Agenda Is Stacked With Return of Congress, Obama's Budget

The presidential limousine sits outside the Capitol in Washington. The presidential limousine sits outside the Capitol in Washington. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The prospects for renewed talks on a long-term deficit-reduction deal reach a pivotal point this week with the release Wednesday of President Obama’s budget plan, which offers cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the hope of softening Republican opposition to tax hikes.

But even before his proposals have been officially unveiled, Obama is taking political heat from Democrats and liberal groups for compromising too much. And congressional Republican leaders must decide how to respond to Obama’s bargaining, including a determination whether the spending cuts and other concessions offered by the president are, in fact, enough to give ground on their antitax positioning. Their initial responses have not been warm.

Lawmakers, returning from their two-week recess, will pore over details of what Obama proposes, seek to gauge constituent reaction, and hold hearings with administration officials. The real show, however, could come on Wednesday night, when Obama dines again with Senate Republicans, the second time in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, gun control, immigration reform, and confirmation hearings for several Obama administration nominees are other topics that will grab the spotlight this week in the House and Senate. Activities will include:

  • A Senate Budget Committee hearing on Tuesday regarding the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell as Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Chuck Hagel’s return Thursday to Capitol Hill for the first time in his official capacity as secretary of Defense. He and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey will appear before the House Armed Services Committee.
  • A Senate Environment Committee hearing on Thursday on the confirmation of Gina McCarthy as Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • A Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Tuesday on confirmation of Ernest Moniz as the president’s nominee for Energy secretary.
  • A House Rules Committee meeting Wednesday to consider procedures for a floor vote on a bill to freeze the work of the National Labor Relations Board if it does not have a full quorum, a response by Republicans to complaints that Obama overstepped his bounds last year by appointing board members without Senate consent.

In a reversal of the usual process, in which the president's budget arrives first, the GOP-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate have already passed vastly different budgets this year. Obama's spending plan for fiscal 2014 is arriving late, thanks to protracted battles over the fiscal cliff and sequestration, administration officials say.

Obama may be floating potential budget savings in Medicare and other entitlement programs in an effort to convince Republicans to renew talks over a larger bargain, one that goes beyond just the next fiscal year’s finances.

Such a bargain would seek to end Washington’s chronic budget impasses with a multiyear plan to shrink the deficit, while securing an agreement to raise the debt ceiling this summer and avoid defaulting on the nation's debt. Talks over such a deal came undone last year when the president insisted on higher taxes for the rich and corporations.

The president’s Wednesday budget proposal will also include as much as $600 billion in new revenues or tax hikes, and a new formula for calculating inflation that would reduce cost-of-living payments for Social Security benefits for some recipients, an idea referred to as "chained CPI."

Senate Democrats declined to take on entitlements in their budget, and already there are signs Obama may be alienating some in his party by doing so. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., are among those already disappointed.

“Republicans have been trying to dismantle Social Security ever since President [Franklin] Roosevelt proposed it during the Great Depression. We should not try to bargain for their good will with policies that hurt our seniors, especially since they’ve been unwilling to reduce tax loopholes for millionaires and wealthy corporations by so much as a dime,” they said in a joint statement.

For their part, House Republicans don’t appear overly impressed, either. In fact, some are dismayed that the president's budget calls for additional revenue. "If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes,” said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement.

Read more on National Journal

George E. Condon Jr., Nancy Cook, Coral Davenport, Fawn Johnson, Margot Sanger-Katz, and Sara Sorcher contributed to this report. 

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