National briefs for March 2


An election-year budget without drama for Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — Six years into his presidency, President Barack Obama is sending Congress a budget that for once does not herald a partisan legislative showdown.

There’s no push to overhaul health care as he did in 2009, no drive as in 2010 to restrict Wall Street, no attempt to increase taxes as in 2011 and 2012, no move to halt automatic spending cuts as in 2013.

Politically speaking, this is a peacetime budget in an election year, when the most meaningful fights will take place during congressional campaigns, not on the floors or the House and Senate.

As such, Obama’s budget, to be released Tuesday, will offer a template for Democratic political messaging.

To the delight of Democrats, this will not be an austerity budget like last year’s. Then, Obama proposed reducing annual increases in federal benefit programs, a step many Democrats found hard to fathom. The cut was part of Obama’s offer to Republicans for a long-term attack on the nation’s debt, through a mix of major tax increases and spending reductions.

But that approach failed. Now, with deficits declining and weariness about default threats and government shutdowns, neither side appears willing to play that game of brinkmanship again.

Instead, Obama’s spending blueprint for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 proposes $56 billion in spending above the caps agreed to in a bipartisan deal from earlier this year. Under the plan, the extra spending would not add to the deficit because Obama proposes to pay for it with a mix of program cuts and eliminating tax breaks.

It proposes to bring in more revenue through stricter tax rules for U.S. companies that have operations overseas and for foreign businesses with divisions in the United States. Those new rules, requiring congressional action, would tackle what the Obama administration considers tax avoidance schemes.

The spending and tax proposals are long shots for legislative action this election year. But they are part of a unifying theme for Democrats eager to distinguish themselves from Republicans before voters.

Long waits frustrate health exchange callers

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — For those trying to enroll through online health exchanges, help has long been advertised as just a phone call away.

Yet, the challenge in some states has been trying to get a call through at all, never mind the multiple transfers once contact has been made.

Long wait times of an hour or more have been commonplace in some states, primarily those operating their own health care exchanges. California, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada and Washington are among the states in which consumers and insurance agents complained. One consequence is people just give up because they are unable to wait indefinitely.

“If I had to use one word, I’d use ‘frustrating,’” said Jacki Manley, a stay-at-home mom in the western Maryland town of Keedysville, who has been trying since mid-December to enroll in a health plan through that state’s health exchange.

With a child who is almost 3 and another who is 5 months, the 20 minutes she can spare on hold often have not been enough. She estimated she reached someone at the Maryland call center three out of about a dozen times she called, but then she gets passed between different people and cannot get definitive answers to her questions.

“It just seems like all the right connections aren’t being made,” Manley said, adding she thinks she successfully enrolled her children but is unsure whether she and her husband were enrolled after more than two months of trying.

 

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