The Week in Washington: Obama continues budget outreach, Republican gains on immigration and more

Larry Smith gives his weekly US political round up, featuring Obama's continued budget outreach, Republican gains on immigration and more.

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Obama keeps up budget engagement

The White House has continued to reach out to Congress over the budget impasse, with President Obama attending high-profile meetings with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

On Thursday, the president headed to Capitol Hill for wide-ranging talks with Senate Republicans and House Democrats. During a working lunch with the former, Obama sought common ground in budget negotiations and backpedalled on a hostile statement he had made regarding the GOP’s position on entitlements. In his sit-down with the House Democratic caucus, the president attempted to allay the concerns of progressives who fear he is too keen to strike a deal with Republicans on social security.

On Wednesday, Obama met separately with members of the House Republican caucus and senators from his own party. Expectations had been fairly low ahead of talks with the House GOP, especially after Obama had used a TV interview to dismiss scaremongering about an “immediate” debt crisis. However, some top lawmakers, including Budget Chair Paul Ryan, werepositive about how Obama had responded to their questions.

During his talks with Senate Democrats, the president backed a budget proposal which had recently been unveiled by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray. Her plan – which would replace the sequester – includes $975bn in new revenues, $240bn in defence cuts and $493bn in domestic spending reductions. It cleared committee stage yesterday and will likely be voted on by the full Senate next Thursday.

The House of Representatives is meanwhile preparing to consider an alternative budget plan outlined by Congressman Ryan. The former vice presidential contender’s latest blueprint – which narrowly won committee approval on Wednesday – is more stringent than his previous offering, cutting an extra $5.7tn to ensure the budget balances by 2023 rather than 2040. Some conservative Republicans have joined Democrats in criticising the plan, noting it assumes the abolition of President Obama’s healthcare law while relying on its Medicare cuts and tax increases to balance the nations finances.

Any ‘grand bargain’ on spending would probably fall somewhere between the Murray and Ryan plans, but lawmakers in both parties are either unwilling to offer or oppose the concessions required to bring it about. In particular, GOP leaders are reluctant to initiate changes to Medicare and Medicaid which they previously championed. House Speaker John Boehner argued in The Washington Post on Thursday that President Obama should be the one to put entitlement reforms floated in 2011 “back in the mix”.

In related news, efforts to pass a continuing resolution that funds the federal government through the fiscal year have been held up by senators tacking on largely ideological amendments.  

Polling: [ABC/WaPo] [Marist[Gallup]

Prez tells House GOP they will benefit from passing immigration reform

President Obama is said to have told House Republicans they could gain politically if they back comprehensive immigration reform.

Congressmen present during Obama’s meeting with the GOP caucus on Wednesday claimed the president said an overhaul would “actually benefit Republicans more than it would Democrats”. He reportedly added it was in the “best interest” of his opponents to get behind reform. The remarks prompted “light chuckles” in the audience, but some representatives were quick to praise Obama for his sincerity.

Obama’s comments came as a bipartisan group of senators working on immigration reform neared completion of its legislative package. One member of the ‘Gang of Eight’ –  Democratic Senator Robert Menendez – stated he and his colleagues could be done with their negotiations as early as next week. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy has said his panel will mark up immigration legislation when the Easter recess is over.

Earlier, Republican senators backing immigration reform responded carefully to reports they had struck an agreement with their Democratic partners on the legal status of undocumented aliens. Florida Senator Marco Rubio said details of a pathway to legal status reported in the press were “somewhat similar” to principles the gang had embraced but cautioned there was still “a lot of work to be done”. The group is also understood to be developing plans that would make it harder for relatives of US citizens to enter America, but easier for high-skilled foreign workers to come to the country.

NRA refutes background check compromise talk

The largest pro-gun group in the US has denied suggestions it would not oppose tougher background checks for firearm sales provided a compromise could be struck on the keeping of records.

The National Rifle Association dismissed a report from NBC News which claimed it would permit passage of a background check bill that did not oblige private gun sellers to maintain records of transactions. In a statement, the NRA said it opposed “criminalising” firearms transfers between “law-abiding individuals” and was still against an expansion of the check system.Earlier, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines in favour of Democrat Chuck Schumer’s placeholder background checks bill.

The bill as it stands might not be able to pass the full Senate, but Schumer is still willing to re-engage with key Republican Tom Coburn and others on the issue. A partisan majority of the Judiciary Committee also voted on Thursday to reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban, a measure all but certain to fall if it is ever brought to the floor of the Senate.

Vice President Joe Biden campaigned for background check legislation and against domestic violence involving guns on Wednesday. Elsewhere, Gabrielle Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly drew some controversy when he purchased a military-style rifle to illustrate the laxity of the current background checks system.

Related polling: [Pew]

Conservatives gather for CPAC

Right-wing activists, opinion formers and politicians have converged on Washington for the fortieth annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

The three-day conference got underway early yesterday. The opening sessions featured a barnstorming appearance from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, as well as a speech from his Florida colleague Marco Rubio and a panel on immigration reform. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan headline today’s schedule, while Sarah Palin and Texas Senator Ted Cruz are the stars of Saturday’s line-up. The conference will close with a hotly-contested presidential straw poll.

Run by the American Conservative Union, CPAC has traditionally been a banner event for the Republican party and the broader conservative movement. However, the significance of this year’s meeting has been tarnished by ACU’s refusal to give governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell speaking slots and its decision to bar LGBT outfit GOProud.

GOP senator backs gay marriage

A leading Republican senator has become the only sitting member of his caucus to back same-sex marriage.

Ohio’s Rob Portman – who garnered attention last year as a potential Republican candidate for vice president – told a local newspaper on Thursday he had reversed his opposition to marriage equality after his son Will came out as gay. The former White House budget director said his son was an “amazing young man” and added he deserved “the same opportunities that his brother and sister have”.

Portman’s change of heart came as President Obama adopted an even stronger position in support of gay marriage. In an interview with ABC News, Obama said the “principle that people don’t get discriminated against” was in the constitution and that he could not imagine the circumstances in which a state ban on same-sex marriage would be legal.

Report chides potential cabinet nominee

An administration official thought to be in the frame for one of President Obama’s remaining cabinet vacancies has been criticised by a watchdog for his management of an important division within the Department of Justice.

Civil Rights Division chief Tom Perez – who has been tipped for the job of labour secretary – was faulted by the DOJ’s Inspector General for giving incomplete testimony to the US Civil Rights Commission about his handling of a case concerning the notorious New Black Panther Party. The inspector general also condemned Perez for failing to improve poor “professional culture” within his division.

Labour and civil rights organisations have rushed to defend Perez over the allegations, with an official from the AFL-CIO union calling him a “strong, effective leader”. They are expected to offer strong support to Perez if he is chosen to succeed Hilda Solis, who left the Labour Department in January. However, Republicans would likely spend ample time reviewing the assistant attorney general’s long career and at least one GOP senator has implied he would face a tough conformation battle.

Democratic and Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee clashed over the inspector general’s findings in a hearing yesterday.

News in Brief

  • Frustrated with stalling of nominations [TPM]
  • Hails election of Pope Francis [CNN]; Boehner unable to join Biden at installation [Yahoo News]
  • Israel itinerary unveiled [NYT]; Prez says it would take Iran a year or so to build nuke [BBC News]
  • Hagel has tough meeting with Karzai [NYT]; Afghan prez’s remarks put US troops on alert [BBC News]
  • Dem lawmakers press WH on drone info [SFG]; ex-Clinton CoS criticises admin over secrecy [WaPo]
  • Rice downplays talk of replacing Donilon as NSA [BuzzFeed]
  • New Libya ambassador announced [CNN]
  • Admin asks SCOTUS to review labour board decision [Politico]
  • Grand jury said to be investigating Menendez [WaPo]
  • Warren knocks Cordray filibuster [TPM]
  • Rupert Murdoch sits down with Republican leaders [Politico]; Cantor urges ‘soul-searching’ in Harvard address [WBUR]
  • Jindal shines at Gridiron dinner [Bloomberg]
  • Hackers swipe First Lady’s data [Reuters]
  • Bolling rules out indy bid for VA governor [WaPo]
  • Booker well ahead in race for Lautenberg seat [FDU]
  • KY Dems aghast as Ashley Judd chatter intensifies [The Atlantic]; McConnell’s wife stars in ad [Politico]
  • Durbin to seek another term [The Hill]
  • Romney brother rules out MI senate bid [Roll Call]

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