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Obama Touts Economic Policies As Republicans Fight Internally Over Budget

By Michael A. Memoli and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

CLEVELAND — As congressional Republicans find themselves tangled over their newly introduced spending plans, President Barack Obama tried Wednesday to seize the moment to talk about government spending on his terms, namely a focus on opportunities for the middle class.

Noting that Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio often asks, “Where are the jobs?,” Obama told a crowd in Cleveland he was there to “not only answer that question” but also to renew a central debate over the two major parties’ economic visions.

Obama said that his administration’s policies, such as investing in manufacturing and the landmark Affordable Care Act, have helped the nation emerge from a deep recession but that the Republican budget would “double down” on the theory that wealth trickles down from the rich to the rest.

“Reality has rendered its judgment,” Obama said in a speech to the City Club of Cleveland. “Trickle-down economics doesn’t work and middle-class economics does,” he said, using the White House’s umbrella term for its fiscal policies.

Meanwhile, Republicans who have the majority in both chambers of Congress are bogged down in trying to make their budgets workable as well as palatable to the party’s competing factions.

More than two months into the new Congress, they are grasping for legislative victories and looking to the House and Senate budgets unveiled this week as chances for a win in Washington. The chambers are expected to approve the budgets next week.

“Hopefully that will be an opportunity for us to show some success,” said GOP Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Republicans are trying to present a unified front in their budget proposals, as internal debates have spilled out publicly between defense hawks, who want to bolster military coffers, and deficit-minded conservatives, who prefer to hold the line on new spending.

Although both of the party’s budgets largely boost military spending at the expense of domestic social programs, House and Senate Republicans are at odds over how to accomplish that goal while still adhering to strict budget caps agreed to in a 2011 deal with the White House.

Senate Republicans made clear Wednesday that they view the House approach as essentially a gimmick. It calls for hiking defense spending by increasing money for an account used for wars that was not subject to the so-called sequester limits established in the 2011 deal. Senate Republicans prefer establishing a separate, new defense account funded with unspecified savings elsewhere, but it also would not be held to the 2011 caps.

Either way, those cause “real heartburn for conservatives” because they maneuver around the limits, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) said.

Those differences and others — including the House’s proposed Medicare overhaul that the Senate rejects — risk leaving the GOP unable to pass one budget.

Such a setback would derail not only the goal of increasing Pentagon spending, but also other priorities, including the effort to repeal Obama’s health care law.

“I’m absolutely confident we’ll do our duty,” said Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, head of the Republican Senate’s campaign committee. “It’s one of the most important votes we’ll have this year.”

The GOP’s scramble to make the numbers add up with concrete legislative proposals while Obama spoke in broad, aspirational terms further illustrated the contrast between the White House and Republicans who control Congress.

Obama no longer has to worry about being re-elected, and since the November midterm election has made full use of the presidential bully pulpit to present his vision for the country without necessarily fretting over the short-term political consequences for him or his party.

On Wednesday, he said he wanted to “take a little credit” for the nation’s economic recovery.

Republicans have been loath to acknowledge any role Obama’s policies might have had in the nation’s improved economic picture, with deficits on the wane and rising confidence among voters.

“Republicans are proud to take credit for helping force some fiscal responsibility on the Obama administration,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Wednesday as his party’s Senate majority released its budget for the fiscal year that begins in October.

The White House countered that the House GOP is trying to balance the budget in part by further slashing investments that would benefit the middle class.

“House Republicans start their deficit reduction plan by promising large, expensive new tax cuts to high-income households,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “In fact, the only specific tax proposals in the House Republican budget are tax proposals that benefit the wealthy.”

White House officials are eager to promote the notion that Obama has kept Republicans on their heels with a vigorous start to what he calls the “fourth quarter” of his term, a time when presidents often see their influence wane. Obama began the year with campaign-style trips in the run-up to a State of the Union address that challenged Congress’ new Republican majorities on a host of domestic issues.

Democrats who shied away from the president before the midterm election now praise Obama’s approach. Some, including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is the Democrats’ ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, have more leeway to push the party toward even more liberal policies.

“The president feels liberated,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic leader in the chamber. “He doesn’t have to measure his actions against the impact on a campaign, and there are many things that he wants to say to the American people in the last two years of his presidency.”
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Memoli reported from Cleveland and Mascaro from Washington. Tribune Washington Bureau staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with the Council of the Great City Schools Leadership in the Roosevelt Room of the White House March 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss efforts to strengthen educational opportunities for students in city schools. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Republicans Criticize Obama’s State Of The Union As Partisan

By Michael A. Memoli and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Lacking the presidential bully pulpit but boasting the largest congressional majority in generations, top Republicans accused President Barack Obama of loading his State of the Union address with partisan priorities instead of demonstrating the leadership needed to move shared priorities like tax reform and trade through Congress.

GOP leaders tapped one of their newest faces to give their official prime-time response to the president’s address. Rather than respond directly to the president’s speech, though, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa began what she called a conversation with the nation about her party’s agenda, framing it as aimed at boosting the middle-class families like the one she grew up in.

“We heard the message you sent in November — loud and clear. And now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country,” she said.

Republicans have seemed determined since the election to shake the GOP’s image of catering to the nation’s wealthy elite. Ernst, calling herself a mother and soldier, recalled that while growing up she had to put plastic bread bags around her one good pair of shoes to keep them dry in the rain. These Americans “have been hurting” in the current economy, but “too often, Washington responded with the same stale mind-set that led to failed policies like Obamacare.”

“That’s why the new Republican majority you elected started by reforming Congress to make it function again. And now, we’re working hard to pass the kind of serious job creation ideas you deserve,” Ernst said.

In an unusual three-week buildup to the president’s annual address to Congress, the White House had released details of many new proposals. That gave Republicans a head start in developing their response. So the party sought to turn Obama’s post-midterm determination to focus on economic fairness against him, saying he was abandoning past pledges of cooperation.

“The American people have spoken,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters before Obama’s speech. “I think they expect us to sort out the things that we can agree on and try to make some bipartisan progress.”

But instead, McConnell said, Obama has “indicated he’s not for much of anything the American people voted for last November.”

“I just say this with all due respect to him. He doesn’t set the agenda in the Senate. We’re going to try to do the things that we think will make America a better place,” he said.

In a morning address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) accused the president of advancing a tax plan that Hatch said “appears to be more about redistribution, with added complexity, and class warfare” instead of a serious proposal that could be the starting point for negotiations with the new Congress.

“(It) is unfortunate, because we’re going to need real leadership from the White House — not just liberal talking points — if tax reform is going to be successful,” Hatch said.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), chairman of the Financial Services Committee, also swatted back Obama’s tax proposals, particularly a new fee on Wall Street companies, as the kind of policy that will ultimately raise lending costs.

“If President Obama has his way, hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxes will undeniably trickle down on to consumers. They’ll face fewer choices, higher costs and less economic freedom,” he said.

After Obama announced sweeping new policies to loosen trade and restore relations with Cuba, several Republicans who oppose that approach invited like-minded activists to attend the speech as their guests in the House chamber.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he hopes the presence of Cuban activist Rosa Maria Paya, whose father promoted democracy in Cuba and was killed in a 2012 automobile accident that some have suggested was orchestrated by Cuban officials, will remind Obama of the Havana government’s abuses.

House Speaker John A. Boehner invited two other Cuban pro-democracy advocates, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez and Yris Tamara Perez Aguilera.

As in recent years, a prominent conservative political group organized the so-called tea party response to Obama’s speech separate from the official Republican response. Rep. Curt Clawson (R-FL), a relative newcomer and former college basketball player, delivered some of it in Spanish, saying to the Latino community that “the law must be followed,” but that “you are all welcome with us.”

But, returning to English, he said: “As we respect our immigration laws, we’ve also got to be fair to the more than 10 million Americans currently struggling to find good jobs…. To do this, we need to secure our borders first.”

Photo: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) waits for the start of the State of The Union address by President Barack Obama on January 20, 2015, in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Pool/TNS)

GOP Weighs Responses To Obama’s Immigration Action

By Michael A. Memoli and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress are unified in their desire to fight President Barack Obama’s action to protect more than 4 million immigrants from deportation and ease rules for up to 1 million more.

They just can’t agree on how to do it.

Should they shut down the government? File a lawsuit? Or is there a more measured approach that could showcase Republican leadership, such as passing a legislative alternative?

“We’re working with our members and looking at the options that are available to us,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) said Friday. “But I will say to you that the House will, in fact, act.”

Here’s a look at their leading options.

Do nothing — for now.

The heaviest lift for Republican leaders would be to persuade their members to take a deep breath and hold their fire. They could launch committee hearings and investigations into Obama’s actions — one is set for early next month — but otherwise shift to different priorities. That would mean working with Democratic leaders to pass a so-called omnibus appropriations bill by the Dec. 11 deadline to fund the government until next October, lifting the risk of another shutdown.

Before the president announced his executive action, leaders on both sides supported an omnibus bill, which would let the Republican majorities start fresh in January on their agenda and begin sending legislation to the president.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says that by breaking congressional deadlock and pursuing a proactive, not reactive, agenda, Republicans will secure a better footing to rein in the administration’s policies.

Conservative lawmakers and allied outside groups call such an approach dead on arrival.

“Inaction is not an acceptable response,” said Michael Needham, chief executive of the conservative group Heritage Action, in a statement urging lawmakers to deny funding for the president’s program. “Anything less will amount to a blank check for Obama’s unlawful amnesty program.”

Use the budget process.

Even before Obama unveiled his plan, some Republicans wanted to reject the nearly ten-month omnibus bill and agree to only short-term extensions of government funding to keep the lights on until early next year. That would put off fears of a holiday shutdown, but let Republicans retain leverage to try to force Obama to back off his new proposals.

It would also give the party more to gauge public reaction. If Obama’s plan proves to be a political flop, there might be greater public support for efforts to cut funding for government immigration programs.

The downside for Republican leadership is that a short-term spending bill forces the party into another round of fiscal fights when they’d rather be advancing legislation on taxes and trade.

A few hard-core conservatives advocate inserting language to halt Obama’s immigration plan into the upcoming spending bill, even if it triggers another shutdown. But most Republicans seem to oppose such a drastic step.

Censure or impeach Obama.

Impeachment has been mentioned as an option — but more often by Obama supporters who cite the threat as an example of Republican overreaction. That’s not to say Republicans haven’t floated the idea, or at least refused to rule it out.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) says it would be better to censure the president. Such a rebuke would be rare, and largely symbolic. The only president to have been censured, Andrew Jackson, later had the action expunged.

King also says the House could pass a resolution of disapproval of the new policy, which would be a similarly symbolic gesture and could be done relatively soon.

Go to court.

House Republicans filed a lawsuit Friday against the president for failing to enforce part of the Affordable Care Act, which they cite as an example of executive overreach. Boehner has not ruled out expanding that suit to include the executive action on immigration.

Even senators who supported a 2013 bipartisan Senate immigration bill, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), prefer this option. “Probably the best approach is to challenge the president in court,” she says.

But legal experts say such lawsuits are typically rejected by the courts, which tend to stay out of power struggles between Congress and the White House.

Pass an immigration bill.

Obama and other Democrats have said Republicans who oppose his decision to take executive action could address those concerns by passing their own legislation. But that’s unlikely given divisions inside the GOP.

After the Senate bill on immigration passed last year, the House refused to consider it, preferring to take what Boehner has called an incremental approach. Discussions among House Republicans that began in earnest after Obama’s re-election in 2012 largely fell apart when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia lost his re-election primary race in June.

But leaders say they may yet take up immigration in the new Congress.

“Let’s start moving immigration legislation that we like,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), suggesting bills on border security, HB-1 visa reform and seasonal labor. “We should start picking the things that are important and see if the president wants to veto those things. I think it’ll make it a lot clearer who’s trying to work to a solution and who’s not.”

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr