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A Budget Bluff-Off, Four Months Before the Next Cliff Walk
By David Hawkings
Posted at 5:42 p.m. June 4
The House is moving ahead with its plan to pass the year’s first two spending bills before going home for the weekend Thursday afternoon. There’s bipartisan agreement, albeit for different reasons, to ignore President Barack Obama’s warning that lawmakers are wasting valuable legislative time.
The White House made its first symbolically important move in the 2014 appropriations game Monday, declaring the president would veto any measure that would carry out the stated aspirations of the majority Republicans in the House.
The GOP’s opening gambit, in turn, is to write a dozen bills that would essentially cancel next year’s sequester cuts for national security enterprises and come up with the necessary money by imposing deeper-than-sequester cuts on social and domestic programs.
The administration says the whole annual appropriations process should be put on hold until the GOP House and Democratic Senate settle on an overarching budget blueprint that would turn off the sequester altogether, presumably with some combination of entitlement curbs and revenue enhancements. But, daily posturing on both sides notwithstanding, that’s nowhere close to happening.
And so House leaders on both sides agreed without hardly a word of discussion to press ahead and to encourage their rank-and-file to vote however they choose on the initial appropriations bills. Both measures support programs with near-universal political appeal: The one debated Tuesday would boost spending on veterans programs by 3 percent while cutting the military construction budget. The one coming up Wednesday would provide a 2 percent increase to the Homeland Security Department.
On the surface, the situation increases the potential for a government shutdown — at an uncomfortably early stage in the process, fully four months before the deadline of when the new fiscal year begins.
Neither side sees that actually happening, though. Republicans view the president’s veto threat as toothless and hollow, and they assume he will end up acquiescing to much of what they’re after. Democrats view the GOP plan as unworkable and cynical, and they assume that even without having to use his veto pen, the president will end up doing as well as he has in past fiscal fights in the battle for public opinion.
Each side, in other words, is confident the other will blink first rather than risk blame in October for disruptions to government services much more widespread than this summer’s inflexible furloughs.
And each side has good reason to hold to its view. Both will have to be proved partly correct if a middle ground is to be eventually found on the grand total for discretionary spending — either as part of catchall legislation in September that wraps the dozen spending bills together and funds the entire government for all of the coming year, or (more likely) after a continuing resolution or two keep the situation in limbo until close to the holidays.
The era of appropriations dysfunction, which dates to 1995, is marked by a consistent theme: presidents since Bill Clinton using their single voice to make the clearer case for their priorities than the dissonant chorus of a fractured Congress. Democrats are banking on that pattern continuing.
But the Obama years have been marked by another pattern, one that Republicans are betting will work to their advantage once again. The president threatens the veto all the time — on every spending bill that came before the House last year, for example — but in his first term he’s only followed through and rejected two bills: a redundant CR and a measure promoting interstate recognition of notaries. (Of the last two-term presidents, George W. Bush vetoed a dozen bills, while Clinton rejected 37 and Ronald Reagan 78.)
Mainly, the reason for the Obama drop-off has been because a Senate under Democratic control has been available to throttle measures the president didn’t like before they ended up on his desk. But Obama hasn’t followed through on some of his vows — most recently in January, when he signed a defense authorization bill he’d threatened to veto over language curbing his terrorism detainee policy; and in March, when he signed the current stopgap spending law even though it perpetuated the sequester that, until then, he said he couldn’t abide.
That track record gives Republicans good reason to view this week’s threats as bluff and bluster, and to believe that in the end he will agree to deeper domestic cuts than he wants in return for a smooth end to the year. Perhaps it would result in an increase in the debt limit — even though, there again, Obama has threatened to veto any measure that conditions more federal borrowing on any such concession.
The House GOP’s track record, and its currently fractured-just-beneath-the-surface nature, gives the White House good reason to believe Obama can get the debt raised and his spending priorities mainly upheld without having to revive his veto feint.
But the two sides are impressively far apart, even with fully 17 weeks to go. The president wants to spend $91 billion, or 9 percent more than the GOP. Even in federal government math, that’s more money than mere rhetoric can obscure.
Obama to McConnell: Let Judicial Wars Begin
By David Hawkings
Using the Rose Garden as his backdrop and arranging to stand beside his choices for the Washington federal appeals court were two clear symbolic signals from President Barack Obama today that he’s making victory in the judicial wars a top-tier objective for the year.
Top Republicans are making just as clear a commitment to their side of the fight, meaning the threat of a Senate “nuclear” showdown will grow in the months ahead.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned this morning that any assertive, outside-the-normal process to change the rules and do away with judicial filibusters would poison whatever small measure of good will is left in the Senate. It would make it essentially impossible for him to trust anything Majority Leader Harry Reid says in the future.
McConnell did not say so explicitly, but it seems no doubt that Republicans plan to block the nominees Obama put forward. And the president made clear he knows what to expect.
“What I’m doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job,” he said. “I recognize that neither party has a perfect track record here,” he added, but “what’s happening now is unprecedented. For the good of the American people it has to stop.”
The president had never before appeared in front of the cameras with a judicial nominee, except when he unveiled his two Supreme Court picks. But this morning he staged a full-fledged televised photo op to tout the worthiness of the pair of top female appellate lawyers and the African-American trial court judge he’s picked to take the three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s the second-most-powerful bench in the country because it’s called on so often to affirm or limit federal regulations and ratify or strike down national security and constitutional decisions.
The three are:
Patricia Ann Millett, who has argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court as a partner at Akin Gump. She’s been a civil appeals litigator at the Justice Department and an assistant to the solicitor general.
Nina Pillard, a law professor at Georgetown who argued nine cases before the high court as an assistant solicitor general in the Clinton administration.
Robert L. Wilkins, a federal public defender and partner at Venable before he was confirmed by voice vote in 2010 for a judgeship at the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
The decision to nominate them as a quasi-slate was designed to have several benefits. It’s supposed to signal a readiness to fight to the liberal base of the party, which had been bemoaning with increased volume that the president isn’t spending enough political capital putting his stamp on the courts. And it’s designed to make it more difficult for the GOP to mount simultaneous filibusters against all of the nominees, especially because their credentials on the surface look unimpeachable (and Millett served in the Bush administration.)
The strategy seems to be working as intended. Progressive groups hailed the nominees, while Republicans ignored their individual qualifications altogether while lamenting that Obama was launching a “court-packing” effort similar to FDR’s. (The difference is that the incumbent is trying to shift the ideological balance by filling existing D.C. Circuit seats, while Roosevelt wanted to expanded the size of the Supreme Court to get more New Dealers on board.)
“It’s hard to imagine the rationale for nominating three judges at once for this court given the many vacant emergency seats across the country, unless your goal is to pack the court to advance a certain policy agenda,” said Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It’s hard to imagine any reason for three more judges, no matter who nominates them.”
Grassley and all seven other GOP members of Judiciary are backing legislation to eliminate the three vacant chairs on the D.C Circuit altogether, suggesting the level of resistance the party will put up against Obama’s slate.
Their willingness to confirm Sri Srinivasan to the court just before the Memorial Day recess, the first vacancy filled there in seven years, looks to be the last moment of bipartisan comity on the judicial front for months to come. With gun control and immigration off its plate, fighting over the workload and ideological balance of the D.C. Circuit is Senate Judiciary’s main work for the summer.
Seventeen progressive groups have been asked to the White House on Wednesday to get their marching orders for lobbying on behalf of the president’s judicial slate — another sign of the intensity of the conflict ahead.
Lautenberg’s Legislative Legacy Was Consumer Friendly
by David Hawkings
The death of Frank R. Lautenberg marks much more than the end of the Greatest Generation’s time in the Senate. In addition to being the final World War II veteran in the place, and the longest-serving senator ever from New Jersey, Lautenberg was an anchor for the dwindling care of congressional Democrats who never wavered from vigorously promoting a robust role in regulating everyday life.
As a consequence, the legislative legacy he leaves behind is one of the longer and more noticeable ones of the past three decades, replete with measures that continue to have a consumer-friendly and tangible effect on commerce, transportation, the environment and public health.
More than any other member of Congress, he was responsible for the cultural turn against cigarettes in public spaces. A former two-pack-a-day smoker, he was the driving force behind the 1989 law that banned smoking on domestic airline flights, and he subsequently led the crusade to restrict smoking in most federal buildings. He was instrumental as well in the congressional moves to stop ocean dumping, to increase the legal age for drinking age to 21 and to tighten the standards for what constitutes drunken driving.
He was the principal author of one of the most recent tangible increases in federal gun control — the law enacted 16 years ago, barring anyone convicted of domestic violence, including spousal or child abuse, from possessing a firearm.
Lautenberg battled frequently and successfully to protect Amtrak, whose major Northeast route slices across his state. And he was a proponent of increased funding for aviation security long before the Sept. 11 attacks.
He used his recovery in 2010 from a cancerous tumor in his stomach as a testimonial for the promise of nearly universal medical insurance coverage. And he was an eager promoter of higher taxes on the rich as the best way to ease the deficit without shrinking the size of government. “You have to work on the fundamentals,” he recently said. “Do you believe we are a society that puts humanity first, or puts accounting first?”
And, while he had announced this winter, soon after his 89th birthday, that he wouldn't be running for a fourth term in 2014, he had laid out a vigorous legislative agenda for his remaining time in office.
His central achievement since was reaching a bipartisan agreement, with GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, for overhauling and expanding the reach of the nation's primary law regulating both industrial and consumer chemicals.
His advocacy of a strong federal hand was perhaps predictable for someone of his life story. He was the the son of Polish and Russian immigrants who moved around New Jersey a dozen times during the Depression looking for wor. His father, Sam, worke in silk mills, sold coal and tended bar before dying when the future senator was a teenager.
Young Lautenberg enlisted and served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II, then benefitted from the GI Bill to earn an economics degree from Columbia University. He and two boyhood friends started the payroll services business that has grown into ADP, one of the world’s largest computing services companies, making Lautenberg a perennial on the list of the 10 wealthiest members of Congress.
Although he was a big-time donor to Democrats as his business grew — his $90,000 contribution to George McGovern’s 1972 campaign earned him a place on the Nixon enemies list — he didn't run for any office until 1982. Then, he was an early pioneer in the era of self-funding, spending what was then considered an amazingly large sum of $4 million to win an open Senate seat.
He retired after three terms, saying he couldn't stand the money chase and didn’t want to spend any more of his own. Then he jumped at the chance to return two years later, when the person he liked least in New Jersey politics — his former Senate colleague, Robert G. Torricelli — was forced by scandal to give up his re-election plans late in the campaign. His party turned to Lautenberg when two House members chose not to take the risk. One of them was Robert Menendez, who got to the Senate six years later anyway. The other was Frank Pallone Jr., who is now eager for the newly open seat.
Is There a Chance Politics and Flexibility Can Coexist, Just This Once?
by David Hawkings
Will the sequester get as much attention at town hall meetings in the coming week as immigration, job creation or the coming of health insurance exchanges? Will it get even half as much time at editorial boards and coffee klatches as the farm bill, the IRS affair or the fading debate over gun control?
More and more lawmakers in both parties are worried the answer may be a somewhat surprising “yes.” And they have nothing close to an easy answer for whether any more flexibility might be created inside Washington’s self-imposed spending straitjacket — aside from the possibility of reaching a bigger bargain on taxes and entitlements that would include repealing the sequester altogether.
The political pressure to ease the across-the-board nature of the situation, especially from middle-income independents, will only grow as spring gives way to summer. Read more on this post
Timely NCAF news. Looks like the CSBG cut will be 6.3%.
House and Senate disagreements over the size of the budget and what to cut means a rough four months ahead. Stay tuned.
CAP Brief: Items of interest in Washington for the week of May 28, 2013
FY 2013 CSBG funding for June is likely to be released soon. FY 2013, 4th Quarter CSBG allocation will most likely be released in one payment. Sequester cuts for the entire year to be taken out of final four months of FY 2013 CSBG funding.
In addition, HHS took an additional 1% of CSBG funding to use for implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act.
Failure (so far) of the House and Senate to reach a compromise on the FY 2014 Budget means House Appropriators will be operating with the Paul Ryan/House Republican Budget. The Senate will be operating off of the Patty Murray/Senate Democrat Budget Resolution. Overall Discretionary Spending (defense plus domestic programs) will be $966 billion in the House and $1.058 trillion in the Senate.
On May 16, House Republicans began circulating their individual 12 Appropriation Subcommittee Allocations. Under the initial House Republican blueprint Defense spending would be increased 5% and Labor-HHS Appropriations would be reduced by 22% below the original FY 2013 level or 18.6% below the FY 2013 sequestration level!
This will never get approved in the Senate.
The Labor-HHS Appropriations bill funds CSBG, Liheap, Head Start, Job Training, CDBG, and many other programs important to CAAs. We expect that the House Appropriations Committee will first mark-up Defense, national security and homeland security bills. Labor-HHS, always a contentious bill, is likely to be among the very last bills considered.
Take Away: Clearly a House/Senate agreement on the FY 2014 budget will be critical to help offset the initial deep cuts likely to be proposed in the House Labor-HHS bill. Expect a very bumpy ride on FY 2014 spending. Likelihood of a Continuing Resolution is high. Reversing sequestration cuts for most programs difficult.
Student Loan Standoff to Test Hill’s Summer Tone
The House is leaving for its weeklong Memorial Day break this afternoon after passing a GOP-crafted student loan extension, setting up the first big countdown showdown of the year in just five weeks, just before the next congressional break for July Fourth.
At issue is the scheduled doubling of the interest rate on subsidized Stafford student loans, a predicament that also produced a partisan standoff last year that threatened to delay the Independence Day recess. Back then, at the last minute (in an election year), Congress granted a reprieve to 7 million college students and their families, keeping the rate from doubling to a fixed 6.8 percent from the super-low 3.4 percent. But it made the fix for only one year.
With the election past, another round of drama over a temporary solution didn’t at first look likely to be repeated, especially not after President Barack Obama this spring proposed making the rates more flexible by pegging them to 10-year Treasury notes, a market-based approach designed to entice Republican support.
But the GOP bill being passed today takes the idea a significant step further — so much further, in fact, that the Obama administration has threatened a veto.
While the House measure would link the rate to T-bills, as Obama proposed, it would set a much higher cap than the president on the maximum interest rate: 8.5 percent. And it would dictate a resetting of the rate for all borrowers each year, based on market fluctuations (the president’s proposal would fix the initial rate for the life of the loan). The House bill also leaves out the plans for new repayment flexibility that Obama asked for.
The White House and most congressional Democrats say the GOP plan would revive the culture of predatory adjustable-rate mortgage lending that fueled the housing collapse of the recession, and that lower-income students would end up ruing the day they signed up for their Stafford loans.
The next step will come in June, when Democrats try to advance their counterproposal in the Senate. The leading option for them looks to be a lengthy kicking-of-can-down-the-road — continuing the current fixed rate for another two years, thereby synchronizing its renewal with the main law governing federal aid to higher education.
But that tack would cost $9 billion in the meantime, which is the first reason Republicans will balk. GOP critics also note that the current rate was set artificially low as part of the 2008 economic stimulus, which they abhor, and has outlived its justification in light of the improving economy.
The only reason many of them allowed it to continue for the past year, they concede, is that they were asked to give up the fight last summer by Mitt Romney, who endorsed the low rate as part of his effort to win over young voters and seem better tuned to the needs of the less-fortunate. (And we now know how well that worked out.)
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the House this week that he wants to push hard in June for a market-based compromise and won’t be satisfied with another extension of the status quo. Whether Congress can find an interest-rate middle ground in June will offer a clue of its compromising nature during the rest of the year.