Obama Ratchets Up Partisanship Over Debt Vote

Obama Steps Up Debt Smack Talk

"I said, 'you want to repeal health care? Go at it. We'll have that debate. You're not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we're stupid?'"

-- President Obama, as quoted by CBS News, talking to donors in Chicago

President Obama is warming to the more combative, more partisan tone he and his team have adopted in dealing with House Republicans over fiscal issues, setting up a make-or-break battle over federal borrowing.

Flexing his political pectorals for donors on a multi-million-dollar fundraising blitz in Chicago, the president engaged in some braggadocio about how he backed down House Speaker John Boehner’s demands for additional curbs on the implementation of Obama’s national health care law.

Obama was also overheard bashing Republican budget maven Rep. Paul Ryan as “not on the level” because he had supported fiscally unsound policies during the Bush administration, including the Iraq war and giving away prescription drugs to senior citizens.

This follows a blistering attack from Obama on Wednesday against Ryan’s proposals to reshape Medicare, an entitlement program for senior citizens’ health insurance, and Medicaid, a welfare program that pays for poor Americans’ health care. Adding insult, Obama put Ryan in the front row for the speech, making it not just a public denouncement, but a personal dressing down.

Some in Washington are making cooing noises today and saying that the new in-your-face approach from Obama and his team is actually a super brilliant way to create a compromise. Democrats quietly argue that by adopting a lacerating tone, the president is opening space in the middle for the venerated, bipartisan “Gang of Six” in the Senate to roll out a debt-reduction plan. Republicans can only embrace what the president opposes, they say.

It is not, Democrats promise, just the president trying to warm up his base with pugilistic patter after a string of presidential concessions that may have left their check-writing hands feeling weak.

Maybe. But time is running out, and the stakes are growing.

The Treasury Department now estimates that the government has only $70 billion in borrowing authority left -- the federal equivalent to the change jar on your dresser. While the administration has lots of ways to stretch those pennies, Secretary Tim Geithner has been instead trying to increase the pressure for more borrowing authority in Congress.

Meeting behind closed doors with lawmakers on Thursday, Geithner again warned of the disaster that would befall the American economy if the debt limit was not lifted. By the time Congress returns from its two-week Easter break that begins today, the government will be pretty well out of credit and still borrowing at a rate of $4 billion or so a day.

Geithner also said it would be up to Congress to decide how much to raise the limit.

This suggests that rather than going for a huge increase in exchange for major changes now, the White House might be interested in a deal for a few months more credit – perhaps $400 billion more – in order to set up the grand bargain for this summer or early fall ahead of the end of the fiscal year. The Gang won’t even have a tentative plan on offer until next month, which will be just the beginning of a long, long process.

A small increase would be a help to the White House. It would give the president more time to hammer Republican plans and get himself on more favorable political footing so he can get more favorable terms for a debt hike that will last him through the 2012 election – maybe the same size as his February 2010 ask: $1.9 trillion.

Obama is also looking to marginalize any opposition to debt ceiling votes. Both he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have now expressed their regret for having heaped scorn on George W. Bush for small requests in the past. In an interview with ABC’s morning show, Obama called his vote against Bush in 2006 “political” and the act of a “new senator” who didn’t understand the ways of the world.

But having watched the 59 defections in the House Republican caucus over a bill to fund the government for the final 25 weeks of the federal fiscal year -- and heard the bitter grumbling from many who voted for it – Power Play thinks the president may misunderstand his opponents.

Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004 because of his opposition to the Iraq war and a swinger celebrity sex scandal into which the Republican incumbent had fallen. The Republicans elected in 2010 were elected specifically to oppose Obama’s spending programs and to defeat the debt.

Opposing the debt ceiling increase is not a “political” stunt, but a matter of utter conviction and electoral mandate – not something to be waved away.

Team Boehner Holds on For Spending Win

“I don’t think he liked it much more than we did.”

-- Aide to a freshman House Republican talking to Power Play about House Speaker John Boehner’s bargain with President Obama on a federal funding plan

Speaker John Boehner and his lieutenants Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy held together three-quarters of the House Republican caucus in support of a compromise deal to fund the federal government for the final 25 weeks of the federal fiscal year.

If there was ever any question as to why Boehner’s predecessor resisted calls for a three-day cooling-off period for legislation, this week’s drama should have answered it.

The deal was heralded on Friday as a huge win for Republicans, but a CBO score released Wednesday suggested that billions of the cuts in the legislation were on paper only since the money wouldn’t really have been spent anyway. The final reduction to the deficit will be a scant $352 million.

The cooling-off period under Boehner’s rules gave conservatives a day to stew in their own juices and ponder opposition to the plan. The question: Is it better to shut down the government now over a relatively small thing or shut it down later over a big thing – the 2012 budget and the debt ceiling.

Under Nancy Pelosi’s rules, there would have been a vote on the legislation Wednesday morning, before doubts had a chance to fester. The game of legislative hide and seek followed by lightning-fast bolts (popular in previous Republican Houses too) keeps the congressional herd disoriented, just the way speakers usually like them.

But under the Boehner rules, the plan had to sit out there like a mackerel in the sun for everyone to sniff.

In private and in public (Boehner actually on the floor with charts!) the speaker and his team defended the deal and what repeated their argument that the time for a standoff will be over the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, not over the budget left unfinished by Democrats.

In the end, Boehner needed 35 Democratic votes to get the deal done – about the outer limits for the fiscal moderates in that caucus. But, he held on to 60 of the 87 members of the fiery freshman class and 76 percent of his caucus overall.

The takeaways from Thursday:

1) Conservatives will be more skeptical of any deal that Boehner reaches with Obama in the future. This increases the chances for a future shutdown over the debt ceiling. The conservative defections and grumbling over this deal actually strengthens Boehner’s bargaining position with Obama.

2) Boehner’s rules for a more open process in the House can be painful, but are still working. His bet is that by keeping hoodwinkery down, he can retain credibility over a longer period of time. Democrats bet that they will eventually be able to use his rues to divide and conquer his caucus.

3) This Congress is feeling ornery and ready for a vacation.

NATO Ponders “Pathways to Peace” in Libya, Qaddafi Fights War

"So long as [Muammar al-Qaddafi] is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds."

-- Position statement from President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy

NATO is haggling over where the eight additional fighters and bombers required to maintain operations in Libya will be obtained. Picture this debate.

Hmmm, who could provide the planes? Belgium? No bombers there. Let’s see. Estonia? Not really an “air force” kind of country. Wait. The United States has like 5,500 planes. Maybe it could pitch in.

Some Europeans are heralding a letter cosigned by President Obama that calls for regime change in Libya as evidence that the U.S. is preparing to re-enter a more kinetic phase of its military action in the country’s civil war.

But the legalistic document “Pathways to Peace” retains Obama’s explicit language about bombing only for humanitarian purposes and using diplomacy only for regime change. Plus, with deepening public skepticism about the war in the U.S. and Obama embroiled in budget battles and a billion-dollar fundraising effort, he has little interest in expanding his involvement.

As for Britain and France, they would happily knock out Qaddafi, but don’t have the means to do so.

Meanwhile, government forces in Libya are working hard to knock out Misrata, the final rebel stronghold outside of the rebel’s tribal home in the eastern part of the country. If Misrata falls, a cease fire would leave the country divided on tribal lines. If Misrata remains in rebel hands, partitioning the country will be much harder.

Foreign oil workers are desperate to escape the port city as the battle escalates. The Qataris are shipping in American-made weapons to the rebels and Qaddafi keeps pounding away with light artillery. It’s getting very ugly.

But since this is urban fighting, only a barrage of high-tech U.S. munitions could push back Qaddafi’s forces without a massive slaughter of civilians.

Goaded into the war by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his European counterparts, Obama may next be pulled in to a full-scale war if a slaughter ensues in Misrata.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“I think it's interesting that Obama is setting up headquarters in Chicago. He wants to give the impression as he has throughout his time in office that he is not from Washington. He's not really a politician. He is not even a Democrat. He stands above the fray…He always does this game, the man who hovers above it all -- the transcender who isn't in the trenches. It won't work. He has been the president and he is Washington.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report w/Bret Baier