surely regrets his decision to announce his campaign Wednesday on Twitter Spaces, which buckled under the weight of hundreds of thousands of viewers and earned him the mockery of his rivals.

But DeSantis remains in an enviable position compared to them.

  • He is the only candidate other than Trump polling above the low single digits, with the support of 25 percent of Republican voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, though his support has eroded since March.

DeSantis’s team believes that 30 to 40 percent of Republicans are going to vote for Trump no matter what, according to people who’ve spoken to them, our colleague Hannah Knowles tells us. They’re betting DeSantis can win over enough of the rest of electorate to prevail.

Hannah reports DeSantis raised a formidable $8.2 million in his campaign’s first 24 hours.

DeSantis is pitching himself as more electable than Trump as well as more effective and more conservative on guns and abortion. Now that DeSantis is in, though, his allies will be watching whether he rises in the polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley

Haley was the first Republican to challenge Trump for the nomination. She’s been a regular presence in Iowa, New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina since she launched her campaign more than three months ago, holding town hall-style events in which her allies feel she thrives, our colleague Dylan Wells, who has been covering Haley, tells us.

  • Haley’s campaign is built around appealing to Republicans seeking a candidate who’s not Trump — and she’s working to cast DeSantis as too similar to Trump to be a true alternative.

“Ron DeSantis is like Trump, drama and all — but without any of the charm,” Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager, wrote in a memo on Tuesday outlining DeSantis and Trump’s similarities, which was obtained by The Early.

Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.)

Scott, who leaped into the race Monday, is the only senator seeking the nomination. That stands in contrast to 2016, when three sitting senators ran.

He’s running an optimistic campaign built around his personal story of working his way out of poverty as a Black man in the South.

  • He will not attack other Republicans, said longtime South Carolina political operative Matt Moore, who’s working for a super PAC backing Scott. But he will aggressively critique President Biden, our colleague Marianne LeVine tells us.

Scott has raised millions of dollars since he launched his campaign, adding to a Senate campaign account that boasted nearly $22 million on March 31. His allies believe his cash advantage and positive but realistic message will help him rise in the polls, Marianne notes.

Also, Scott is betting on his popularity in his home state, the early primary state of South Carolina, to catapult his campaign, aides say.

Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson

Hutchinson is running as a “consistent conservative,” with a long resume and an uplifting message, people around him say. It's a stark contrast to Trump’s “I am your retribution” campaign, and Hutchinson has been more direct in attacking Trump than any other candidate, Marianne tells us.

Hutchinson barely registered in the polls, but Marianne is watching how much money the Walton family — heirs to the Walmart fortune — give to his super PAC.

Vivek Ramaswamy and Larry Elder

Both Ramaswamy, a wealthy entrepreneur, and Elder, a talk radio host who ran against California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in the unsuccessful 2021 effort to recall Newsom, are polling in the low single digits — but so is almost every other Republican in the race now.

The Republicans we’re waiting on

The Republican field isn’t fully set, and we’re watching three potential candidates in particular: former vice president Mike Pence, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

Pence’s allies debuted a super PAC earlier this month to support his campaign.

  • “This campaign is going to reintroduce Mike Pence to the country as his own man, not as vice president, but as a true economic, social and national security conservative — a Reagan conservative,” Scott Reed, a Republican operative who’s helping to lead the effort, told Marianne and our colleague Josh Dawsey.

Christie is expected to announce a campaign as soon as the coming days after concluding that none of the other Republicans in the race are willing to take on Trump forcefully, our colleague Maeve Reston tells us. (Hutchinson might disagree.) He and his allies have concluded that there are no “lanes” in the Republican primary, and that the only way to win is “through Trump,” not around him.

  • Christie is eager to take on Trump on a debate stage and he’s convinced support for DeSantis is soft, Maeve says.

Sununu has been as aggressive in taking on Trump as Christie, describing Trump as “weak” and “bitter” in his recent CNN town hall in New Hampshire.

  • “It just reiterated the idea that he cannot win in November,” Sununu told The Early earlier this month. “He could get the nomination, but he cannot win in November.”

Sununu has traveled the country over the past few months talking to donors and potential backers to gauge whether he can raise the money he needs to mount a competitive campaign. He expects to make a decision next month.

Follow our colleagues Isaac, Marianne, Dylan, Hannah and Maeve on Twitter.

What we're watching

Contours of a debt agreement start to emerge

White House and Republican congressional negotiators continue to work to hammer out the details of an agreement to lift the debt limit on an expedited timeline with a goal of completing legislative text by Sunday night, according to a person familiar with the negotiators’ objectives.

Of course that timeline could slip and many obstacles ahead are possible, and even likely, but the contours of an agreement are starting to take shape.

  • Negotiators are zeroing in on a deal to raise the debt ceiling for two years — through the 2024 presidential election — in exchange for two years of new spending limits mostly focused on domestic government programs, three people familiar with the matter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to reflect the private talks, our colleagues Rachel Seigel, Jeff Stein, Paul Kane and Leigh Ann report.

Here’s more from the team: The Biden administration agreed to long-standing GOP demands to pare back some of the $80 billion in new funding Congress approved last year for the Internal Revenue Service, the people said. The administration agreed to the GOP demands so officials could redirect as much as $10 billion from the IRS to shield other domestic programs from the steep cuts sought by Republicans.

But congressional aides warn that talks are fluid and many details must still be worked out. The details are always difficult.

Piecing together a coalition of lawmakers to move a bill through the House also won’t be easy.

Details around permitting reform and work requirements, issues each side has very strong feelings about, still need to be settled.

  • As for work requirements for social safety net programs, Republicans have demanded enhanced requirements for work, leaving fewer people with assistance. Democrats from all factions of the ideological spectrum, however, have come out strongly against additional requirements.
  • “Work requirements are going to be really hard to get support from any Democrats,” a senior Democratic aide said Thursday night.

And conservatives have protested the details of the deal, saying it doesn’t cut spending nearly enough.

Even if an agreement is reached today, it has a long way to go before it can become law. The House left town for their scheduled recess but are on call to return at any moment.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has promised that the bill would be available for 72 hours for a vote.

White House Notebook

A blast from debt ceilings past on the current default showdown

White House reporter Meryl Kornfield files this week’s notebook:

As the White House and congressional Republicans wrestle to find a compromise over the debt limit and avert catastrophe, former senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) has a not-so-novel idea: what if we created a bipartisan commission that could suggest policies to reduce the deficit?

Sound familiar?

More than 13 years ago, when President Barack Obama needed to raise the legal limit on government borrowing, Conrad used the debt limit as leverage to pressure the White House to create the fiscal commission that became known as Simpson-Bowles after its two chairmen — former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

The 18-member group failed to agree on a deficit reduction package among themselves, let alone one that could pass Congress.

A model or source of mockery?

Since then, Simpson-Bowles has become a punchline in some Washington circles, where it is derided as the type of naive idea conjured up by centrists who don’t appreciate that modern partisan politics would never allow for the type “grand bargain” they eagerly seek.

  • But Conrad, a longtime fiscal hawk fond of saying “the debt is the threat,” is not chastened and says he still sees no better way to drafting and passing something that would meaningfully address long-term fiscal concerns.

“I do know that it’s badly needed,” he said. “I do know that this agreement, whatever the final dimensions are, is not going to fundamentally deal with our long-term fiscal challenges,” he said of the potential deal currently being negotiated.

A jaundiced view

From his perch in retirement from government, Conrad has watched the public haggling and finger pointing.

He’s heard hard-liners such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) suggest Republicans should not negotiate with their hostage, an idea that Conrad said was “so incredibly foolish that it defies description.”

  • Now, as the nation nears the deadline for federal default, Conrad suggests going back in time.

“There should be a better way,” he said.

Would creating such a bipartisan commission even be possible in this political climate?

“I don’t know,” he admits.

  • He said he isn’t privy to what Biden — his negotiating partner back in 2010 — is thinking.

“This is a different time,” he said. “He’s confronting an element of the Republican Party that’s wildly irresponsible.”

You can follow all of Meryl’s work here and follow her on Twitter here.

From the courts

Supreme Court delivers another blow to Biden’s environmental agenda

Another one: The Supreme Court dealt another blow to the Biden administration’s regulatory authority as well as the president’s environmental agenda Thursday when it cut back the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate the nation’s wetlands.

Not just the EPA: Thursday’s ruling is the latest development in the court’s long-standing pattern of reining in the power of federal agencies.

The Media

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