Demographics force US immigration reform

(By Deutsche Welle) Once an issue that polarized the US, immigration reform now enjoys growing bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans are negotiating a path to legalization, and perhaps citizenship, for 11 million illegal immigrants.

With Congress on recess for spring break, US President Barack Obama has pushed the House and Senate to finish the job of drafting comprehensive immigration reform by April, calling on both political parties to capitalize on recent bipartisan progress toward a deal.

“We are making progress. But we’ve go to finish the job, because this issue is not new,” the president said recently during a citizenship ceremony at the White House for 28 new Americans. “Everybody pretty much knows what’s broken; everybody knows how to fix it.”

After years of polarization over how to deal with America’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants, support for a bipartisan deal has gained momentum since President Obama’s victory in the November presidential election.

Republican Senator Rand Paul – a key figure in the conservative Tea Party movement – has spoken out in favor of legalization, revealing a potential game-changing shift within the Republican Party in favor of immigration reform.

“Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society,” Paul told the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

He was just the latest member of the Republican Party, which took a hard-line toward illegal immigrants during the presidential campaign, to signal an opening for a bipartisan deal.

Both Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Republican House Speaker John Boehner have expressed support for the negotiations of the so-called “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators hammering out immigration reform legislation. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has said that the group is “very close to agreement.”

“Nobody would have ever anticipated the discussion to be starting at a new starting point, that key Republicans are on board for a comprehensive overhaul and for a legalization program,” Audrey Singer, an expert on immigration with the Brookings Institute, told DW.

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Obama signs order for painful budget cuts

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama has signed an order that starts putting into effect across-the-board budget cuts known as the “sequester” after he and congressional leaders failed to find an alternative budget plan.

Huge spending cuts will start to hit the US starting Saturday after President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans failed to find a compromise budget. Obama signed an order authorizing the cuts Friday night, officially enacting the across-the-board reductions.

With the series of automatic spending cuts, Democrats and Republicans are playing a game of political chicken, with neither party willing to compromise in the latest round of America’s 18-month-old fiscal drama. A last-ditch round of talks between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders ended without a breakthrough. After the talks Obama described the cuts that now have gone into effect as “dumb” and “arbitrary” and warned of the negative impact on the economy and jobs.

The $85 billion (65 billion euros) in across-the-board cuts for fiscal year 2013, called sequestration, will equally impact both defense and social spending. Another $1.2 trillion of austerity will then set in over the next decade. Designed originally as a strategy to intimidate hyper-partisan members of Congress into a compromise on taxes and spending, sequestration was never actually supposed to become reality.

But now, both sides of the political aisle are pointing fingers as Washington prepares to fall on its own sword.

“Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans in Congress have decided that instead of compromising  – instead of taking anything from the wealthiest Americans – they would rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class,” US President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.

Having already agreed in January to postpone the sequester by two months and raise taxes on families earning more than $450,000, many Republicans are unprepared to meet the president’s demands on revenue this time around.

“Most Americans are just hearing about this Washington creation for the first time: the sequester,” John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial on February 20. “What they may not realize from Mr. Obama’s statements is that it is a product of the president’s own failed leadership.”

According to Ron Haskins, an expert on budget issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., the parties are unwilling to forge a bi-partisan agreement on austerity because they would be held politically accountable by their constituencies for the economic pain. So they are increasingly prepared to let the sequester go into effect and try to push the blame on their adversaries.

“I don’t think they have really made a rational calculation,” Haskins told DW. “I think that probably the main element in their thinking is that they can blame the other team – that’s what they’re hoping.”

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Little sign of progress on US debt deal

(By Deutsche Welle) Negotiations in Washington to raise the nation’s debt limit have faltered on the partisan political divide. Credit rating agencies and Asian countries have warned the US to adopt responsible fiscal policies.

Republicans and Democrats have reached an impasse in an escalating ideological battle over raising the US debt ceiling, with the rating agency Moody’s threatening to downgrade Washington’s credit worthiness if the two sides fail to find a compromise by August 2 – a move that could destabilize the global economy.

“It’s the foundation of our financial system,” US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said during a recent congressional hearing. “The notion that it would become suddenly unreliable and illiquid would throw shock waves through the entire global financial system.”

Tax increases versus spending cuts

Both political parties agree in principle that the US must increase its $14.29 trillion (9.8 trillion euros) debt ceiling in order to continue paying its bills and avoid a short-term default on its financial obligations. Negotiations, however, have reached a stalemate due to a partisan divide over the appropriate balance between taxes and spending cuts.

Republicans have preconditioned any debt limit increase on parallel cuts in spending while at the same time rejecting tax increases across the board. Democrats, meanwhile, have been reluctant to make cuts in social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid that could alienate their electoral base, proposing instead to raise taxes on wealthier Americans.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama appeared on track to bridge the divide through a “grand bargain” that would have included a $3 trillion reduction in spending and $1 trillion in tax increases. Rank-and-file Republicans led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, however, rejected the deal due to the tax hikes.

In lieu of the politically risky “grand bargain,” Cantor reportedly called for a short-term solution rooted in spending cuts. Cantor’s proposal prompted Obama to dig in his heels against Republican demands in what has become a volatile game of political brinkmanship.

“The problem is that there is no party discipline,” Josef Braml, an expert on American politics at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.

“Obama can’t get his liberals on board. On the other side, it’s difficult for Republicans to get the Tea Party guys involved because they would commit electoral suicide if they agreed to tax increases.”

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US government shutdown could rattle fragile economy

(By Deutsche Welle) If the US House of Representatives fails to reach a compromise over budget cuts, the federal government will go unfunded and partially shutdown. A shutdown could shake global confidence in the fragile American economy.

Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives continued to lock horns over America’s budget deficit on Friday with a shutdown of the US government looming should the two sides prove unable to reach a compromise by midnight.

Republicans, buoyed by the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, have called for drastic budget cuts over the next decade in order to reign in Washington’s ballooning debt. For the current fiscal year, Republicans are seeking some $40 billion (27 billion euros) in budget cuts.

Meanwhile, Democrats countered the Republican demand with $33 billion in reductions, arguing that deeper cuts could send America’s fragile economy into a tailspin just as it begins to work its way out of the worst crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

President Obama met with Republican leader John Boehner and Democratic leader Harry Reid for emergency negotiations earlier this week. Although both sides of the political aisle said progress had been made toward compromise, a solution is outstanding.

“The only question is whether politics or ideology is going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown,” Obama said in an unscheduled appearance in the White House press briefing room.

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