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Johanns Giving Up Hope on ‘Grand Bargain’

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) — a key cheerleader of last year’s bipartisan deficit reduction efforts — said this week that he sees little chance of reaching a “grand bargain” in this presidential election year.

“I think that the chance of a budget package moving this year is very, very slim,” Johanns said in an interview. “I don’t think the president wants to deal with that before November, let’s be honest here.”

With little Republican outreach from President Barack Obama as the election approaches, Johanns hopes a GOP victory in the presidential race will jump-start the move toward deficit reduction.

“I think [Obama will] talk like he wants to deal with it, I think he wants to put out some sense of urgency, but I don’t think you are going to see a serious attempt by the White House to get behind something, whether it’s the ‘gang of six,’ or Simpson-Bowles,” Johanns said. “We’ll see what happens after November, but I don’t see much chance that that moves at all.”

Johanns was a backer of the gang of six Senators who tried last year to craft a bipartisan deficit reduction deal that dealt with spending cuts, entitlement reforms and the tax code. But Senate Democratic and Republican leaders have rebuffed those efforts to freelance on the deficit reduction issue, and as a result, the group’s efforts have been stifled.

The gang of six is “not snuffed out, but it’s definitely flickering,” Johanns said.

Republicans have been quick to point out that the White House did not endorse the plan developed by the bipartisan deficit commission established by Obama in 2010 and headed by former Clinton administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). Congressional leaders from both parties were similarly lukewarm to the commission’s findings. The Simpson-Bowles plan called for at least a $4 trillion cut in the deficit over 10 years by tackling entitlements, spending and tax policy.

Johanns believes that Obama has developed a habit of not having to reach out to Republicans because Democrats controlled the House and eventually gained 60 votes in the Senate when he came into office.

“It just wasn’t necessary,” Johanns said. “It wasn’t good for the country, and I don’t think that was especially good for Barack Obama because there was going to be a day when it would change. It did change. … So at the end of the day … they have to figure out how to work with us.”

Johanns, a former governor and former mayor of Lincoln, Neb., suggested Obama sit down with his critics in the Senate and find out how to work with them.

“I would take the list of Senators who have signed onto letters and attended the meetings on deficit reduction, and I would at least start working with them, small groups at a time … and just start the conversation by saying, ‘How serious are you, and what are your bright lines?’” Johanns said. “Once the coalition becomes significant enough, they can assist you in bringing the others along that you need.”

Johanns also sees Obama’s effort to legislate from the White House through executive orders and the exercise of other powers as a dangerous strategy that could backfire. The strategy was outlined in Obama’s State of the Union address last month and is an effort to bolster the narrative that he is running against a do-nothing Congress.

Last month Obama made four controversial recess appointments in defiance of GOP attempts to prevent them. “I think the president is feeling the need to shore things up with his base,” Johanns said. “So he did the recess appointments. I am guessing that scored well with his base.”

The Health and Human Services Department also recently issued a rule requiring Catholic institutions, but not churches, to offer insurance coverage for birth control.

“He’s picked this fight on conscience issues,” Johanns said. “I am guessing that scores well with a base like he has; kind of re-establishes his credentials …

“The down side of that is that he has really fired up the other side, too,” Johanns continued. “Twenty-five percent of the electorate is Catholic. Catholics may have been willing to look the other way on some issues [but] this conscience issue is a big deal; somebody telling their hospital or whatever that they have to provide services that are against their conscience doesn’t sit well. So he has picked a fight there that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

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