Weiner Scandal Complicates the Democrats' Agenda

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After a week of hammering Republicans on Medicare, their traction is momentarily lost as a Twitter photo has taken over the news coming out of Washington

Anthony Weiner in cap hall - J Scott Applewhite AP - banner.jpg

Democrats know with certitude that last week's good week--defined by the upset victory in New York's 26th District--has been bulldozed, they hope only briefly, by the tweet heard round the libido-sphere.

Last week, House Democrats toasted Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul's victory over New York Assembly member Jane Corwin in a district that Republicans had held since Carl Albert, D-Okla., was speaker. Democrats had designs on Wednesday of celebrating Hochul's swearing in, using the moment to underscore the potency of Hochul's Medicare attacks on Corwin, which even Speaker John Boehner concedes played a role in the embarrassing Corwin defeat. Instead, it was the potency, or the implication thereof, of another New York Democrat that was the, ahem, focus of the day while the substantive debate over Medicare's future fell by the wayside.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said he was tired of the made-for-TMZ story of a photo, which may or may not be him and his underwear, being a "distraction." Whatever Weiner's frustration, it pales in comparison to those of his Democratic colleagues. They are not cracking jokes about taking a "hard" look at the meltdown of their Medicare messaging this week, or wondering if Weinermania "rises" to the level of political fratricide.

Meanwhile, House Republicans continue to press the twin issues of spending cuts and budget-process reforms in the context of increasing the nation's statutory debt ceiling above $14.3 trillion. After easily dispatching what was once a hard-and-fast White House position demanding a "clean" increase in the debt limit, House Republicans now believe that the debate has moved in their direction (34 of 114 House Democrats who signed a letter seeking a clean debt-ceiling increase voted no or"present).

"It was time to get that issue off the table and we did," Boehner said on Wednesday.

Not so subtly, the debate has shifted--as it did during the confrontation over the 2011 budget and a potential government shutdown--from whether spending cuts will be attached to a debt-ceiling increase to which spending cuts will be included, how big will they be, and what's going to be whacked. This is the genuine subtext to Weinermania.

Which brings the debate back to Medicare. Unbowed by the loss in New York, Boehner said that House Republicans are not "reassessing" Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's plan to replace Medicare's existing fee-for-service model in 10 years with means-tested government subsidies to purchase private insurance. Boehner said he told Obama, "We have a plan. Where's your plan?"

Obama's reply?

After first saying that Obama didn't answer, Boehner clarified: "I did not get a satisfactory answer." Such confrontations are not meant to find new answers, but to solidify existing positions. Boehner did just that, a reflection of his sense that Republicans have time to recast the Medicare debate, which he said, up to now, was defined by "nonsense."

"It's impossible in politics to win a defamation suit," Boehner said.

Boehner also said that the "sooner we deal with this, the better off we are." Congressional Republicans know that voters are economically anxious, battered by gas prices (still high even though they've receded in recent days), underwhelming job growth, and continued malaise in residential real estate. They are determined to tie the poor state of the economy--conversations about a potential double-dip are no longer theoretical--to their zeal for spending cuts, lower deficits, and a path toward slowing the increase in the national debt.

"We have a situation where the spending is out of control," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said on Thursday on CNBC's Squawk Box. "We are really trying to see where we can arrive at consensus so we can produce trillions in savings and demonstrate that we're going to stop the way that money is spent in Washington and reform the system."

But the negotiations led by Vice President Joe Biden are progressing so slowly that Boehner and others are actively considering drafting the GOP's own set of spending cuts and process reforms in case the Biden process breaks down. Boehner won't describe himself as discouraged by the Biden talks, but he isn't encouraged, either. When Boehner called for Obama to join the talks and "play large ball," he was signaling it was time for the talks to pick up the pace or get out of the way.

And Wednesday's White House powwow with House Republicans appeared to dig trenches deeper, not narrow differences. Freshman Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., told Obama he was afraid that the U.S. no longer accumulated debt for liberty (as he said it did during the American Revolution and World Wars I and II), but was now "going into debt for ourselves." Ribble also pressed Obama to ease federal regulations and move three long-pending free-trade deals with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.

Obama appeared to sympathize. But the president, according to those in attendance, gave little substantive ground on regulations and said that Republicans must approve trade assistance before he would take the lead on more free-trade deals.

On the question of increasing the debt ceiling and reaching a sizable deal on spending cuts and budget reforms, Boehner said, "The biggest risk we face is doing nothing."

Doing nothing is no longer an option, either politically or as a matter of policy. But doing something isn't always as productive as it sounds. Just ask Democrats about Weiner's ... exertions this week.

Of course, Weiner is looking for the floor to this scandalette. The White House and Congress are looking for a way to tame the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. As the saying goes, a heavy lift indeed.

Image credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Drop-down image credit: AP

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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