In it, but not of it. TPM DC

The scene was incredible really, a press conference with members of Congress and think tankers instead of reporters asking questions. I've really never seen anything like it and whether it and events like it can really change the tone in Washington, of course, remains to be seen. One indication it won't? This statement from Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare--the subject of much discussion at the Fiscal Responsibility Summit.

"Fixing America's long-term fiscal problems is a major issue, so I very much appreciate attention being paid to finding solutions. I hope today's summit marks the beginning of the kind of dialog, education and cooperation it will take to achieve a sustainable budget policy.

"I'll be working in the Senate as the Ranking Member of the Finance Committee and a senior member of the Budget Committee for fiscal responsibility and an honest accounting of how Congress and the administration tax and spend. The current administration inherited a $1 trillion deficit, and in just the first few weeks it added another $1 trillion to the debt with its economic stimulus bill. The bill included new and expanded entitlement programs, and if they're made permanent, they'll add at least another $2 trillion to the deficit.

"Looking ahead, we're hearing from some people that we can't reform government entitlement programs until we reform the entire health care system. The problems with our health care system need fixing, but for a lot of people, health care reform is code for spending more, not less. American taxpayers are being asked to swallow a lot right now, and it brings to mind the old joke about Wimpy's hamburgers. Wimpy said, 'I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.' There's too much of that kind of attitude in Congress and the White House today."

Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) has issued a statement apologizing for his public pronouncement at a local GOP dinner in Kentucky, that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead in nine months:

"I apologize if my comments offended Justice Ginsburg," said Bunning. "That certainly was not my intent. It is great to see her back at the Supreme Court today and I hope she recovers quickly. My thoughts and prayers are with her and her family."


The Louisville Courier-Journal reported over the weekend that Bunning had told the Hardin County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner that he supports the appointment of conservative judges -- an issue that will be even more important because of Ginsburg's cancer. "Even though she was operated on, usually, nine months is the longest that anybody would live after (being diagnosed) with pancreatic cancer," Bunning said.

Late Update: Here's the audio from Saturday night, courtesy of the Courier-Journal:

The White House fiscal responsibility summit and the recently passed economic stimulus law continue to take up much of the capital's attention today -- but don't forget the $410 billion spending bill that the House is slated to approve by Thursday. The government is technically only funded until the first week of March, meaning that time is short to wind up the 2009 appropriations cycle.

Want to know what's in the massive spending measure? You can download each section of the bill right here.

But a more important question might be what's not in the 2009 spending bill. The Medicaid family-planning aid that was removed from the stimulus amid Republican attacks, for one, is nowhere to be found in the Health and Human Services title of the 2009 spending measure.

One wonders if that absence will draw fire from women's health advocates, some of whom believed the family-planning provision could make a quick comeback after it got dumped earlier this month. When GOP governors such as Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty are using Medicaid family-planning money as an excuse to cut their budgets, how can congressional conservatives get away with slamming the program as taxpayer-funded abortions?

Five years after that whole mess over forged documents about then-President Bush's service in the National Guard, CBS News sure seems to be trying awfully hard to convince the GOP that they aren't a Dem outlet.

Here's a very interesting piece of information about Jeff Ballabon, the Republican lobbyist and political strategist who was just hired by CBS News to be the new CBS News senior vice president for communications. During the 2008 election, Ballabon wasn't shy about courting Jewish voters and telling them just how dangerous Barack Obama is when it comes to Israel.

Here's what he told the Orthodox paper Hamodia:

Obama is incredibly dangerous. Not because he is evil, but because he is naive. Agreeing to meet -- without any pre-conditions -- with the terror-supporting president of Iran shows his naivete. And even his Jewish advisors want to pressure Israel to divide Yerushalayim and to make sacrifices of defensive positions against the will of the military and security experts in Israel. They want desperately to appease the UN, the Europeans, the Arabs.


On the bright side, Ballabon is denying an allegation that he called Democrats evil. Greg Sargent reports:

"I never said Democrats are evil," he told me by phone just now. "My mother is a Democrat."

Asked whether he would have any impact at all on editorial content at CBS, Ballabon said: "No."

But Ballabon wouldn't comment further, and he declined to say whether he still thinks Obama is "incredibly dangerous."

When an early copy of the agenda for today's White House fiscal summit leaked out on Friday, I half-jokingly questioned the wisdom of choosing Bill Lynn -- a former senior lobbyist for defense giant Raytheon who had to get a waiver from administration ethics rules to join the Pentagon -- to help lead a session on responsibility in contracting and procurement.

Now the final list of speakers at today's summit has been released, and guess who mysteriously disappeared from the list? Instead of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Transportation Secretary (and earmark fan) Ray LaHood, and Lynn, the Procurement session will now be led by Napolitano, Rahm Emanuel, and Jacob Lew.

Lew, incidentally, comes to the administration from Citigroup, where he headed an alternative investments unit that "ran up hundreds of millions of dollars in losses last year on [an] esoteric collection of investments ... even as they collected seven-figure salaries and bonuses," as the New York Times reported earlier this month.

I hate to ask the same question twice, but on a day when Citigroup is generating headlines like this one, is Lew the best choice to replace Lynn on this "fiscal responsibility" panel?

There are plenty of reasons liberals should like today's entitlement summit. My colleague, Elana Schor, notes them here and TAP's Ezra Klein here. Bob Greenstein, head of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, made the liberal case for alarm in his remarks. He notes that the problem is primarily a health care problem If health care costs could just be brought in line with economic growth we'd be largely okay. "We will need to act before mounting debt and interest payments make this problem worse than it already is. The mere fact that Greenstein has such a prominent role addressing the conference ought to be of comfort to liberals. If that wasn't enough, OMB Director Peter Orszag made it clear that "health care reform is entitlement reform."

The New York Times reports this morning that the White House had abandoned plans to unveil a Social Security "task force" at today's fiscal summit, raising the question of whether the Obama administration is ready to conduct separate debate over the long-term health of Social Security and Medicare -- or whether the tired canard of "dangerous entitlement spending" will continue to rule the political roost.

One liberal activist who weighed in against the proposed task force told me that some within the administration are ready to attempt "one more fix" for Social Security, thinking of the 70-year-old benefits program "as an equation to be solved" and the Obama team as the mathematicians on the case.

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Now this is funny. In the Minnesota Senate trial, the Coleman campaign is now accusing the Franken team of cherry-picking votes.

Coleman spokesman Mark Drake told Minnesota Public Radio that Franken's revised list of rejected absentee ballots, which are being submitted for review and potential counting, is skewed towards Franken-supporters. "The time has come for all the valid votes of Minnesotans to count, not just the ones that favor one candidate over another," said Drake, projecting a high-minded image of small-d democracy.

Keep in mind that the Coleman camp insisted early on in this trial that they weren't cherry-picking, and for all they knew they might have been advocating on behalf of unopened votes for Franken. But during the trial, they've been very clearly revealed to have cherry-picked their own votes. And local newspapers have shown how tilted his own list is.

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We told you last week about a growing note of discord between House and Senate Republicans' political message on mortgage aid. While House conservatives lambaste the Obama administration's $75 billion foreclosure plan as too pricey, their Senate counterparts are continuing to back a $121 billion-plus mortgage proposal from Columbia University professor and former Bush economic adviser Glenn Hubbard.

Now the intra-party tension over housing is becoming harder and harder to mask, as Roll Call reports (sub. req'd):

The [Senate GOP's] plan would potentially cover trillions of dollars of real estate and cost taxpayers up to $300 billion in subsidies. It's the sort of big-government spending plan that House Republicans have been railing against -- at least when they come from the lips of Democrats.

But House Republican leaders have avoided criticizing their more centrist Senate brethren, preferring to focus their fire on Democratic plans to bail out struggling homeowners instead, like Obama's $275 billion proposal announced last week to rework distressed mortgages to prevent foreclosures.

As President Obama's "fiscal responsibility summit" consumes much of Washington's oxygen today, a critical question is being largely ignored in the mainstream media: Will this administration dispense with the notion of an overall "entitlements" crisis and begin treating Social Security and Medicare like the separate issues they are?

The New York Times raises the issue, in a back-handed fashion, by reporting that congressional Democrats are warning Obama against attempting to shore up Social Security's long-term fiscal health. Per the Times:

Those who oppose action said Mr. Obama must focus on his bigger priority -- health care legislation to expand access to insurance and reduce the costs of care. They argue that success there would help control the unsustainable growth of Medicare and Medicaid, the government's other major benefit programs, which together pose a far greater fiscal problem.


It's not clear which Capitol Hill Democrats helped quash the idea of announcing a "Social Security task force" during today's fiscal summit -- but Obama would be well-served to heed their advice.

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