Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When Compromise Is ‘Going Soft’

Douglas Graham/Roll Call

Tea party activists are urging their members to write lawmakers and tell them to insist on a debt limit increase that’s paired with significant spending cuts. But some worry that if they aren’t flexible, Congressional conservatives may be left out of a final deal.  Tea party activists are urging House Members to resist compromise in the debt limit debate, but too firm a stance by the conservative faction could marginalize the group rather than strengthen it when a final deal is cut. Conservatives saw this happen in the continuing resolution debate, when House GOP freshmen insisted on major spending cuts that ultimately were whittled down to satisfy Democrats in the Senate and White House. Outside groups are hoping to avoid a repeat of that March defeat, but some Members are trying to manage conservative expectations on the terms for raising the federal debt limit. "There's no doubt when you control one of the three levers of government it's very difficult to get 100 percent of what you want," Rep. Tim Scott said. "So to sell anyone on the fact that you're going to end up with all that you want or most of what you want, you're probably selling a bill of goods." The South Carolina Republican said he learned his lesson during the CR debate, when conservatives pushed for $100 billion in spending cuts and ultimately had to settle for $38.5 billion in a deal brokered by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Scott ultimately voted for the deal, but 54 of his GOP colleagues didn't because they said the cuts weren't deep enough. The CR easily passed the House, thanks to the support of 85 Democrats. The lesson, according to Scott: "Don't promise $100 billion." But not all of Scott's freshman colleagues are taking the same moderating tone. Rep. Joe Walsh, a tea party favorite from suburban Chicago, said any debt limit deal should include a balanced budget amendment. The first-term Republican said his lesson from the CR deal, which he voted against, is just the opposite of what Scott learned. For Walsh, the message from his constituents was that they "don't want us at all to get soft on this one." "So we will push as hard as we can to get this town serious about spending," Walsh said in an interview. "And if voting not to raise the debt ceiling will do it, speaking for myself, I won't do it." Walsh predicted "there will be enough fiscally conservative Republicans" in the Conference to block a deal that doesn't sufficiently reduce spending in exchange for raising the debt limit, and grass-roots organizations throughout the country are working overtime to make sure that faction sticks together as bipartisan negotiations continue in the lead-up to the Aug. 2 deadline when the government is expected to begin defaulting on its debt payments. The challenge for Walsh and many of his more conservative colleagues is that if they won't compromise at all, House leaders may have to search for votes in other places. "Their refusal to consider a debt limit increase is bringing us to the negotiating table when we wouldn't otherwise have a seat," one Democratic aide said. "They'll keep their pride, but the eventual deal will be much weaker than the one they want." Tea party leaders maintain they are in no mood to compromise. Instead, they have focused on publicly opposing any increase. The Our Country Deserves Better political action committee, which backs Tea Party Express, launched a TV ad campaign to oppose the increase. As Chairwoman Amy Kremer put it, "Our message has not only been no, but hell no."
Grassfire Nation, whose online membership of 1.8 million includes many tea partyers, has started a petition to the same end. And Mark Meckler, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, had strong words for Washington, D.C., politicians who might waver on a debt limit vote. "We think Congress has spent decades acting like petulant teenagers, and we need to cut them off from the credit card," Meckler said. With pressure from outside groups, even those lawmakers who do not abide by the tea party agenda are working to keep from raising the movement's ire. Rep. Trey Gowdy, who was not a tea party candidate last year but represents a South Carolina district with a strong presence, has taken care to engage those groups on controversial issues such as reauthorizing the USA PATRIOT Act. "I've never got the sense that they require me to be right 100 percent of the time," said Gowdy, a first-term Republican. "I think what they'd require is consistency with the platform with which you ran." Similar to Scott and Gowdy, who despite their more moderate tones are nevertheless pushing for deeper cuts in exchange for their support for a debt limit increase, some groups have also taken positions that allow for some flexibility. The leaders of American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform and Let Freedom Ring recently sent a letter to Republican leaders in Congress urging them to use the debt limit increase as leverage for more spending cuts, rather than demanding any particular deal. Some activists acknowledged the odds are against them but insist they are taking the kind of principled stand that not all GOP lawmakers have this year, especially on the CR. They express frustration at seeing Republicans accept lukewarm deals and then expect praise. "From our side of the table, it's like, 'Really? Did you really just slap us across the face and call it a gift?'" said Christina Botteri, a member of the National Tea Party Federation. "We think it's a failure of vision on the part of the GOP leadership." Botteri said the tea party position has been misconstrued as impractical, charging that instead it comes from tea party members feeling like Republicans have been too soft in negotiations. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), who is eyeing a Senate bid in his home state of Utah, noted it is a challenge to satisfy some tea party groups. "They have very high expectations because movement in this town has been so lethargic. There are people who want the budget balanced next Thursday. That's probably not going to happen," Chaffetz said. "It's got to be a very major change in order for the tea party to be pleased. They had high expectations with the CR only to find out that $38 billion may not have even been $38 billion. I think they were let down on that." Scott predicted that House GOP leaders will heed the calls of the freshman class, who account for a third of the Conference and who, despite having to settle for fewer cuts in the CR, drove that number up beyond original predictions. "There is a careful balance that has to be taken into consideration," Scott said, "but at the end of the day, you have to figure out where you're willing to die and stay there."

Senate Democrats — Minus Key Players — Signal Opposition to Medicaid Overhaul

Senate Democrats announced they have enough votes to block a GOP effort to overhaul Medicaid, but the lack of support from several key players suggests that cuts to the health program for the poor could still be part of the negotiations over raising the debt limit.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV said that 41 Senate Democrats have signed letters to President Obama opposing drastic changes to Medicaid, including one that he sent with 36 others saying they would oppose federal caps on program spending.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he hoped the Democrats’ coalition would help set terms for Medicaid in the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations.
“We’re counting on the White House to stand firm on our shared values here,” said Rockefeller. “Medicare and Social Security have been declared off the table in deficit negotiations, but Medicaid suddenly looks like the sacrificial lamb. I say absolutely no.”
Conspicuously absent from the letters were the signatures of several Democratic leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Finance Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Aides did not immediately explain the members’ rationale, but the omission of the leaders’ names likely means they want to preserve their flexibility. It may also indicate they believe they may have to accept some changes to Medicaid — though likely less drastic ones than recommended in the House’s fiscal 2012 budget resolution (H Con Res 34).
That resolution proposes converting the federal share of Medicaid from an entitlement for certain low-income groups into a state block grant indexed to inflation and population growth. Republicans are demanding that changes to programs like Medicare and Medicaid be part of any final deal to raise the debt ceiling.
Irwin Redlener, president of the philanthropic group Children’s Health Fund, said that both parties should agree to cut services that are unnecessary, redundant or not cost-effective.
While he said he supports preserving Medicare and Medicaid, Redlener added, “I’m also a big believer in the fact that we’re without doubt overspending in both of those programs, because we’re paying for services that are not necessary and are very, very costly without having discernable health benefits.”
Republican governors, such as Haley Barbour of Mississippi, say the block grant proposal would control federal spending and give governors flexibility to tailor the program to their states’ needs. Democrats counter that it would hurt seniors, the disabled and the poor, and shift costs onto local communities.
Redlener, also a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, called the block grant proposal “short-term thinking in the extreme.”
“The consequences will be both very harmful and dangerous to individuals and ultimately have an undesirable economic impact as uninsured people flood emergency rooms,” he said.
A May poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60 percent of Americans want to keep Medicaid as is, while 13 percent favor major cuts to the program as part of efforts to reduce federal spending.
In addition to the Rockefeller letter, four Democratic senators have sent separate letters to President Obama opposing the block grant proposal for Medicaid: Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Feinstein’s letter indicated that she would be open to accepting other changes to Medicaid.
“Balancing the budget by dismantling the long-standing health care program for low-income Americans is not the answer,” Feinstein wrote. “Changes to programs that serve the most vulnerable must be made with the utmost care.”
In their letter, the Colorado Democrats asked Obama to preserve the “foundational integrity” of Medicaid.
“We share your commitment to finding a comprehensive solution to our deficits. The road toward that goal will not be easy — everyone must be wiling to give a little,” the senators wrote.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

GOP Offers Alternative to Kucinich Resolution on U.S. Role in Libya

By Emily Cadei, CQ Staff
The House is set to rebuke President Obama for his handling of the conflict in Libya, but probably with toned-down language that would not hamper the U.S. role in the mission there. The Republican caucus is rallying around a resolution sponsored by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, that would require the White House to justify its strategy on Libya within two weeks time, but would stop short of declaring the administration in violation of the 1973 War Powers Act (PL 93-148) or calling for the administration to halt its participation in the NATO-led operation. Boehner’s resolution and the alternative — a measure (H Con Res 51) sponsored by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, calling for removal of U.S. forces from Libya — are both expected to be brought to the floor Friday. Republican leaders outlined the Speaker’s resolution (H Res 292) during a GOP conference Thursday. “I think ultimately the conference is likely to come down with the majority being in favor of Boehner,” Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said, calling Boehner’s measure “more responsible” than the one offered by Kucinich, which demands the U.S. withdraw all forces within 15 days. What remains in question is how many members vote for both resolutions. It is unclear how much force of law either would carry, but at the very least they would put on record lawmakers’ sentiment about the U.S. role in Libya and Obama’s decision to involve the military in that nation’s conflict. Boehner issued a news release Thursday saying that his resolution “will enable members to clearly express the will of our constituents — in a responsible way that reflects our commitments to our allies and our troops.” He also warned members not to support the tougher resolution. “The Kucinich measure would have long-term consequences that are unacceptable, including a precipitous withdrawal from our role supporting our NATO allies in Libya — which could have serious consequences for our broader national security,” he said. “It would undermine our troops in harm’s way and undercut our allies who have stood by us in Afghanistan and other areas abroad. Regardless of how we got here, we cannot suddenly turn our backs on our troops and our NATO partners who have stuck by us for the last 10 years.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she was opposed to both resolutions. “The resolutions by Speaker Boehner and Congressman Kucinich, as currently drafted, do not advance our efforts in the region and send the wrong message to our NATO partners,” she said in a news release. Kucinich’s resolution was up for a vote June 1 but was pulled from the floor at the last minute when it became apparent that a significant number of members were considering voting for it.
Irked Lawmakers
Lawmakers have become disgruntled less by the state of the conflict — now in its third month — and more by the fact that Obama did not seek their authorization, both before and since committing forces to the effort. The United States is now playing a supporting role in the NATO-led mission, which is aimed at protecting dissidents who have risen up against autocrat Muammar el-Qaddafi. “I’d certainly support the Speaker’s resolution, but what I have to figure out now is if I want to support Kucinich’s as well,” Tom Rooney, R-Pa., said after the conference. Rooney introduced his own resolution, with language very similar to Kucinich’s, but confirmed Thursday that it would not come up for a vote. Rooney said he expected most of his caucus “to support Boehner.” However, he said, there are still Republicans who” feel like the clock has run out on war powers,” referring to the law that requires that the president seek congressional authorization to maintain a fighting force in a conflict for more than 60 days. “Whether you agree with it or not, the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on it, so it is what we have to live by today,” Rooney said. “I think that you’re going to see a lot of people support both” resolutions, he added. Another initial backer of the Kucinich language, Dan Burton, R-Ind., said Thursday he had not made up his mind about whether he would vote for the Ohio Democrat’s measure. “The Speaker makes some very strong, valid points,” in urging the caucus to support his resolution and not Kucinich’s, Burton said. “But at the same time we’ve got to send an extremely strong message to the president that we don’t want this to ever happen again without consulting with the United States Congress first.” The administration warned Thursday about the national security consequences of demanding a withdrawal. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates “believes that for the United States, once committed to a NATO operation, to unilaterally abandon that mission would have enormous and dangerous long-term consequences.” Freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said that was one of the reasons he would oppose the Kucinich resolution. Kinzinger, who said he believes Libya “is in our national security interests,” worried about the impact of putting a timeline on withdrawal from Libya without consulting with the military. Rooney also acknowledged Thursday that “the 15 days might be too hasty to move out of there.” However, he added, “We’re operating at almost the 90th day.” “There’s been ample opportunity, I think, for the president to come” seek authorization from Congress before it got to this point, Rooney said. In a sign that anger at the Obama administration Libya is widespread in Congress, the House on Thursday narrowly rejected a measure that would bar any funding in the fiscal 2012 Homeland Security appropriations bill from being used to support operations in the North African country. The amendment to the measure (HR 2017) fell 208-213. Its sponsor, Brad Sherman, D-Calif., wrote in a letter to his colleagues that “The War Powers Resolution is the law of the land, and we should not facilitate or tolerate its violation, even for a purportedly worthy cause.” And Sherman said he planned to offer a similar amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill when it reaches the floor in several weeks.
Alan K. Ota contributed to this story.
First posted June 2, 2011 1:41 p.m.

Cantor Seeks to Deliver, Majority Leader insists his Debt talks are key

Tom Williams/Roll Call

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is determined his involvement in bipartisan debt limit talks won't be for naught. Despite public doubts expressed by none other than the Speaker that the group will not be able to meet the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling, the Virginia Republican said Thursday in an interview with Roll Call that he is playing an important role in laying the groundwork for a final deal. Cantor has a lot at stake in the negotiations, given his role as House Republicans' conservative standard-bearer in talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden. He maintained that the group has engaged in serious discussions, which have already pinpointed "well over $1 trillion" in cuts. "We've been very substantive in those discussions, trying to keep the politics out of it, because I think all of us understand the philosophical perspective we bring to the table," Cantor said. "I think they have been productive, and there's a lot of information that's being shared and a lot of potential for progress." The six-term lawmaker also continues to insist cutting Medicare remains a part of the discussion, despite calls from Senate Democrats who say reforming the entitlement program should not be a condition for raising the debt ceiling. Cutting Medicare isn't the only controversial decision under discussion. Cantor said Medicaid, non-health care mandatory programs, discretionary spending and other reforms must all be on the table. "None of it's easy when you're talking about reducing spending and changing the trajectory of a mandatory program or getting rid of it," Cantor said, adding that he believes there is a way forward by taking apart the federal budget piece by piece. Still, there is widespread acknowledgment that President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will craft the ultimate agreement. Boehner last week cast doubt on the Biden group's ability to come to an agreement within the month, saying the slow pace of the talks threatened to create brinkmanship if they did not soon come to a resolution. Boehner also said he was ready to begin engaging directly with the White House, separate from the Biden negotiations. Cantor dismissed the notion that those talks would undercut him and said he supports higher-level discussions. "We hopefully will have the will to go ahead and force some consensus that's got to happen, but the thinking always was the Speaker and the president would have a discussion to sort of bring it all together," Cantor said. Boehner echoed Cantor's sentiments Friday, telling reporters he wants the talks to continue and that the Majority Leader has done "good work" as the House Republican's only representative at the table. In part, having Cantor engage with the bipartisan group instead of having the Speaker go it alone might be an important strategy for House Republican leaders to keep their rank and file on board with the final product. The Conference registered its displeasure earlier this year when top staff to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reached a deal on the continuing resolution to fund the government. That agreement to cut $38.5 billion was met with broad criticism from conservatives in the House who felt it did not sufficiently cut spending and was crafted without their input. The House had passed a bill that cut $60 billion. "We've been pretty deliberate putting attention and focus on it so I can go to the Speaker and say, 'Look, here's where we are.' And we'll be able, I believe, to get to this point," Cantor said. "And if the administration and the vice president give a signal that they're willing to continue to talk along those lines, I can see a way that when the Speaker goes and talks to the president, these kinds of things will be on the table." That teamwork comes five months into the GOP's control of the House under a new roster of leaders who are still finding their way in their new roles. Cantor, long viewed as the attack dog among the leaders, acknowledged House Republicans' growing pains in their effort to change the culture of the chamber. "We're going to have an open process. We have open rules in the appropriations for the first time since 2007 ... and so a lot of this is taken getting used to," Cantor said, noting that he's gotten good feedback, even from Democrats, that there is a previously missing forum to air opinions on major legislation. Cantor was a major architect of overhauling the chamber's schedule to include more regular district work periods and in instituting strict time constraints for votes to avoid interruptions of committee business. There also have been hiccups with manning the House floor, including when House Republicans lost a major political vote on renewing the USA PATRIOT Act and when they decided to pull legislation that would overhaul unemployment insurance because Members were politically sensitive to taking a tough vote after having supported controversial changes to Medicare. House Republicans have also struggled to gain traction in their public relations campaign on job creation. Over the past several months, they've made several false starts on introducing different jobs initiatives, including Cantor's own "cut and grow" strategy and the more recent unveiling of a jobs package. Cantor defended those efforts and said GOP lawmakers have been making a consistent case on jobs. However, he acknowledged they haven't been able to capture the media's attention. "We talk about it every day," Cantor said. "You cover the back and forth of budget fights, CR fights, debt limit fights. Most people are like, 'Good lord, get this economy straight. Grow this economy.' They are looking for optimism."