Published May 10, 2011
Congressional lawmakers re-assumed their state of perpetual urgency Tuesday, returning for talks on what promises to be a grueling debate over spending cuts and debt.
But it would appear Congress' hard deadlines aren't as hard as the abs on recently shirtless Republican Rep. Aaron Shock.
With a looming debt limit pushed back after manipulation from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, House Speaker John Boehner called Monday night for trillions of dollars in spending cuts and no tax increases. That pushed Democrats to double down on their own demands -- urging Republicans to roll back oil company subsidies and back off a controversial Medicare overhaul plan.
The disputes were bound to flare when a bipartisan group of lawmakers entered a budget meeting hosted by Vice President Biden Tuesday afternoon, following a meeting last week meant to scour for an elusive compromise that can convince reluctant lawmakers to vote for an increase in the nation's debt ceiling. Lawmakers say they want to find a compromise, but it's not clear where the middle ground is.
Top House Republicans suggested last week that their Medicare plan, which would eventually set up a system of subsidized insurance policies for seniors, might be a lost cause this year. Boehner also recently indicated support for the idea of reconsidering tax breaks for oil companies, estimated by the Obama administration to be worth $4 billion annually.
But Boehner, digging in his heels, this week reiterated a demand to leave tax hikes out of the budget equation and said Congress should take up spending cuts in the "trillions" -- a goal that would virtually require lawmakers to make changes to entitlements like Medicare.
In an interview Tuesday morning on NBC's "Today Show," Boehner stressed that entitlements take up too much money in the federal budget to ignore and must be addressed.
"We know that these programs will not exist in the future if we don't make changes to them, because they're unaffordable for our kids and our grandkids," the speaker said. "It's time to look each other in the eye and do what we know has to be done."
As part of the budget talks, Boehner wants Congress to commit to spending cuts worth more than the amount by which the debt ceiling will be increased. He said Tuesday that Congress needs to address its problems as "adults," and "everything" will be on the table -- everything, that is, except tax cuts.
The stipulation has infuriated Democrats, who on Tuesday renewed calls to end tax breaks for oil and gas companies. Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced legislation to repeal those benefits. Unlike Obama, who wants the savings to go toward clean energy incentives, they called for the money to go toward reducing the deficit. Citing energy companies' soaring profits, Menendez said the sector can "pay their fair share in taxes."
Though Democrats had earlier suggested the move would help lower gas prices, the senators acknowledged their bill was not meant for that purpose. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he plans to get the ball rolling on that bill Tuesday.
Other Democrats took to Twitter to hammer the oil subsidy issue in response to Boehner's speech.
"Speaker Boehner wants to cut trillions, we should begin by cutting taxpayer subsidies for oil companies," tweeted Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
"Speaker Boehner called for an adult convo on the budget however his speech was anything but that. Instead, he trivialized an important issue," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wrote, in an apparent reference to oil subsidies.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that while Obama shares Boehner's concern about the deficit, the debt limit must be raised regardless. The White House wants a "clean" vote on the debt limit, something that may be out of reach as a handful of Democrats join Republicans in demanding spending cuts as a condition.
While Biden is trying to invigorate budget talks among party leaders, other groups are moving ahead with budgets of their own.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is looking to unveil his own budget plan, while the bipartisan "gang of six" senators of which he is a member supposedly works on another proposal.
Senate conservatives are also introducing their own budget Tuesday afternoon.
With so many plans floating around, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, told Fox News the Senate is "way behind" schedule on crafting a spending plan. Failure to pass a full-year spending plan in the last cycle led to an 11th-hour showdown earlier this year as lawmakers scrambled to fund the government for the rest of 2011.
Sessions said the Democratic side needs to propose some hard numbers and called for the proposal to cut at least $2 trillion worth of spending.
The budget talks come after a frantic week during which lawmakers and the media were transfixed by the killing of Usama bin Laden.
As domestic matters returned to the foreground, Congress was not without its distractions -- amid talk of hard numbers and hard deadlines, the cover of Men's Health magazine showing Illinois Republican Rep. Aaron Schock's hard abs was causing a stir. Schock, a fitness enthusiast, took a little ribbing in his home state for agreeing to do the cover. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even found a way to work the cover into the Medicare debate, creating a fake magazine cover asking, "Who needs Medicare when you've got abs like these?"