Budget deal in hand, lawmakers turn to details
More details of the 2011 budget deal between President Obama and congressional leaders trickle out, and the president's senior adviser says Obama this week will lay out a new approach to reducing the nation's debt.
WASHINGTON — As more details of the 2011 budget deal between President Obama and congressional leaders trickled out Sunday, lobbyists and lawmakers stepped up efforts to secure or kill provisions benefiting wolf hunters in Montana, profit-making colleges and public-works projects.
Meanwhile, the president's senior adviser said Obama this week will lay out a new approach to reducing the nation's debt, with reductions in spending on entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid and a new call for tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.
Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reached their 2011 deal late Friday, hours before the government would have shut down for lack of spending authority over the rest of the fiscal year.
But it became evident Sunday they had yet to work out details of the deal, which would cut roughly $38.5 billion from a budget expected to exceed $3.7 trillion this year.
"You may not be surprised to hear this, but they're still sifting through the areas where they are going to make cuts," Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said on ABC News' "This Week."
A Republican congressional aide said Sunday night that the House and Senate appropriations panels were working on the fine points, since "thousands of budget line items have to be negotiated."
The deal would cut $13 billion from programs at the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services and would extract $1 billion more in an across-the-board cut from domestic agencies. There also will be reductions to housing-assistance and health-care programs, along with $8 billion in cuts to the State Department and foreign aid, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said.
The White House late Sunday said the agreement preserves Head Start preschool funds and the Pell Grant program for college students, but presidential aides and congressional Republicans still were fighting over a proposal to block Obama administration rules that would establish tight standards for profit-making colleges and vocational schools.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said many profit-making schools do not equip students to obtain "gainful employment," but leave them saddled with debt. Rules, he said, are needed to protect students and taxpayers against "wasteful spending on educational programs of little or no value."
Profit-making colleges mobilized support over the weekend for a GOP amendment that would delay the rules for at least six months.
Harris Miller, president of the industry's trade group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, warned that tens of thousands of students could find themselves without federal aid if the rule took effect.
Montana hunters appear to have been more successful.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the budget bill included his proposal to remove gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the federal list of endangered species. This would enable the two states to manage their wolf populations and to allow hunting of the animals if they choose.
"This wolf fix isn't about one party's agenda," Tester said. "It's about what's right for Montana and the West."
Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, however, strongly objected.
"In all the decades of the Endangered Species Act," he said, referring to the 1973 law, "Congress has never legislatively removed protections for any species. It's bad to do it for the wolf, and it could set a very bad precedent, replacing scientific determinations with politics."
The budget agreement also takes aim at two provisions of the new health-care law. It would cut more than $2 billion set aside for creation of private nonprofit health-insurance cooperatives. It also would eliminate a program that would have allowed hundreds of thousands of lower-income workers to opt out of employer-sponsored health plans and use the employer's contribution to buy coverage through new insurance exchanges.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., architect of this provision, lamented its demise.
"Publicly," he said, "both parties say they are champions of choice and competition and making health insurance more affordable for everyone. But then behind closed doors they kill a program that does exactly that. This seems like a victory for special interests."
Many employers had objected to the Wyden provision, saying it would increase their costs by allowing younger and healthier entry-level employees to opt out of employer-sponsored plans.
If the 2011 budget fight seemed contentious, it's likely to seem tame compared with the coming battle over debt.
In an apparent response to a framework presented by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., last week, White House senior adviser David Plouffe revealed Sunday that Obama is ready to go on the offensive.
On talk show after talk show, Plouffe said the president will look for cuts in "all corners of government." In contrast to the Republican approach, Plouffe said, Obama would seek to preserve education funding and other areas he sees as crucial to long-term economic success.
Still, Plouffe said, Obama is committed to doing more to slash the fast-rising cost of Medicare and Medicaid, to roll back Bush-era tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 and to even discuss Social Security changes.
In a speech scheduled for Wednesday, Obama will present his most extensive response to date in the debate over reining in spending.
White House advisers have concluded that Obama's best approach for beating back GOP proposals for much deeper cuts would be to put forward his vision.
Now at nearly $14.3 trillion, the nation's debt will hit its legal limit in coming weeks, and Congress will be asked to grant additional borrowing authority.
Such votes have been routine, if politically unpopular, in past years. Congress voted seven times to raise the debt limit under President George W. Bush.
If Congress does not act, economic fallout would be severe, analysts and business leaders have said. They predict higher interest rates, affecting mortgages, consumer credit and business lending.
Still, Republicans are preparing to try to extract new budget restraints in exchange for their votes to raise the debt limit.
The question hanging over Obama's speech is whether his plan will contain specific new ideas for reducing spending, be a broad but not detailed endorsement of deficit reduction, or merely address proposals he has made.
Simply by putting Medicare and Medicaid on the negotiating table, however, he appears to be taking a more comprehensive approach to deficit reduction.
Ryan and his fellow House Republicans upped the pressure when they introduced their plan to slash spending by more than $6 trillion over 10 years — largely by phasing out traditional Medicare and Medicaid. The House may vote on a resolution supporting the budget this week — perhaps Wednesday, the same day as Obama's speech.
Compiled from The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Tribune Washington bureau
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