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“Walking Napalm”: Jon Kyl’s Search-and-Destroy Mission

Jon Kyl is different from you and me.

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, the nation was reeling over the death and destruction in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. But Kyl, now the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, saw opportunity: According to a voice-mail recording left at the time by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Kyl and Sessions were hoping to find a business owner killed in the storm so they could use that in their campaign to repeal the estate tax.

It was vintage Kyl: cold and ruthless.

So when the Arizonan was named as one of six Republicans on the debt supercommittee, Democrats feared the worst — and they got what they feared. It exaggerates little to say that Kyl thwarted agreement almost singlehandedly. While some Republicans on the panel — notably Reps. Dave Camp and Fred Upton — were, with House Speaker John Boehner’s blessing, prepared to strike a deal, Kyl rallied resistance with his usual table-pounding tirades.

The tragedy here is that Kyl, who has announced his retirement at the end of his term, could have risen above political pressures to strike an agreement to right the nation’s finances for a generation. Boehner’s House Republicans, aware that voters will hold them to account for inaction, were willing to deal. But Kyl’s Senate Republicans, hoping voters will evict the Democratic majority in the Senate, had no such incentive.

The sabotage began on the very first day the supercommittee met. While other members from both parties spoke optimistically about the need to put everything on the table, Kyl gave a gloomy opening statement. “I think a dose of realism is called for here,” he said. That same day, he went to a luncheon organized by conservative think tanks and threatened to walk (“I’m off the committee”) if there were further defense cuts.

When Democrats floated their proposal combining tax increases and spending cuts, Kyl rejected it out of hand, citing Republicans’ pledge to activist Grover Norquist not to raise taxes. Kyl’s constant invocation of the Norquist pledge provoked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to snap at Kyl during a private meeting: “What is this, high school?”

Kyl’s defenders say his motives were pure because he had every incentive for the supercommittee to succeed: He never has to face voters again and he desperately wanted to avoid the automatic Pentagon cuts that now loom. But there’s little doubt that he was doing Norquist’s bidding in killing any notion of higher taxes.

Norquist, who worked to defeat a compromise, brags about his control over Kyl. When Kyl made remarks in May that appeared to leave open the possibility of tax increases, Norquist called Kyl and adopted “the tone of a teacher scolding a second grader as he recalled the conversation,” Politico reported. Norquist boasted to the publication that, after he upbraided Kyl, the senator “went down on the floor and he gave a colloquy about how we’re against any tax increases of any sort. Boom!”

While other supercommittee members on both sides searched for a grand bargain, Kyl countered with suggestions that they focus on small items, such as selling off federal property. On Monday, when Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) made his last-ditch effort to salvage a deal, observers knew the effort was going nowhere for one simple reason: Kyl was in the room. He divided his time between the “negotiations” and barbed interviews with TV networks: “Can I make a point? . . . Your job isn’t to convince me. . . . Let me make this point to you. . . . Let me just finish my sentence.”

Kyl had demonstrated his distaste for negotiation before. In June, he joined House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in walking out of budget talks with Vice President Biden. He had also displayed his disdain for fellow Republicans who were willing to negotiate. During the health-care debate, when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was negotiating with Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, Kyl went on TV and said Grassley “has been given no authority to negotiate anything.” Amid hints that GOP leaders might punish Grassley by denying him the top Republican slot on the Judiciary Committee, Grassley reportedly told colleagues: “Maybe I should just go home and ride my tractor.”

“Walking napalm” is how one Democratic aide involved in the supercommittee described Kyl this week. And if the senator makes some mistakes as he burns down the village — well, that’s just a cost of doing business. Earlier this year, when Kyl was leading an effort to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, he claimed on the Senate floor that abortion is “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” The actual number is 3 percent. An aide to Kyl explained: “His remark was not intended to be a factual statement.”

As Kyl leaves the Senate, he will be remembered as a lawmaker who intended to be not factual but destructive.

By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 22, 2011

November 24, 2011 Posted by | Federal Budget | , , , , | 1 Comment

No Amount Of Obama ‘Leadership’ Could’ve Saved The Super Committee

Despite what you might have heard, Barack Obama is not to blame for the failure of the so-called “super committee” to reach a debt deal. That the president should have exercised greater “leadership” has become a standard talking point both on the right and among the “everyone’s to blame for a broken system” commentariat. But that line of criticism simply isn’t connected to political reality.

Part of the problem is a belief that has developed in recent decades in the omnipotence of the president and the bully pulpit.

As my colleague Ken Walsh notes,

Americans expect their president to push the system into action and, through persuasion, cajolery, threats, intimidation or personal diplomacy, get things done on Capitol Hill.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got it right when he told reporters, in reaction to the committee’s collapse, “It’s the chief executive’s job to bring people together and to provide leadership. I don’t see that happening.”

But that presupposes that all policy gaps are bridgeable. Some simply aren’t. In this specific instance, the chasm was too wide. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has neatly summarized it, the super sticking point was: “Democrats wanted the rich to pay more in taxes towards deficit reduction, and Republicans wanted the rich to pay less in taxes towards deficit reduction.”

When Republicans finally allowed for some increased tax revenues, they were conditioned on making permanent the Bush tax cuts. In other words the GOP was willing to close around $300 billion in loopholes in exchange for adding $4 trillion to the deficit in the form of enshrining the Bush tax rates.

Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum has a helpful set of four questions any critics of Obama’s leadership here should answer. The second one is the key: Critics should “explain whether they think Republicans would ever, under any circumstances, have accepted a deal with a net tax increase.”

No one who is both sentient and has watched politics in recent years thinks that they would. So the leadership that Bloomberg and others would have Obama exercise would involve him either talking the GOP into becoming Democrats or himself capitulating to their demands. (This latter option would, of course, have set many of the same commentators off on a round of exposition about what a weak leader Obama is for having surrendered to the GOP, again.)

The utter hollowness of the GOP position is underscored by the fact that Republicans who criticize Obama for not taking a more direct role in the super committee’s deliberations attacked him for undermining the committee when he released his deficit reduction proposal (h/t Sargent).

The belief that presidential “leadership” would have somehow bridged this divide is especially pernicious because it plays into the hands of GOP hardliners. So long as pundits insist that any policy chasm can be bridged with just an application of presidential leadership, it removes all incentive for the side opposing the president to do anything but hold a hard line. What else should they do when he gets the blame for their intransigence?

By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, November 22, 2011

November 23, 2011 Posted by | Congress | , , , , , | Leave a comment

GOP Super Committee Co-Chair: Lawmakers Failed Because Democrats Refused To Privatize Medicare

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) faults the Democrats’ refusal to accept partial Medicare privatization for the super committee’s inability to come up with a bipartisan plan to lower spending in today’s Wall Street Journal. He writes, “Democrats on the committee made it clear that the new spending called for in the president’s health law was off the table” and pretends that the spending in the Affordable Care Act added to the deficit (it actually reduces it). “Republicans offered to negotiate a plan on the other two health-care entitlements—Medicare and Medicaid—based upon the reforms included in the budget the House passed earlier this year,” he continues and lays out the premium support proposal offered by Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici:

The Medicare reforms would make no changes for those in or near retirement. Beginning in 2022, beneficiaries would be guaranteed a choice of Medicare-approved private health coverage options and guaranteed a premium-support payment to help pay for the plan they choose….These seniors would be able to choose from a list of Medicare-guaranteed coverage options, similar to the House budget’s approach—except that Rivlin-Domenici would continue to include a traditional Medicare fee-for-service plan among the options.

This approach was also rejected by committee Democrats.

The Congressional Budget Office, the Medicare trustees, and the Government Accountability Office have each repeatedly said that our health-care entitlements are unsustainable. Committee Democrats offered modest adjustments to these programs, but they were far from sufficient to meet the challenge. And even their modest changes were made contingent upon a minimum of $1 trillion in higher taxes—a move sure to stifle job creation during the worst economy in recent memory.

Hensarling doesn’t mention that the Rivlin-Domenici premium-support proposal doesn’t so much lower national health care spending as it shifts it to the beneficiary. The plan reduces the federal contribution to Medicare by capping costs for each beneficiary and offering premium support credits that won’t keep up with actual health care spending. The federal government spends less, but seniors will pay more out of pocket for health care benefits every year. The proposal also breaks up the market clout of traditional Medicare and rather than ratcheting up some of efficiencies and payment reforms in the Affordable Care Act, it sets the nation on an untested path of private competition — leaving seniors vulnerable to the manipulations of for-profit health insurers.

Democrats, for their part, offered rather substantial concessions on Medicare spending. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argued, the Democrats’ $3 trillion deficit proposal to the super committee “stands well to the right of plans by the co-chairs of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission and the Senate’s ‘Gang of Six,’ and even further to the right of the plan by the bipartisan Rivlin-Domenici commission.” The plan contained “substantially smaller revenue increases than those bipartisan proposals while, for example, containing significantly deeper cuts in Medicare and Medicaid than the Bowles-Simpson plan.” For instance, Bowles-Simpson offered $383 billion in Medicare and Medicaid, while Democrats put $475 billion on the table.

President Obama introduced $320 billion in health care savings, mostly from the pharmaceutical industry and other providers, including rural hospitals, teaching hospitals, and biotechnology firms. But the plan even incorporated the GOP’s push for greater means testing in Medicare, asking some wealthier beneficiaries to pay more for coverage and sought to give beneficiaries “skin in the game” — as the GOP puts it — to discourage over treatment.

All of these are significant concessions — as are the health cuts included in the trigger mechanism — but Hensarling and Republicans aren’t interested in bipartisan agreement. They’re not accepting anything short of Medicare privatization.

By: Igor Volsky, Think Progress, November 22, 2011

November 23, 2011 Posted by | GOP | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Spending Cuts”: GOP Demands An End To Their Own Idea

Remember the “triggers” in the debt-ceiling agreement? Let’s take a moment to refresh the political world’s memory.

Congressional Republicans, in a move without precedent in American history, were holding the economy and the full faith and credit of the United States hostage. Democrats, fearful that the GOP wasn’t bluffing and that the nation would pay a severe price, was willing to cut a bad deal: $900 billion in debt reduction, on top of another $1.2 trillion agreement to be worked out by a so-called super-committee.

But Dems weren’t completely willing to roll over — they wanted to create an incentive for Republicans to work in good faith on the $1.2 trillion in savings. Democrats proposed the threat of automatic tax increases to push GOP officials to be responsible, but Republicans refused and offered an alternative: if the committee failed, the GOP would accept $600 billion in defense cuts and Dems would accept $600 billion in non-defense domestic cuts.

Remember, the point was to create an incentive that the parties would be desperate to avoid. Pentagon cuts were Republicans’ contribution to the process. These cuts were their idea.

And wouldn’t you know it, Republicans don’t like their idea anymore.

Failure by Congress’ debt-cutting supercommittee to recommend $1.2 trillion in savings by Wednesday is supposed to automatically trigger spending cuts in the same amount to accomplish that job.

But the same legislators who concocted that budgetary booby trap just four months ago could end up spending the 2012 election year and beyond battling over defusing it.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., say they are writing legislation to prevent what they say would be devastating cuts to the military. House Republicans are exploring a similar move.

This isn’t exactly surprising, but it is kind of amusing. Republicans, in effect, said in August, “If we fail, we’ll accept these cuts we don’t want.” The same Republicans, in effect, are now saying, “It turns out, we don’t like our idea anymore.”

In the bigger picture, Republicans were never working in good faith. Even putting aside the inherently disgusting debt-ceiling crisis they created over the summer, GOP officials were willing to offer the defense-cut trigger precisely because they knew they’d try to kill it after the super-committee inevitably failed.

Republicans started this fight demanding debt reduction, then offered massive spending cuts to a part of the government they care about. They’re now demanding less debt reduction and more government spending — and if Democrats balk, these same Republicans will spend an election year accusing them of being anti-military.

I often wonder what our discourse would be like if the general public knew what GOP officials were up to in Washington.

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, The Washington Monthly, November 21, 2011

November 22, 2011 Posted by | Deficits | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Does Super Committee Failure Mean For Healthcare?

The medical community is buzzing with concern this afternoon over what the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction means for healthcare providers and recipients.

Under the ‘trigger’ provisions agreed upon during the August debt default crisis, were the super-committee to fail to arrive at their own formula for getting rid of $1.2 trillion in deficit – a circumstance that has now become reality – Medicare would find itself facing an annual cut of 2 percent each year for a ten year period beginning in 2013.

Should this actually occur it would be disastrous for health of the nation’s senior citizens. Properly configured, the cuts could be made without biting into benefits for the elderly who depend upon the program, but the trigger mechanism does not point to specific areas of the federal health program where the cuts could be targeted in a way that would reduce spending while protecting benefits. Thus, everything would have be cut by the 2% amount, including medical benefits.

Personally, I don’t believe for a moment that the sequester provisions that were the penalty for failure of the deficit committee will ever see the light of day. There are thirteen months to go before these provisions kick in and Congress is already planning way to work around the cuts – particularly with respect to the defense budget. As a result, we can fully expect that the lame-duck session that will take place immediately following next November’s elections will either do away with or drastically modify the anticipated cuts.

It should also be noted that there are many policy experts who believe that had the panel reached an agreement, the damage to Medicare may have been far more serious than the planned 2 percent annual cuts.

There is, however, some real potential for immediate damage as a result of this Congressional failure.

The physician community had hoped that a deal would have brought resolution to the Medicare payment reductions doctors face each and every year as a result of the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula. While Congress has traditionally delayed the cuts each year, the current decrease scheduled – should it actually happen – would hit physicians with a 27% pay cut for caring for Medicare patients starting January, 2012.

Given the tenor of Congress these days, there seems to be some chance that the Republicans might wish to make their point by allowing the payment reduction to take place.  Should this happen, we’ve got a very big problem on our hands.

Physicians are already unable to make much-if any-profit on what Medicare pays them to treat our nation’s elderly. A near 30% cut would cause many-far too many-doctors to close up shop to seniors who are unable to cover the fees doctors require to stay in business out of their own pockets.  The disastrous result this would lead to is obvious.

Says American Medical Association president, Peter Carmel:

The failure of the deficit committee forces our nation to continue on an unsustainable path that puts current and future generations of Americans at risk for harsh consequences The deficit committee had a unique opportunity to stabilize the Medicare program for America’s seniors now and for generations to come.

Once again, Congress failed to stop the annual charade of scheduled Medicare physician payment cuts and short-term patches, which spends more taxpayer money to perpetuate a policy everyone agrees is fatally flawed.

Via Medpage Today

As I often point out, doctors are the one element of our healthcare system that are irreplaceable. Having hospitals are of little value when there are no physicians walking the halls to care for us. Drugs aren’t going to reach those who need them if there are no doctors to write the prescriptions.

Let’s hope that Congress is not so foolish as to make their point by hurting physicians and the seniors who  depend upon them.

By: Rick Ungar, Forbes, November 21, 2011

November 22, 2011 Posted by | Health Care | , , , , | Leave a comment

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