Right wing hopes use of economy will defeat immigration bill

The U.S. Senate's "Gang on Eight" are pictured during a news briefing on Capitol Hill. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)
The U.S. Senate’s “Gang on Eight” are pictured during a news briefing on Capitol Hill. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)

As a bipartisan Senate group worked over the past few months to assemble broad legislation to overhaul the immigration system, conservative critics of the effort kept a fairly low profile. That’s about to change.

Critics of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration bill are gearing up for a intense fight to defeat the bill and they plan to put the economy at the center of their strategy.

The debate on Capitol Hill over the bill will kick off Friday with a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Conservatives held back until details of the legislation emerged and now intend to stir grassroots opposition through social media and talk radio among other lobbying efforts.

“Everything in this bill says we have a labor shortage. It’s proposing adding millions more foreign workers over the next decade along,” said Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, a group that favors low immigration levels. “We have 20 million Americans who can’t find a full-time job. It’s as if the Gang of Eight lives in alternate universe.”

Beck took aim at a provision that would allow many of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants to obtain provisional visas, giving them the right to live and work in the country for 13 years before becoming eligible for citizenship.

Many foes of the immigration bill view their most effective line of attack to be warnings about the costs of the legislation and its impact on an already weak U.S. labor market.

Some activists and lawmakers have derided the bill as an amnesty for lawbreakers but by emphasizing the law enforcement argument, conservatives risk fueling a perception that they are anti-immigrant.

Republicans are also mindful of their party’s low standing with Hispanic Americans and wary of stirring backlash with these voters.

The bill would establish new guest worker programs of low-skilled workers in farming, construction and other trades and increase the number of skilled workers who can obtain visas.

Former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who now heads the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, attacked the bill as “amnesty,” adding that it would incur “significant costs” to taxpayers.

“At a time of trillion-dollar deficits and $17 trillion in debt, the cost of implementing amnesty and the strain it will add to already fragile entitlement and welfare programs should be of serious concern for everyone,” DeMint said in a blog post on the Heritage Foundation web site.

The four Democrats and four Republicans who sponsored the bill formally began their effort to sell it at a news conference Thursday.

Under the Gang of Eight proposal, those who obtain provisional visas would not be eligible for most federal benefit programs, including welfare and assistance purchasing health insurance under the 2010 health reform law, until they receive green cards or citizenship.

But those given provisional legal status would eventually be allowed to draw benefits once they receive green cards or citizenship.

FISCAL IMPACT DEBATED

Heritage, which helped defeat the last major effort at comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, plans to issue a study in coming weeks analyzing the fiscal impact of the Gang of Eight’s proposal in a report likely to become fodder for the debate on Capitol Hill.

Within conservative circles, the politics of the immigration issue are complicated. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, is one of the lead sponsors of the Senate immigration bill.

Rubio, a Florida Republican and potential presidential candidate in 2016, and some other Republicans are embracing immigration reform in the aftermath of a presidential election in which Republican Mitt Romney lost to Democratic President Barack Obama, hurt in part by Obama’s huge advantage with Latino voters.

Romney’s stance on immigration during the campaign, including suggesting that illegal immigrants “self-deport,” helped to cost him votes with Hispanic Americans.

Some prominent economic conservatives, including anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, support the immigration reform bill, arguing that it will boost growth by making labor markets more fluid and giving technology companies and other business greater leeway to hire the skilled workers they need to stay competitive.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former aide to President George W. Bush who also advised McCain’s failed 2008 presidential bid, has estimated that immigration reform could boost U.S. gross domestic product by a nearly a percentage point.

Holtz-Eakin, head of the American Action Forum, a conservative policy institute, also said overhauling immigration laws could reduce cumulative federal budget deficits by $2.5 billion when taking into account the fact that faster economic growth leads to higher tax collections and reduces costs for unemployment insurance and other safety net programs.

But there are plenty of Republican skeptics of the immigration bill on Capitol Hill and it faces a particularly tough road in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

In the Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats, Republican Jeff Sessions is expected to lead the effort to defeat the immigration bill. Like DeMint, Sessions said the bill would put a huge strain on federal entitlement programs. He also warned it would exacerbate a scarcity of jobs for Americans already grappling with a 7.6 percent unemployment rate.

“This proposal would economically devastate low-income American citizens and current legal immigrants,” the Alabama Republican senator said. “It will pull down their wages and reduce their job prospects. Including those legalized, this bill would result in at least 30 million new foreign workers over a 10-year period — more than the entire population of the state of Texas.”

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Copyright  © 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Deal on farm workers could clear way for immigration bill

041013farmworkersA tentative deal has been reached to resolve a dispute between agriculture workers and growers that was standing in the way of a sweeping immigration overhaul bill, a key senator said Tuesday. The agreement could smooth the way for release of the landmark legislation within a week or so.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who’s taken the lead on negotiating a resolution to the agriculture issue, didn’t provide details, and said growers had yet to sign off on the agreement. The farm workers union has been at odds with the agriculture industry over worker wages and how many visas should be offered in a new program to bring agriculture workers to the U.S.

But Feinstein said she’s hoping for resolution in the next day or two.

“There’s a tentative agreement on a number of things, and we’re waiting to see if it can get wrapped up,” Feinstein said in a brief interview at the Capitol.

“I’m very hopeful. The train is leaving the station. We need a bill.”

The development comes as a bipartisan group of senators hurries to finish legislation aimed at securing the border and putting 11 million immigrants here illegally on a path to citizenship, while also allowing tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled foreign workers into the U.S. on new visa programs. The agriculture dispute was the most prominent of a handful of unresolved issues. There’s also still some debate over plans to boost visas for high-tech workers.

The group of four Republican and four Democratic senators has been hoping to release the immigration bill this week. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leader of the group, said Tuesday that this week remains the goal. But it also looked possible it could slip into next week.

At least 50 percent and as much as 70 percent or 80 percent of the nation’s approximately 2 million farm workers are here illegally, according to labor and industry estimates. Growers say they need a better way to hire labor legally, and advocates say workers can be exploited and need better protections and a way to earn permanent residence.

Senators plan to offer a speeded-up pathway to citizenship to farm workers already in the country illegally who’ve worked in the industry for at least two years. In addition they’re seeking to create a new visa program to bring foreign agriculture workers to the U.S. But wages and visa caps have been sticking points, just as they were for a separate low-skilled worker program that was resolved recently with a deal between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.

After negotiations between the United Farm Workers and agriculture interests, including the Western Growers Association, stalled in recent weeks, the four senators working on the issue — Feinstein, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah — developed a framework that would ultimately call for the agriculture secretary to set visa levels and wages, according to officials involved in the talks.

But the uncertainty of that structure sparked concern on both sides, and talks between growers and agriculture reopened. There now have been numbers set for wages and where to cap visa levels that the United Farm Workers has agreed to, officials said, although details weren’t immediately available Tuesday. But growers emphasized they had yet to sign off.

“We are working diligently on the final details on the important details of the wage and cap and are hopeful, but have not agreed to anything,” said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Even in absence of a formal OK from the growers side, Feinstein suggested that the senators were satisfied and would be moving forward with what they’ve settled on.

“We hope we can get their acquiescence and support, otherwise we just need to proceed ahead,” she said.

Meanwhile there were indications that the immigration debate, largely confined to behind-the-scenes negotiations so far, was moving into a more public phase.

Pro-immigrant groups planned rallies around the country and outside the Capitol for Wednesday.

And there was back-and-forth among GOP-leaning groups over the expected cost of a bill, with a conservative think tank, the American Action Forum, releasing a report Tuesday arguing that immigration reform would grow the economy and reduce the deficit, partly because of growth in the labor force. That stood in contrast to a report by the Heritage Foundation released during the last immigration debate in 2007, and expected to be revived again this year, that contended the legislation cost taxpayers $2.6 trillion.

The dispute was more evidence of a split in the GOP, with some favoring comprehensive immigration legislation, and others still strongly opposed.

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Follow Erica Werner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericawerner
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Right vs left before the highest court in the land

Paul Clement, who argued on behalf of the 26 states challenging the Obama health care law before the Supreme Court, talks to reporters after the third and final day of legal arguments over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the Supreme Court in Washington.
(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

They are heavyweights in the ring that is the U.S. Supreme Court.

These button-down, Ivy League-credentialed versions of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier represent Washington versus the states and the competing left-right ideologies behind that conflict. And the punches they throw – and take – while at the courtroom lectern have captured as much attention as their stances on the law.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Washington lawyer Paul Clement squared off over healthcare and immigration policy, the two biggest cases in the court term that ended in June. They are likely to do battle again over months, and perhaps years, to come.

Their rivalry arises largely from a distinct moment in U.S. legal history: Republican-controlled states have aggressively challenged the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama. Verrilli, appointed by the president, is the government’s top courtroom lawyer. Clement, who was a solicitor general during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush and is now with Bancroft PLLC, has become the go-to lawyer for conservative states and other challengers of the administration.

“You have to go back a long way to find two people who are consistently representing such opposing views,” said Andrew Pincus, a Washington lawyer who appears regularly before the court.

Not only are states increasingly locked in litigation with the federal government, Pincus said, but they are also going outside the offices of the states’ attorneys general for Supreme Court specialists.

STUDY IN CONTRASTS

A 46-year-old Wisconsin native, Clement approaches the lectern below the justices’ bench with no notes and a steady stock of rejoinders. He exudes confidence and seems to relish sparring with the nine justices, left and right.

Verrilli, 55 and a New York native, is low-key and soft-spoken. When he began as solicitor general last year, the justices sometimes had trouble hearing him. His presentations have been halting at times, and he stumbled when he began his defense of the healthcare law’s insurance mandate during the March session.

Verrilli coughed as he started to speak, then choked on a gulp of water. Overall, he had a rocky time before a bench dominated by conservative justices, who pummeled him with skeptical queries. At one point when Chief Justice John Roberts told Verrilli he had an extra 15 minutes, Verrilli said with a sigh, “Lucky me. Lucky me.”

News commentators lambasted Verrilli’s performances in the healthcare and immigration disputes and contrasted them with Clement’s fluid style. Some deemed his arguments nearly fatal for the Obama administration.

Setting the tone for much of the healthcare postmortem, CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin proclaimed Verrilli’s arguments in March “awful” and “a train wreck.”

In the end, Verrilli, on behalf of the administration, prevailed as the court upheld the requirement that most Americans buy health insurance and ruled, in the immigration case from Arizona, that federal law overrides most state policy.

Only this week did Verrilli publicly comment on his performance and the media drubbing. On a panel at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, he first took a lighthearted approach. As he was about to begin his panel presentation, he said, “I’m just going to take a sip of water here.” The audience laughed knowingly, recalling the dry throat that got him off to a bad start during March arguments.

In response to a question later about the criticism, he said, “I’m a government official. I’ve got a weighty responsibility. I ought to be subject to criticism like any other official with a weighty responsibility. And I guess I was. I’m OK with that.”

LEGAL SCORECARDS

Clement has 62 Supreme Court arguments under his belt, Verrilli, 21. This term, Clement argued seven cases, winning four and losing three. Verrilli split his six: three wins, three losses. Such scorecards are imperfect indicators of a lawyer’s skill: For the justices, much depends on the validity of each side’s core legal position and how they fit with past relevant cases.

The two advocates confront each other indirectly – through the justices, in fact. Each individually fields questions for his respective time, usually 30 minutes a side.

Outside the courtroom, things can be even tamer. Verrilli and Clement are part of a league of appellate lawyers that rarely engages in personal criticism. They are among the best-mannered of their ilk, down to their starched shirts and cuff links. At a Georgetown University law school event in March, Verrilli said he held Clement in high regard. Clement, vacationing this week, said in a brief email exchange, “I think the world of Don.” Both men declined further comment for this story.

Verrilli, tall with a salt-and-pepper mustache, and Clement, medium height with thinning brown hair, climbed the elite ranks of the law in similar fashion. But once they set on a professional path, they diverged in political and ideological affiliations.

Verrilli, who attended Yale University and then Columbia University law school, was a law clerk to jurists known for their liberalism: Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and, earlier, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Skelly Wright of the District of Columbia Circuit.

Clement attended Georgetown University and Harvard Law School. His mentors were leading lights of conservatism: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and, earlier, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Laurence Silberman of the District of Columbia Circuit.

Clement became principal deputy to U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson in 2001, then gained the top SG job in 2005, a year short of age 40.

Verrilli, who spent two decades in the Washington office of Jenner and Block, was already in his 50s when he joined the Obama administration in 2009. He became solicitor general in June 2011, succeeding Elena Kagan, appointed by Obama to the Supreme Court in 2010.

RHETORICAL BLOWS

The rivalry between Verrilli and Clement comes down mainly to a debate over the respective powers of the federal government and the states.

In the healthcare dispute, Clement represented 26 states that said the Affordable Care Act tread on their sovereignty. When Clement argued on behalf of Arizona in the immigration case, he said states should be able to set their own policies to keep people from crossing the border illegally and then burdening state resources.

Clement took the side of Texas in a voting-districts dispute, and Verrilli’s office sided partly with the challengers. In September, Clement will face off against the Obama administration in a lower court over South Carolina’s strict voter photo-identification law.

The closest comparison to Clement that court watchers draw is with Jeffrey Sutton, now a U.S. appeals court judge in Ohio, who in a few late-1990s and early-2000s federalism cases at the Supreme Court represented state officials, including those in Alabama and Florida.

Clement’s relationship with states and conservative causes is more prevalent and prominent.

Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who hired Clement to defend a state voting-district map at the Supreme Court earlier this year, said Clement was the first choice when states seek outside counsel.

“If you don’t go with him,” Abbott said, “you have to question why you are not.”

COMING ATTRACTIONS

The next high-profile matchup between Verrilli and Clement is likely to be over the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies Social Security payments and other federal benefits to same-sex spouses. On June 29, Clement filed a petition at the Supreme Court on behalf of the U.S. House of Representatives Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, defending the law’s constitutionality. The GOP House leadership hired Clement after the Obama administration said last year it would no longer support the statute defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

It is difficult to predict how the two will fare in that case, should the court decide to hear it in the term that begins on October 1. Throughout the last term, their respective fates defied much of the conventional wisdom.

When the justices ended up siding with Verrilli on the Obama healthcare plan, cards and letters of congratulations poured into his office. Along with them came a reminder of one well-known argument from challengers – that if the government could force people to buy health insurance, it could force people to eat healthy vegetables. A Justice Department colleague sent Verrilli a decorative arrangement of fruit. It was mainly broccoli, with a few pieces of cantaloupe mixed in.

(Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Howard Goller and Douglas Royalty)

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters

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A “Uni-Tea,” Bi-Lateral, Tri-Sermon

1619 – First African slaves arrive in Jamestown, Virginia. They look forward to becoming 3/5s of a real person.

1967 – Israel annexes East Jerusalem. Indigenous Palestinians look forward to becoming 3/5s of a real person.

COINCIDENCE? I think NOT!

“Make no mistake about it. These are not ‘kookie’ birds. Right now the greatest player, the big tent on the political scene in America, is called the Tea Party movement.”
Dick the Armey

“I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around a campfire but are lousy in politics.”
Newt Gingrich

FROM THE CHURCH OF INEFFABLE STUPIDITY:

Methinks political hysterians and historians will look back to this point in time, here and now,  and declare the demise of Caribou Barbie’s Tea Baggers.

Yesterday, in what was billed as the largest gathering of gaggling geese, Tea Baggers combined farces with the likes of Matt Drudge’s personal rectal thermometer, Andrew Breitbart and held an immense, successful,  huge Uni Tea conference. According to two intrepid TPM reporters, the number of iced water bottles stacked up for conference attendees, greatly outnumbered the actual conference members. If 500 people showed up, the Tea Baggers should be proud.

What happened?

A couple of things. First, try organizing a disorganized set of people whose only similarities include an utter ignorance about government policies, history, grammar and spelling. Just like the roulette wheels in Vegas, if at first you do succeed, trying and trying again may not bring you the same result.

Next, provide secret seed money from some incredibly rich and unbelievably conservative GOP underwriters. (See generally, Koch Bros, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation,  Wyly Bros, Freedumb Works, Americans for Prosperity,  and more) Then, when you sufficiently scare people with ideas like Death Panels, or Black Muslims from  Kenya taking over America and forcing kids to attend mosques, gather them up with misdirection, lies, deceit, and by underwriting fleets of buses, bring them together. Next step? Declare victory, declare the creation of a new and powerful grass roots movement, and watch the MSM trip over its own feet, trying to get the story.

Those first meetings were something else, weren’t they? Lots of bodies, a sense of “being,” and a wonderment at how it all happened. A real grass roots movement? In the day of remote control HDTV? Amazing.

So far, so good. But then reality begins to set in. Despite the best washing of brains that a wayward, lazy MSM and an evil Koch Foundation can buy, having the likes of Newt the Gingrich, Dick the Armey, C. Boyton Gray, and other NeoCons, and ultraconservatives start talking about the People’s movement as though it was their own, can shock and awe people in unexpected ways.  Sarah Palin, the people’s refudiated twit on twitter, Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul and Sharron Angle added fools to the fire, in their own special way.

Political genius P.T. Barnum had several observations about humanity, especially today’s GOP: “Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!” followed by the ever popular “There’s a sucker born every minute” and of course, “More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing, than by believing too much.” Even those who once had an affinity for Tea Bagging, began to see more clearly into the roots and sources of the Tea Bagger organization. Once that happened, even those with the most convictions began to sour on the whole Tea Bagger movement.

A couple of truths are now born out:

a) Tea Baggers are a dying breed.
The campaign leading up to yesterday’s conference began in November. They expected thousands, they bragged about hundreds of thousands, they gathered, at most, 500. Of those, no less than 75 were news media types looking for a story, then, in embarrassment, slinking away before the ugly spectacle of CNN interviewing ABC filming CBS, which was trying to gather a notable quote from FOX, which was earnestly searching for a way to attack MSNBC, which was preparing for a live report on PBS’s presence. .  .  .    you get the idea.

To be sure, there were many thousands who came to the first rally. It was new. It was entertaining. It was fun. And the hand made signs were fabullious. . . fibulous . . . fibrous . . . or something.

But as time went on, people were bound to learn a few things, like there are no Death Panels, Obama is not some Fascist Communist Nazi Kenyan Muslin bent on attacking the Murican Weigh of Life, and that neocon assholes are really and truly neocon assholes. The closer Dick’s Armey came to the Tea Baggers, and the more often Sarah and Michelle claimed TBers as their own spawn, the more likely people were willing to drop kick the party.

Sure, people are unhappy, people are scared, and people don’t trust government. But one thing that is emerging slowly, people trust the GOP and their trained Tea Bagger pets even less than they trust Obama.  Word to Rahm and other folks who keep the real Obama bubbled up. Tea Baggers are nowhere’sville.

b) Tea Baggers are racists.
Calling a farm implement a farm implement is one thing. But when tea baggers use the term “spade,” it is for an entirely different and less wholesome reason. The presence of Breitbart alone as a keynote speaker should be enough to tip off Americans that Tea Baggers consist of nothing but a doughy, overweight, pale-skinned, ardent watchers of Billo and Sean, whose average age is pretty close to their average IQ.

Change scares them. Old age scares them. Death Panels scare them. People of color scare them. Books contain too many words. Newspapers are too tough to understand. Educated folks intimidate and scare them. Big words confuse them.

New ideas terrify them more than the Soviet Missile gap (1957-1960)  (which they remember like it was yesterday). 9/11 reminded them of Pearl Harbor, an event which led to most of their births. Actually, these people are not to be scorned, but pitied. When they see a group of black males together, their first thought is Rape, their second is the NBA. When someone tells them  of a “public option,” they hear “death panels.” What scares them the most is that the feds may somehow get involved in Medicare, taking away one of their most greatly cherished private enterprises. Worst of all, Obama is a black man. Oh, the horror!

c) Sarah Palin is the kiss of death.
Tea Baggers still have one heroin (see generally,  Big H, brown sugar, dope, golden girl, H, horse, junk, poison, skag, smack, sweet dreams, tar), Sister Sarah, aka Bible Spice, Caribou Barbie, etc. Addictions involving this grizzled mama are worse than any street drug, and withdrawals are more painful than any identity theft your bank account ever experienced.

Even Tea Baggers realize that all that glitters is not gold. A common grifter, with a level of self importance and ego rarely seen, Sarah’s endorsement in favor of a candidate has two immediate impacts. 1) Money from various incredibly rich extremists pours in, and 2) Support for the candidate begins to wane.

Even now, fund raisers with Sarah are running on empty. Ticket sales for her appearances are down to nothing. Her Midas touch (as Fox called it some months ago) is all tarnish and no magic.  Frankly, it took longer than I expected, but even a refutiated twit’s fame has faded. The more that Newt and others call her presidential caliber, the more their guns will jam.

d) Michelle Bachmann is insane.
What can anyone add to that?

e) Newt Gingrich is a fat, corpulent, self-aggrandizing, immoral pig.
Actually, he and Sarah make quite the dynamic duo. Even we agnostics and atheists should hope and pray for one thing – that these two combine their sterling qualities and make a run for higher office. Of course, both of them will speak of the other in the most glowing terms, at least when they refrain from calling for invasions of North Korea and Iran. But rust and tarnish have a lot in common – they both consist of oxidized waste product.

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Political spin clouds economic realities

Democrats Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank (Reuters)

Midterm politics are distorting economic decision-making as leaders of both parties spin rival views of the road ahead, offering visions based on questionable economics.

The resulting political angst is leaving a mark on major legislation. A far-reaching financial overhaul bill signed by President Barack Obama on Wednesday reflects voter anger over bankers, bailouts and bonuses. A measure extending unemployment insurance, soon to be on Obama’s desk, was scaled back from an earlier, far more ambitious Democratic stimulus plan.

Angling for advantage, Democrats look to troubles before Obama took office. “It’s a choice between the policies that got us in this mess in the first place and the policies that are getting us out of this mess,” asserts Obama.

Republicans seek an edge by looking ahead. “More government, fewer jobs: This isn’t the picture of recovery; it’s the epitome of failure,” says House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Both sides are exaggerating, say economists and political analysts. And things will only get messier as November’s congressional elections draw closer. Politicians of all stripes are under heavy pressure from polls that show increasing voter worry about alarmingly high unemployment, growing government debt and rising skepticism over Obama’s ability to help the economy.

By contrast, 64 percent of economists surveyed in a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll said the economy would get better over the next 12 months — compared with just 33 percent among the general public who said they believed that.

“The election is certainly coloring the decision-making process in Washington, as one would expect,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

Zandi, who has advised both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, said the political gamesmanship comes as the economy remains “in a precarious situation” despite earlier signs of a rebound.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke reinforced this view, telling Congress on Wednesday the economy is “unusually uncertain.” But he did not forecast that it would fall back into recession.

In office 18 months, Obama is still running against the policies of George W. Bush and cites “nearly a decade of not paying for key policies and programs” such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, big tax cuts and a costly Medicare prescription drug program.

Bush came to office with a $236 billion budget surplus in 2001, says Obama. “The day I took office, eight years later, America faced a record $1.3 trillion deficit.”

But blaming the country’s economic woes on Bush tax cuts and spending is a stretch.

It ignores the fact that as recently as 2007, the budget deficit was just $162 billion — long after Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 kicked in and spending on the two wars and on the Medicare program were in place.

Furthermore, the projected surplus reflected a continuation of the bubble economy of the late 1990s, when the stock market was soaring, high-tech businesses were on a roll and corporate profits were surging. Those surpluses would have evaporated no matter who became president in 2001.

The rise in the annual deficit from $162 billion in 2007 to over $1 trillion now is largely due to collapsing tax revenues from the recession that began in December 2007, and stimulus and bailout spending by both Bush and Obama, said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

The Bush tax cuts and other policies are “a convenient scapegoat for past and future budget woes,” he said, but can’t be blamed for today’s trillion-dollar deficits — or future ones.

“Over the next 10 years, virtually 100 percent of the rising deficits” will be driven by “entitlement” programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and interest payments on the $13.2 trillion national debt, Riedl said.

Most economists — as well as Obama — seem to agree.

For their part, Republicans paint a grim picture of Obama’s stewardship, claiming his $862 billion 2009 stimulus package failed to produce many new jobs — with over 14.7 million Americans out of work and the jobless rate stuck for months near 10 percent.

But economists generally agree that the Obama stimulus measures, plus bank and auto company bailouts begun under Bush, did keep the economy from plunging into another Great Depression and have recently contributed, at the least, to modest job growth.

“Even GOP economists acknowledge that without the big fiscal stimulus and two years of near-zero interest rates, we wouldn’t have moved from losing half a million jobs a month to a small gain,” said Rob Shapiro, a former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and now chairman of Sonecon, a consulting firm.

“The Republicans are simply making a political case. The economy is slow, which is true. They’re blaming the stimulus, which is false. But their success in doing that has constrained Democrats as well,” Shapiro said.

As a result, talking about budget restraint is clearly the order of the day — even though Obama himself and many economists warn some additional government spending is needed to keep the economy from slipping back into recession.

This stimulus downshift can clearly be seen in the legislation to renew the extension of unemployment compensation for up to 99 weeks for more than 2.5 million out-of-work Americans whose unemployment benefits have expired.

The roughly $34 billion cost of the plan will be paid for by new borrowing. Until this week, Republicans had blocked the bill for months, arguing that the expense shouldn’t be used to increase the $13.2 trillion national debt.

And even though Senate Democratic leaders were finally able to eke out a victory this week, they had to scale back their proposal from an original plan for a $120 billion package that included various other new stimulus items, including aid to cash-strapped states.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Report says Congress makes too many vague laws

A conservative think tank and criminal defense lawyers are forming an unusual alliance to try to get Congress to quit writing criminal laws so loosely that they subject innocent people to unjust prosecution and prison.

A new study by the Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers finds that nearly two dozen federal laws enacted in 2005 and 2006 to combat nonviolent crime lack an adequate provision that someone accused of violating the laws must have had a “guilty mind,” or criminal intent.

“It is a fundamental principle of criminal law that, before criminal punishment can be imposed, the government must prove both a guilty act and a guilty mind,” the groups said in the report.

Even when Congress includes a “guilty mind” provision in a law, “it is often so weak that it does not protect defendants from punishment for making honest mistakes,” or committing minor transgressions, the report said.

The Supreme Court is reviewing three cases involving prosecution under a federal fraud statute that Justice Antonin Scalia has described as a potent tool in the hands of “headline-grabbing prosecutors” in pursuit of behavior that may be unappealing or ethically questionable, but not necessarily criminal.

Scalia said the law is so vague it could be employed against a mayor for using political clout to get a good table at a restaurant or a salaried employee who phones in sick to go to a ballgame.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, said too many bills get through Congress without enough study or refinement.

“You can’t prosecute somebody for something they didn’t know was a crime,” Scott said. He and Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, the senior Republican on the panel, held a hearing on the issue last year.

Among examples of the problem, the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act of 2005 makes it a crime to include false statements in an application for leave and could be applied to simple mistakes, such as a woman entering the wrong year when asked for her hiring date, the report said.

Heritage and the defense lawyers say lawmakers can take a few steps to improve matters, including requiring the House and Senate judiciary committees to review all proposed criminal laws and writing into law that defendants should get the benefit of the doubt when laws are not written clearly.

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