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Lame Duck May Well Ignore Deficit Hawks, Obama Lobbies Boehner On Michelle's Obesity Bill

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WASHINGTON -- After his "shellacking" and before he left for India, President Obama called speaker-to-be John Boehner for a chat.

Rep. Boehner doesn't become speaker until January, but in the meantime, there is a lame-duck Congress in town and the president, among other things, wanted to ask Boehner to support First Lady Michelle Obama's top project: a $4.5 billion bill to address childhood obesity.

As a member of the House Education Committee, Boehner supported child-nutrition programs, and the administration thinks he might go for this one before he takes over leadership of a far more Republican, conservative House of Representatives.

Boehner's staff says he opposes the bill, but even a partial change of heart would certainly be a nice bipartisan gesture.

"The president talked to Mr. Boehner about this before the India trip," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told me. "We're hopeful."

The hope may or not be in vain.

But the presidential lobbying on the bill is indicative of where things are headed in these last hectic weeks of a dying Congress.

He and GOP leaders vow to get serious about reducing debt and balancing the budget.

But, like Scarlett O'Hara, they are going to get serious about it... tomorrow.

As for today, which is to say in the lame-duck Congress that returns to work on Tuesday, it is increasingly clear that both sides may want to ignore the scary arithmetic as they look to cut deals.

From income taxes to unemployment insurance, from childhood obesity to arms control to Medicare payments to doctors, gridlocked issues grounding the lame duck could be unlocked by last-minute money.

And of course, and ironically, this would happen at the same time as the president's own debt commission unveils its draconian recommendations -- that is, if its members can agree on any.

As they circle each other, the president and GOP leaders are talking tough for now. There has been mention of Christmas Eve and even New Year's Eve sessions. But there are some obvious (expensive) ways for everyone to go home more or less happy.

One deal would be a tax cuts-for-unemployment-insurance package: Democrats would accept a two-year (or so) extension of Bush-era tax rates for the wealthiest Americans, in exchange for at most a one-year extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.

The Dickensian economics of such a deal are excruciatingly obvious: $140 billion in savings (mostly for the richest of the rich, and a equivalent loss of revenue to the U.S. Treasury), versus $60 billion in additional support for the struggling middle class.

But a deal makes some political sense: Republicans deflect the Christmas-time Scrooge label while Democrats deflect attention from the cave-in on taxes they long ago signaled to the world. In the next Congress, their ranks will be smaller and they will have even less leverage.

True deficit hawks would squawk about adding $200 billion of red ink, but the leaders would promise to worry about that... tomorrow.

Last-minute lame-duck money can "grease" a lot of legislation, even, perhaps, a treaty. The New START nuclear-arms agreement with Russia is hung up in the Senate. Republicans claim to fear that the measure doesn't do enough to insure that the U.S. can modernize its own, soon-to-be-smaller arsenal of nukes.

The White House months ago agreed to spend $10 billion on modernization. Now, in order to win over the GOP's lead negotiator, Rep. John Kyl of Arizona, the administration has offered $4 billion more.

Kyl hasn't budged so far, but if he can get even MORE cash for weapons modernization -- another $4 billion or so on top of that -- he might agree.

In the real-world battle of deficit hawks and defense hawks, the defense hawks almost always win.

When it comes to lobbying, doctors are as potent as the generals, and the lame duck will be under pressure to extend the so-called "doc fix" beyond its new Dec. 1 expiration date. The "fix," repeatedly agreed to in recent years, augments reimbursements doctors get for treating Medicare patients. The extra money is supposed to correct for inflation and errant bureaucratic formulas.

Before it left town last week, the lame duck did a fix for a mere one month -- and will have to do it again next week. A five-year "fix," according to CBO estimates, would cost $89 billion. Will Republicans refuse to extend it even by another few months?

Doubtful.

And then there is the First Lady's bill. Vilsack and other administration officials (including the president) argue that the $4.5 billion is "paid for" -- in the sense that the money would come from money that was allocated for emergency food stamp spending -- and that wasn't needed because wholesale food costs were far lower than the original estimates in 2009.

Michelle's bill would help provide school breakfasts in the 14,000 districts that currently do not offer it (out of 102,000 nationwide), and give grants to encourage districts to offer healthier meals that stress servings of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Vilsack argues that the program would attack one of the most serious problems in American society -- childhood obesity -- a problem that hampers students' education prospects, leads to more health care spending on diseases such as diabetes, and even has a national security dimension -- since few recruits are fit to serve in the military.

"We can't afford NOT to do it," Vilsack said.

The measure has passed the Senate, but the House needs to accept the Senate version as it is or the legislation doesn't have a chance.

"The biggest 'pay for' -- cutting Food Stamp benefits -- is phony," said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith. "Nancy Pelosi and others are on record saying that Congress won't let those cuts take effect, so in reality this bill is unpaid for."

Governors and some school groups also oppose the measure.

Will it fly in the lame duck? The chances are less than 50-50, but the president will get another chance to lobby Boehner at the White House Tuesday night.

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