Thursday, May 05, 2011

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing: Budget Trigger Happy

CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing

Thursday, May 5, 2011

 Today In Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE: Obama has arrived in New York, where he plans to say nothing at all during a 1:25 wreath laying ceremony at Ground Zero, now the site of a 9/11 memorial and the skeleton of a new skyscraper dubbed Freedom Tower. After that he plans to spend half an hour or more in off-camera meetings with relatives of some of those who died in the al Qaeda attacks commanded by the late Osama bin Laden.

The president will be back in the capital in time to host a Cinco de Mayo reception at 6 in the East Room — where much of the talk will be about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s endorsement of a federal commission’s proposal (to be formally unveiled tomorrow) for building a $600 million Smithsonian museum of American Latino history at the foot of Capitol Hill.

THE HOUSE: Convened at 9 and will be done legislating for the week before 1, after passing a bill ordering the sale of four new offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Virginia coast.

THE SENATE: Convenes at 10 for a day devoted entirely to speech-making. Senators aren’t due back in town until Monday evening.

SMALL BALL: It’s quickly becoming the incredible shrinking budget deal.

Republicans are sending clear signals that they’re ready to abandon their drive to privatize Medicare and otherwise rein in the most expensive entitlements until after the next election — and will condition their support for raising the borrowing limit above $14.3 trillion on getting a deal with Obama this summer that locks in several years of spending caps.

What’s not yet locked down is whether they’ll push for overall limits on federal spending relative to the size of the national economy, or limits only on domestic and military discretionary accounts, or maybe include some means testing of entitlements such as farm subsidies and medical care for the armed forces and veterans — which cost tens of billions of dollars a year but are dwarfed by the expenses of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

And the biggest unsettled matter of all will quickly become the specificity and strength of the triggers that will need to be created to hold the government to those limits while driving down the deficit. In other words, which spending would be limited if such triggers are pulled? And would tax breaks also be curtailed, as the Democrats are making clear they’ll insist?

The administration seems eager to go along with a focus on just spending limits, because the White House thinks getting that much done before a breach of the debt ceiling — the new deadline is Aug. 2 — would go a long way to reassuring the financial markets and thereby keeping the economic recovery on a steady pace.

What’s also not clear is how the administration plans to finesse the need to address the future of the Bush-era tax cuts before the end of next year.

Paul Ryan, whose name is on the House-adopted budget that’s now been roundly excoriated by the public for its Medicare overhaul, has sounded more optimistic than almost anyone (especially Senate GOP leaders) all year. But he essentially threw in the towel yesterday, declaring there’s no chance for a “grand slam” deal this year.

“My hope at this moment is to get a single or a double,” he said. “We’re not going to get a big comprehensive agreement because of just the political parameters that have been set.”

BLAIR BONES: Today’s opening of the Blair House budget talks was never going to amount to much, especially given that the host had to leave so soon after his congressional guests arrived. Biden is on his way to New York to be at this afternoon’s Ground Zero ceremonies, leaving Treasury’s Tim Geithner, OMB’s Jack Lew and top White House economic adviser Gene Sperling behind to pose for pictures with a group of lawmakers that has dwindled from the proposed 20 to just these six: Daniel Inouye and Max Baucus for the Senate Democrats, Jim Clyburn and Chris Van Hollen for the House Democrats and only two Republicans of any kind, Jon Kyl and Eric Cantor. And those two signaled yesterday that they won’t say much until Obama offers more specifics about his ideas for spending limits.

JOBS REPORT: In a potential foreshadowing of worse-than-expected news in tomorrow’s April unemployment report, the number of people applying for unemployment benefits surged last week to the highest level in eight months — by 43,000, to a seasonally adjusted 474,000. The Labor Department said that some unusual factors were involved but that the four-week rolling average had climbed 23 percent in the past four weeks.

BUS SAFETY: The commercial bus industry will face tighter federal regulation, with new licensing requirements and stronger Transportation Department power to close down unsafe operations and take commercial licenses away from drivers, Secretary Ray LaHood announced this morning outside Nationals Park.

Attention to bus safety by the administration and Congress has surged because of a series of recent incidents, most dramatically the crash that killed 15 as a bus sped through New York after a trip to a Connecticut casino. There’s been growing pressure for clamp-down legislation on Capitol Hill, and that may not abate in some quarters because today’s LaHood proposal is silent on some areas that have lawmakers particularly worried: the new rules, for example, would not mandate that buses have passenger seat belts, reinforced roofs and windows and more-sophisticated emergency exit mechanics. (Even as LaHood spoke, a bill that would boost bus regulation was endorsed by the Senate Commerce Committee.)

REDISTRICTING TWISTS: (1) Fellow Democrats from Washington are responding with a mixture of bemusement and disdain, but not any measure of support, to Dennis Kucinich’s thoughts about trying to move his congressional address from Cleveland to the West Coast. Ohio is losing a House seat after next year, and it’s almost certain that as a consequence Kucinich will be pushed toward a Democratic primary against Marcia Fudge — and in a largely African-American district that would favor her. Kucinich’s office says he’s received entreaties from liberals in 20 states urging him to get a new city to live in, but the Seattle area is the only place where he’s spent any well-publicized time in recent weeks.

(2) Russ Carnahan is now assured of the same political dilemma that’s looming for Kucinich, but the Missouri congressman isn’t going to move away from a state where his family name is Democratic legend. The state Legislature yesterday finalized a new House map that essentially eliminates the district Carnahan has held since 2005 and puts him and Lacy Clay in the same St. Louis seat. Carnahan is now likely to either lose a primary in that largely African-American territory or lose the general election in the closest nearby suburban (and largely Republican) district.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Democratic Rep.Charlie Gonzalez of San Antonio (66).

— David Hawkings, editor

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