Election Year Budget Stirs Controversy

Even for most avid political junkies, budgets can be as inspiring as watching paint dry. But in an election year, they can be used as a rallying point for both parties. Host Michel Martin discusses President Obama's new budget, and other political news with two of Tell Me More's top politicos.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, when did slavery actually end in this country? You can understand why most people would say with the conclusion of the Civil War or most certainly the emancipation proclamation. But a new documentary based on an award-winning book describes how tens of thousands of black people were forced into slavery-like conditions for almost a century after the end of the war. We'll tell you about it in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to turn to the political news that's shaping events in our time. Today, President Obama released his budget. Now, budgets are probably about as inspiring as watching paint dry. But in an election year, the budget can be both a rallying cry and a tangible list of policy priorities.

Meanwhile, debate continues over President Obama's proposal to require most institutions that serve or employ the general public to offer health insurance plans that would include birth control. He offered a compromise last week, so we'll find out if that softened some of the criticism. And we'll ask how the race to select a Republican candidate to challenge President Obama is shaping up after the once and perhaps future front runner Mitt Romney scored two wins this weekend.

Here to talk about these issues, Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Welcome back, Mary Kate. Thanks for joining us once again.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us Joy-Ann Reid. She is the managing editor of the news site TheGrio.com and a frequent contributor to MSNBC. Joy, welcome back to you.

JOY-ANN REID: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So, let's start off with the budget, Mary Kate, big winners and losers in your view. I don't even know if that's an appropriate way to frame the question, I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Well, from the Republican point of view...

MARTIN: The Republican point of view.

CARY: ...I can tell you there's things that Republicans would like and not like in this budget, how's that? What they like is that the budget ends 12 different tax breaks for big corporations, so that crony capitalism is addressed. There's a trillion dollars in discretionary spending cuts over 10 years. Republicans like that. And most of all, at least the president proposed something, unlike the Senate Democrats who have not proposed anything since 2009, which I think is just unbelievable.

The things that Republicans would not like in the president's budget are that there's 1.3 trillion in deficit spending in 2012 alone. They extend the unemployment benefits again, which I think is in danger of becoming a permanent entitlement. The payroll tax holiday gets extended, which I think is going to have start having an affect on Medicare and Social Security because that's what funds it. There's not much on entitlement reform. There's absolutely no mention of Simpson-Bowles.

MARTIN: Which is a deficit reduction - it's a comprehensive deficit reduction plan that...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...was meant to attract bipartisan support.

CARY: Nothing on that.

MARTIN: Nothing on that.

CARY: And there was a - the fact sheet that came out from the White House might as well have come from the DNC, very politically charged language, lots of stuff about progressivity, millionaires, the Buffett Rule, lots of new investments. It's really sort of the more of the same. This is the fourth year now of...

MARTIN: OK.

CARY: ...trillion dollar deficit spending by the Obama administration. And I think it's feeding voter disgust and anger, because they're not listening to what's going on. They're certainly not seeing (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: On the Republican side, anyway.

CARY: Yeah, on the...

MARTIN: Right on the Republican side?

CARY: Yes, a lot of frustration.

MARTIN: OK, Joy-Ann, would you pick up the thread here, if you would. And I just want to emphasize, I'm not making you the Democrat in this conversation, but I do want to ask what are the different perspectives about this because the argument on the progressive side has been that the president is going too far to placate his critics on the right who are not giving him anything in return. So, Joy-Ann, give us another perspective on this, if you would.

REID: Well, yeah. I mean, I think this is by nature a political document. Look, I mean, the reality is nothing is getting through this Congress. This has been an immobile Congress in a lot of ways. Just nothing can get through, because to get through the House of Representatives things have to be so far to the right that they're unworkable in the Senate.

So, this is really a statement of political priorities from the White House. And so, in that I think it actually is on the side of the majority of the American people. It talks about millionaires having to pay at least 30 percent in taxes as do their secretaries, as do ordinary Americans. It talks about infrastructure spending, something that is on a bipartisan level very popular. The idea of getting people back to work in terms of construction, in terms of manufacturing and really leaning into that idea of rebuilding America's roads, bridges, and tunnels and getting people back to work.

So, I think in that sense, it puts the president in the center of the political conversation because that's what people want. And it sort of amplifies the fairness argument that the president's going to be making in his reelection campaign that millionaires and billionaires should be paying the same percentage of taxes that ordinary Americans do.

MARTIN: You know, now House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, of course, the Republicans control the House called it a, quote, "completely political document." Would the White House dispute that characterization, Joy-Ann?

REID: Well, of course they will. But, of course, it is a political document.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REID: I mean, everything that's being done right now, whether it's from the Republicans or from The White House, is by nature political because we're in a reelection year.

MARTIN: And I want to ask Mary Kate about that, because you were a speechwriter in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Is it the expectation when you're in the White House that any budget presented in an election year is dead on arrival unless you control both houses of the Congress (unintelligible).

CARY: Yeah, I think in the past that's certainly been the pattern which is a shame, because I think people have kind of had it with that. And I think that's why Congress' approval ratings are 10 percent, and I think I saw Fidel Castro's was at 5 percent. So, they're ahead of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, there you go. So, nothing new here. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report and Joy-Ann Reid, managing editor of TheGrio.com. That's an online news site. She's also a frequent contributor to MSNBC. We're talking some of the political news grabbing headlines this week.

Here's a story that started, you know, actually last year and it has continued. It seems to actually be building in intensity. This is the issue around the president's regulations saying that institutions that serve the general public or employ large numbers of people of the general public or general - not sectarian institutions like churches and synagogues - in their health insurance plans have to cover birth control.

On Friday, the president announced a revision to the policy regarding coverage in response to the firestorm that he received from some religious leaders. And I'll play a short clip. This is White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew who was on "Meet the Press" this weekend. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JACK LEW: We can say with certainty that women are going to have the right to health care and we can say that religious institutions, including Catholic hospitals and universities, won't have to pay for it or do the administrative work to provide benefits that they find objectionable. But then the woman will get those benefits through the insurance companies that provide for their health care.

MARTIN: Now, Joy-Ann, I'm going to ask you on this. Does the White House really think that this will placate people who have been critical, even bearing in mind that this is already the law in 28 states. So, does the White House really feel that this is going to throw water on this?

REID: I honestly don't think that the White Houses goal was to necessarily placate the bishops. And the reason I say that is because the bishops are on record going back to lawsuits they've been filing since 2002 of wanting to ban birth control. You know, they actually said in 2010, well, women could just abstain, that they just don't like the idea of birth control being offered particularly for free to women. This, despite the fact that something like 98 percent of women are in favor of having control over their own fertility.

You know, I think the White House, in a way, has walked into kind of a genius move here. They've gotten the right to say on record that they oppose birth control, and they've gotten women to hear out of the president's own mouth that the president is going to stand behind women controlling their own fertility.

Women want to have the same access to birth control that men have to Viagra, let's say. And I think that it's only fair. So, I think the White House is in a good position with the people that really they need to be in the lens looking at for the reelection, which is women particularly younger women and just women in general, because I think the bishops are way out of the mainstream on this.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, give us your perspective on this?

CARY: Yeah.

You are a practicing Catholic, if you don't mind.

Yeah, I am.

MARTIN: And you've told us this, so we're not giving your personal business here.

CARY: Yeah, yeah. No, you're not outing me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What's your - we're not outing you. What's your perspective on this?

CARY: My feeling is that this is not a fight about birth control. Catholic women have been figuring out how to get birth control for decades now. So, that's not what this is about. And I think that - it reminded me - I was joking around earlier about it that this is like, the difference last night at the Grammy's between Record of the Year and Song of the Year - in that everybody looks at it and says, wait, what's the difference? All the same songs are still getting nominated for both categories.

And so that's what this is: This is the same song as it was last Thursday as it is today.

MARTIN: But talk about, if you would - about...

CARY: And it's because...

MARTIN: You said that you think this is a wedge issue and the reason that...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I think we continue to ask about this is that the polls show that a majority of Catholic voters, when surveyed on this particular question, have said, to this point, that they think health insurance should cover contraception, despite what the bishops think - a narrow majority.

CARY: I still think that...

MARTIN: So tell me why you think this is still a wedge issue that Republican candidates are going to use in this election?

CARY: Catholics like me are sticking with the Catholic Church throughout the pedophile scandal and all of this craziness because we believe in the social justice mission of the church. And we believe all the good, the Catholic Charities and all these adoption agencies and all the hospitals and universities do. And nothing has changed for those people since Friday. Those people who run those institutions - all the women who work for them are still included in a nationwide mandate that includes the morning after pill.

And most Catholics do not think the morning after pill is contraception. And it still is about religious liberty. It still defines those community service organizations as non-exempt and they're still facing fines if they don't provide these health care plans, even if it's for free.

MARTIN: But even though - no. But even though...

CARY: And that's - it's kind of cynical.

MARTIN: ...the administration's revision says that the insurance companies would provide this coverage directly and that, in essence, you would - it's like a...

CARY: It's like a workaround.

MARTIN: It's like a workaround.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: That you would go directly to the insurance company as opposed - and bypass the institution?

CARY: But Catholic Charities, the ones we talked about last week...

MARTIN: Why doesn't that address the concern?

CARY: Catholic Charities is self-insured. Like, that doesn't solve the problem for them and so I think it's sort of a cynical move, the speed with which it was rushed out last Friday. It just doesn't seem very thoughtful to me and I think the people on the right don't think their considerations got taken into account.

REID: But...

MARTIN: Joy-Ann, Joy-Ann.

REID: I just see that the problem there is that this highlights a very simple fact. Let's say, at Catholic Charities, the Catholic Church wants to be able to tell its female employees, you can't have birth control. And they want the government to sanction, essentially, a religious argument that women should not be able to control their own fertility.

This is a women's liberty issue. And I think that, when you highlight the fact that the Catholic church wants to be able to tell employees, even though it's institutions like hospitals and schools - not the Church itself - but the hospitals and schools: women, you can't have birth control and we want to be able to say that...

CARY: I don't think they're arguing that. I think they're saying you can't have it for free on our dime.

REID: That's the substance of their argument...

MARTIN: Well, so this is where the issue is framed as religious liberty versus women's rights...

CARY: Right, exactly.

MARTIN: ...versus the right to pay. So, obviously, the argument continues because the two of you disagree about how...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...this should be framed, so...

CARY: I think it's religious liberty and she thinks it's contraception. Yeah.

MARTIN: So - well, that's what explains, then, why this is an ongoing issue.

CARY: It's going to keep going, I think. Yeah.

MARTIN: It's going to keep going. Unfortunately, we don't have time to talk about Mitt Romney, but sure enough - surely, the race continues. We'll talk about it in the future, I'm sure.

Joy-Ann Reid is the managing editor of TheGrio.com and a contributor to MSNBC. She joined us from her office in New York. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, also a former presidential speech writer in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. She was here in Washington, D.C.

Ladies, thank you both so much.

REID: Thank you.

CARY: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Still to come, most people probably believe the enslavement of African-Americans ended with the Civil War, but a new film shows how countless black southerners fell victim to a brutal system of forced labor up through World War II.

ADAM GREEN: These were thousands of emaciated people and receiving no health care, being whipped and brutalized in the most terrible and graphic ways.

MARTIN: We'll talk with the director and co-executive producer of the film, "Slavery by Another Name." That's just ahead. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please, stay with us.

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