Democrats Seek Stronger Obama Stance in U.S. Budget Debate

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama in Hillsboro, Oregon. Photographer: Kevin P. Casey/Bloomberg

Congressional Democrats are prodding the White House to take a more active stance against Republicans in budget negotiations, concerned that President Barack Obama is ceding ground on spending cuts.

The White House stepped up its involvement by setting up a meeting later today at the Capitol among Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders of both parties to jump-start budget negotiations.

Still, some Democrats are worried Obama may be too willing to compromise with Republicans who are insisting on deep cuts as part of any deal to fund the government through Sept. 30, the end of the 2011 fiscal year.

“I feel a tremor or two” of concern, said Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat. “We’re down a hopeless slide right now.”

Some Democrats believe the president has so far taken too passive an approach in the debate on spending, allowing Republicans to set the agenda for slashing federal expenditures and position themselves to gain credit for such moves.

“I would hope that they would ratchet it up big-time,” Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey said of the White House, echoing sentiments aired privately at a closed-door lunch meeting of Senate Democrats earlier this week, according to several people who attended or were briefed on the session.

Stopgap Measure

Obama yesterday signed a stopgap measure Congress approved to fund the government through March 18 and avert a shutdown. Internal rifts among Democrats threaten to weaken the party’s hand in the coming round of bargaining with Republicans over spending for the remainder of this year.

A shutdown still looms if the two sides can’t reach a budget agreement, and Democratic strategists have privately told lawmakers they risk a voter rebuff if they aren’t seen as embracing cuts. All sides recognize that spending reductions beyond what Obama and his congressional allies want appear inevitable. The question is how deep they will be and whether Democrats can protect their priorities in the process.

Some Democrats say they don’t want to talk about spending cuts until Congress considers ways of raising more federal revenues through taxes, such as increases on those earning more than $250,000 a year or ending breaks for oil and gas companies.

Revenue Push

“I’m not going to vote for anything unless there’s revenues in it,” said Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and one of four members of his party’s caucus to oppose the temporary funding measure in a Senate vote yesterday. “From now on, if there’s something that’s just cutting spending, I’m not for it. We’ve got to do both.”

Obama phoned House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio on March 1 and the two spoke for about 10 minutes on budget matters, though the discussion came too late to alter the $4 billion in cuts Republicans put in the stopgap spending measure. White House Chief of Staff William Daley also phoned House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to discuss funding the government through Sept. 30, Cantor told Bloomberg Television yesterday.

Upon signing the temporary spending measure, Obama said he was dispatching Biden, Daley and White House budget chief Jack Lew to work with congressional leaders on a longer-term deal. Lew, Daley, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other aides met with House Democratic leaders last night to plot strategy.

‘Reached Without Delay’

A future funding agreement “should cut spending and reduce deficits without damaging economic growth or gutting investments in education, research and development that will create jobs and secure our future,” Obama said yesterday in a statement. It “should be bipartisan, it should be free of any party’s social or political agenda, and it should be reached without delay.”

Democratic lawmakers said they expected Obama to address the issue in public in the coming days. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Obama “is going to get involved in this.”

“The president’s going to take this to the American people because the only message that we have from the Republicans is to wipe out programs that are so important to people, especially people who can’t help themselves, the middle class and other programs,” Reid told reporters on March 1.

Republican Plan

Republicans last month won House approval of a plan to cut $61 billion from 2011 spending, which would mean reductions of 10 percent or more in hundreds of programs. Democrats call the proposal a nonstarter. They have yet to publicly identify a set of spending reductions they would back for the remainder of the year, saying such cuts would have to be part of a negotiation.

“Putting a meeting on the schedule doesn’t change the fact that neither the White House nor a single Democrat in Congress has proposed a plan that would allow the government to remain open and that would respond to the voters by reining in spending,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said today. “All we get is talk.”

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, said yesterday that reaching agreement over the next two weeks to fund the government through Sept. 30 would take a “superhuman effort.”

During the private lunch session this week, some senators complained that Obama and his aides had offered no concrete plan to counter the Republican budget bill, creating the potential that more short-term funding extensions would be needed that could come at a steep price for programs Democrats care about.

$4 Billion in Cuts

The measure that cleared Congress yesterday on a Senate vote trims $4 billion in spending by enacting cuts proposed by Obama in his 2012 budget and zeroing out money set aside for lawmakers’ pet projects, which members of both parties already agreed to abandon. That means noncontroversial cuts have mostly been adopted, and future spending reductions will be more painful for Democrats to back.

“Some of us, if what we’re going to get is every two weeks an extension with the equivalent of $2 billion a week in spending cuts, that won’t work for us,” said Menendez.

Obama acknowledged as much in his statement, saying, “Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible, and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy.”

House Democrats

Concern about his approach is shared among Democrats in the House, where many say they feel powerless to stop the Republican-engineered march to big cuts. Faced with the choice of endorsing Republicans’ stopgap measure or opposing the bill that would avert a government shutdown, 104 Democrats opted March 1 to side with Republicans in House passage of the measure, while 85 voted “no.”

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland cast one of those opposing votes.

“The White House has to be very careful, because the people who are going to be hit hardest -- the most vulnerable people who depend on these programs -- that’s their base, and they cannot turn their backs on that,” said Cummings, whose district includes much of inner-city Baltimore.

If Obama doesn’t vigorously oppose cuts to cherished programs, he and Democratic lawmakers will pay a price in the 2012 elections, Cummings said. “He’s got to let people know that he feels their pain. He can never get off that message.”

Some Senate Democrats, particularly those running for re-election in 2012, say they are eager for the White House and Congress to press ahead with broader talks about how to bring down the deficit, projected to reach $1.6 trillion this year.

“We need to get this budget year done and get on to the intellectually honest discussion about what the structural debt really is and how we deal with it,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat seeking a second term next year.

She said she didn’t want to comment on whether the White House has been sufficiently involved in the budget discussions. “I think they’re trying to find the right way to lead on this,” McCaskill said, “and I’m confident before it’s all over they will.”

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