Week In Politics: The Looming Spending Cuts Edge Closer

Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR National Political correspondent Mara Liasson about the week in politics, including the looming spending cuts facing Congress and the administration's urging of the Supreme Court to strike down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more on these issues, we turn now to Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we just heard Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's position on the federal Medicaid expansion. Put it into context for us. Why are governors from both parties split on this issue?

LIASSON: Well, mostly Republican governors are split on this issue. Democratic governors are willing to take the Medicaid expansion. When the Affordable Healthcare Law passed, it said that Medicaid would be expanded to cover people who are 138 percent of the poverty line. And then the Supreme Court said that can't be a mandatory extension, governors have to have a choice. Federal government can't force states to go into this Medicaid expansion. So, so far, only seven Republican governors have agreed to expand.

But what was interesting, as you pointed out, was the latest and I think the most significant Republican governor to change his mind about this was Rick Scott of Florida. He was someone who ran against the healthcare law. He doesn't want to set up an exchange in his state that would be state run. He's going to leave it to the federal government. But he decided last week that he would take the Medicaid expansion.

He's a former hospital executive and he knows that the federal government is offering to pay 100 percent of the cost for the first three years. And then a minimum of 90 percent subsequently. And that's a very sweet deal and that's how the Obama administration designed it; kind of an offer that they thought governors couldn't refuse.

And the reason why this is important is that we are now in the stage of the health care law where the argument over it is over. It is the law of the land. The Supreme Court has ruled that the implementation of the law, and whether or not it's actually going to expand coverage in the way that the president intended it to, is in question. And Medicaid expansion is a big piece of this.

MARTIN: OK, I'd like to pivot over to the ever-looming budget crisis. As we mentioned earlier, the countries bracing for $85 billion worth of federal spending cuts - is supposed to happen this Friday if a deal doesn't come together. Any sign, Mara, that we could see an 11th hour compromise to prevent sequestration?

LIASSON: Well, there's always a chance but there are absolutely no negotiations going on. I think both sides assume that the sequester is going to go into effect at least for some period of time. For the Republicans, many of them say this is the only way that they can get spending cuts even if they don't like the sequester. There are a few Republicans, like Governor McDonnell that you just talked to - especially for military-heavy states - that would like to replace the defense cuts with more domestic cuts.

But Republicans feel the president got his tax rate hikes at the end of the year, now they need their spending cuts. And in some ways that would be, as they put it, balanced. The president always talks about the balance between revenue hikes and spending cuts. This would be in essence balance.

Once the sequester goes into effect, the fight moves on to the continuing resolution; how to fund the government for the rest of the year. Right now, funding runs out at the end of March. And then both sides are going to put out their budgets sometime in the spring. And then maybe they'll try again for a grand bargain, replace the sequester with a mix of revenue hikes, entitlement cuts and domestic spending cuts.

The White House last week reiterated that it wanted that kind of a big deal. They actually put on paper the kind of entitlement reforms they were willing to make, but so far no movement.

MARTIN: And, Mara, I'd like to get your take on another topic. Late this past week, the Obama administration urged the Supreme Court to strike down a key part of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. And the White House has until next week to decide whether or not to weigh in on California's voter-approved ban on gay marriage. That's Proposition 8. If the White House weighs in, what would its position be?

LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question. The president has said in a television interview that the solicitor general is still looking at this. He wants to make sure that he's not injecting himself too much into the process. However, he does say same-sex couples should have the rights, be treated like everybody else. He says he feels very strongly about it. And he says that his administration is going to act on this wherever we can.

Now, in his inaugural address, the president was very passionate and forceful about full equality before the law is his ultimate goal. And it sounds like he is getting ready to intervene on behalf of the people who say Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. We don't know exactly what he's going to do but all of the body language seems to be pointing in that direction.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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