WASHINGTON — Throughout the tense fiscal deadlock in recent weeks, some of the most powerful forces in Washington, D.C., — including retirees and defense contractors — largely sat on the sidelines. Now they are preparing for a political fight with billions of federal dollars at stake.
With automatic cuts to the military set to take effect by January and a separate round of cuts scheduled for Medicare, lawmakers will have to decide who gets hit the hardest. The lobbying machine in D.C. — representing older citizens, doctors, educators, military contractors and a wide range of corporate interests — is gearing up to ensure that the slices of federal money for those groups are spared in new negotiations over government spending.
It is a debate that almost no one involved wants to have so soon after the nasty fight over the federal budget, which produced the 16-day shutdown and again failed to reverse the automatic cuts resulting from previous disagreements.
But Congress managed to reopen the government and extend the nation’s borrowing limit largely by creating a new series of deadlines that run through February, giving special interests several chances to influence the process.
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So far, the military industry is likely to be hit the hardest because the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, set for January would slice an additional $20 billion from the Pentagon’s budget.
“It’s fair to say the volume in Washington is going to be deafening,” said Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are determined to mitigate those cuts by spreading them among various social programs, like education and Social Security, bringing dozens of other special-interest groups into the picture.
“The perfect storm is coming,” is how one health-care-industry lobbying coalition put it, in an advertisement, complete with dark clouds and lightning, that ran the day the shutdown ended. “Tell Washington, no more hospital cuts.”
AARP, the giant nonprofit group that represents older citizens, has kicked off a million-dollar radio ad campaign warning that “Seniors are no bargaining chip.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he regretted that Congress had created a situation where another budget fight is about to begin — immediately after a crisis ended.
“I have to believe the American people are totally fatigued with this issue, and to be candid, I am pretty fatigued with it myself,” he said in an interview Friday. “It is almost an embarrassment to keep bringing it up.”
But at least, Corker added, the focus this time will be on how the government spends its money, a debate that he said is important to the nation at large.
For lobbying firms, fights like this are good for business. Their revenues have dropped over the past two years because little legislation has moved forward. Now industry lobbyists say they see hints this is the right moment to re-engage.
Health-care-industry lobbyists hope to seek a permanent fix to the annual threat of major cuts in the compensation paid to doctors who treat Medicare patients, like the 25 percent cut scheduled to take place again in January. At a minimum, they will seek to have the 2014 cut reversed.
Separately, major American corporations like the Silicon Valley tech giants are once again preparing to intensify their campaign to persuade Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration law, an effort that has been dormant since late spring.
That will include a late November “Hackathon” that will bring together executives and immigrants without work documents to contact members of Congress to push the cause. Technology companies want immigration legislation that would expand the number of visas issued to foreign workers who can fill engineering jobs.
At the same time, many of the major business groups — including the National Retail Federation and the National Federation of Independent Business — plan to push for modest changes in President Obama’s health-care law. They are convinced the defeat of the Republican plan to defund the law has presented them with an opening to seek revisions, like changing the definition of a full-time worker who is entitled to health insurance to one who works 40 hours a week, up from the 30 in the law.
“This is the time to turn up the heat,” said Neil Trautwein, a lobbyist with the National Retail Federation.
The lobbying factions will not, in most cases, be attacking one another. But with Republicans insisting they will not back down from spending limits set by the 2011 sequestration legislation and rejecting calls by Democrats for new tax revenue, the cuts will almost certainly have to hit some interests, creating unavoidable conflict.
“Everybody who has a piece of pie is now going to try to protect their piece of the pie,” said Steve Elmendorf, a former House aide who now runs a D.C. lobbying firm that represents the defense and health-care industries.