4 Factors That Will Shape Congressional Battles
Business + Economy

4 Factors That Will Shape Congressional Battles

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Congress returns this week from its half-month spring break with three major priorities still up in the air: the budget, gun control, and immigration reform.

All three are the subject of intense negotiations in the Democratic-controlled Senate– while  they appear to be going nowhere fast in the GOP-dominated House. And they’re  all interconnected with overlapping players. For example, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., is now a point man on gun control, but in 2011, he served on the bipartisan super committee that failed to reach an agreement on deficit reduction. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is also playing a number of roles, including  a leading man on gun control and immigration reform.

With so much on the line, here is  a cheat sheet on the four major factors that will shape this session’s agenda:

• Budget: Grand Bargain or Grand Surrender? -- President Obama is wooing GOP senators with details from his 2014 budget proposal, which will officially be released on Wednesday. The details suggest a White House hell bent on achieving a compromise with the more ornery Republican House majority.

Obama would raise $580 billion in new revenues by closing loopholes for wealthier taxpayers. But his budget includes concessions such as spending reductions for Medicare and the use of chained-CPI—a less generous measure of inflation—to calculate benefit increases for programs such as Social Security.
Graham   told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday that with those concessions on entitlements, “we’re beginning to set the stage for a grand bargain.”

House Speaker John Boehner was nonplussed. The Ohio congressman expects more structural reforms to Medicare and other social safety net programs if Obama wants more in tax revenues after having closed a deal earlier this year to raise rates on the top one percent of earners.

But the notion of a grand bargain suggests give and take, and, so far, Obama has mostly been doing the giving. Progressive lawmakers are probably correct in saying that the president essentially has been negotiating with himself in recent weeks, before the Republicans have made a single concession. This means Obama may have to shift even further right in reaching a final deal on the budget this year.

• Gun Control’s Cruel Joke -- Toomey is attempting to hash out a deal on expanded background checks for gun buyers with Joe Manchin III,  his Democratic colleague  from West Virginia, The Washington Post reported on Sunday. But just months after the Newtown, Conn., grade school massacre, the National Rifle Association routed the administration and gun control advocates on Capitol Hill with a powerful and well-financed lobbying effort to block the crackdown advocated by Obama. The NRA balked at reinstating and strengthening the ban on military-style assault weapons, limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and banning possession of armor-piercing ammunition by civilians.

The cruel joke is that some Democratic and Republican lawmakers—in a face-saving gesture—may support a measure based on an NRA endorsement to expand the definition of “mentally incompetent” when checking the backgrounds of potential gun owners. But the bill would also allow veterans and others suffering from mental illness to regain their gun-ownership rights  once they have been deemed to recover. 

In other words, the protections championed by Obama lack    sufficient support after the school massacre by a mentally unstable Adam Lanza. But the NRA seal of approval may decide which reforms are adopted for a background check system that only applies to licensed dealers and relies on an incomplete database.

And just in case there is some sort of breakthrough in gun control talks, at least 13 Senate Republicans, led by Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky,  Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, and  Marco Rubio of Florida  have promised to mount a filibuster.

• Immigration As the Ray of Hope -- It won't be easy, but immigration reform looks like the most promising avenue for compromise this year. The Senate "Gang of Eight" will unveil its proposals this week for putting 11 million illegal immigrants in this country on the path to legal status or citizenship, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.,  has reiterated.

 “I think we’re doing very well,” Schumer told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” over the weekend, stressing that he anticipates agreement among the eight senators—including GOP presidential possibility   Marco Rubio—by the end of the week.

And the broader perception remains that Republicans are so hungry to do something to capture the Hispanic vote and improve their chances for taking back the White House in 2016 that it would be almost unthinkable for Rubio, Kentucky GOP stalwarts Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and others to walk away from the negotiating table without some kind of deal.

• It All Depends on the House – None of these three items appeared in the April legislative agenda released Friday by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. The memo makes no mention of gun control or immigrants—and ended with a tone that seems hostile to compromise.

“This spring and summer, we will aggressively pursue our policies aimed at growing our economy, limiting the size of government and expanding the freedom America was built on,” Cantor wrote.

When it comes to the budget, the House is girding for a fight over the expected breach of the government debt ceiling in May.

In a nod to the conservative Republican Study Committee caucus, Cantor wrote that the House would consider a measure that would prioritize interest payments on the debt above all other spending, if there is no agreement on expanding the government’s borrowing authority. Their theory—untested in the financial markets—is that the government will not have technically defaulted on its $16.5 trillion national debt as long as the interest payments are made, even though other obligations would go unpaid.

The House also plans to vote on bills to enhance cyber security and stop the National Labor Relations Board from issuing rulings until the Supreme Court determines whether Obama’s recess appointments last year were constitutional, among other measures.