The Note, 4/21/09: Hard Choices: Obama takes on meat of legislative process

By Theresa Cook

Apr 21, 2009 8:05am

By RICK KLEIN What’s of greater importance to the Obama White House this week?

Finding $100 million in budget cuts? (Cue Dr. Evil’s pinkie finger . . . )

Making sure the photos with Hugo Chavez aren’t the only thing people remember about his first trip to Latin America? (Isn’t there a book they could send him back in return?)

Wins over these next eight days — determine how the first 100 are recorded in newspapers of record?

Dictating what the first 100 days will say about the second 100?

What President Obama will be able to say about why these 100 days (and the 100 after that) really do represent all the change he promised?

It’s time for some of those tough choices President Obama keeps telling us we have to make. (He gets to play decider here.)

This is the chewy meat of the legislative session — the start of the real committee work that either will or won’t fulfill the president’s vision.

Team Obama has grasped the symbolism of its actions, both at home and abroad. But the battles ahead will be waged on substance. (And did the White House start one of those battles — budget-cutting — by misplaying the symbols?)

Obama signs the service bill Tuesday, and then the tough stuff starts now: “With Congress back from its spring recess and many of the big, expensive pieces of Obama’s plan for turning the economy around now in place, the president is pivoting to the nitty-gritty details of implementing his plans to expand health care, encourage production of renewable energy and improve education — all while demonstrating he is serious about cutting the federal deficit,” Michael Fletcher writes in The Washington Post.

Even this push may not be comfortable: “Senate Democrats hope to boost President Obama’s credentials among the party’s left wing by advancing several legislative measures in the final stretch of his first 100 days in office,” The Hill’s Alexander Bolton reports. “The forthcoming agenda includes granting bankruptcy judges the power to write down mortgages for homeowners in default and possibly tying war funding to benchmarks that could lead to a speedier withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

David Brooks makes the frame: “Obama imposes hard choices on others, but has postponed his own. He presented an agenda that bleeds red ink a trillion dollars at a time. Now he seems passive as Congress kills his few revenue ideas (cap and trade) and spending cuts (agricultural subsidies). Huge fiscal gaps are opening this decade that can’t be closed by distant entitlement reform. They can’t be closed by cynical Potemkin cuts, a few million at a time,” he writes in his New York Times column.

“This is not a matter of economics only, but credibility. Obama understands that this is primarily an authority crisis. A system Americans have trusted — the market — has failed in important ways. He has found a theme and bids to reassert authority. But he will seem like an impostor and a manipulator if he imposes responsibility on everybody but himself,” Brooks writes.

Pretty much not the way he would have preferred to start: $100 million in requested savings. (Channeling late-night talk joke, on the chatter between Cabinet members: Well, we could always pay our own taxes. . . . )

“Budget analysts promptly burst out laughing. A reporter declared at the White House briefing that the initiative would become fodder for late-night talk show hosts. The Republican Study Committee, a group of fiscal conservatives, put out a news release with the headline ‘Obama’s 0.0025% spending cut,’ ” Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in The New York Times.

“Cut a latte or two out of your annual budget and you’ve just done as much belt-tightening as President Barack Obama asked of his Cabinet on Monday,” per the AP’s Andrew Taylor and Calvin Woodward. “The thrifty measures Obama ordered for federal agencies are the equivalent of asking a family that spends $60,000 in a year to save $6.”

“Republican leaders deemed it ironic that the Obama administration is touting $100 million in spending cuts, but pushing a budget that would add to the national debt,” ABC’s Sunlen Miller writes.

Remember when a goal was bipartisanship? “Widespread peace and harmony aren’t likely to break out in Washington any time soon,” the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Z. Barabak writes. “Lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill on Monday after a two-week recess. Before they left town, congressional leaders handed out separate talking points — one for Democrats, one for Republicans — explaining to folks back home the problem with the other party.” 

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on Tuesday appears before the Congressional Oversight Panel on the cause of the financial crisis.

A taste, from Geithner’s prepared testimony: “Our central obligation as your government is to ensure that the financial system is stable, that there is no bank run and that confidence remains in our long term outlook. To that end we have made significant progress.”

“But that is not enough. We must also ensure that a financial system which may be stable is not hurting the economy and deepening the recession. And we must ensure that the pace of recovery is not constrained. It must come about as quickly as possible. History’s lesson here is to take, as we’ve done, aggressive action early and until sustained growth comes about.”

Some of what he’ll be asked about: “I think there we’ve identified some potentially very, very dangerous and significant fraud risks regarding price fixing and those types of frauds,” Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), told ABC News. 

ABC’s Matthew Jaffe and Charlie Herman: “In a quarterly report to Congress released Tuesday, Barofsky highlights a wide variety of problems with the government’s financial rescue programs. The nearly 250-page report documents how the initial $700 billion TARP has grown to become ‘a program of unprecedented scope, scale and complexity’ of 12 separate but interrelated plans involving taxpayer dollars and private funds totaling almost $3 trillion.” 

Good luck getting buy-in: “Treasury Department lawyers have determined that firms participating in a $1 trillion program to relieve banks of toxic assets could be subject to limits on executive compensation, contradicting the Obama administration’s previous public position, according to a report to be released today by a federal watchdog agency,” Amit R. Paley writes in The Washington Post.

Watching every dime: “Federal investigators said Monday they have opened 20 criminal probes into possible securities fraud, tax violations, insider trading and other crimes” involving bailout funds, the Los Angeles Times’ Ralph Vartabedian and Tom Hamburger report. “The cases represent only the first wave of investigations, and the total fraud could ultimately reach into the tens of billions of dollars, according to Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general overseeing the bailout program.” 

The Hill’s Silla Brush: “In addition to the 20 investigations, his office has opened six audits into, among other issues, the role of outside lobbying and other influences in winning federal money; the $165 million in bonuses at insurance firm AIG; Bank of America’s participation in four different government programs; and an overview of how the banks receiving equity from the government have used that money.”

More Geithner: “Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner indicated that the health of individual banks won’t be the sole criterion for whether financial firms will be allowed to repay bailout funds, a position that might complicate their efforts to give back the cash,” per The Wall Street Journal’s Deborah Solomon. “In an interview, Mr. Geithner laid out some broad principles, including the need to consider the overall health of the financial system and the flow of credit in judging whether banks can repay their government investment.”

At the White House Tuesday: Former President Bill Clinton reunites with Sen. Tedd Kennedy, D-Mass., to celebrate President Obama’s signing of the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act. (Who’s on body-language watch?)

(On ABCNews.com’s “Top Line” today, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and one of the service bill’s main cosponsors. Noon ET.)

Healthcare angst: “Prominent left-leaning organizations and liberal House members are issuing a warning to their Democratic allies: Don’t cave on us,” The Washington Post’s Ceci Connolly writes. “Disputes over whether to create a new government-sponsored insurance program to compete with private companies shine a light on the intraparty fissures that may prove more problematic than any partisan brawl. More than 70 House Democrats recently warned party leaders that they will not support a broad health reform bill that does not offer consumers a government-sponsored policy, and two unions withdrew from a high-profile health coalition because it would not endorse a public plan.”

The easy part? “The physician in charge of the federal government’s massive push to move health care to electronic records from paper files faces ‘huge challenges’ as he starts his new job in Washington this week,” Jacob Goldstein writes in The Wall Street Journal. “That phrase comes from a paper David Blumenthal himself published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine. He cited low adoption rates, high costs, technical complexities, and physician and patient concerns about privacy.”

Last week’s story has spilled into this week: “The president’s decision last week to release secret memorandums detailing the harsh tactics employed by the C.I.A. under his predecessor provoked a furor that continued to grow on Monday as critics on various fronts assailed his position,” Peter Baker and Scott Shane write in The New York Times. “On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program ‘This Week’ that ‘those who devised policy’ also ‘should not be prosecuted.’ But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale.”

“Even though President Barack Obama is inclined to turn the other cheek on Bush-era torture memos, Congressional Democrats are saying, ‘Not so fast,’ ” Roll Call’s Emily Pierce writes. “[Sen. Dianne] Feinstein has been conducting her own review of how the U.S. government got into the torture business after 9/11, and she said that, ‘until people understand the whole picture,’ making comments about who would or would not be held accountable is ‘not advisable.’ ”

(More DiFi news, with a Drudge boost: “On the day the new Congress convened this year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation to route $25 billion in taxpayer money to a government agency that had just awarded her husband’s real estate firm a lucrative contract to sell foreclosed properties at compensation rates higher than the industry norms,” the Washington Times’ Chuck Neubauer reports.)

What Obama is trying to do: “This wasn’t, of course, the audacity of hope but the audacity of realism – of a president trying, simultaneously, to maintain national security, preserve American credibility, follow disclosure laws without sacrificing executive privilege, and avoid a divisive legal battle,” Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe. “The best guess is that Obama’s decision will ensure that both sides will keep on debating — with civil libertarians demanding prosecutions, while conservatives insist the tactics were justified — to diminishing effect. Meanwhile, Obama will achieve his stated goal of keeping the country looking forward, not backward.” 

“That is a disappointment, because that isn’t change. That’s still the same old politics, and I think that’s problematic,” Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake.com said on ABCNews.com’s “Top Line” Monday.

Making it tough not to look back: “Former Vice President Dick Cheney last month formally asked the Central Intelligence Agency to de-classify top secret documents he believes show harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding helped prevent terrorist attacks against U.S. targets,” Politico’s Mike Allen and Josh Gerstein write. “On Monday, Cheney disclosed the request to Sean Hannity of Fox News’ ‘Hannity.’ The request was made in late March, before President Barack Obama unsealed top-secret memos about past interrogation techniques last week.”

This cuts in a few uncomfortable directions: “One of the leading House Democrats on intelligence matters was overheard on telephone calls intercepted by the National Security Agency agreeing to seek lenient treatment from the Bush administration for two pro-Israel lobbyists who were under investigation for espionage,” Neil A. Lewis and Mark Mazzetti write in The New York Times. “One official who has seen transcripts of several wiretapped calls said [Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.] appeared to agree to intercede in exchange for help in persuading party leaders to give her the powerful post.”

CQ had the beat: “Harman was recorded saying she would ‘waddle into’ the AIPAC case ‘if you think it’ll make a difference,’ according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript,” per CQ’s Jeff Stein. 

Coming from another (growing) field entirely: “As a senator, Barack Obama led the charge last year to pass a bill allowing black farmers to seek new discrimination claims against the Agriculture Department. Now he is president, and his administration so far is acting like it wants the potentially budget-busting lawsuits to go away,” the AP’s Ben Evans writes. “The change isn’t sitting well with black farmers who thought they’d get a friendlier reception from Obama after years of resistance from President George W. Bush.”

Key to the opposition? “One form of inflation — rhetorical — may become a short-term hazard for Republicans seeking an effective strategy to oppose Mr. Obama’s activist-government agenda. As the Democratic Congress returns this week to juggle administration initiatives on energy, health care and financial regulation, the minority party faces an internal debate over striking the right tone,” John Harwood writes for The New York Times.

Bob Shrum sees the “tea parties” as playing to “the paranoid style”: “It’s just a shame that instead of seeking common ground or offering genuine alternatives, the GOP is pandering to the paranoid style in American politics,” he writes in The Week.

New from the DNC Tuesday morning: a Web ad highlighting Republicans’ support for Bush budgets that expanded the deficit. Asks the DNC: “In light of their change of heart we wonder: has the Party of No turned into the Party of Hypocrites?”   

Some surprises in the numbers: “The RNC collected $25 million between Jan. 1 and March 31 as compared to the nearly $17 million raised by the DNC. The RNC also stood in a far stronger cash position with $23.9 million in the bank to the DNC’s $9.7 million,” Washingtonpost.com’s Chris Cillizza writes. “Some Democrats dismissed the numbers as simply a reflection of the fundraising strictures on DNC Chairman Tim Kaine (Va.) while he is still the governor of the Commonwealth but unless things pick up in the near term there will be significant grumbling within the party. Meanwhile, the numbers should buoy RNC Chairman Michael Steele.”

The EFCA fight resumes with a Web video, plus a call to action.

From the Workforce Family Institute script for calls to lawmakers, going out Tuesday: “Hello, my name is [first name, last name] and I’m a constituent from [your state] and I wanted to leave a message for Senator [name].  I am strongly opposed to Card Check, the poorly named ‘Employee Free Choice Act’ or EFCA. The binding arbitration provision within EFCA would result in a government takeover of American business. Senators Lincoln and Specter have come out against EFCA and I believe Senator [name] should do the same. Please tell the Senator to join the growing movement to stop Card Check.”
 
Kudos to the St. Petersburg Times, whose indispensable PolitiFact.com nabbed a rare Pulitzer for campaign coverage. 

From their write-up: “During the campaign, PolitiFact had a staff of five Times reporters and editors, plus the support of researchers and writers from Congressional Quarterly, a sister company of the Times. PolitiFact re-launched in January to fact-check Congress and the White House, and added the Obameter, a feature that tracks President Barack Obama’s campaign promises.”

Why they might be less (or more) popular at the next dinner party: “This summer, we plan to expand our coverage of pundits and talk show hosts and our state and local fact-checking.”

The Kicker:

“There are those who would argue, you always have to have a campaign like mine before you have a campaign like Barack Obama’s.” — Howard Dean, maybe one of those who would argue that.

“It’s not a normal way to look at a president of the United States but this is not a normal president.” — Garrett Graff, editor-at-large of Washingtonian, on his decision to put a bare-chested President Obama on his magazine’s cover.

Don’t miss “Top Line,” ABCNews.com’s new daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET. Tuesday’s guests: Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Republican strategist Kevin Madden. 

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