Washington Report: Budget Talks; Obama Sits With Black Politicians; House Speaker Seeks Control

A roundup of recent changes on Capitol Hill

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  • Bills, Bills, Bills: GOP and Obama agree to disagree on budget

This week House Republican leadership joined President Obama, Vice President Biden and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley for lunch. It was part of an effort for both sides to show the American public that they are trying to work together. For perhaps the first time, Speaker John Boehner and White House press were on the same page, with each pronouncing that the discussion included issues on which there is “common ground.”

“There are areas that we’re going to disagree about but I think all of us know that there are some issues that we can work on together. Whether it’s education, whether it’s trade or even cutting spending, I think we can find common ground and show the American people that we’re able to work together,” Boehner said.

It’s an admirable goal but it’s also budget time and the American people are about to witness a series of partisan debates over spending cuts as the House prepares to craft a continuing resolution bill to fund the government from March 4 through September. A partial list of proposed cuts unveiled by the Appropriations Committee this week includes slashing programs important to African Americans and other minorities, such as $2 million from the Minority Business Development Agency, $758 million from the Women, Infant and Children program or WIC, $2 billion for job training programs, $530 million from HUD’s Community Development Fund and $1.3 billion from community health centers.

During his weekly press conference, Boehner was asked whether it’s an appropriate time to cut programs that put food on the table and heat in the homes of poor families. His response was that everything’s on the table because the country is broke.

That’s what you get with a Republican majority, mused Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pennsylvania), who sits on the appropriations panel. He also surmised, however, that the proposed cuts are really a ruse designed to show their base and Tea Party members that the Republicans are keeping their word.

“They’re in some ways misleading their base. Like when they voted to repeal healthcare,” Fattah says. “Healthcare is not repealed and it’s not going to be. We’re going through this dance over cutting this or that but the truth of the matter is that whatever happens is going to be a negotiation between the House, the Senate and the White House.”

  • Leaders Miss Opportunity to Seek Protections for Constituents

Members of the National Policy Alliance, a group of organizations that represent federal, state, and local Black elected officials and Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, met for more than an hour this week with President Obama. Given the upcoming budget battle between the White House and congressional Republicans, as well as anticipated adverse impact of budget proposals on large numbers of African Americans, it was an optimal opportunity for the group to share concerns and seek solutions that will help rather than harm their communities.

Instead, each person primarily used his or her opportunity to address the president to offer support. “The meeting had nothing to do with policy and how to make things better,” says one attendee who did not want to be identified. “All they did was praise him.”

When asked by a reporter at a news conference following the meeting whether they discussed proposed cuts in the president’s budget such as the elimination of community action funding, Webster Guillory, chairman of the National Organization of Black County Officials, maintained that every community in the nation is suffering due to the current economic environment.

“In many respects it is affecting African Americans disproportionately and that’s an issue that we’re very concerned about… but we’re not against taking a look at how we provide services,” said Guillory. He and the other participants, who also met with several cabinet members and administration officials, seemed to believe it was their responsibility to act as the administration’s partners rather than hold it accountable for how its actions impact their communities.

Congressional Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) believes that it’s possible to do both. He also attended the meeting and said that he expressed to the president his concern about pending cuts to the block grant program.

“I believe that this is a time when we should increase funding for Community Development Block Grants, not cut it. Our community continues to suffer tremendously from the recession, and we will be one of the last to recover,” Cleaver said in a statement issued after the meeting. “There is no fairness to rebuilding our economy on the backs of Americans who can least afford it.”

  • A Tough Week to Be In Charge

Governing is not easy. After a week that included a trio of legislative setbacks and a juicy sex scandal, Speaker John Boehner is looking like he has a less than firm grip on his gavel.

A suspension bill to extend Patriot Act provisions failed by a vote of 277 to 148 Tuesday night. The process is used to pass a non-controversial bill quickly. House Republicans also tabled a trade bill because it lacked enough votes to pass. On Wednesday, the House failed by 259-169 to pass a measure to retrieve $179 million in overpayments to the United Nations Tax Equalization Fund. The bill was brought to the floor after being chosen by the American public as part of the GOP’s YouCut program, which allows them to suggest and vote for cuts.

Boehner blamed Democrats for the Patriot defeat. “If Democrats who voted for these same provisions last year would have voted for them this year, it would have passed,” he said, ignoring the 26 members of his party who also voted against the bill. Two Republicans joined Democrats on the U.N. vote, and the more conservative members also forced a delay in the announcement of the Appropriation Committee’s proposed spending cuts until Friday because they want to see deeper cuts.

“We’re in a new era. I’ve made it pretty clear that we’re going to allow the House to work its will,” Boehner said during his weekly press conference. “That means that the leaders may not get what they want every day.” Boehner would not concede that veering of the traditional path of moving bills through committees before they hit the floor for a vote is a flawed process, but did say, “the committee process is important because you work out the kinks in a bill [and] build support for members of both parties in that process.”

As for the now former-Rep. Chris Lee (R-New York), nobody can explain what possessed him to allegedly email bare-chested photos of himself on Craigslist to a woman who is not his wife.

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