- - Sunday, March 18, 2012

After a few months of relative peace on the budget front, Democrats and Republicans are readying for a party-defining, election-year fight over trillion-dollar-plus deficits and what to do about them.

The House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, is coming out next week with a sequel to last year’s “Path to Prosperity” manifesto that ignited a firestorm over Medicare.

The upcoming debate gives Republicans a chance to show how they would tackle out-of-control budget deficits and rein in the cost and scope of government.

President Obama played it safe when he released his spending blueprint last month for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. It calls for tax increases on wealthier earners and modest spending curbs but doesn’t address the spiraling costs of Medicare and Medicaid.


Lawmakers push Russia trade restriction replacement

Four senators say they will back an Obama administration push to repeal restrictions on trade with Russia, but only if they are replaced by legislation sanctioning Russian officials for human rights violations.

The lawmakers from both major parties outlined their position to reverse the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law in a letter Friday.

The Obama administration is seeking to abolish urgently the restrictions so U.S. companies will not lose out after Russia joins the World Trade Organization this year. It has opposed linking repeal to legislation targeting Russian officials. But the support of senators from both parties would boost prospects for the Senate to rescind the law.


Santorum says shirtless shot of him ‘not pretty’

Rick Santorum is offering a tongue-in-cheek apology to anyone who has seen the recent snapshot of him sunbathing poolside at a resort in Puerto Rico.

The Republican presidential candidate appears shirtless and shoeless in light-colored shorts while taking a break from campaigning in the U.S. commonwealth. The photo appeared on a blog and began showing up on various websites.

In an interview Friday with Chicago radio station WIND, Santorum said he probably should lose 15 or 20 pounds.

Mr. Santorum tells WIND, “I apologize to all of us, because I’m sure it’s not a pretty sight.”

Puerto Rico’s Republican primary is set for Sunday. Mr. Santorum returned from a visit to the island to campaign in Illinois, which has its primary Tuesday.


Obamas visit historic church near White House

President Obama attended service at a historic church that is steps away from the White House and often frequented by sitting presidents.

Mr. Obama was accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and daughter, Sasha, on the cloudy, brisk morning as they walked through Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church.

The service included scripture readings from Numbers 21, Ephesians 2, John 3 and the singing of “Amazing Grace.”

The visiting pastor, the Rev. Thomas Reid Ward Jr., reflected on the words of the popular hymn written by John Newton and told the congregation that God’s grace instills faith and courage.

“All we have to do is believe,” he said.

The Obamas participated in the audience welcome of greeting pew neighbors and in holy communion before walking back to the executive mansion.


State drug testing likely to face legal challenges

ATLANTA — A push to require drug tests for people seeking welfare payments in Georgia could face an uncertain future if it’s challenged in court.

Federal judges have already struck down similar laws in other states.

Lawmakers in Georgia’s General Assembly are still working out details before holding a final vote on the plan. That vote is expected in the coming weeks.

The U.S. Constitution bans governments from random drug testing. The U.S. Supreme Court has defined special exceptions to that, when a serious public need outweighs a person’s right to privacy. But exactly what falls within those exceptions can get murky.

State Rep. Jason Spencer, a Republican who supports the testing, said he expects the state will face a legal challenge.

Federal judges have blocked similar laws in Michigan and Florida.


Gingrich asks for small sums to sustain GOP bid

NEW ORLEANS — Newt Gingrich is asking supporters for donations as small as $2.50 to keep his GOP presidential campaign going.

The former House speaker told a New Orleans audience Friday that he can’t raise as much money as front-runner Mitt Romney can. But he said he is gaining 500 to 1,000 new donors a day. He said many of them give small but that he welcomes amounts that might lead to larger contributions later.

Mr. Gingrich is asking for donations in multiples of $2.50. That’s the amount he claims a gallon of gasoline will cost if he becomes president.

Mr. Gingrich promises to promote Louisiana’s energy, tourism and seafood industries. He says he and his wife, Callista, lunched on crab at Galatoire’s restaurant in New Orleans.

The Louisiana primary is March 24.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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