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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. 

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio (l.), seen here with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky in a file photo, has insisted that any increase in the debt ceiling be accompanied by spending cuts. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

More conservatives plead with GOP to abandon debt-ceiling ultimatum

By Correspondent / 01.16.13

The threat by congressional Republicans not to raise the debt ceiling – possibly allowing the United States to go into default – doesn't seem to be scaring President Obama, at least based on his ongoing refusal to negotiate on the matter.

But it is clearly scaring many members of their own party. 

With the US likely to hit the limit on its borrowing authority as early as mid-February, more and more Republicans are publicly beseeching their party to drop the game of chicken – calling it both bad policy and bad politics – and focus instead on other, less-risky opportunities to push for spending cuts.

As the GOP begins a three-day retreat Wednesday to plot out legislative strategy, The Wall Street Journal reports that party leaders have grown "anxious" about the debt-ceiling standoff, writing that some members are worried "about the economic impact of the government's possibly missing some payments."

More important, Republican leaders are facing growing pressure from traditional allies outside of Congress, many of whom clearly view the fight as damaging for the country and suicidal for the party. Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have been urging Republicans to back down on the debt ceiling for weeks now. As The New York Times's Jackie Calmes reports, it's creating an unusual shifting of alliances, with the White House asking business leaders directly to lobby Republicans on the matter. The piece quotes David Cote, the Republican CEO of Honeywell, as saying: "I'm agreeing with the president – you should not be using the debt limit as a bargaining chip when it comes to how you run the country."

Likewise, Tuesday, The Financial Times's Stephanie Kirchgaessner reported that the conservative activist group Americans for Prosperity – backed by the billionaire Koch brothers – also came out in favor of raising the debt ceiling, with a sharp warning that Republicans were losing the messaging battle. Tim Phillips, president of AFP told the paper: "We're saying calibrate your message. Focus on overspending instead of long-term debt."

And the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader editorial page called the debt ceiling the "right fight [at the] wrong time," writing: "The trouble with forcing that standoff is that Republicans cannot win it. Obama will stand firm, and they will have to flinch or shut down the government. Either way, Obama wins and Republicans lose more credibility, which makes it harder to force a showdown on spending on more favorable ground in the future."

The rapidly multiplying calls from conservative groups for the GOP to back down and pick a different fight may have been influenced in part by comments Tuesday from the head of a top credit-rating firm that a repeat of 2011's standoff would lead to the US rating being placed under review, with a "material risk" of being downgraded. 

Politically, there are clear indications Republicans are already losing the PR war, with polls showing that the public is broadly siding with the president's position. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, 58 percent of Americans believe that the debt ceiling should be handled separately from the debate over spending cuts, while only 36 percent favor linking the two, as House Speaker John Boehner has demanded. (Mr. Boehner has called for a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar in increased borrowing authority.) And only 22 percent said they'd be willing to let the government default on its debt or have the government partially shut down if an agreement can't be reached.

If party leaders haven't already figured out an escape hatch from this mess, we'd imagine they're looking for one now. 

Is it wrong for NRA to drag Obama's daughters into gun-control fight? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.16.13

Is it wrong for the National Rifle Association to drag President Obama’s daughters into the gun-control fight? That question comes up because the big gun-rights lobby group issued an ad this week that brings up Sasha and Malia and their (armed) Secret Service protection as an example of how Mr. Obama is a “hypocrite” on guns.

The 30-second ad is not subtle. It starts with a generic shot of kids playing and the quick statement, “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?”

It goes on to question why Obama is skeptical about armed guards at schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools. Then it segues briefly into fiscal issues – saying that the president demands the rich pay their “fair share of taxes” – before shifting back to its kicker, “He is just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

“Protection for their kids and gun-free zones for ours,” it concludes, after a quick shot of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, gun-control advocate Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and David Gregory of NBC News, protected by a couple of armed guys in SWAT outfits.

(Mr. Gregory is in there due to a show where he questioned the need for high-capacity ammo magazines and pushed the limits of D.C. law to display one.)

We’d say this is a polarizing ad that won’t change any minds or votes. What it will do is inflame opponents, while perhaps rallying supporters to the NRA’s side and winning donations at a time when some gun owners are worried about possible upcoming government actions.

Actually, “inflame opponents” might be underplaying it. “Make them apoplectic” might be more accurate. As the respected Ron Fournier of National Journal writes Wednesday, “The ad is indisputably misleading, and is arguably a dangerous appeal to the base instincts of gun-rights activists.”

There’s a good reason the president’s family has armed protection, after all: Unlike most people in America, they are the subject of constant and credible death threats. Their protection consists not of an armed school guard but highly trained teams of agents who practice constantly and know when to act and, perhaps more important, when not to react.

As maverick conservative David Frum points out in The Daily Beast, the NRA’s guard-in-every-school idea would require about 150,000 armed guards to protect 75 million students for 200 days a year. It is easy to envision the mistakes that could occur just because of the scale of this coverage and the fact that these guards would not be Secret Service-level trained.

Plus, schools are far from the only place where mass shootings occur.

“Second: even if the idea were a good one, the NRA’s sneering references to the president’s family are beyond the pale,” Mr. Frum writes.

Obama and his family have long been charged with “uppityism,” says Frum, meaning the NRA’s ad verges on using racially coded language.

“This latest attack ad looks to many like only one more attempt to enflame an ancient American wound,” according to Frum.

The NRA has said it has gained 250,000 more members in recent weeks as Washington has discussed new gun-control measures, and this new ad may be aimed more at keeping that rolling than at actually affecting policy. On the NRA’s website, the new ad is surrounded by bids to “sign up to stand and fight” and “sign up for the latest updates here.”

This is standard Washington procedure for many big interest groups: Take advantage of controversy to keep the group itself as big and wealthy as possible.

President Obama speaks about the debt limit in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Time to raise debt ceiling: Does public back approach of Obama or Boehner? (+ video)

By Staff writer / 01.15.13

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner on Monday laid out sharply opposing visions of how to resolve the looming crisis over the national debt ceiling – and each claims public supports for his own line in the sand.

So, who has a better fix on the public mood?

On the policy dispute, polls indicate the public now favors Mr. Obama's call for a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction over the Boehner principle of matching spending cuts to every dollar increase in the debt limit.

But there's more. Ever since the fiscal-cliff debacle in 2011, public opinion has swung strongly in favor of compromise. Regardless of the policy outcomes they prefer, Americans are wary of hardline positions and want their leaders to negotiate and compromise.

Americans are now more worried about the federal budget deficit and “government dysfunction” than they are about unemployment, according to a Gallup poll released Monday.

Since 2009, the top two responses to Gallup’s (open-ended) question, “what do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?,” have been the economy and unemployment.  

While “the economy in general” still ranks No. 1 (21 percent), the federal budget deficit (20 percent) and dissatisfaction with government (18 percent) edged unemployment (16 percent) out of the top two slots.

“Debt and dissatisfaction with government are the new unemployment,” says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J.

Dissatisfaction with government hasn’t ranked this high in Gallup polling since the Watergate era in 1974. As divided as Americans are on debt and deficit policy, they still expect their leaders to compromise.

The 2011 debt-limit standoff, resolved at the 11th hour after Democrats agreed to Boehner's demands to match every dollar of a higher debt limit with a dollar of spending cuts, rattled the US economy and drew the first-ever downgrade of the US credit rating. 

In the run-up to negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at the end of 2012, two-thirds of Republicans and Democrats wanted both sides to compromise equally to avoid some $600 billion in tax hikes and automatic spending cuts then set to take hold Jan. 1, polls found.

But neither the president nor Mr. Boehner are talking compromise in advance of the latest debt-limit crisis, expected as early as mid-February.

In a press conference Monday, the president said he will not negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit, period, but that he would be willing to discuss in a separate context “a balanced approach” to deficit reduction.  

Boehner restated his own line in the sand. “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time,” he said in a statement after the White House press conference.

However, polls now back the president’s claim that most Americans want a “balanced approach” to cutting deficits – that is, one that includes tax hikes as well as spending cuts. Support for the Republican view – that deficits should be reduced only or mostly by spending cuts – has dropped 10 percentage points since 2011, according to a Gallup poll released after November elections. A balanced approach is now preferred by 45 percent of Americans, compared with 40 percent favoring only or mostly spending cuts, the poll reports.

Moreover, Obama has consistently received higher approval ratings than Republican leaders for his handling of debt and deficit negotiations. Most Americans blamed congressional Republicans (81 percent) more than the White House (67 percent) for the 2011 debt-limit debacle.

While Americans are lukewarm about the December 2012 tax-hike deal to avert the fiscal cliff, 48 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the negotiations, compared with 19 percent approval for GOP leaders, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Still, asked Monday who the public would blame if a fiscal impasse ends in a government shutdown, Obama said: "I suspect that the American people would blame all of Washington for not being able to get its act together.”

President Obama gestures during the last news conference of his first term, in the East Room of the White House on Monday. Responding to a question on gun control, he said: 'I'm confident that there are some steps that we can take that don't require legislation and that are within my authority as president.' (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Obama and gun control: What actions could he take on his own?

By Staff writer / 01.15.13

At his news conference Monday President Obama said he’s considering using his executive powers to order up some new gun-control measures. What sorts of things could he do on the gun issue on his own?

Well, he won’t be instituting sweeping edicts such as a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. Those would require congressional legislation, which he’s also vowed to push for. What Mr. Obama can do is issue executive orders based on his constitutional authority or existing statutes. Generally, this sort of executive action deals with government officials or agencies, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the subject.

Executive orders “usually affect private individuals only indirectly,” according to CRS.

Thus one thing Obama might do is tighten the existing background check system meant to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, according to a list of possible executive actions compiled by the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP).

Obama could penalize states that don’t provide data on disqualified gun purchasers to the federal government, for instance. He could order federal agencies themselves to do a better job of telling the FBI about individuals that by law may not be qualified to own firearms. He could direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to conduct background checks on the employees of federally licensed gun dealers as part of its existing audit program.

The president might have the power to require broader reporting of multiple sales of assault rifles to particular individuals, according to CAP. He could also order the FBI to absorb the ATF. “In recent years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has become a beleaguered agency that is unable to adequately fulfill its mission to oversee and enforce federal firearms laws,” claims the CAP.

Other actions the president might take include further limits on gun imports, and increased funding for research into the nature and effects of gun violence.

The reasons the White House might see the executive action route as attractive are obvious. Congressional action is uncertain, and there is substantial opposition, even among some Democrats, to banning whole weapon classes such as assault rifles. Executive action could allow Obama to trumpet some progress on gun control at a time when the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., are high in public thought. Yet such action would require little political capital on his part and would not distract from his efforts on something voters still say is their top priority – keeping the economy on track.

Meanwhile, Obama’s political adversaries are on watch, lest he overreach. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina has warned that executive orders in this area might constitute a “power grab.”

“The Obama administration better tread lightly on the issue of using Executive Orders to implement gun control measures,” tweeted Senator Graham earlier this month.

Rep. Steve Stockman (R) of Texas has gone even further. In a statement Monday, Representative Stockman called Obama’s possible moves “an unconstitutional and unconscionable attack on the very founding principles of this republic” and threatened to file articles of impeachment to stop the actions.

Gun enthusiasts packed in by the hundreds to purchase weapons and ammunition during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Jan. 6, in Sandy, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

How Democrats might get to 'yes' on gun control

By Staff writer / 01.15.13

If President Obama and congressional Democrats are going to make headway on the gun violence proposals Vice President Joe Biden is set to deliver to the president on Tuesday, their strategy will probably look a lot like gun-owning Rep. Mike Thompson – and move with the energy and purpose of political cage fighter Rahm Emanuel.

Representative Thompson (D) of California remembers where he was on Dec. 14, the day of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. He was in a duck blind, back home in his Napa Valley district.

“Federal law prohibits me from having more than three shells in my shotgun,” Thompson said Monday at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP). “So federal law provides more protection for the ducks than it does” for people, he said, referring to ammunition magazines that can hold 30 or more bullets.

Thompson, chairman of a Democratic committee charged with making recommendations for new “gun violence prevention” measures (Democrats want no part of being pro-“gun control”), is emblematic of the central plank of Democrats’ strategic approach to gun control: put on a friendly face.

Both Thompson and Mr. Biden, the leader of the president’s own task force, are lifelong gun owners who are quick to point out that no, the federal government is absolutely not coming to seize your arms.

“We’re on a little different footing than ever before on this subject,” said Thompson, referring to a 2008 US Supreme Court’s ruling affirming Americans’ ability to possess guns. “American citizens have a right to own firearms. So the idea that one side believes that we should take all the guns, it’s not part of the discussion. And the other side thinks we are trying to get all the guns, that’s not either.”

But a genteel sales pitch will get you only so far.

That’s where Chicago Mayor Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former White House chief of staff, comes in. Emanuel is a legislative veteran, the point man for President Bill Clinton’s successful gun legislation in the mid-1990s and the man who put the kibosh on a potential battle over guns in Obama’s first term.

This time around, Emanuel, who spoke at CAP with Thompson, says Democrats need to take a half-dozen discrete steps to succeed.

First, they need to frame the changes they seek – whether background checks on all gun sales or a limit on the sale of assault weapons – as “all about criminal access” to firearms, Emanuel said Monday. “It’s not about gun control; it’s about criminal access to guns. That changes the debate.”

Next, Democrats need to take a page out of Mr. Clinton’s playbook and keep “the police chief and the law enforcement community front and center.” Highlighting law enforcement support for the plan, as Clinton did in 1994, helped remove the issue from the partisan terrain of gun rights versus gun control and placed it into an argument about policy and community safety.

Third, Emanuel emphasized that Democrats should make sure Americans get a good look at assault weapons and their associated bullet magazines, restrictions on which are likely to be the most controversial piece of the White House’s policy recommendations.

There’s “a difference between the magazine that holds 10 [bullets] and magazine that holds 20 or 30,” Emanuel said. And there’s “a lot of different type of damage done” with the latter.

Then, Emanuel’s puzzle involves Democrats sticking up for one another come election season: They need to be willing to go to the wall for members in districts with more difficult gun politics.

“If the person is going to take the vote,” he said, reflecting on Democratic losses in the 1994 congressional elections that many attribute to voting for the president’s assault weapons ban, “don’t walk away from them come the political season.”

Moreover, the president would be wise to act on smaller but still controversial issues through executive order when possible, Emanuel advised. Obama has said he will weigh which issues could be handled through executive decisionmaking, a prospect that has infuriated congressional Republicans who believe the president too-frequently sidesteps Capitol Hill’s authority.

“Push the limit on [executive action],” Emanuel said. “Clear the table, man. Don’t allow a side issue to derail these things. [The eventual legislation] is going to be perilous enough.”

With that strategy in place, Democrats should put Republicans into a position similar to that of the fiscal cliff fight: a Senate-passed bill on their doorstep and the president using his political moxie to turn up the heat.

“Get it done [in the Senate] and then clear the decks and put the ultimate pressure on the House,” Emanuel said. “Put the burner up.”

Vice President Joe Biden (c.) speaks during a meeting with representatives from the video game industry in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, last week. (Susan Walsh/AP)

How to tackle gun violence: 5 things liberal groups want

By Staff writer / 01.14.13

Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled Tuesday to give his recommendations to President Obama on how to help alleviate gun violence in the United States.

While Mr. Obama promised at his press conference on Monday to present the details of Mr. Biden’s recommendations later this week, here are the top five proposals from liberal interest groups (The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Center for American Progress) and lawmakers closely aligned with the White House that shed light on what the Obama administration may push for at the outset of his second term.

1. Universal background checks

This first proposal is one that Democrats believe has widespread support, even among Republican lawmakers: If you buy a gun, no matter who it’s from, you have to pass a background check.

Currently, private sellers make up about 40 percent of weapon transfers in the US every year. What’s known in some places as the “gun show loophole” means that those barred from buying guns by other statutes can effectively circumvent those laws by obtaining a weapon from a private weapons dealer.

“When you’ve got 40 percent of the guns that are going out [not receiving background checks], that’s not a loophole. That’s an exception,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said at an event Monday at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP). “Shutting that exemption... is essential.”

This recommendation requires strong legislative language to require states to contribute information toward national databases used for assessing whether an individual should be allowed to purchase a weapon. At present, 10 states have submitted a grand total of zero names to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and 18 other states have submitted fewer than 100, according to CAP.

2. Restrict the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines

 If background checks enjoy the most consensus, what to do about restricting access to assault weapons is perhaps the most controversial.

The Brady Campaign, one of the most outspoken advocates for increased gun control, gives only a single broad sentence to the subject in its policy recommendations: “Limit the availability of military-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines that are designed for mass killing.”

But others have been a bit more specific at reviving a policy created under President Bill Clinton but allowed to lapse under President George W. Bush.

CAP endorsed a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California that would halt the “sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.” In other words, it would freeze ownership of weapons like that used in the Newtown, Conn., massacre at its current level. Feinstein and other Democratic Senators plan to introduce legislation to this effect early in the new session of Congress.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut told reporters on Monday that she was introducing legislation to offer a $1,000, refundable tax credit for each of the next two years to encourage owners of assault weapons to turn them in to local authorities.

But reducing access to guns of any kind raises the hackles of conservative groups like the National Rifle Association, whose head vowed over the weekend that liberals simply don’t have the votes for such an assault weapons restriction.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a freshman, told PBS’ Judy Woodruff that he would fight any such legislation.

“I intend to help lead the fight to stop Senator Dianne Feinstein's bill to pass aggressive gun control,” Senator Cruz said last week. “It's misguided policy. If you look at the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws, almost without exception, they have the highest crime rates and the highest murder rates. If you look at the jurisdictions that most vigorously protect our right to keep and bear arms, almost without exception, they have the lowest crime rates and the lowest murder rates.”

3. Get better gun data

In addition to making sure dangerous or violent Americans can’t get their hands on weapons, and potentially limiting access to assault weapons, the next most frequent complaint is about a simple thing: information.

Liberal lawmakers say the gun lobby’s innate fear of the federal government collecting data about guns or gun users manifests itself in restrictions on research into weapons and their impact on society.

Among the restrictions Democrats would like to strike down are limits on the use of so-called “trace data,” which show the initial sale of a weapon, and requirements that federal agencies destroy completed background checks within a day, saying the checks would allow authorities to pinpoint “straw purchasers” who help criminals circumvent gun laws.

Democrats would also like to allow the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health free reign to study public health and safety issues relating to firearms.

Regarding the CDC and NIH, there is “nothing legally that says you can’t collect this data, but [fear of losing funding] has over these years had a very chilling effect” on investigation of the subject, said Representative DeLauro said. “These agencies are limited in the funding that they receive, so if they’re going to be engaged in something that’s controversial that’s [potentially] going to lead to precluding resources and funds that they may have, they may not want to move in that direction.”

4. Put ATF under jurisdiction of the FBI

Perhaps the structure of government is impeding the ability of federal agents to pursue violent criminals and gun crimes. CAP proposes moving the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) – which has gone without a permanent head for over two years as Republicans and the NRA criticize the potential director as insufficiently pro-gun – under the FBI.

“For reasons such as lack of funding, limitations on its activities including in appropriations riders, and a leadership vacuum,” CAP’s recommendations read, “the bureau is simply incapable of functioning properly as a standalone agency in its current state.”

Many groups have pointed out that the ATF has been prevented from creating a digital database of gun records, which gun advocates have decried as a breach of privacy and a stepping stone toward the confiscation of guns. Instead, the bureau makes due with an antiquated paper system.

5. Emphasize prosecutions of gun violations

Liberals want gun violations to be a serious enforcement priority for federal prosecutors around the country and advocate elevating gun trafficking to a federal crime.

“The absence of any federal law defining gun trafficking in this country is shocking,” wrote Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York in a recent op-ed about her legislation that would raise gun trafficking to the level of federal prosecution. “We have thousands of laws, but effectively none of them are directly focused on preventing someone from Virginia from driving to New York City, parking their car in a parking lot, and selling hundreds of firearms out of the back of their trunk to criminals.”

Such legislation would impose harsher penalties on not only the recipients of trafficked weapons but on buyers and gun dealers who don’t comply with federal laws. Without legislation, however, liberals believe that instructing district attorneys to emphasize gun prosecutions would help prevent violence in the future.

6. What isn’t included?

What’s yet to be seen are concrete proposals from the two liberal groups on two frequently mentioned areas of concern: how to improve access to mental health care or deal with what those on both the left and right agree is a dangerous cultural fascination with violence as exemplified by violent movies and videogames. As part of his assignment to draw up recommendations on gun violence, Biden convened meetings with both health professionals and members of the entertainment industry.

CAP offered no proposals to address either issue. The Brady Campaign only submitted a single broad thought on the matter: “We should provide legal mechanisms to prevent those dangerously mentally ill who present the most significant risk from possessing guns, while carefully protecting the rights of those who are mentally ill but do not pose a risk.”

DeLauro said that the mental health component had a simple solution: money.

Without funding for state or national efforts to provide greater access to mental health-care, DeLauro said, all the talk will be just that – talk.

“It has been a struggle every single year to increase the funding,” for federal agencies overseeing mental health, said DeLauro, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee, which oversees such spending. “If you’re not going to provide the resources ... you can say that we’re going to focus in these areas, but without the resources it is hollow.”

President Obama gestures as he speaks in a press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Obama's refusal to negotiate on debt ceiling: Smart or risky? (+video)

By Correspondent / 01.14.13

With the wacky trillion-dollar-platinum-coin idea now officially off the table, Washington is back to its never-ending game of chicken over the debt ceiling.

President Obama has not budged from his stark line in the sand: When it comes to the debt ceiling, he will not negotiate. Period.

In a press conference Monday, he reiterated this position, stating: "Republicans in Congress have two choices here. They can act responsibly and pay America's bills. Or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy." 

Mr. Obama made clear – as he did during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis – that raising the debt ceiling "does not authorize more spending; it simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to." The difference this time around, however, is that while Obama says he's ready to have a "vigorous debate" on debt reduction, he also says that debate must be separate from Congress taking action on the debt ceiling. And if Republicans decide to block such an action, the consequences will be all on them.

The problem, of course, is that Republicans are taking an equally firm stand. House Speaker John Boehner has vowed to raise the debt ceiling – which could hit its limit as early as mid-February – only if he gets dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. Mr. Boehner reiterated this position in a statement released after the president's press conference, which read: “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time. The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so too are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved.”

No one knows how this crisis will unfold, of course, but here's our best guess: Republicans will eventually blink. 

In fact, we believe Obama pretty much secured this outcome from the moment he declared that he simply would not negotiate on the matter.

True, it's a potentially risky position to take – since, if Republicans don't back down, the president will either have to go back on his pledge or allow what he himself has described as a catastrophic economic event to take place.

And it is, of course, a far less conciliatory approach than the one the president took back in 2011. That time around, Obama was already in the middle of a tough reelection campaign, and the economy was more fragile. He couldn't risk even appearing willing to risk a default. As a result, Obama and Boehner spent months trying to work out a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction, which ultimately imploded.

But the president has clearly learned some lessons from the whole ugly episode – which resulted in a credit downgrade for the United States – and the follow-up "fiscal cliff" negotiations that took place last month. One is that a grand bargain may simply be impossible right now, given the divisions between the parties. While that doesn't mean those negotiations should be shelved, it doesn't necessarily make sense to keep tying them to economic deadlines that create crises.

The other is that, while these self-created crises have been politically damaging to both sides, they have been far worse for the GOP. A Washington Post poll taken right after the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle found, for example, that while 67 percent of Americans said they had little or no confidence in Obama when it came to making the right decisions for the country's economic future, an astonishing 81 percent had little or no confidence in congressional Republicans.

Current polling suggests that Americans are already inclined to blame Republicans more than Democrats for whatever happens with this latest debt-ceiling fight. And on the heels of a reelection victory in which Obama's economic vision received public validation, the president appears to be betting that, for all their bluster, Republicans won't in the end be willing to risk an actual default. The economic and political consequences of a default could be devastating.

That hasn't stopped GOP members from hitting the airwaves and publicly threatening to shut down the government by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. On Monday, Politico reported that "more than half" of Republicans are currently prepared to allow default, with Republican leaders warning privately that the White House "doesn't understand how hard it will be to talk restive conservatives off the fiscal ledge."

But in many ways, it all feels like a big bluff. Tellingly, the GOP leadership isn't out there advocating default – and many prominent Republicans have said they think it would be a mistake. The business community – including typical GOP allies like the Chamber of Commerce – is strongly opposed.

As Slate's William Saletan wrote last week, parsing statements by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell about the "leverage" his party holds: "That isn’t how you talk when you have leverage. It’s how you talk when you know your leverage is fake. Republicans don't have enough members willing to tank our credit rating or shut down the government. They know it would be too painful."

The other point to keep in mind about all this is that the debt ceiling isn't the only card Republicans have to play. There is still the package of $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, known as the sequester, scheduled to hit in coming months, as well as the need to reauthorize the stopgap spending measure currently funding the government. The latter could offer Republicans another opportunity to shut down the government, as they've been threatening, without risking a credit default and the potential meltdown of the global economy.

And perhaps that's the real motive behind all these Republican debt-ceiling threats. In comparison to the prospect of default on the debt, a more straightforward government shutdown, à la 1995, seems practically tame.  

Donald Trump, seen in this September 2012 file photo, appeared on Fox News Monday. (David J. Phillip/AP/File)

Does Donald Trump think the Oscars revile America?

By Staff writer / 01.14.13

Does Donald Trump think the Academy Awards hates America? “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy asked the famous real estate mogul/reality-show host that question flat-out on Monday.

First, Mr. Doocy went through a buildup in which he asserted that both “Argo,” a movie about US diplomats escaping from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film about the US hunt for Osama bin Laden, got more love from the Golden Globes than from the Academy Awards. The directors of both these movies were nominated for Golden Globes, he pointed out. (That would be Ben Affleck for “Argo” and Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty.” Mr. Affleck won.) Yet neither got a nod in that category from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“Do you think both of those movies are being punished by Oscar because they’re pro-American movies?” Doocy inquired of The Donald, who often appears on the “Fox & Friends” show.

Without hesitation, Mr. Trump shot this theory down. “I don’t think so,” he said. Then he went on to praise NBC for how much it has built up the Golden Globe franchise over the years. (Is it a coincidence that Trump’s own “Celebrity Apprentice” appears on that network? You be the judge.)

Anyway, we’d say that this is one mark for rationality: Both “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” have won an Academy Award Best Picture nomination, after all.

But it’s true that this year, politics is swirling around the film awards season like never before. Look at who appeared as a surprise presenter on the Golden Globe telecast – Bill Clinton.

Or, as host Amy Poehler referred to him, “Hillary Clinton’s husband.”

The 42nd president of the United States introduced a clip of Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln,” which depicts the push to abolish slavery through enactment of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.

“A tough fight to push a bill through a bitterly divided House of Representatives,” Mr. Clinton said in his introduction. “Winning it required the president to make a lot of unsavory deals that had nothing to do with the big issue.”

Then, he paused just a bit before adding, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Was his appearance a subtle pro-Democrat move? Well, unlike Abraham Lincoln, Clinton isn’t a Republican, last we looked. True, he talked about the need for “principle and compromise” to make enduring progress in governing America, which is a suitably bipartisan sentiment. But if the show’s producers had wanted to say “let’s all come together,” they could have had George W. Bush up on stage with him.

Hmm. Memo to Mr. Spielberg: The Oscars aren’t until Feb. 24. That’s just enough time to line up your dream team of presenters – President Obama, plus a hologram of Ronald Reagan.

In this May 2011 file photo, a boy listens to President Obama speak on immigration reform at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas. President Obama has vowed to make immigration reform a top legislative priority in 2013. (Jim Young/Reuters/File )

Immigration reform in 2013? It has a champion in Corporate America.

By Staff writer / 01.10.13

Corporate America’s top lobbyist Thursday laid out a slew of the business community’s top goals for the year – lower regulation, increased trade, booming energy production, and a fix to the nation’s fiscal situation.

But US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue was particularly bullish, and at times passionate, on another long-sought goal, one not often associated with the conservative-leaning group: immigration reform.

“I have an optimistic feeling about this,” Mr. Donohue told reporters after his annual State of American Business speech. “Before, everybody talked about it, everybody understood the issues, but there wasn’t an energy behind it and I think there is a bipartisan group of people – we haven’t got everybody, that’s for sure – but I feel positive about it and look forward to [immigration reform] this year.”

The Chamber has been a firm advocate for immigration reform, an issue more closely identified with liberal advocates, for many years, including its support for 2006 legislation that stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Donohue said his conversations with lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill make him optimistic for a solution in 2013. He also noted that the Chamber is working with groups ranging from faith organizations to law enforcement to labor unions including the nation’s largest – and staunchly progressive – labor group, the AFL-CIO, to forge a broad political coalition to support an immigration reform effort.

“We will find a balance in these issues,” Donohue said, before calling AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, a man with whom Donohue is working personally, “about the best guy in town at building coalitions.”

On Capitol Hill, Donohue’s efforts will support legislative work by bipartisan groups in both the House and Senate currently discussing immigration reform proposals. President Obama, too, has vowed to make immigration reform a top legislative priority in 2013.

Bringing a wide range of interest groups on board an immigration reform push is key, Donohue acknowledged, because immigration reform’s many politically explosive questions – What to do with undocumented immigrants? How to secure America’s borders? What about American unemployment? – could be disastrous for lawmakers.

“These are very passionate issues,” Donohue said. “People worry about what the folks back home think, and you can demagogue this issue very easily.”

Donohue’s speech offered only the broad outlines of an immigration reform plan. The Chamber favors strict border security measures and workplace systems to verify immigration status, “thoughtfully designed” guest worker programs for both low- and high-skilled workers, more green cards for international students at American universities, and “a path out of the shadows for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the United States today, provided that they meet strict conditions.”

Donohue put special emphasis on the need to reform the immigration system despite persistent unemployment among existing Americans.

“Even with high unemployment, we have millions of job openings that go unfilled. Either the workers come here to fill those jobs,” Donohue said, “or the companies take all of their jobs somewhere else.”

He noted that the Chamber and the business community at large are fighting for better job training and education reforms, but that even so, “we still need immigrants. We are locked in a competition for the world’s best talent. This is the competition that will separate the economic leaders from the laggards in the 21st century.”

And he warned that America would do well to remember its heritage when thinking through how to change its immigration system.

“As we have this important debate,” Donohue said, “let’s remember who we are and where our families would be today if earlier generations of Americans had decided to slam the door shut.”

“The door to the American dream,” he continued, “must always remain open.”

Vice President Joe Biden, with Attorney General Eric Holder (l.), speaks during a meeting with victims' groups and gun-safety organizations in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex Wednesday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Suddenly, Joe Biden is everywhere. Are prospects for a 2016 run improving? (+video)

By Correspondent / 01.10.13

President Obama may be preparing for his inauguration – but in many ways it's Vice President Joe Biden who's the man of the moment.

This week, he's heading up the gun-control talks at the White House, bringing all parties to the table and, in typical Biden fashion, making news with his declaration Wednesday that the president would consider using executive orders to make something happen.

The vice president also proved pivotal in the recent "fiscal cliff" negotiations, almost single-handedly sealing a deal with Republicans at the 11th hour. As Major Garrett writes in National Journal this week, Mr. Biden "made or took 13 calls from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky during the weekend that most cliff issues were resolved." He added, "Can anyone imagine President Obama calling anyone about anything 13 times?" It was a reprising of the dealmaking role that Biden played in 2011's debt-ceiling negotiations.

Mr. Garrett pointedly calls Biden a "closer" – the only one the administration has. Notably, Ezra Klein uses the same term in his Bloomberg column this week, in which, like Garrett, he describes Biden as an underrated legislator and politician, "the White House closer, the guy who can cut a deal with the Republicans after everyone else has failed."

Mr. Klein goes on to note that Biden's off-the-cuff remarks often provide "comic relief" – and, as a result, his presidential ambitions have been mostly "laughed off." But in fact, the prospect of a Biden 2016 campaign is something we should take quite seriously.

That's a far cry from the general consensus among the chattering classes not too long ago, when most Democratic insiders were tending to play down, if not completely write off, Biden's chances. And it may still be a bit optimistic.

As U.S. News & World Report's Ken Walsh writes: "Americans in recent years have mostly elected Washington outsiders or fresh faces to the presidency, such as Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Being a Washington insider such as Biden no longer has much appeal in either major party."

But the recent health scare and hospitalization of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who's been widely regarded as the Democratic front-runner should she decide to enter the fray (though she's hardly a fresh face, either) has added a touch more uncertainty to the 2016 field. If Mrs. Clinton decides in the end not to run, then it becomes a wide-open race – with Biden's chances to win the nomination as good or better than anyone else's.

And it's possible that Biden's old-school, backslapping style of politicking may be coming back in vogue – in part because it stands as such a sharp contrast to what has become the chief criticism of his boss: the widespread lament, even from many Democrats, that Mr. Obama is too "aloof," "condescending," and generally too above-it-all to dirty his hands in the Washington mud pit.

That's why the image of Biden as a "closer" is a shrewd one for the veep's aides to circulate now – since it speaks to the general longing for Washington to get things done. Their guy may not be the flashy starting pitcher, as the analogy goes, but he's the one who ultimately wins the game.  

It's true that Americans don't like the way Beltway politics are played. But electing someone who's reluctant to join the game can lead to nothing happening at all. With Washington gridlock seeming more and more intractable – even as the challenges facing the nation become more and more pressing – an old-fashioned dealmaker in chief like Biden may seem like just what the country needs.

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