Friday, February 26, 2010

Biden announces retirement savings safeguards

The Obama administration on Friday proposed new regulations aimed at protecting workers' retirement savings from unethical financial advisers.

The safeguards would protect workers from conflicts of interest on the part of advisers who manage their 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts. The administration estimates that the protections would affect 15 million workers.

The proposed regulations would require retirement investment advisers and money managers to either base their investment advice on objective computer models certified by independent experts, or refrain from steering workers into funds they are affiliated with or from which they are receiving a commission.

Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris announced the proposal during a meeting of the White House Middle Class Task Force. Biden said the regulations meet the task force's goal of helping middle class families plan for a secure retirement.

"A lot of folks are not getting the best treatment, the best advice and the most help in figuring out how to deal with their retirement plans," Biden said.

If the Labor Department enacts the proposed regulations, the rules would apply to all financial institutions that offer 401(k) programs to employers and offer financial advice to their employees.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Obama launches health-care summit

U.S. President Barack Obama and politicians from both parties began a televised summit on Thursday in an attempt to kickstart legislation to overhaul the health-care system.

The purpose of the daylong policy discussion at Blair House, the White House guest residence, was to suggest ways to move forward with the legislation. The group was to consider ways to control health-care costs and expand coverage, as well as deficit reduction and insurance reform.

"We all know this is urgent. And unfortunately over the course of the year, despite all of the hearings that took place and all of the negotiations that took place and people on both sides of the aisle worked long and hard on this issue, you know, this became a very ideological battle," Obama said, as he led off a meeting with House leaders and Democratic and Republican senators and members of Congress.

"It became a very partisan battle and politics, I think, ended up trumping practical common sense. But what I'm hoping to accomplish today is for everybody to focus not just on where we differ, but focus on where we agree, because there actually is some significant agreement on a host of issues."

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, speaking on behalf of Republicans, said that lawmakers should scrap the health-care bill Senate Democrats passed on Christmas Eve and start from scratch.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi countered that it's too late to start over and that it is not an option.

Although the Democrats control both the House and the Senate, the two chambers have been unable to agree on health-care legislation, and Republicans have uniformly opposed it.

Obama's plan to reform health care was dealt another blow following the election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown to the Senate, which gave the party enough votes to filibuster bills.

Earlier this week, Obama unveiled his own compromise health-care plan that attempts to bridge the differences between the stalled House and Senate bills. It would not include a publicly run insurance plan, but would allow the government to cap health insurance premiums "if a rate increase is unreasonable and unjustified."

It would also require most Americans to carry health insurance coverage and bar insurance companies from denying coverage to people with medical problems or charging them more.

The proposal claims it will insure more than 31 million Americans who cannot afford health insurance and reduce the U.S. deficit over the next 10 years by $100 billion.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Obama urges repeal of insurers antitrust exemption

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama urged Congress on Tuesday to strip health insurers of their decades-old exemption from federal antitrust laws - hardening his stand against the industry as he tries to revive his stalled health care overhaul.

The White House announced Obama's support for a House bill that would repeal the industry's antitrust exemption, saying that would foster a more competitive marketplace that benefits consumers. The announcement follows Obama's call for new federal rate-setting powers that would give the Health and Human Services department the power to deny excessive increases in health insurance premiums.

"Removing this exemption will allow appropriate enforcement and examination of potential policies that might prove uncompetitve, or might stifle competition," spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Obama has scheduled a health care summit with congressional leaders of both parties for Thursday, in a bid to rescue Democratic health care plans passed by both chambers that stalled after Democrats lost their 60-seat majority in the Senate. On Monday, he unveiled a proposal that sought to bridge the differences between the House and Senate bills.

Health insurance premiums have been climbing even as general inflation remains low. A spate of double-digit increases for people who buy their own policies has infuriated consumers, and the president is trying to tap the outrage to build support for his comprehensive remake.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bipartisan jobs bill advances past GOP filibuster

WASHINGTONA bipartisan jobs bill cleared a GOP filibuster on Monday with critical momentum provided by the Senate's newest Republican, Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

The 62-30 tally to advance the measure to a final vote on Wednesday gives both President Barack Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats a much-needed victory -- even though the measure in question is likely to have only a modest boost on hiring.

Brown and four other Republicans broke with GOP leaders to advance the measure. Most other Republicans voted in favor of the filibuster because of strong-arm tactics by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. The bill is likely to enjoy far broader GOP support on Wednesday when it's put to an up-or-down vote.

The bill featured four provisions that enjoyed sweeping bipartisan support, including a measure exempting businesses hiring the unemployed from Social Security payroll taxes through December and giving them another $1,000 credit if new workers stay on the job a full year.

Though employers seldom make hiring decisions based on tax breaks, economist Mark Zandi says the measure could potentially create 250,000 new private-sector jobs. That's less than 4 percent of the 8.4 million jobs lost in the recession.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Obama Details Plan to Expand Health Care to Uninsured

WASHINGTON President Obama on Monday laid out for the first time a detailed legislative proposal for overhauling health care. His plan sticks largely to the approach passed by the Senate with unified Democratic support, but it makes concessions to the House version, which was more expensive and would have covered more people.

Mr. Obama’s proposal is the opening act to a week of high drama around health care that will culminate on Thursday, when the president convenes Democrats and Republicans at an all-day televised health care “summit” at Blair House. The White House is hoping the session can jump start the stalled health bill.

“We view this as the opening bid for the health meeting,” Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama’s communications director, told reporters Monday morning, adding, “We took our best shot at bridging the differences.”

The bill is intended to achieve Mr. Obama’s broad goals of expanding coverage to the uninsured while driving down health premiums and imposing what the White House calls “common sense rules of the road” for insurers, including ending the unpopular practice of discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. The measure is posted on the White House Web site.

The White House projects that the bill would extend coverage to 31 million people who are currently uninsured, at a cost over 10 years of $950 billion — more than the $871 billion the Senate would have spent, but less than the $1.05 trillion for the version passed by the House. The administration estimates that its plan would reduce the federal deficit by $100 billion over the next 10 years — and about $1 trillion over the second decade — by cutting spending and reining in waste and fraud.

But the measure has not yet been evaluated by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, and White House officials said they were open to adjusting it if it cost substantially more than they have estimated.

The proposal would provide more money to help cash-strapped states pay for Medicaid over the next four years and eliminate the unpopular “donut hole” coverage gap in the Medicare prescription drug program.

In many respects, Mr. Obama’s measure looks much like the version the Senate passed on Christmas Eve — and indeed, senior White House officials acknowledged on a morning conference call that they had used the Senate bill as a template. But there are several critical differences that appear designed to appeal to House Democrats, who have voiced deep concerns about the Senate measure and its effects on the middle class.

To begin with, Mr. Obama would eliminate a controversial special deal for Nebraska — widely derided by Republicans as the “cornhusker kickback” — that called for the federal government to pay the full cost of a Medicaid expansion for that state. Instead, the White House would help all states absorb the cost of the Medicaid expansion from 2014, when it begins, until 2017.

And while the president adopts the Senate’s proposed excise tax on high-cost, employer sponsored insurance plans, Mr. Obama makes some crucial adjustments based on an agreement reached in January with organized labor leaders, while also trying to avoid the appearance of special treatment for unions. Most crucially, the president would delay imposing the tax until 2018 for all policies, not just for health benefits provided through collectively-bargained union contracts.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Obama to tout housing help Friday in Las Vegas

President Barack Obama is unveiling $1.5 billion in housing help, a boost timed to his appearance in the city with the worst foreclosure crisis in the nation.

Obama's move, detailed by aides in advance of his town hall here Friday, is the latest by a White House determined to show it is helping families rebound from a deep recession. The downturn is taking an election-year toll on Obama's party as voter frustration builds.

Obama was to announce that housing finance agencies in the five hardest-hit states in the housing crisis will receive $1.5 billion to help spur local solutions to the problem. Those five are Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada.

The policy wrinkle comes during a two-day Western trip with different agendas for the president. He will be back in town-hall mode, a venue that aides say allows him to connect with people and distance himself from the messy process of Washington governing.

The president is also out to help vulnerable senators protect their seats and, in turn, gain as much legislative leverage as he can.

At the town hall and a business speech he will be lending his support to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a top 2010 election target of Republicans.

Obama's political involvement comes as the Democrats' command of the Senate grows shakier, jeopardizing the president's agenda. The tide of change that Obama rode to office is threatening to slam against his own party.

The first day of the trip was all politics. Obama campaigned Thursday for Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado in Denver, then held a $1 million fundraiser for Democrats in Las Vegas.

Reid is one of Obama's allies, despite a flap over the president's tendency to refer to Las Vegas as a symbol of imprudent spending, which has the city's mayor fuming at the president.

For Obama, slowing the foreclosure rate is a key step in the recovery of the overall economy. Millions of people have lost their homes because they couldn't afford the mortgages anymore, and millions lost jobs because of the associated slowdown in new home building.

Reid's state leads the nation in home foreclosures; Las Vegas was the metro area with the highest foreclosure rate in January, with one in every 82 homes receiving such a filing.

The money for the new rescue effort will come from the $700 billion financial industry bailout program, according to a senior administration official who spoke anonymously Thursday night because the formal announcement had not been made.

Economic issues, such as unemployment or reduced income, are expected to be the main catalysts for foreclosures this year. Initially, subprime mortgages were mostly the culprit, but homeowners with good credit who took out conventional, fixed-rate loans are the fastest growing group of foreclosures.

Obama will cap his Las Vegas trip with a speech to the city's Chamber of Commerce before returning to Washington later Friday.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Obama creates panel to tackle deficit, debt

With several strokes from several pens, President Obama created a fiscal commission this morning that's supposed to begin erasing $14.3 trillion in government red ink.

Well, not so fast. First the panel, headed by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, must be fleshed out with 16 more members: four appointed by Obama, six by congressional Democrats and six by congressional Republicans (who have yet to say whether they'll play ball).

Then it must spend most of the year coming up with ways to slash the $1.6 trillion federal budget deficit and $14.3 trillion national debt. After that, it must get at least 14 of 18 "yes" votes to send any recommendations to Congress -- a process that guarantees bipartisanship or gridlock.

Obama optimistically called it a "thankless task" in thanking the two men who will take it on. He singled out Simpson, who at 6'7" should be able to take on any tall order, as "flinty" -- an understatement for those who covered the Wyoming lawmaker in the Senate before he abdicated for the ivory towers of Harvard.

"If you look in the dictionary, it says 'flinty' and then it's got Simpson's picture," the president said. Simpson, wearing a wild tie, just grinned.

Obama was more reverential in noting that Bowles, as White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton, helped broker the 1997 deficit reduction law that was followed by four years of budget surpluses.

The two men "are taking on the impossible," Obama said. "They're going to try to restore reason to the fiscal debate."

The panel is Obama's second choice, following the Senate's defeat of a tougher one that could have assured congressional action. This one, like countless others in the past, can be ignored if lawmakers -- even after the 2010 elections -- don't have the nerve to cut spending and, possibly, raise taxes.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mayor Bloomberg's approval rating at lowest in more than 4 years: poll

Mayor Bloomberg's approval rating has fallen to its lowest point in the last 4-1/2 years - just one of the elected officials to feel the wrath of New York voters.

Voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, support Bloomberg's plan to balance the budget by freezing city workers' wages, but are mixed on his push to trim city services instead of raising taxes.

Just 43% of voters would raise taxes to balance the budget, down 10 points from a year ago.

About 45% would cut services, up 6 points from a year earlier. While 63% of voters would support a wage freeze, 63% are also opposed to laying off city workers.

Bloomberg's proposed budget eliminates raises for most city workers, and lays off 834 of them.

Just 61% of New Yorkers surveyed approve of the job Bloomberg is doing, down from 67% in September and 75% in October 2008.

The last time he was at that level was July 2005, when he had a 60% approval rating heading into his first re-election bid.

Bloomberg won re-election last fall by a 4.4-point margin, and said he was hurt by the same anti-incumbent sentiment that has tossed pols from office around the country.

Quinnipiac pollster Mickey Carroll said the voter dissatisfaction is real - and Bloomberg has suffered from it.

"For Mayor Mike, 60 is the new 70," Carroll said. "The man who cruised through his second term with 70 percent approval ratings should be happy if he can stay above 60 percent in his third term."

Other city leaders don't even fare that well.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has a 44% approval rating after four years of running the Council.

New Controller John Liu also is at 44%, and new Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has 37%.

Controversial schools Chancellor Joel Klein is the only one in the poll more loathed than loved: 39% of voters approve of the job he's doing, and 40% disapprove.

The declines mirror a similar decline for President Obama, whose approval rating in the five boroughs is 72% - an enviable number for other pols, but the lowest since he took office.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Biden and Cheney spar over anti-terrorism policies

WASHINGTON -- Former Vice President Dick Cheney says his successor, Joe Biden, is "dead wrong" about terrorist threats facing the United States. Biden says Cheney is "misinformed."

And the feud goes on.

Highly partisan public skirmishes between President Barack Obama's White House and Cheney have become standard fare. And the back-and-forth on the Sunday morning talk shows did not disappoint.

Biden struck first, declaring that Cheney's attacks on Obama's commitment to fighting al-Qaida ignored the facts.

"We've eliminated 12 of their top 20 people. We have taken out 100 of their associates," said Biden. "They are in fact not able to do anything remotely like they were in the past. They are on the run. I don't know where Dick Cheney has been. Look, it's one thing, again, to criticize. It's another thing to sort of rewrite history. What is he talking about?"

Cheney insisted Biden was "dead wrong" to assert that a fresh Sept. 11-style strike was unlikely, calling a nuclear or biological attack by al-Qaida "the biggest strategic threat the United States faces today."

Cheney then again took on Obama's decision to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In doing so, the former vice president acknowledged he had been at odds with the majority of Bush administration officials on the decision to release prisoners from the military lockup to their home countries when cases against them were determined to be legally untenable.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Obama to deliver commencement at University of Michigan

President Obama last year at the Notre Dame commencement.

Yes, it's cold now, but soon comes the warmth of spring with fresh flowers, thoughts of love, and college commencements -- and presidential college commencement speeches as well.

President Obama will address graduates of the University of Michigan on May 1, school president Mary Sue Coleman announced.

"President Obama has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of many students with his inspiring words of hope and change," Obama said.

In addition to being a fine school, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has seen its fair share of presidential history.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson outlined his vision of "the Great Society" at a Michigan commencement. Four years before that, candidate John F. Kennedy proposed creation of the Peace Corps from the steps of the Michigan Union.

President Gerald Ford, an alumnus who played football for the Wolverines in the 1930s, launched his 1976 election bid at a commencement address in Ann Arbor.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush have also delivered Michigan commencements.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Senate banking chief hopeful for financial reform bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd voiced optimism on Thursday that his committee could craft a bipartisan financial reform bill.

Dodd said he would negotiate the financial regulation legislation with Republican Senator Bob Corker, six days after saying bipartisan efforts had failed.

"I am more optimistic than I have been in several weeks that we can develop a consensus bill to bring about the reforms the financial sector so desperately needs to prevent another economic crisis," Dodd said in a statement.

Last Friday, Dodd said he was at an impasse with the top Republican on the banking committee Richard Shelby.

Dodd said he asked Corker to negotiate the bill with him. "We met in my office on Wednesday and given the importance of these issues he agreed," Dodd said.

Dodd, the chief architect on financial regulation in the Senate, introduced a draft reform bill in November. But that bill was met with stiff opposition from Republicans. Dodd then formed bipartisan groups to work on the most controversial parts of the bill, such as oversight of the $450 trillion over-the-counter derivatives market, corporate governance and banking regulation.

Corker had been working with Democratic Senator Mark Warner on new banking rules and a way to resolve large troubled financial firms.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Obama softens stance on Wall Street bonuses

President Barack Obama has praised the bosses of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan as "very savvy" and insisted he does not "begrudge" them their success and wealth, in a significant softening of the White House's attitude towards multimillion-dollar Wall Street bonuses.

Once a staunch critic of outsized pay packets, Obama adopted a strikingly consensual tone when asked this week about a $9m (£5.8m) bonus awarded to Goldman's Lloyd Blankfein and a $17m (£11m) payday granted to JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon.

"I know both those guys, they are very savvy businessmen," Obama said in a interview with Bloomberg's BusinessWeek magazine. "I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system."

Equating the banking bosses with top sports stars, Obama agreed that Dimon's $17m pay packet was "an extraordinary amount of money" in high-street terms, but added: "There are some baseball players who are making more than that and don't get to the World Series either, so I'm shocked by that as well."

Speaking more broadly about Wall Street rewards, Obama said: "I do think that the compensation packages that we've seen over the last decade at least have not matched up always to performance."

But he praised the fact that Goldman and JP Morgan were using long-term share awards, rather than cash, to pay bonuses to their senior executives. He said this "requires proven performance over a certain period of time as opposed to quarterly earnings", adding that it was a "fairer way of measuring CEO success and ultimately will make the performance of American businesses better".

Although the White House denied any changed in direction on the issue of bonuses, Obama's comments were far less strident than his past condemnations of rewards on Wall Street. Shortly after taking office last year, he described bonus payouts by banks as "the height of irresponsibility" and said it was "shameful" that banks were paying "lavish" compensation in the middle of an economic crisis.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Obama sets up task force on childhood obesity

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama signed a memorandum Tuesday establishing a new federal task force to tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity.

The task force, according to the memorandum, will have 90 days to craft a plan encouraging "optimal coordination" between the federal government and both the private and non-profit sectors, according to Obama.

Several Cabinet members, including the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, will serve on the task force. Its work will complement an aggressive public relations effort led by first lady Michelle Obama to raise public awareness of the issue.

Childhood obesity is "one of the most urgent health issues that we face in this country," the president said at the White House.

"We think that this has enormous promise in improving the health of our children, in giving support to parents to make the kinds of healthy choices that oftentimes are very difficult."

The administration, according to the memo, "is committed to redoubling our efforts to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation through a comprehensive approach that builds on effective strategies, engages families and communities, and mobilizes both public and private sector resources."

The memo notes that almost one-third of American children are overweight or obese -- a rate that has tripled among adolescents and more than doubled in younger children since 1980.

About one-third of Americans born in the year 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lifetime, according to the memo.

Michelle Obama will launch a national campaign against childhood obesity at noon at the White House.

Mayors, doctors and leaders in sports, entertainment and business will join the first lady as she kicks off the campaign. Members of President Obama's Cabinet will also be there.

As part of the campaign the first lady is urging families to turn off the television, drink more water and serve smaller portions.

During a speech last month at a Virginia YMCA, the first lady spoke about health issues caused by childhood obesity.

"We've seen the surge in obesity in this country is nothing short of a public health crisis, and it's threatening our children, it's threatening our families, and more importantly it's threatening the future of this nation," she said. "Higher rates of obesity are directly linked, as you've heard, to higher rates of chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer and diabetes."

During her speech at the YMCA, Michelle Obama shared strategies she has used with her own children.

She helped her daughters stay active by limiting television watching, she said. The first lady also cut back on meal sizes and sugary drinks, and added more fruits, vegetables and water to their diet.

"It was really very minor stuff. But these small changes resulted in some really significant improvements," Obama said.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Obama invites GOP leaders to health care talk

WASHINGTON -- In the first major step to revive his health care agenda after his party's loss of a filibuster-proof Senate majority, President Barack Obama on Sunday invited Republican and Democratic leaders to discuss possible compromises in a televised gathering later this month.

Obama's move came amid widespread complaints that efforts so far by him and his Democratic allies in Congress have been too partisan and secretive.

The Feb. 25 meeting's prospects for success are far from clear. GOP leaders demanded Sunday that Democrats start from scratch, and White House aides said Obama had no plans to do so.

"If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio also threw some jabs while accepting Obama's invitation. He said he was glad the White House "finally seems interested in a real, bipartisan conversation," adding that Americans have rejected "the job-killing, trillion-dollar government takeover of health care bills passed by the House and Senate."

Friday, February 05, 2010

Banking regulation bill hits impasse in Senate

WASHINGTON -- Efforts to reach bipartisan agreement on regulations to prevent another financial meltdown have reached an impasse in the Senate Banking Committee and Chairman Christopher Dodd said Friday he will move forward with his version of the bill.

Dodd, D-Conn., has been unable to find common ground over consumer protections with Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the committee. Nonetheless, Dodd said he will incorporate provisions into the regulatory bill that were worked out by other bipartisan teams on the panel.

The breakdown in negotiations is a setback for the bill. A priority of the Obama administration, it is intended to address weaknesses in the financial system that led to the crisis that gripped Wall Street in the fall of 2008. The legislation aims to increase consumer protections on loans and credit cards, add restrictions to previously unregulated financial products and find ways to dismantle failing firms without resorting to taxpayer bailouts. The House has already passed its version.

"While I still hope that we will ultimately have a consensus package, it is time to move the process forward," Dodd said. He is expected to introduce his bill the week of Feb. 22.

Dodd needs Republican support to win passage in the Senate. It is unclear at this point whether adding other regulatory measures supported by Republicans will guarantee him GOP votes.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have found agreement on how to deal with companies that pose a broad risk to the financial system. He said Dodd assured him that their work will be reflected in legislation that Dodd proposes.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Obama calls for talks with GOP on health care, then vote by Congress

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama called Thursday for high-level talks with Republicans on a Democratic health care bill, then putting the resulting legislation to a vote in Congress.

"If Congress decides we're not going to do it, even after all the facts are laid out, after all the options are clear, then the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not," Obama said. "That's how democracy works."

Obama's comments were the first clear signal from the White House or Democrats in Congress on how they would proceed on a top legislative priority after losing their 60-seat supermajority in the Senate.

Republican Scott Brown was sworn as the new U.S. senator from Massachusetts earlier Thursday, leaving the Democrats one vote shy of being able to overcome filibusters of health care reform and other major initiatives.

Asked at a party fundraising event about the Democratic strategy for health care reform going forward, Obama said Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were working out differences in the separate health care bills passed by each chamber last year.

Once that was finished, Obama said, the next step would be "to call on our Republican friends to present their ideas." He proposed a meeting with Republican and Democratic leaders, along with health care experts, to go over the merged legislation.

"Their ideas, our ideas, let's go through them in a methodical way so the American people can compare," Obama said, adding: "And then I think we've got to go ahead and move forward on a vote. We've got to move forward on a vote."

At National Prayer Breakfast, Obama warns against 'erosion of civility'

President Obama bemoaned the "erosion of civility" in the nation's political debate Thursday, telling an audience at the National Prayer Breakfast that there is a growing sense that "something is broken" in Washington.

"Those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should," Obama said. "At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another, to have at once a serious and civil debate."

Obama contrasted the sense of duty and service summoned in response to disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti with the seeming inability of the nation's policymakers to answer "the slow-moving tragedies of children without food and men without shelter and families without health care."

The president criticized a political culture where disagreement on policy quickly morphs into questioning one another's motives. Obama, a Christian who was born in Hawaii, alluded to the undercurrent of allegations that he is actually a Muslim who was born outside the United States, saying, "I am the first to confess that I am not always right. . . . But surely, you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship,"

Speaking to an audience at the Hilton Washington hotel that included Vice President Biden, congressional leaders, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and an array of religious leaders and foreign dignitaries, Obama called on leaders to step outside their comfort zones to bridge divisions and unite around their common goals.

"Challenging each other's ideas can renew our democracy," Obama said. "But when we challenge each other's motives, it becomes harder to see what we hold in common."

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Obama rips Republicans for 'obstruction'

President Obama blamed the Republican Party for what he called politically motivated opposition on issues.

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama tore into the Republican opposition on Capitol Hill Wednesday, blaming the GOP for what he called politically motivated opposition on virtually every issue.

Democrats have been willing to incorporate Republican ideas on health care and other issues, he said, but Republicans have not been willing to do the same.

Addressing a gathering of Senate Democrats, Obama promised to "call (Republicans) out when (Democrats) extend a hand and get a fist in return."

Several Democrats facing tough election fights this November were given time to ask the president questions on high-profile issues such as trade and deficit reduction. Much of the president's time, however, was used to lash out at GOP tactics.

Senate Republicans, he said, have tried to employ the filibuster more over the past year than in all of the 1950s and 1960s combined. The GOP's strategy has been "20 years of obstruction packed into one," he said.

"If you want to govern, you can't just say no," he argued. "It can't be about just scoring points." The filibuster, he added, only works as intended if there is a "genuine spirit of compromise."

The president's tough rhetoric was part of a more aggressive -- and frequently populist -- White House strategy in the wake of the Democrats' recent upset loss in the Massachusetts Senate race. GOP Sen.-elect Scott Brown's victory stripped Democrats of their 60-seat Senate supermajority and raised fears among many congressional Democrats about a potential GOP landslide in the upcoming midterm elections.

The Democratic answer to the Massachusetts Senate race should not be "to do nothing" in Congress, he said. Nervous constituents want to see legislative progress, he asserted.

"We should do more, and we should do so without delay," he said.

Obama cited several examples of what he said was GOP legislative maneuvering motivated purely by political considerations. Among other things, he raised the recent example of seven GOP senators who backed a bill establishing a bipartisan deficit reduction commission, but then turned against it when the proposal came to a vote.

He also noted that a large number of bills have been subjected to Republican-led filibusters, only to receive 85 or 90 votes once the filibuster is broken and the legislation is allowed to move to a final vote.

I'm "not open to switches" solely "because it's good short-term politics," he said. I won't tolerate an "if you lose, I win" mentality.

Obama urged Senate Democrats to stop listening to what he called politically oriented cable television shows on networks such as CNN and MSNBC, and instead get out of the Washington "echo chamber."

Most people "don't care about majorities and minorities and process," he said. They just want to know if their elected representatives are "delivering for me."

The president warned fellow Democrats that the public is often misinformed on key issues such as budget deficits. Many constituents will cite foreign aid or legislative earmarks when discussing ways to reduce spending, he said, when in reality those items constitute a minuscule share of federal spending.

Balancing the budget while refusing to raise taxes and exempting entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare would require 60 percent cuts in virtually every other program, and "that's just not going to happen," he said.

Noting that Bill Clinton left office with budget surpluses, Obama asserted that Democrats "should have credibility" on the deficit issue. But the party is "still haunted" by debates from the 1960s and '70s when the party was stuck with the "tax and spend" label, he said.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Obama pitches aid for struggling small businesses

President Barack Obama's bid to sell his economic agenda and re-energize voters picks up in politically significant New Hampshire, where he will again promote an idea to free up money for small businesses that are hurting.

Obama travels to Nashua, N.H., on Tuesday to draw attention to a proposal highlighted in his State of the Union address last week: funneling $30 billion to local banks so they can lend small businesses money they need to grow their enterprises and create jobs.

The trip comes two weeks after Democrats suffered the stunning loss of a Senate seat in neighboring Massachusetts, and the president is working to shore up his party's standing heading into the November midterm elections to avoid heavy losses in the House and the Senate, both of which are under Democratic control.

In New Hampshire, Obama will tour a local business and hold his second town hall in six days, a format that allows him to show engagement with the public and counter a sense of "remoteness," as he has put it, that people have had with his policy agenda.

"Jobs will be our No. 1 focus in 2010," he said in excerpts of his prepared remarks, which the White House released early. "And we're going to start where most new jobs do - with small businesses. These are companies that begin in basements and garages when an entrepreneur takes a chance on his dream, or a worker decides it's time she became her own boss."

Read more: Obama pitches aid for struggling small businesses -

Monday, February 01, 2010

Obama budget would cut NASA moon plan

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's proposed budget gives NASA a $6 billion 5-year boost but aborts early attempts to return to the moon and turns over space transportation to commercial companies.

The space agency's budget would grow to $19 billion in 2011 under the proposed budget released on Monday, with an emphasis on science and less spent on space exploration.

It "adds $6 billion to NASA's budget over five years and draws upon American ingenuity to enable us to embark on an ambitious 21st Century program of human space exploration," the budget proposal reads.

But the plan ends the Constellation program "which was planning to use an approach similar to the Apollo program to return astronauts back to the Moon 50 years after that program's triumphs."

The budget notes that an independent panel found the moon program was years behind schedule.

"Instead, we are launching a bold new effort that invests in American ingenuity for developing more capable and innovative technologies for future space exploration," it reads.

The new budget, which is subject to change by Congress, also extends operations at the International Space Station past its planned retirement date of 2016, suggesting such potential additions as inflatable space habitats.

Obama's proposal hands over more space operations to the commercial sector, saying it will create thousands of new jobs and hold costs down.

NASA already has spent $9 billion on Constellation and likely would owe millions more to cancel existing contracts. Prime contractors on the Ares rocket program include ATK Launch Systems, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and Boeing Co.

Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor on the Orion capsule.

NASA already has contracts with Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp to deliver cargo to the station. SpaceX and other firms also are developing spaceships that can carry passengers to orbit and back.

The budget also proposes a re-vamp of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where staff have feared major cutbacks, as part of making NASA more efficient.

"A major focus of this effort will be to create the 21st century launch facilities and infrastructure needed at Kennedy Space Center, transforming the facility to more effectively support future NASA, commercial, and other government launches," the budget reads.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson has promised to fight efforts to cut back NASA' Florida operations.

U.S. deficit could reach $1.6 trillion

U.S. President Barack Obama's proposed budget predicts the national deficit will crest at a record-breaking almost $1.6 trillion US in the current fiscal year, then start to recede in 2011 to just below $1.3 trillion.

Still, the administration's new budget to be released Monday says deficits over the next decade will average 4.5 per cent of the size of the economy, a level that economists say is dangerously high if not addressed.

A congressional official provided the information, which comes from a White House summary document circulating freely on Capitol Hill and among Washington lobbyists. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the spending proposal is not supposed to be made public until Monday.R

Details of the administration's budget headed for Congress include an additional $100 billion to attack painfully high unemployment. The proposed $3.8-trillion budget would provide billions more to pull the country out of the recession, while increasing taxes on the wealthy and imposing a spending freeze on many government programs.

Administration projections show the deficit never dropping below $700 billion, even under assumptions that war costs will drop precipitously to just $50 billion in some years instead of more than three times that this year and next.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration believed "somewhere in the $100-billion range" would be the appropriate amount for a new jobs measure made up of a business tax credit to encourage hiring, increased infrastructure spending and money from the government's bailout fund to get banks to increase loans to struggling small businesses.

That price tag would be below a $174-billion bill passed by the House of Representatives in December but far higher than a measure that could come to the Senate floor this week.

Gibbs said it was important for Democrats and Republicans to put aside their differences to pass a bill that addresses jobs, the country's No. 1 concern.

"I think that would be a powerful signal to send to the American people," Gibbs said in an appearance on CNN's State of the Union.

Job creation was a key theme of the budget Obama was sending Congress on Monday, a document designed, as was the president's address, to reframe his young presidency after a protracted battle over health care damaged his standing in public opinion polls and contributed to a series of Democratic election defeats.

Obama's $3.8-trillion spending plan for the 2011 budget year that begins Oct. 1 attempts to navigate between the opposing goals of pulling the country out of a deep recession and dealing with a budget deficit that soared to an all-time high of $1.42 trillion last year.
Congress debates

Obama's new budget will set off months of debate in the Democrat-controlled Congress, especially in an election year in which Republicans are hoping to use attacks against government overspending to gain seats. Obama has argued that he inherited a deficit of more than $1 trillion and was forced to increase spending to stabilize the financial system and combat the worst recession since the 1930s.

Obama's new budget was expected to repeat many of the themes of his first budget. But in a bow to worries over the soaring deficits, the administration is proposing a three-year freeze on spending for a wide swath of domestic government agencies.

Military, veterans, homeland security and big benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare would not feel the pinch.

The freeze would affect $447 billion in spending and is designed to save $250 billion over a decade. However, it would not fall equally on all domestic agencies. Some would see budget cuts to free up spending for programs the administration wants to expand, such as education and civilian research efforts.

NASA's mission to return astronauts to the moon would be grounded with the space agency instead getting an additional $5.9 billion over five years to encourage private companies to build, launch and operate their own spacecraft for the benefit of NASA and others. NASA would pay the private companies to carry U.S. astronauts.

Obama's budget repeats his recommendations for an overhaul of the U.S. health-care system, the fight that dominated his first year in office. It proposes to get billions of dollars in savings from the Medicare program and again seeks increased taxes on the wealthy by limiting the benefits they receive from tax deductions. Both ideas have met strong resistance in Congress.

Gibbs insisted Sunday that the president's push for health care was "still inside the five-yard line," but Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, also appearing on CNN, said the public was overwhelmingly against the bill and the administration should "put it on the shelf, go back and start over."