Will Changes in Tone Lead to Action?
Like the warming breezes of an unexpected early spring, there was a subtle shift in Washington’s political landscape this week. President Barack Obama took the unusual step of having dinner with a dozen Senate Republicans to open an informal dialogue on the budget issues that have crippled this town for the past few years.
By most accounts, this private dinner went well and the president followed up the next day by having lunch with the main budget honcho for House Republicans, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan is preparing to reveal his 10-year plan that reportedly would balance the budget by 2023.
Of course the pitfall is that the Ryan plan will feature spending cuts in entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. That could set off another partisan mini-war, with Democrats accusing the Republicans of being willing to throw grandma in the street in the greater cause of balancing the budget.
But the point is that the recent exchanges between the president and Republicans are the first real steps toward bipartisanship since before the 2012 election cycle. At the very least, they offer the possibility of talks that eventually could lead to some sort of grand bargain that cuts the deficit, protects entitlement programs and ends the cycle of endless budget crises that have paralyzed Washington for much of the Obama presidency.
President Obama won re-election in November and all the political deep-thinkers agreed that gave him the upper hand in dealing with Republicans on the budget issues. His re-election secure, the president got his way on higher taxes for the wealthy as part of the mix for deficit reduction. Republicans lost that battle but vowed to wage a tougher fight for budget cuts. Remember that in part thanks to the influence of the Tea Party movement, the Republican focus has really been on reducing the size of government, primarily through spending cuts. That means no rise in taxes.
This played out in the fight over the budget sequester cuts, the $85 billion worth of across-the-board defense and domestic spending cuts that went into effect when Congress and the president couldn’t agree on an alternative set of cuts to replace them. The president warned about the impact for weeks and some of those predictions could still come true in time.
But for now, at least, the impact of the sequester cuts has been negligible. The result is that a big leverage club seems to have been taken out of the president’s hands and the Republicans have declared victory. Their line is we told you the cuts weren’t going to be that bad and we are going to prove that deficit reduction is possible.
I think both sides have had their victories and are now in a stalemate looking for a way out. The president and the Democrats are going to have to confront the realities of some sort of spending cuts and eventual changes in entitlements. Likewise, Republicans have to realize that any real changes to entitlements will probably require additional revenue as well. Some Republicans, like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham have already indicated openness to a big deal that would ease the cuts on defense in exchange for cutting some tax loopholes for the wealthy.
So the grand bargain is not in sight yet. The fiscal cloud over Washington that produces one budget crisis after another has not yet dissipated. But the recent meetings and outreach on both sides, at least, suggests that both sides are starting to realize they have pressed their advantages as far as they can go and that maybe it’s time for a little old-fashioned political wheeling and dealing to bring this paralyzing cycle to an end.
Rand Paul Attacks Drones
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican who enjoys strong support from Tea Party activists, made a name for himself this week in Washington. Paul took to the Senate floor in a good old fashioned filibuster for about 13 hours, pressing the Obama administration for a firm commitment that it would not use drones to target U.S. citizens on American soil suspected of terrorist ties. In the end, a brief letter from Attorney General Eric Holder included the assurance Paul was asking for, and he declared victory.
The drone program targeting suspected terrorists has been very controversial overseas. Libertarians in this country want assurances that the program won’t be used to target U.S. citizens at home, and Paul got support from several conservative Republicans during his filibuster and one Democrat, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Misgivings over the drone policy span the gamut from far right to far left, with Tea Party activists, Libertarians and the American Civil Liberties Union all weighing in with concerns.
Paul got some credit from commentators from both the right and left in the aftermath of his filibuster, which he had to end to answer a call of nature. It certainly helped raise his profile and some Tea Party-leaning Republicans have been talking up the prospect of him running for president in 2016.
But the incident also showed some fissures within the Republican Party. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to the Senate floor the next day and criticized Paul’s drone attack. The strains are growing between the libertarian group of Republicans, more focused on cutting the size of government, and the old line conservative defense hawks like McCain and Graham who applaud President Obama for continuing the anti-terror policies put in place by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Paul also went old school in his filibuster. In recent years it was the mere threat of a filibuster by a senator that could keep important business off the floor for weeks at a time. All a senator had to do was indicate he or she would oppose a bill or nominee and threaten a filibuster without actually having to do so. Paul actually took to the Senate floor and held it by speaking for most of 13 hours, occasionally yielding to supportive colleagues for a question and munching on a candy bar and peanuts for sustenance. The all-time record for a filibuster is held by the late Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. He held the floor for more than 24 hours back in 1957 in a failed attempt to block a civil rights bill that was strongly opposed in the southern states.
Even critics gave Paul some credit for his willingness to stand up for his beliefs for hours on the Senate floor. Paul knew it would be a losing cause in a parliamentary sense because he was trying to block a vote on the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. Brennan was easily approved, but Paul gained valuable attention and name recognition, especially if as some predict he decides to make a presidential bid in three years.
Speaking of 2016, get ready for CPAC. What’s that? It stands for Conservative Political Action Conference, a key conservative group that fuels the Republican Party with ideas, energy and even a few prospective presidential candidates.
CPAC holds its annual meeting soon in Washington and it serves as an early opportunity for auditions for those considering a run for the White House in 2016. Among this year’s speakers are former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the aforementioned Senator Rand Paul and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan.
Among those not invited this year is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of the most popular state chief executives in the nation. Christie offended conservative Republicans just before the November election when he toured coastal areas of New Jersey devastated by super storm Sandy with President Obama. Some Republicans haven’t forgiven Christie for what they see as a betrayal by appearing with the president in the closing days of what appeared to be a close presidential campaign.
But Christie may have the last laugh. A recent poll in New Jersey found his approval rating at 74 percent and Democrats have been scrambling to find an opponent to run against him later this year. Quinnipiac University polling also found Christie was by far the most competitive Republican to put up against Democratic Hillary Clinton in 2016, if she decides to run.
CPAC is a conservative group and it’s an important test for any Republican thinking about a presidential run. But it’s not the only hurdle for a prospective candidate, especially after an election in which the party’s main challenge would seem to be finding a way to broaden its appeal. There will be a straw poll at the end of the three-day meeting in Washington that will, if nothing else, give an early indication of who conservative Republicans are looking at for the next election.