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Budget Battles Aren’t Just About Money, but Different Visions of Government

March 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The U.S. House approved a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown just ahead of a looming deadline in a rare show of bipartisanship. But Hari Sreenivasan reports that battles over the budget and the sequester aren't over yet. Judy Woodruff talks with Todd Zwillich of WNYC's "The Takeaway" about the upcoming legislation.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: And we turn now to domestic politics, as another congressional fiscal fight takes shape.

There are three major money matters at the Capitol right now with deadlines looming, the sequester, the continuing resolution, and the budget. Each has distinctive parts, but fits into the bigger theme of how each party wants to fund the government.

First, the continuing resolution: Lawmakers were facing a deadline next week to pass a $984 billion dollar measure to fund the government through September. That spending legislation was necessary because Congress hasn’t passed a budget in years.

MAN: The yeas are 73; the nays are 26.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It passed both chambers in a rare show of bipartisanship.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: The way we used to do things is fund the government in a timely fashion. We have the opportunity to do that now. We’re taking care of the next six months. During this six months, the government is functioning because of what we have done here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This came after lawmakers agreed on easing some budget cuts to food inspection services and flexibility for the Pentagon on the sequester. Those automatic across-the-board spending cuts, agreed to during the last fiscal fights, will start being felt more intensely over the next few weeks.

Finally, the broader issue as Congress battles over the budget. Today, House Republicans approved their budget, which dramatically changes entitlement programs like Medicare and makes more spending cuts. The Senate began debate today on a very different version of a 10-year spending plan written by Democrats. They call for higher taxes to fund government programs.

House Speaker John Boehner remained skeptical.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: The budget that Senate Democrats are considering never balances, ever. That means more debt, fewer jobs and, frankly, much higher taxes from the American people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The negotiations over these competing party visions for governing will begin in earnest when President Obama submits his spending blueprint on April 8th.

With their work done, House members leave town today for a two-week recess, while senators will remain in a marathon session until a vote on their own plan to fund the government.

Judy Woodruff takes it from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for what’s happening behind the scenes, we turn to Todd Zwillich. He’s Washington correspondent for The Takeaway on Public Radio International and WNYC.

Welcome back to the NewsHour.

TODD ZWILLICH, The Takeaway: Good to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, first, this vote to keep the government funded through the end of the September, the end of the fiscal year, both the House and the Senate passed this. Does this mean Democrats and Republicans finally see eye to eye on something?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, it means that they see eye to eye on not having another showdown right now. Both sides have agreed that they don’t want to have a big battle over a government shutdown and the media attention and cable news and the countdown clocks. Both sides have decided that’s not in their interest.

Now, I wish I could tell you that they see eye to eye on fiscal matters. That’s just not true. They just decided to go to their corners for now. There are other things that the president and Congress, members of both parties, do want to get done over the spring and summer. There’s a lot of optimism about comprehensive immigration reform.

The White House really wants to get a gun control bill done, even if Republicans are a little more reticent on that. They do — there is some hope rekindled on a grand bargain on Medicare and entitlements and taxes. People do want to try to get those things done. And the leaders and some of the senior appropriators, especially, didn’t want to poison the well with yet another battle over a government shutdown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we just heard in Hari’s report that the sequester, these automatic across-the-board spending cuts still in place. There’s some flexibility now built in, but still there for the foreseeable future. Is that a victory for Republicans or for whom?

TODD ZWILLICH: Right now, it does seem like a victory for Republicans. And they want more from that victory.

Republicans are the ones who want the spending cuts. And you’re right. Those spending cuts are now baked into the rest of the year. And the sequestration cuts actually are now looming even heavier over further negotiations on spending in a couple ways. They are going to have to fund the government next year.

This deal on the continuing resolution goes to Oct. 1st. After that, you have to fund the government from then on. Conservatives in the House who have a lot of power over leadership we have seen on these issues are already telling the speaker, John Boehner, we insist that these sequestration cuts, these new values, that they get baked into future levels. We want this to be the new baseline. Don’t treat them as though they’re temporary cuts that you will negotiate away in some other deal. We want these etched in stone in perpetuity.

Democrats do not want that. So you ask if they see eye to eye. No, not by a long shot on the sequestration cuts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that is going to be part of the debate going forward, and as we heard in that report just then, they are already talking about what each side would like to have in the budget down the road.

But does either side have the upper hand at this point on that set of arguments?

TODD ZWILLICH: It doesn’t really seem like it because what you see today in these two budget resolutions that are passing, the Ryan budget in the House, the Democrats will complete theirs by this weekend, two very, very different visions.

These budgets are not spending bills. They’re really governing documents. You can read through them and see what each party’s sort of ideological priorities are. But neither of these budgets that pass is really going to be the basis of any grand agreement on how to spend money or any grand bargain.

What is going to have to happen and the reason why this budget process is more than just sort of showboat, it really is more than that, because this process, if it’s to succeed, was going to have to involve the president and the speaker and members of both the House and Senate in this budget process to try to reach the brand bargain that some people think is still possible.

We already know what the outlines of that grand bargain has to be, $500 billion in new revenue and fundamental changes to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. We know what the parameters of that deal are going to be. They’re far from that deal, but it has to take place in the framework of this budget. We saw today where opening bids, Republicans, this is our ideological position, Democrats, the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Todd, you were telling us earlier today that the Republicans have been able to cut out some of the money for the president’s health care reform law. Now, how — what form did that take and how did that come about?

TODD ZWILLICH: The Republicans did get a victory in this way. They got a couple small victories in this continuing resolution.

Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, basically, right now, what the administration is doing is using a lot of money to get the infrastructure for those exchanges up and running so that in 2014 when the Affordable Care Act kicks in, those exchanges hopefully are ready to go, ready to take on millions of new members.

Republicans have been trying to chip away at that, deny the funding. This continuing resolution funds the infrastructure at a lower level than it would have if they had done regular spending bills. And that is a victory for Republicans. They have been trying to erode away at Obamacare any way that they can.

They had a couple small issues that are probably a victory for Republicans on guns, some other issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So they don’t have the votes to repeal it. The president would never sign that. But they are, you’re saying, able to undermine it.

Todd, I want to ask you about one other piece of news today, and that is the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, announced that as part of the gun control legislation that will come up in April in the Senate, he will include a bill or language devoted to strengthening background checks.

What’s the significance of that in this big gun control fight?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, this is news because there’s been a lot of bipartisan negotiations.

Gun control advocates after listening to the president and Joe Biden and Democrats after Newtown and these tragedies were really disappointed. They learned this week that an assault weapons ban will not be included in the bill, that limits on high-capacity clips will not be included. They will get votes, but those will probably go down.

Background checks is a huge issue. It’s a big issue to the White House. Harry Reid saying today that it will be included in the bill means that a Democratic placeholder — there have been a lot of negotiations over background checks with conservative Republicans. Those have failed so far.

Harry Reid is saying this is going to be in the base bill that we put on the floor. Republicans, if you want that out, negotiate with us because this bill if it’s going to pass is going to pass with some form of strengthened background checks in it. This is our hard position.

The White House is going to be pleased with that. Of course, that makes you wonder later what can the conservative House actually get passed?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, a helping hand from the Senate majority leader?

TODD ZWILLICH: For gun control advocates, absolutely, after some disappointments this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Todd Zwillich, thanks very much.

TODD ZWILLICH: My pleasure.