Big Chill: Obama takes on Congress over spending, process

Jan 26, 2010 8:09am

By Rick Klein
Out of the mush — something solid. Or, at least, something frozen: as in a three-year freeze on discretionary spending — the classic, caveat-stuffed non-defense, non-security, not-entitlement kind, starting this fall — as a centerpiece of President Obama’s budget and his State of the Union address. It’s a long way from here to reality. (Will Obama take on the appropriators, or veto a spending bill?) It’s a far, far longer way from here to a balanced budget. (Will the White House take on entitlements in a way that Congress would ever endorse? How does this square rhetorically with the fight for a trillion-dollar health care plan, and the defense of a $787 billion stimulus package?) Yet part of what’s remarkable here is that it shows a willingness, perhaps a desire, to leverage the president against Congress — not to mention the liberal base — even as the push begins in earnest to preserve the Democratic majority. Those folks surrounding the president, the ones who will slow Wednesday night’s speech down with standing ovations — those are not necessarily the president’s friends, even now. (Ask a few liberal Democrats what they think of the spending freeze — and then watch the Senate reject the White House-backed deficit-reduction panel on Tuesday.) And it comes through even more clearly on health care: Notice where the president is taking ownership (to a point) of the process: “I think that this gets into a big mush. So let’s just clarify: I didn’t make a bunch of deals,” the president told ABC’s Diane Sawyer Monday. “There is a legislative process that is taking place in Congress and I am happy to own up to the fact that I have not changed Congress and how it operates the way I would have liked.” Also from the interview: “I think it’s my responsibility — and I’ll be speaking to this at the State of the Union — to own up to the fact that the process didn’t run the way I ideally would like it to and that we have to move forward in a way that recaptures that sense of opening things up more,” the president said. Taking a rhetorical stand: “The one thing I’m clear about is that I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” The spending freeze is a primarily symbolic gesture; Congress still gets to decide what not to spend and where not to spend it, and freezing spending doesn’t sound like cutting the budget to most Americans not familiar with government accounting procedures. It’s the kind of move that infuriates just about everyone: Those on the right won’t give the president the credit they would to a Republican for something similar; those on the left will find reason to question the president’s liberal credentials — and his political judgment — all over again. But symbolism matters in this game. If this thing happens, the numbers will speak for themselves, and just maybe a storyline that matters to voters gets adjusted. ABC’s Jake Tapper: “This will save $250 billion over the next decade, senior administration officials told reporters. By 2015, non-security discretionary spending will be at its lowest level as a component of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product in 50 years. The announcement will come at a time when the White House and Democrats are trying to deal with voters angry about a dysfunctional Washington, DC, with many concerned about the deficit and out-of-control government spending.”  Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” Tuesday: “We need to do it. I think it’s important, and I’ll support it … The president’s gonna have to also promise to veto bills that are laden with pork-barrel spending.” Not a huge bang for these bucks … It’s “one of a series of small-scale initiatives the White House is unrolling as the president adjusts to a more hostile political terrain in his second year,” per The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler and Jonathan Weisman.  “With his job approval ratings in decline and his political fortunes worsening in recent days, Obama is fighting to keep his Democratic majorities in Congress through the fall elections. That means persuading disillusioned voters to reinvest in him and his party for another two years,” the Los Angeles Times’ Christi Parsons and Peter Nicholas report.  It’s “a concession to public concern about government spending that could dramatically curtail Obama’s legislative ambitions,” Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post. “After spending much of his first year in office pursuing expensive initiatives such as a far-reaching overhaul of the health-care system, Obama has pledged to devote much of the next year to reducing record budget deficits, which have forced the Treasury Department to increase borrowing, driving the accumulated national debt toward levels not seen since World War II.” Unimpressed, on the right … Erick Erickson, at “Barack Obama’s so-called ‘stimulus’ program totaled around $750B – that’s almost 50% greater than the entire non-defense discretionary budget for 2009. Freezing 15% of the federal budget is a drop in the bucket.” Disillusioned, on the left … Robert Reich, at “His three-year freeze on a large portion of discretionary spending will make it impossible for him to do much of anything for the middle class that’s important. Chalk up another win for Wall Street, another loss for Main.” Remember the guy who was going to pay for new programs by winding down the war in Iraq? “Because Mr. Obama plans to exempt military spending while leaving many popular domestic programs vulnerable, his move is certain to further anger liberals in his party and senior Democrats in Congress, who are already upset by the possible collapse of health care legislation and the troop buildup in Afghanistan, among other things,” Jackie Calmes reports in The New York Times.  “A freeze is very hard to do right, particularly in tough economic times. Doing it wrong would be a catastrophe,” Ezra Klein blogs at What needs responding to: “Mr. Obama is in danger of being perceived as someone whose rhetoric, however skillful, cannot always be trusted. He is creating a credibility gap for himself, and if it widens much more he won’t be able to close it,” Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times column.   Eugene Robinson, in his Washington Post column: “In the end, voters will respect Obama’s accomplishments, not his aspirations. They will reward his passion, not his polish. It’s fine for the president to tell Americans that he’s fighting on their behalf, as long as he remembers that what they really want is not so much for him to fight but to win.”  Encouragement for the spending-freeze concept from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in a speech to be delivered at the National Press Club at 9 am ET Tuesday. From the excerpts, as provided to The Note: “So it is crucial for the Senate to work with the House to get a jobs bill to the President’s desk as soon as possible, and to join us in listening to the most innovative job-creation ideas from economists, small businesses, and communities — including those initiatives just laid out by the White House’s Middle Class Task Force. If Republicans continue to stand in the way of Americans going back to work, it is crucial to make them own their record.” “Our country faces hard choices that can no longer be put off — so Congress intends to pass strong pay-as-you-go legislation, because the pledge to pay for what we buy is a proven deficit-reducer. President Obama just announced a freeze of non-defense discretionary spending. In addition, the greatest contributor to our deficit is the increasing cost of our entitlement programs, which is why I’m eager to work with a bipartisan commission to tackle our long-term budgetary challenges.” Yet — what timing: “The Senate is likely to reject a White House-backed plan to establish a bipartisan task force to recommend steps to curb the deficit, even as lawmakers digest the news that President Barack Obama wants a three-year freeze in the domestic budgets they control,” the AP’s Andrew Taylor writes. “The freeze on so-called discretionary programs would have only a modest impact on a deficit expected to match last year’s $1.4 trillion. The steps needed to really tackle the deficit include tax increases and curbs on benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”   Dana Milbank, in his “Washington Sketch” column: “At 11:30 Tuesday morning, the Senate will choose between responsible governance and ideological warfare. The smart money is on the latter.”  Not waiting for the White House: “Lawmakers are set to consider a jobs-stimulus package totaling about $80 billion that would provide tax credits to small and medium-sized businesses that hire workers, a Democratic senator said,” Bloomberg’s Brian Faler writes. “The plan, to be presented today to Senate Democrats, would include aid to state governments to prevent layoffs and additional funding for infrastructure projects, said the senator, who asked not be identified. The package also will likely include energy-related provisions such as incentives to weatherize homes.”  “The package is subject to change, but a draft summary of proposals under discussion includes small business credits, tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending, energy efficiency programs, money to hire police and firefighters and billions to boost lending to small businesses,” The Hill’s Silla Brush reports. Rough week for the big guns on the economic team: “President Obama’s economic team has weathered many storms during the last year as the nation’s recession dragged on, but this week two of the administration’s leading figures will have to navigate some especially rough headwinds on Capitol Hill,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe reports. “Not only is Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s reconfirmation up in the air in the Senate, but Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will face a grilling on the Hill Wednesday over the controversial bailout of the insurance giant AIG.”  Remember health care? “Senate Democratic leaders said Monday that they don’t expect to have a decision on how to move forward with health care reform in time for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday,” Politico’s Chris Frates and Carrie Budoff Brown report.  Ever seen ping pong played on a high wire? “Aides have been trying to devise a process by which the Senate could make changes to its health bill on a reconciliation measure even before the House voted on the Senate-passed health bill. Some lawmakers said House Democrats might have to vote first,” David M. Herszenhorn and Robert Pear write in The New York Times. “The House could approve the Senate bill and send it directly to Mr. Obama, eliminating the need for any more votes. But House Democrats have refused to do so because they oppose numerous provisions in the Senate measure, including one that provided extra federal aid solely for Nebraska.”  “Do the right thing,” former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D, told House members Monday, per The Hill’s Walter Alarkon.  ABC’s Jonathan Karl, on Democrats’ take on health care, on “World News” Monday: “They don’t want to simply walk away from health care at this point — some of them want to run away.” interprets Massachusetts in a full-page ad in USA Today: “Democrats: Fight Don’t Fold. … The results in Massachusetts showed convincingly that voters will walk away from a Democratic Party that fails to take on corporate interests and does not deliver on the promise of change for hard working American families. That’s why Democrats must not retreat on meaningful health care reform. There are many paths to provide real health care reform to Americans, but backing away from this crisis is not an option.”   Checking in on the labor reaction Tuesday morning: “In advance of President Obama’s State of the Union address, [SEIU] labor leaders Andy Stern and Anna Burger will join the Center for American Action Fund on Tuesday, January 26th, at 9:00am for an insightful dialogue on the current state of the American worker and their vision for the future.” As for the landscape — things have gotten so bad that a teeny Tweet from Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s campaign about an “important campaign announcement” coming Tuesday put the political world on retirement standby late Monday. (Lincoln, D-Ark., is actually announcing fourth-quarter fundraising totals, according to a Democratic official.) But the map looks uglier almost by the hour. The AP’s Liz Sidoti: “In only a week, the already difficult political situation facing Democrats ahead of this fall’s midterm elections grew even more troubling. And the bloodletting may not be over.”  Parting shot, from the retiring Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: ”They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.”  The handicappers see a trend: “The Cook Political Report downgraded the prospects of 15 House Democrats in its ratings Monday, with five seats moving to ‘toss up’ status — a category reserved for the most endangered seats. The Rothenberg Political Report listed 28 seats as moving toward the GOP,” per Politico.   Calming signals? The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is releasing its final 2009 fundraising numbers on Tuesday: It was a $55.6 million year, capped by an $11.2 million fourth quarter, leaving the DCCC with $16.7 million cash on hand. On the Senate side, Beau says no — and barely three weeks into 2010, Democrats look like they’re minus-3 (North Dakota, Massachusetts, Delaware) in the Senate: “The move leaves Democrats scrambling to find a candidate to run against [Republican Mike] Castle in November for the Senate seat Joe Biden held for 36 years,” the Wilmington News Journal’s Cris Barrish and Nicole Guadiano report. “With a thinning field and little time left to launch a serious campaign, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, now in his second term, emerged as the front-runner to challenge Castle for the seat.”   Is Illinois the next Massachusetts? “The election last week of a long-shot Republican, Scott Brown, to the Senate in Massachusetts, a similarly blue state, has invigorated Republicans here,” Monica Davey writes in The New York times. “Next Tuesday’s statewide primaries — the first in the nation this year — have suddenly turned into a pep rally for November and could provide a window into what is to come nationally as the 2010 primary season unfolds.”  Target: Rahm. The president’s liberal backers are “directing their anger less at Mr. Obama than at the man who works down the hall from him. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, they say, is the prime obstacle to the changes they thought Mr. Obama’s election would bring,” Peter Wallsten writes for The Wall Street Journal. “The tension between Mr. Emanuel and liberals has spurred speculation that he might leave the White House, perhaps to run for office again, something he denies.”   In Arizona, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., really likes saying the president’s middle name, and the name of his pastor, and is wondering why John McCain didn’t say those names more in 2008: “I just wonder where that energy was in the presidential campaign, with reference to both Barack Hussein Obama and the Rev. Wright,” Hayworth, now challenging McCain in the primary, told the Washington Times’ radio program, calling McCain an “enabler.”   In Florida, another Rubio boost: “Former State House Speaker Marco Rubio has squeaked past Gov. Charlie Crist in the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, leading 47-44 percent and topping Gov. Crist on trust, values and conservative credentials, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.” Look who’s got himself another Contract… It’s Newt Gingrich, writing for Newsmax Magazine, with a new list of 10 items Republicans should run on.   Movement soon on “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., thinks so: “I don’t know if it was the White House, but somebody representing them from the Pentagon said that the President was expected, they thought, to state that policy in the State of the Union,” Levin told reporters Monday, explaining why hearings on the subject have been delayed, per ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf.
The Kicker: “They are going to say that, whatever.” — Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., predicting Republican criticism that passing health care using budget reconciliation amounts of legislative trickery. “I think both teams are terrific. I guess I’m rooting a little bit for the Saints as the underdog partly just because when I think of what’s happened in New Orleans over the last several years and how much that team means to them. You know, I’m pretty sympathetic.” — President Obama (with apologies to, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.).
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