Tales from the Trail

Washington Extra – Surplus shocker!

Speaker of the House John Boehner is seen in February 28, 2012 file photo on Capitol Hill in Washington. REUTERS/Larry Downing

For anyone who thought the term “budget surplus” had been exorcised from the U.S. government’s lexicon, the Treasury Department offered up some interesting news today. 

For the first time since September, 2008, the government’s monthly receipts outpaced its expenditures, resulting in a $59 billion budget surplus in April. The end of the 42-month drought does not mean Washington has solved its budget problems. Indeed, for the first seven months of this fiscal year, $720 billion in cumulative deficits have been racked up.

But you’ve got to start somewhere and April’s result hinted at a slowly improving economy. Other such bits of evidence surfaced in government data released on Thursday: New applications for jobless benefits fell last week and March trade figures showed consumers gobbled up foreign goods at a fast clip while U.S. exports surged to a record high.

House Speaker John Boehner, the highest ranking elected Republican, wasn’t convinced that it was “Morning in America” for the U.S. economy (to steal a phrase from the ever-optimistic Ronald Reagan). “The American people are focused on the economy and they are asking the question, ‘where are the jobs,’” Boehner said at a press conference.

Washington Extra – The Pentagon and the poor

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) shows a copy of the "FY2013 Budget - The Path to Prosperity" during a news conference at Capitol Hill in Washington March 20, 2012. U.S. House Republicans placed a major election-year bet Tuesday on a deficit-slashing budget proposal the party hopes will win over voters and quell any concerns about the plan's most controversial element - a sweeping revamp of Medicare. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana

Never ones to shy away from a budget fight, the current crop of House Republicans pushed ahead with their latest deficit-reduction ideas – ones that weren’t exactly designed to win bipartisan support. 

By throwing last summer’s delicately-crafted budget deal overboard, this updated plan mandates deeper cuts to social programs for the poor while adding money to military accounts. Food stamps, child tax credits and Medicaid healthcare would all feel the knife, while the Pentagon would escape all of the cuts that otherwise would begin triggering in January.

Washington Extra – Obama’s China cloud

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in Chantilly, Virginia earlier this week on May 2, 2012. REUTERS/Benjamin Myers

A bright spot of Barack Obama’s presidency – foreign policy – all of a sudden was taking some hits as the White House struggled to deal with a crisis involving a Chinese dissident. 

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney blasted away at Obama, talking of a “day of shame for the Obama administration.” Charges – vigorously denied by the White House – swirled that Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng may have been persuaded to leave his protective shelter at the U.S. embassy in Beijing so that high-level U.S.-China talks could go more smoothly. Another scenario being floated was that Obama’s team naively accepted Chinese assurances that Chen would not face government harassment if he rejoined his family at home.

Washington Extra – ‘Wild ride’ ends

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (L) and his wife, Callista walk together after he suspended his bid for the GOP presidential nomination in Arlington, Virginia, May 2, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The sharpest debater in the 2012 field of Republican presidential candidates exited the race touting a hodgepodge of initiatives that made his failed race so colorful. 

“Suspending the campaign does not mean suspending citizenship,” Newt Gingrich warned in his long-awaited announcement that he was quitting. He then ticked off the vision of America he will continue to pursue as a private citizen:

Washington Extra – An anniversary observed

Troops at Bagram Air Base listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak during his visit to Kabul, May 2, 2012. Earlier, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement at the Presidential Palace. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

One year ago, President Barack Obama was secretly holed up in the White House Situation Room monitoring what turned out to be the successful U.S. military operation to kill Osama bin Laden.

A year later, he spent the day on another secret mission: flying aboard Air Force One to Afghanistan, the country from which bin Laden hatched his Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Washington Extra – Kids, cover your ears

It’s true, you learn much more out in the real world than you do in school. Just look at the kids who today attended the State Department press briefing for Take Your Child to Work Day. Instead of lessons in nation-building or food aid, they were treated to a discussion of prostitutes and strip clubs. 

With Washington gripped by a widening Secret Service scandal, reporters just couldn’t steer clear of the salacious story. Soon after spokeswoman Victoria Nuland saluted the handful of underage observers, the questions moved to charges that Secret Service agents and other government workers cavorted with strippers and prostitutes while on overseas assignments. Nuland lamented the topic du jour and one Department employee jokingly moved to cover his daughter’s ears.

The roughly half-dozen kids were models of decorum. There they sat, on the sidelines of the briefing room, staring down at the floor. None asked a question. But they might have been thinking “Mom, Dad, when we get home tonight, you’ll have some explaining to do.”

Washington Extra – Moonshot no more

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich bows his head in prayer before speaking at First Redeemer Church while on a campaign tour in Cumming, Georgia, February 26, 2012. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Earth calling Newt: When the biggest news of your presidential campaign is the penguin biting your hand at the zoo, it’s probably time to pack it in.

Even though Newt Gingrich’s odds of winning the Republican nomination were about as long as those of realizing his dream for a moon colony, the 68-year-old seemed to enjoy himself to the end. “I never got the sense that he was quote-unquote down,” said adviser Charlie Gerow. “I got the sense on a couple of occasions that he was tired. Really tired.” And really in debt. His campaign spent $4.3 million more than it brought in.

Washington Extra – The bench’s backstories

As the Supreme Court justices convene Wednesday to hear arguments in the case Arizona v United States, will their thoughts drift to Italy, Ireland, Poland and Puerto Rico? 

The challenge to Arizona’s tough immigration law may have the justices thinking about their own families’ origins and journeys to America. As Reuters reports today, nearly all of them, like their countrymen, descend from people who came looking for a better life (the notable exception is Justice Clarence Thomas whose great-grandmother was a slave).

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court seen in a October 8, 2010 group portrait. Seated from left to right in front row are: Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Standing from left to right in back row are: Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Washington Extra – Gift of the gas

 

Gasoline drips off a nozzle during refueling at a gas station in Altadena, California in this March 24, 2012 file photo. Picture taken March 24, 2012. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

After negotiating a tricky stretch of road, the Obama campaign may be easing into the straightaway in the gas-driven presidential race.

News on Monday of a delay in the planned closure of the largest refinery on the East Coast could mean an end to skyrocketing gas prices. And that would effectively take the wind out of a forceful Republican line of attack — that the president is to be blamed for $4 a gallon gas, arguably the most visible price in the American economy today.

Washington Extra – Going nuclear?

 

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioner Kristine Svinicki (L) is seen here with Chairman Gregory Jaczko (C) and fellow commissioner George Apostolakis (R) listening to testimony at a meeting at the NRC's headquarters in Rockville, Maryland in this March 21, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Obama to renominate Republican to nuclear panel – President Obama will renominate Republican Kristine Svinicki to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, defying opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a White House official told Reuters. Republicans want Svinicki, whose term as a commissioner expires in June, to stay on the panel and believe the process is being held up because she, along with three other commission members, accused the current NRC chairman, a Democrat, of bullying women. For more of this story by Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton, read here.

U.S. House passes Republican business tax cut – The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a tax break for small businesses, giving voters a stark alternative to President Obama’s politically popular “Buffett Rule” surtax on the wealthy. In an escalating election-year war of words over taxes, the Republican measure, like the Buffett Rule, is not expected to become law. It is opposed by Democrats, who control the Senate, where the bill was expected to die. For more of this story by Kim Dixon, read here.