Week In Politics: Budgets, Gay Marriage And A Straw Poll

Mar 17, 2013
Originally published on March 17, 2013 11:32 am
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

President Barack Obama spent much of the past week on Capitol Hill meeting with Members of Congress. It was an effort to drum up goodwill toward finding agreements on some of Washington's long-simmering debates; chief among them the federal budget. But Obama still has a long way to go.

For more, NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: So the president held a series of private meetings with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. It's part of what has been referred to in the press as a Charm Offensive. How has the conversation been effective?

LIASSON: Well, the effort itself has been well received. And that in and of itself is positive because the president has been criticized - mostly by Republicans - for not reaching out to Republicans enough, and for spending too much time outside the Beltway campaigning for his positions.

Of course, during his first term, when he would invite members to the White House for social events, many Republicans would refuse. And then brag about the fact that he turned him down.

But from the accounts of the meetings with House and Senate Democrats and Republicans, the conversations were substantive. The president communicated to lawmakers that he really does want to find compromise on these big issues like the budget, immigration, guns, climate change.

MARTIN: OK, so it looks like we've got two distinct budget plans. One is from House Republicans. the other from Senate Democrats. Mara, how did they measure up?

LIASSON: Well, they're miles apart. They represent opening bids in a negotiation. Neither of them could pass Congress in their current form. Paul Ryan's budget, for House Republicans, balances the budget, it gets rid of the deficit completely in 10 years. But more than half of his deficit reduction to do that comes from eliminating Obamacare, which is not going to happen. He voucherizes Medicare. He blocks grants Medicaid. He replaces the tax code with two rates - 25 percent and 10 percent - but he doesn't identify any deductions or loopholes that would be eliminated in order to lower those rates. On the Senate Democrat side, their plan is equally unrealistic. It raises about a trillion dollars in new taxes, which certainly couldn't get passed through Congress. And it doesn't address the entitlement problem at all.

MARTIN: OK, so if these plans are miles apart, what does that mean for the prospect of any kind of grand bargain?

LIASSON: Well, you look at the two budgets and they look pretty slim. And the president said last week the differences might just be too wide to bridge. But he clearly wants a grand bargain and he said to lawmakers that he is willing to make what would be for Democrats painful changes to entitlement programs, meaning testing - means testing Medicare, changing the formula by which cost of living increases in Social Security and other problems are calculated, if the Republicans would agree to more revenue.

And the problem is it's hard to see what incentive Republicans have to do that. They might not want entitlement changes enough to give up on this bedrock principle of never, ever raising tax and revenue, especially after they agreed reluctantly to let the Bush tax cuts expire for upper income people at the end of last year.

There has been some hope that the return to regular order - that is working through the committee process - and doing tax reform, for instance, could get the two parties closer. The problem is that for tax reform, which means getting rid of loopholes - that's what's called broadening the base, so you can lower income tax rates - the two parties have a fundamental disagreement.

The Republicans say the extra revenue from eliminating loopholes should go to lowering rates. Democrats say it should go to lowering the deficit. So that's a big difference than taxing the rich.

MARTIN: Sounds complicated. I want to ask you about another big political story, Mara. This is the decision that was recently announced by Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. He announced his support for same-sex marriage. This came a couple of years after his own son told him that he was gay. Portman had been a staunch opponent of gay marriage. His support now puts him at odds with much of his party.

What if anything does this mean for the GOP?

LIASSON: Well, I think it is a big deal symbolically. He was the biggest establishment figure. He is a former Bush official; Senator on the VP shortlist who changed his mind. Recently a list of prominent Republican operatives and former officials signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, asking them to make gay marriage legal. So the party elite is changing. Young Republicans are changing on this issue.

The problem is that the base - social conservative voters - still are adamantly against gay marriage. And how the Republicans square that circle is unclear at this point. Maybe they just stop talking about it as an issue.

MARTIN: And lastly, Mara, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky won the CPAC straw poll yesterday. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida came in second. What does this mean? It's so early at this point.

LIASSON: Yes. And first of all, we need to point out that in the 40 year history of CPAC, only two straw poll winners have ever gone on to become president - Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush - so it's not much of a predictor. But it is a barometer of what's going on inside the party. And Rand Paul is now the leader of the Tea Party libertarian wing of the GOP. And Rubio represents the establishment, even though he was elected with Tea Party support.

And the base of the party, especially young libertarian men who come to CPAC in great numbers, are thrilled with Rand Paul's 13-hour live filibuster against the administration's drone program. And he is a force to be contended with. And Rand Paul is going to run for president in 2016.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.