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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

President Obama reaches out to help Affordable Care Act beneficiary Karmel Allison (c.), who began to faint during the president's speech about healthcare from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington Monday, October 21, 2013. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Obama helps fainting woman: Why was she lightheaded? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.22.13

President Obama caught a fainting woman who was standing behind him during his Monday speech on the Affordable Care Act, in case you haven’t heard.

The incident happened near the end of his address. Mr. Obama was wrapping up his defense of his signature health-care law, saying that it was intended to free families from the fear of illness and so forth, when a dark-haired woman in a red dress began to crumple in the Rose Garden sunshine.

The president and several other people reached out to steady her. “You’re OK. I’m right here. I got you,” Obama said.

“This happens when I talk too long,” he added.

The woman’s name is Karmel Allison. She is pregnant and has been diagnosed with diabetes. She had not drunk enough water before the outdoor event, she told Business Insider, and eventually began to feel faint.

Next thing she knew, the nation’s chief executive was breaking her fall.

Ms. Allison has not actually signed up for Obamacare yet, or attempted to. But she’s looked at whether she’d be able to make use of the law, given that she has a preexisting condition, and was happy to learn that diabetes would not preclude her from getting what she felt was affordable coverage.

“My husband and I are reviewing our options, now that we have other options,” she told Business Insider.

In fact, this is the second time a young woman has fainted in conjunction with Obamacare addresses. It’s a bookend of sorts, as the first fainting occurred back in 2009 during a congressional hearing on the legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was speaking before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the bill’s features when a female intern fainted and hit her head. Secretary Sebelius immediately stopped speaking, and several lawmakers who are trained physicians rushed to her aide.

She eventually revived and walked from the room under her own power. Then-chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California said that everyone was “distressed” about the incident and added that he hoped the prospect of congressional passage of health-care reform legislation would not slow her recovery.

“Maybe the hope of it will spur her on,” he said, jokingly.

Opponents of the law would say that such hope has been proved wrong, at least so far, given the many teething problems that have appeared in the Obamacare website.

Pressure on the administration to provide more details about the problems of HealthCare.gov is increasing, Politico notes Tuesday morning. That’s one reason that Obama spoke in the Rose Garden in the first place.

“Transparency isn’t the only issue that’s dismaying the law’s supporters,” writes Politico’s David Nather. “Some Democrats are privately irked that Obama, in their eyes, had to bail out HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who’s likely to be grilled mercilessly about the website breakdowns – and the lack of pre-launch testing – the moment House Republicans get her into a hearing room, which is expected next week.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington after House leaders reached a last-minute agreement to avert a threatened Treasury default and reopen the government after a partial, 16-day shutdown last week. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Boehner, McConnell, Cruz: Who's now Mr. Republican? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.21.13

Who’s the face of the national Republican Party now that the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis is over? We admit that this is a rhetorical question given that such a job doesn’t actually exist. It’s more like asking who’s the Big Person on Campus, which is a position bestowed by a rough consensus among underclassmen that is subject to continual reconsideration. And the recent unpleasantness in Washington has upset the old GOP consensus to an extraordinary extent.

One thing’s for sure: John Boehner’s down at the moment. Yes, the speaker of the House remains the highest-ranking elected Republican in the nation. Yes, he’s retained the loyalty of his caucus despite his troubles. Tea party conservatives appreciate that he adopted their tough stance toward Obamacare, at least until the debt crisis loomed.

But a CNN/ORC poll out this morning shows he’s now got brutal numbers with the public. Sixty-three percent of survey respondents say the Ohio Republican should be replaced as House speaker. Only 30 percent say he should stay in the job.

For Mr. Boehner, the breakdown of these numbers is even worse. Republicans as a whole are split on his leadership, with 47 percent calling for his head, and 46 percent saying he should remain. The only subgroup that’s really in his corner is conservatives, who favor his speakership 55 to 35 percent.

Meanwhile Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is up. Conservatives may rip him as a sellout for his role in the deal which ended the recent fiscal crisis, but most other GOP factions have been quietly relieved. (Or loudly relieved, if you’re Sen. John McCain.)

On Sunday Senator McConnell said flatly on CBS Face the Nation “there’ll not be another government shutdown. You can count on that.” That’s a pretty direct assertion of power, if you ask us. It also likely means he remains unworried about his tea party primary challenger back home in Kentucky, where he’s up for reelection in 2014. Frustrated conservatives have vowed to direct money to Matt Bevin, the challenger in question, but they’re going to have to dig deep to make a difference: new third-quarter totals show McConnell has $10 million on hand while Bevin raised only $220,000 from the outside, plus $600,000 of his own money.

McConnell appears confident that his real worry is the general election, where he’ll face Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled in recent days he is increasingly focusing on his Democratic opponent in next year’s Senate race and not so much on his Republican primary challenger,” writes the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Sam Youngman.

Then there’s Ted Cruz of Texas. Millions of barrels of pixels have been spilled discussing the future of the junior senator from Texas in recent weeks. He went out onto the defund-Obamacare stage and came back a star, particularly among those on the right. As we’ve written before, Senator Cruz’s willingness to fight against the odds has thrilled his supporters and made him the closest thing there is to the president of US conservatives.

But it is our belief that in so doing he has limited his future political appeal.

Look, the tea party is a minority faction in the GOP. In September, about 35 percent of Republicans identified themselves as tea party conservatives, according to Gallup. That’s a big drop from 2010, when 65 percent of the party said it supported the tea party.

Is Cruz the front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination? Well, maybe – polls show he’s a top pick at the moment. And tea party adherents are more likely to vote in primaries than other Republicans. But it’s early and he’s just had a burst of publicity. Some of that represents name recognition. And he’ll have to do some extensive tacking toward the center of the party just to win the GOP nod. Remember Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and the rest of the right-leaning GOP challengers? They lost.

Cruz has alienated many GOP establishment leaders, and they’ll be sure to make that clear as the campaign develops. That’s going to matter, argues political scientist Jonathan Bernstein on his "A plain blog about politics."

“To the extent that those future negative cues are already baked in – and I’m fairly confident that’s the case for Ted Cruz – no, he’s not the frontrunner. Not at all,” writes Mr. Bernstein.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) poses for photos with members of the Texas Federation of Republican Women in San Antonio, Texas Saturday. (Joe Mitchell/Reuters)

Sen. Ted Cruz breaks political crockery – right and left (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.20.13

It’s hard to imagine a more divisive political figure in the United States today than Ted Cruz.

The freshman US Senator from Texas drives liberals and Democrats crazy. If anything, he drives many of his fellow conservatives and Republicans – that is, the members of Congress trying to compete with President Obama through traditional legislative means – even crazier.

He’s the face of a newly-revived tea party movement that’s as much a threat to the establishment GOP as it is to Democrats. And as much as any other individual in US politics today, Sen. Cruz was responsible for the 16-day partial federal shutdown and up-to-the-edge government default, cheerleading House tea partiers to the detriment of Speaker John Boehner’s position.

US Rep. Peter King (R) of New York says his fellow Republican is “either a fraud or totally incompetent” for having instigated a shutdown strategy – focused on killing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) – that had no chance of succeeding.

Yet for all the broken political crockery strewn along Pennsylvania Avenue between Capitol Hill and the White House, there’s no one who has been more successful at articulating his message, gathering a substantial minority of like-minded lawmakers to his cause, and riveting the attention of political activists, pundits, and those in office feeling the broad disgruntlement of the American electorate today.

As political professionals in Washington – and those voters paying close attention – catch their breath after the recent unpleasantness, everyone wants to know what Sen. Cruz is thinking now, what his plans are.

“There’s an old saying that ‘Politics, it ain’t beanbag.’ And, you know, I’m not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends in the US Senate,” he said on ABC’s “This week” Sunday. “Given the choice between being reviled in Washington, DC, and appreciated in Texas, or reviled in Texas and appreciated in Washington, I would take the former 100 out of 100 times.”

The deal worked out to avoid default and get all government employees back to work restores government funding until Jan. 15 and raises the debt limit through Feb. 7. In other words, a crisis situation may have been averted but not solved.

“Will you rule out pushing to the brink of another shutdown by saying you would block funding for the government unless Obamacare is defunded?” ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked Cruz. “Will you do that again?”

“I would do anything and I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare,” Cruz replied. “What I intend to do is continue standing with the American people to work to stop Obamacare, because it isn’t working, it’s costing people’s jobs, and it’s taking away their healthcare.”

“Standing with the American people?” Among the largely-conservative electorate in Texas, perhaps, but not necessarily among the broader majority – which may have problems with Obamacare and its startup troubles, but clearly was opposed to fighting it with a government shutdown or threat of default.

Still, Cruz has surpassed Sarah Palin and others as the champion of the tea party right. “Stand With Ted Cruz” is the fund-raising rally cry of the Tea Party Express.

“I don’t expect him to moderate. We don’t think he should moderate at all,” Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, told the Dallas Morning News. “One thing about Congress, there’s no CEO. Everybody’s an independent contractor. Everybody answers only to their constituents who elected them to office. And Cruz has struck a chord with a lot of people.”

A lot of like-minded people, that is.

While the tea party is less popular than ever, with even many Republicans now viewing the movement negatively, the Pew Research Center reported this past week that Cruz’s own popularity has soared among tea party Republicans.

Among this group, his popularity has risen 27 points since July – from 47 percent to 74 percent.

That was certainly true in San Antonio Saturday, where Cruz received an eight-minute standing ovation from about 750 people in an appearance organized by the Texas Federation of Republican Women.

“After two months in Washington, it's great to be back in America," he quipped.

"We saw what can happen when the American people unite, when the American people stand up," Cruz told Reuters after his speech. "What the American people want is economic growth and job creation. They are crying out for something that fixes all the enormous damage that Obamacare is causing."

That’s a potent message that resonates with many Americans. And yet the messenger himself may see an increase in personal toxicity.

A Gallup poll during the government shutdown found that Cruz had gained significant name recognition, but the percentage of Americans with an unfavorable view of him had doubled to 36 percent from 18 percent in June.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky arrives at the Capitol on Oct. 16, just before striking a deal with majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada to reopen the government. The deal also authorized $2.9 billion for a dam project in Kentucky that sparked controversy. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

'Kentucky kickback': an issue for Mitch McConnell or just friendly fire?

By Staff writer / 10.19.13

Here’s what’s known about the so-called “Kentucky kickback,” a controversy that blew up just as Senate leaders were signing off on a deal to end a government shutdown and avert default on the national debt.

While the Senate had held out for a "clean" bill to fund government in its standoff with the House, the deal that Senate leaders took to the floor on Wednesday included an obscure, one-line change to an unrelated law that increased authorization for spending on a massive water project in Kentucky, the home state of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

It didn't spend $3 billion, as critics quickly charged. It authorized a new cap of $2.9 billion for a project that had already spent well beyond the $775 million level authorized by law. (More on that later.) Nor was it, technically, a banned spending "earmark." But it smelled bad. Conservative critics, who viewed the Senate deal as a sellout and Senator McConnell as the traitor, dubbed it the "Kentucky kickback." [Editor's note: In the original version, the number in this paragraph was incorrect.]

Pork projects, or member earmarks on spending bills, were once common practice in Washington. After Republicans took back control of the House in 1995, pork projects soared – peaking at $29 billion in 2006, the year the GOP lost control of the House after scandals involving bribes for earmarks. In 2010, a new GOP majority banned the practice, and the Senate followed suit.

What makes earmarks toxic is the appearance of special favors for the powerful, drawn up in secret, and not vetted by any government agency or subject to competition from other projects.

But the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, spanning the Ohio River between Olmsted, Ill., and Paducah, Ky., is no "bridge to nowhere," the notorious Alaska earmark that launched the drive in 2005 to end earmarks. The dam replacement project aims to ease a bottleneck for barges about 17 miles upstream of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The Army Corps of Engineers calls the site "the busiest stretch of river in America's inland waterways."

When Congress first authorized the project in 1988, the estimate for completion was $775 million. By FY 2011, costs had soared to more than $1.4 billion, and the Army Corps says it will need authorization to spend up to $2.9 billion to finish the work. Despite delays and cost overruns, the project retained bipartisan support. The proposed increase was included in President Obama’s FY 2014 budget and authorized by both Senate and House committees.

It's not clear whether Senate leaders expected the blowback they're getting on this project. Accounts from aides, who will not be quoted publicly, differ on this point. What is clear is that Senate leaders, on both sides of the aisle, quickly rallied to its defense.

Both McConnell and Senate majority leader Harry Reid denied that the project was an earmark or that McConnell had requested it. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Water Development subcommittee, said in a statement that he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who chairs the panel, had requested the project and that it would save taxpayer dollars.

“According to the Army Corps of Engineers, $160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included,” Senator Alexander said, in a statement.

So, if it's not an earmark and McConnell hadn't requested it, what’s the problem?

One problem is that Senate leaders promised a “clean” bill but delivered a $2.9 billion add-on that benefited one of the principal negotiators of the deal, who is also up for reelection in 2014, as is Senator Alexander.

“It’s a big amount of money in a bill that was supposed to be clean, so everyone started screaming pork,” says Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a public interest group which tracks pork projects and government spending.

"There are other projects like this around the country where it could be more expensive to taxpayers to delay the funding or the project," he adds.

At a time when Congress’s approval rating is at near record lows, special treatment for powerful members is a red flag for critics and can be a big liability for individual lawmakers.

When news broke that Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, a critical swing vote for the president’s health-care reform in 2009, had also negotiated a special funding stream for Nebraskans in that bill, critics dubbed it the “Cornhusker kickback.”  McConnell called it, “a smelly proposition.”  Senator Nelson faced criticism about it right up until his decision to not seek reelection.

But in McConnell's case, the fire wasn't coming from across the aisle but from a civil war deep within GOP ranks. The Senate Conservatives Fund, known for funding primary campaigns against GOP incumbents not deemed conservative enough, broke news of the special provision soon and went on the attack.  

“In exchange for funding Obamacare and raising the debt limit, Mitch McConnell has secured a $2 billion Kentucky kickback. This is an insult to all the Kentucky families who don’t want to pay for Obamacare and don’t want to shoulder any more debt,” said SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins, in a statement on Wednesday.

On Friday, the SCF endorsed tea party candidate Matt Bevin against Senator McConnell in the 2014 Senate primary.

So far, the controversy has barely registered in the Kentucky Senate race. Neither Mr. Bevin, nor McConnell's likely Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, have questioned funding for the dam, in a state where politicians often run on what they are able to send back home from Washington.

"There was no earmark," McConnell said in an interview with WVLK news radio in Lexington, Ky. on Friday. "Every single member of the Senate had a chance to review it and none asked for it to be taken out, and the committee points out that this authorization actually saved $160 million for taxpayers and it's pretty rare when you're able to save money in a spending bill."

Still, as McConnell said of the Cornhusker kickback, the special treatment for this project strikes many critics as "a smelly proposition."

"Congress's reputation has been adversely affected by the shutdown, and now by spending in this not-so-clean continuing resolution," says CAGW's Schatz. "They set themselves up for this criticism, whether it is warranted or not. It doesn't matter whether this particular project is an earmark, that's what everybody is calling it."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, speaks to reporters waiting outside a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans as news emerged that leaders reached a last-minute agreement to avert a threatened Treasury default and reopen the government after a partial, 16-day shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 16, 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Has Ted Cruz peaked? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.18.13

Where does Ted Cruz go from here? The freshman Texas senator was the face of tea party resistance to Obamacare during the recent unpleasantness over funding the government and raising the US debt ceiling. That won him plaudits from the conservative side of his party but also embittered his Democratic and establishment Republican enemies. Given that, his future role in Congress itself appears unclear.

Not that he’s sorry about anything that happened. To the contrary, he remains unapologetic about his role in the fight and says he doesn’t care about the enmity he’s earned.

“I’m not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends in the Senate,” Senator Cruz told ABC News’s Jonathan Karl in an on-camera interview.

Nor is he holding out an olive branch to his own chamber’s Republican leadership. Cruz told Mr. Karl that he still believes most of the Senate GOP surrendered rather than fight a battle against Obamacare that could have been won.

“Senate Republicans made the choice not to support House Republicans,” Cruz said.

He was even blunter this week in an interview with a conservative radio station, accusing Senate Republicans of “bombing our own troops.”

Wow, that is fairly tough language to use on folks who are at least supposed to be on your side. In the aftermath of a bruising week for congressional Republicans, it sure looks like Cruz is doing his best to continue irritating his own party leadership. That ensures he’ll have virtually no influence within the Senate itself – not that he probably cares.

The chamber has always been divided between “inside” senators fond of working the levers of legislative power (think LBJ) and “outside” senators who use their office as a position to publicly push issues and develop influence, thus working on the legislative process via outside pressure (Edward Kennedy in his early years).

Cruz, for instance, won’t rule out further attempts to shut down the government when just-approved spending expires in January. But Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said flatly on Thursday in an interview with National Review’s Robert Costa that “a government shutdown is off the table. We’re not going to do it.”

Offered an opportunity to comment on Cruz, Senator McConnell added that he had nothing to say. Translation: We in the Senate GOP leadership will do everything we can to make sure a freshman senator from Texas does not again push the party into traffic and wander away.

Of course, that makes Cruz’s fans like him all the more. Tea party Republicans want to fight, and they see Cruz and his ally Sen. Mike Lee of Utah as among the few Republican senators willing to metaphorically tie themselves to the railroad tracks as the Obamacare Express roars towards the station.

Former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, president of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, laid out this worldview in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Thursday. The costs of Obamacare will wreck the country, Mr. DeMint said, and given the stakes, the fight against it should use every legislative means available.

The government shutdown was not a debacle for the GOP, but a net positive, DeMint argued.

“[Obamacare's] disastrous launch was spotlighted by our defund struggle, not overshadowed, as some contend. With a revived and engaged electorate, Obamacare will now be the issue for the next few years,” he wrote.

Nor should the GOP just focus on winning back the White House and Senate as a better means of repealing the law. Americans should not have to wait three more years for relief, DeMint argued.

Heritage Action and its allies “are thankful for the courageous leadership of people like Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee,” DeMint concluded.

Back home, Cruz’s major financial backers support his actions, too. Unlike his fellow Texas senator, John Cornyn, Cruz did not get big bucks from the state’s business interests. His biggest chunks of cash came from activist groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth, according to the campaign watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics. They’ve hailed his attempts to fight Obamacare.

But in terms of elected office, it’s not too soon to ask if Cruz’s career has peaked. While he’s been widely mentioned as a possible candidate for president in 2016, his recent star turn has polarized public opinion about him.

Since June, his unfavorable rating among Americans in general has doubled, according to Gallup data. He’s now viewed unfavorably by 36 percent of Americans and favorably by 26 percent.

He’s extremely popular among self-described tea party Republicans, according to a Pew survey. They give him a 74 percent favorable rating, up some 27 points since July. But his approval rating among non-tea party Republicans has been falling, with some 31 percent of this group rating him negatively.

Wrapped together, those numbers mean that for 2016, he would at least be a factional candidate with a shot at winning the GOP nomination, but little chance of winning the general election.

With an audience of staff members, President Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington Thursday, the day after the government avoided a financial default and reopened after a 16-day partial shutdown. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Obama tells Republican foes to 'win an election.' Taunting? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.17.13

President Obama on Thursday slammed his Republican opponents in the recent US fiscal crisis, saying they had hurt the economy and America’s image by shutting down the government and threatening national default in an attempt to defund Obamacare.

“Let’s be clear: there are no winners here,” Obama said in White House remarks following the morning’s reopening of the federal government.

Responsible Republicans and Democrats came together to negotiate an end to the impasse, he said. But that did not rule out future “self-manufactured” political crises.

“To all my friends in Congress, understand that how business is done in this town has to change,” said the president.

Obama said that politicians should stop focusing on lobbyists, bloggers, talking heads, and “professional activists who profit from conflict” to focus on creating jobs and getting the nation’s fiscal house in order.

Specifically, he said Washington should now focus on a “balanced approach to a responsible budget,” passage of immigration reform, and finishing a farm bill.

“Those are three specific things that would make a huge difference in our economy right now. And we could get them done by the end of the year if our focus is on what’s good for the American people,” said the president.

Obama went on to praise the work of furloughed government workers, saying they care for seniors and veterans, ensure workplaces, food, and toys are safe, and other numerous vital services.

He said he recognizes that some people disagree vehemently with his policies. But disagreement needs to be resolved in the normal democratic process, he said.

“You don’t like a particular policy or a particular president, then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election. Push to change it. But don’t break it,” he said.

Obama’s tough tone was hard to miss. He wasn’t singing “Kumbaya” and asking everyone to join hands. His message, in essence, was this: I won fair and square within the normal democratic process. If you don’t like it, take back the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, if you can.

Some on the right saw this as Obama waving his victory in the face of conservative Republicans after outmaneuvering them on the shutdown and deficit debacle.

“This pro-government victory lap is unnecessary and nauseating,” tweeted conservative media star S.E. Cupp.

The conservative news site Twitchy aggregated a list of annoyed comments from conservatives, with many of them focusing on the “win an election” phrase, saying it was a taunt.

“We expected President Obama to spike the football during his post-shutdown victory speech this morning, but he still managed to make our jaws hit the floor with” the election remark, wrote Twitchy.

Non-conservatives had a slightly different take on this tone, which was perhaps best summed up by humor columnist Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker.

“Obama Declares National Day of Gloating,” ran the title on Borowitz’s column Thursday.

“It would not be productive for this nation, going forward, to crow about our victory over political adversaries,” wrote Borowitz in his satirical version of the president’s speech. “So let’s get it all out of our systems today.”

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., walks to his office after arriving on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Congress passes bill ending fiscal crisis. What was it all about?

By Staff writer / 10.17.13

Yes, it’s finally over. The US government reopened Thursday morning, and the Treasury prepared for a normal day of paying the nation’s bills after Congress approved a bill to raise the debt ceiling and end the 16-day federal shutdown.

President Obama signed the measure into law shortly after midnight Thursday.

In the short term, the resolution of the fiscal crisis represented a decisive defeat for congressional Republicans. At the urging of tea party-aligned conservative members, the House GOP at first demanded the defunding of Obamacare in return for continued government spending. What it got was a slight tightening of procedures for the verification of income levels for those applying for Obamacare subsidies.

The legislation also sets up a process for a House-Senate conference on a long-term budget and tax plan for the nation.

“We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” said House Speaker John Boehner in an interview with an Ohio radio station.

For the medium term, the effects of the resolution are less clear. That’s because it leaves open the possibility that the whole thing can happen again in a few short months. The legislation ending the standoff funds the government only until Jan. 15. It raises the debt ceiling to a level that the United States will hit around Feb. 7.

“We think that we’ll be back here in January debating the same issues. This is, I fear, a permanent feature of our budgetary process,” John Chambers, managing director of Standard & Poor’s rating service, told CNN.

The longer-term implication of the endgame may be this: It sets up an internal Republican struggle, if not for the soul of the party, for the nature of its approach to Washington governance in an era of divided partisan power.

That’s because tea party conservatives generally say they do not want to accommodate themselves to what their establishment GOP brethren consider the reality of their position. They want to fight, if not to win, then for fighting’s sake.

Matt Kibbe, president of the tea party-leaning group FreedomWorks, explained this Wednesday in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The endgame fiscal deal represented a complete loss, in Mr. Kibbe’s view, but that did not mean conservatives had accomplished nothing.

“What we accomplished was fighting,” he told Mr. Cooper. “It’s important in Washington, D.C., to step up to the plate and actually stand for something.”

The problem for conservatives is that the rest of the party sees the recent unpleasantness as pugilism without a point. The GOP’s approval rating sank to new lows, while the Affordable Care Act’s many rollout problems were overshadowed by news about the government shutdown and looming debt ceiling disaster.

There’s a sense of deep political disappointment in the conservative right that led to their recent actions, writes generally right-leaning columnist Ross Douthat in The New York Times. They’ve seen the federal government grow and grow, even under Republican presidents.

But the defund-Obamacare strategy was doomed from the start: Why would Mr. Obama ever sign away his signature domestic achievement? In the meantime, the fiscal struggle sucked billions of dollars out of the economy, took paychecks away from government workers, and alienated millions of nonconservative voters.

“That’s the only way in which this pointless-seeming exercise could turn out to have some sort of point: if it’s long remembered, by its proponents and their enablers alike, as the utter folly that it was,” writes Mr. Douthat.

A view of the US Capitol building at dusk in Washington, Oct. 15, 2013. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Congress races to head off US default, will it beat the clock? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.16.13

Senate leaders on Wednesday were racing to paste together a bipartisan deal to avoid a possible government default and reopen the government after weeks of a draining national fiscal crisis.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell expected to wrap up their negotiations in time to hold votes on the package later in the day. Staff worked all night drawing up legislative language to ensure the bill could be finished Wednesday morning.

“The clock is ticking,” Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, told The Washington Post. “Given the consequence of what we’re talking about here ... I would hope that we would have genuine interest among all parties in terms of trying to get this done as quickly as possible.”

The deal was expected to mirror one that Senate leaders discussed over the weekend. It would fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling enough to provide federal cash through Feb. 7 – thus setting up another possible confrontation in early 2014.

It would also establish a bipartisan commission to hammer out a longer-term budget and tax package, with a deadline of mid-December to finish. In addition, the bill was likely to include tougher language requiring the administration to verify the income of people qualifying for government subsidies under Obamacare.

Senate dealmaking was delayed for a day on Tuesday as House Republicans struggled to unify themselves behind some sort of proposal that they could pass before the Senate acts, perhaps pushing the final legislation to the right. But House Speaker John Boehner was unable to unify his conference behind a bill that would have been only somewhat more conservative than the Senate version. The result was an extraordinary public humiliation for a speaker who has had difficulty controlling the various factions of his caucus.

How complete is Speaker Boehner’s defeat? It’s possible now that he may adopt a legislative switch and pass the Senate’s deal before the Senate itself does so. This maneuver would speed the process of the bill at a time when hours now count.

Whatever he does, Boehner now probably faces a choice: government default or passage of a bill that the other chamber drew up without his involvement. It’s possible he would try a third option: passage of a clean debt ceiling increase, leaving the government shuttered. But given the lateness of the hour, such a move would be the equivalent of a quarterback heaving a pass from deep in his end zone as the last second ticked off the game clock.

“I believe it would be much quicker if the House were to take the existing vehicle, that’s the continuing resolution bill, load it up with the [Senate] agreement just described, and then send it back to the Senate,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania told CNN.

One remaining question was whether Sens. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Mike Lee (R) of Utah or one of their allies would try to delay the legislation on the Senate floor with a filibuster of sorts. That would be theoretically possible, but given the lateness of the hour and the complete collapse of Republican unity, even some conservative pundits urged against it.

“Would Lee or Cruz bother? The collapse of the House GOP effort last night means that there won’t be an alternative to the Senate bill at all, and certainly not one in time to head off a big public-relations nightmare for the caucus rebels,” writes right-leaning talk host Ed Morrissey Wednesday on Hot Air.

Mr. Morrissey opined that it’s time for Republicans to get out of the way and allow Obamacare’s implementation problems to take center stage.

Conservatives who backed Senator Cruz in his effort to strip funding from Obamacare sounded resigned to their defeat and indicated that they would continue their fight by other means – attempting to unseat the Republicans who they saw as betraying their effort.

“You will see no defunding of Obamacare because Republicans are giving up,” writes the influential Erick Erickson of right-leaning RedState.

Mr. Erickson said he’ll now be putting his money into Heritage Action and other political groups that pushed the defunding strategy.

“So what good is the GOP? It’s time to fight this out in primaries in 2014,” he writes.

Meanwhile, Boehner’s future now seems cloudy. He may have won some credibility with conservatives by pushing the shutdown as far as he has. But his inability to unite his caucus behind him for last-ditch efforts speaks to his larger leadership problems.

“In short: Boehner has the shell of a Speakership right now. With all that came before this latest rebuke from within his own conference, it’s hard to see how he picks up the pieces and moves forward with any sort of momentum or force behind him,” write Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan on The Washington Post political blog "The Fix."

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio arrives for a news conference after a House GOP meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

With debt limit, John Boehner could be facing his defining moment (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.15.13

It’s quite possible that the events of the next few days will define House Speaker John Boehner’s political legacy and his place in history.

Does that sound a bit over-dramatic? Maybe, but as of Tuesday it looks as if Mr. Boehner is the key Washington player who will determine whether the US defaults on its debts. Whether he’s willing or able to do so, and what that means for his chaotic GOP conference, are things that could reverberate in the US economy and government for a long time to come and overshadow other notable events of Boehner’s career.

Here’s the state of play: In recent days Senate majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell have been working on a fiscal deal to (temporarily) reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. The basic structure of the deal involves discussions for a longer-term budget and tax play as well as some minor tax changes for Obamacare.

But conservative House Republicans consider this plan to be surrender. So Boehner and the rest of the House GOP leadership on Tuesday began a quick-step process to see if they can produce their own bill before the Senate presents them with a fait accompli.

That’s caused the Senate leaders to hit the pause button on their own talks, as they wait to see what Boehner can produce. Thus, at the moment, it’s the speaker of the House who has the legislative steering wheel in his hands.

Problem is, he’s having a hard time rounding up votes. Conservatives were cool to Boehner’s opening proposal, which would have reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling on the Senate’s schedule, and added a two-year delay in Obamacare’s medical device tax, plus elimination of federal payments toward the health insurance of members of Congress and the cabinet.

“There are no decisions about what exactly we will do,” said Boehner at a brief press conference following a Tuesday morning conference of the House GOP.

The House leadership is still aiming for a vote as early as Tuesday evening. They’ve dropped the delay in the medical device tax, according to Robert Costa of the National Review. Conservatives considered that “crony capitalism” which their constituents would not consider a victory.

It’s possible that congressional staff will be added to the list of people losing their federal health care contributions. And a House bill would likely include a provision temporarily barring the Treasury from using “extraordinary measures” to shift around government funds in an attempt to avoid default.

Boehner is “treading carefully,” writes the well-sourced Mr. Costa. “According to his allies, he’s still hoping to bring the House’s plan to the floor tonight, and he thinks it can pass, as long as a few elements of the proposal are tinkered with.”

If Boehner can pass something, it might create additional leverage for Senator McConnell in his talks with Senator Reid. But Reid has already said he’s vehemently opposed to stripping the employer health subsidy from congressional staff. And the White House on Tuesday slammed Boehner’s effort, calling it a “partisan attempt to appease a small group of Tea Party Republicans.”

If Boehner fails, it’s Reid who might gain leverage in the Senate.

In any case, the Senate might – in fact, probably will – make changes in any House bill. What will Boehner do then? Would he allow a bill opposed by conservatives to come up for a vote on the House floor?

The fiscal crisis has lasted weeks, but Boehner’s problem hasn’t changed. He has struggled to unify House Republicans unless he proposes legislation that won’t pass the Senate or be signed by President Obama. If he accepts a compromise bill that passes his own chamber with Democratic support, his “speakership would effectively be over,” writes Washington Post political expert Chris Cillizza.

And the clock is ticking. The speaker’s time for maneuvering will soon be over.

President Barack Obama meets with Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada in the Oval Office of the White House Saturday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Government shutdown backfires? GOP says Democrats now guilty of extortion.

By Staff writer / 10.14.13

For the past few weeks, Democrats from the president on down decried Republican tactics on a potential government shutdown as political hostage-taking on a par with "extortion." So, of course, now that the Republicans are on the run, the Democrats are doing the exact same thing in reverse.

They're saying they want to undo major part of the sequester budget cuts as part of a deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt limit. It's as though Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has finally sensed his moment to destroy that product of tea party Republicanism once and for all. One might not even be surprised if "Ride of the Valkyries" was booming from his Senate office this morning.

That is how dramatically the story in Washington has flipped during the two weeks since the government shutdown.

On Oct. 1, the Republicans were on the offensive – or at least thought they were. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas was at the front of the column, and the cry coming from his ranks was that they would stop at nothing to gut President Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

A government shutdown? A hit to the credit rating of the United States if Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling? Either was preferable to a new government entitlement that they said would erode American liberties and drive the country further into a potentially fatal debt crisis.

Inevitably, they failed, because they had nowhere near the numbers in Congress to win, and – despite their rhetoric – only a minority of Americans wanted to repeal Obamacare. Americans had already decided that question in the 2012 elections, and Republicans' failure to accept that rebuke meant they would receive it again this month. The Democrats, who knew all this, had not the slightest intention of yielding.

But now, members of the Republican establishment have abandoned their tea party insurgents for a more moderate position: They've offered to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling – both only temporarily – so that Congress can discuss reforming Social Security and Medicare.

Democrats, surely would wish for more. A temporary reprieve still holds a hint of "extortion" and still keeps Washington bumping from one fiscal crisis to the next. But, these days, such is the stuff of which compromises are made.

But Senator Reid is having none of it. He knows that polls show most Americans blaming Republicans for the current gridlock. And he knows that the Republican establishment absolutely, positively does not want the government to default on its debt. The tea party, with its grass-roots outrage, might be willing to stay firm on its debt-limit resolve, but establishment Republicans are much more likely to listen to Wall Street, and a failure to raise the debt limit could mean global financial chaos. Not good for 401(k)s.

So Reid is trying his hand at the "extortion" game. The Republicans can only save themselves if they get out of this mess, and he's the only Democrat in Congress who has the power to let that happen. So far, he's letting them dangle.

He now wants the Republicans to roll back parts of the sequester budget cuts agreed to during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. The sequester, however, happens to be the only major legislative success of the Republicans' tea party era. Asking the GOP to go back on the sequester cuts would be like asking the Democrats to go back on, say ... Obamacare.

Sound familiar?

"There's no question that House Republicans overreached in trying to use this negotiation to repeal a [health care] bill that was very central to the president's agenda,'' said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, according to The Wall Street Journal. "The same thing is happening on the Democratic side among Senate leadership as pushed by the White House. They're trying to now undo a law put in place in 2011, the Budget Control Act.''

Just like the Republicans didn't have the numbers in Congress to defund Obamacare, the Democrats don't have the numbers to eviscerate the sequester. Not if the Republicans hold firm as the Democrats have. And it's hard to imagine the Republican-controlled House surrendering so meekly, even in its current beaten and battered state.

In all likelihood, Reid is merely pressing his advantage to gain as much leverage as he can. An agreement before Oct. 17, the day Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling or risk default, now seems inevitable.

The real lesson here, it seems, is one of political perspective. In D.C., "extortion" is just politics by another name.

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