Conservative Democrats Walk Budget Tightrope

President Barack Obama's budget proposal is placing conservative Democrats in a tight spot. Republicans are asking them to be fiscally cautious. Liberals are targeting them with a barrage of ads, urging them to support the president's budget.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The budget battles have officially started. President Obama was on Capitol Hill today and on TV last night pushing his spending plan. Democratic leaders of the House and Senate released their budgets today. These are blueprints for actual spending bills to come later in the year, but they force politicians to put real numbers on paper, setting priorities for the government.

And as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, this year's budget represents a major shift in those priorities.

ANDREA SEABROOK: It is a signal of how bad the economic situation is that one of the most committed fiscal conservatives in Congress said this today.

Representative JOHN SPRATT (Democratic Chairman, House Budget Committee): It's all but impossible to balance the budget when the economy is in recession. And for that matter, it's also not advisable.

SEABROOK: South Carolina's John Spratt, the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee. He has been a sharp-eyed deficit hawk. But today, he agreed with President Obama's view that pushing cash into the economy is necessary for recovery, even though over the next five years, it means spending trillions of dollars the government doesn't have.

To Congressman Paul Ryan, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, it is a strategy that sounds old fashioned, at best.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, House Budget Committee): With this budget, the president and the Democratic majority are attempting nothing less than the third and great final wave of government expansion, building on the great society and the New Deal.

SEABROOK: Democrats on the Budget Committee hailed the big increases for education and renewable energy. This budget also establishes so-called reserve funds. These are places in the budget where lawmakers can store saved money to be used later on big priorities, like a health care overhaul and energy independence. For Democrats representing rural areas, there was also good news.

Representative MARION BERRY (Democrat, Arkansas): We hadn't heard a president in eight years say the word infrastructure.

SEABROOK: Arkansas Democrat Marion Berry.

Rep. BERRY: It is such a relief to have a president that understands that if you don't make the necessary investments in education and infrastructure, no matter what else happens, you have absolutely no reason to expect that anything is going to get any better.

SEABROOK: And as those deficit hawks on the committee pointed out, the budget does cut annual deficits to about half their current size in five years.

Now, it may sound like your typical partisan fight, Democrats against Republicans, blue versus red. But when it comes to fiscal issues, there is a fuzzy purple area where the parties overlap. Fiscal conservatives who are social moderates, they're caught in the middle in this debate, especially the so-called Blue Dog Democrats.

Rep. RYAN: I want to make a plea to a special select audience.

SEABROOK: Republican Paul Ryan.

Rep. RYAN: I want to ask my friends, the Blue Dog Democrats, do you really want all this government? Do you want your fingerprints on this massive and unprecedented growth in our national debt?

SEABROOK: Conservative Democrats are getting hit from the left, as well.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: It's what's wrong with Wall Street and Washington. AIG executives get millions in bonuses after running their company into the ground, and we get to pay for it.

SEABROOK: And these blows are hitting home literally. This is a radio ad sponsored by the liberal advocacy group, moveon.org, that is running in the home districts of 10 Democrats who are fiscal conservatives.

(Soundbite of moveon.org ad)

Unidentified Man #2: President Obama's new budget will make Wall Street pay its fair share and use the savings to invest in energy, education and health care.

SEABROOK: The ad aims to get voters to pressure conservative Democrats to support this budget. And if you're feeling a little deja vu, it's because it does sound just like a campaign commercial from last year. This time though, the vote everyone will be watching will be in Congress on the budget scheduled for next week.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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House, Senate Panels Whittle Down Obama's Budget

President Obama headed to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to push for approval of a whopping $3.6 trillion spending plan he says is necessary to pull the country out of a deep recession. But he faces opposition even from within his own party, and House and Senate budget panels are hammering out their own versions of the 2010 budget.

Peter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters that the panels' versions will bolster administration efforts in education, clean energy and health care.

"They are 98 percent the same as the budget proposal the president sent up in February," Orszag said. The president's visit comes as House and Senate committees begin work on the budget.

Republicans and some Democrats have attacked the size and scope of the proposed budget, saying it will burden the country with debt for years to come. Obama, who won approval for his stimulus plan earlier this year, has said the budget is key to revitalizing the economy.

"The best way to bring our deficit down in the long run is ... with a budget that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest," Obama said in a Tuesday night news conference.

The president's visit comes as the House and Senate committees begin work on the budget, and Obama met with congressional Democrats on Wednesday to bolster support.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, the chamber's No. 2 Republican, said Obama's budget would tax too heavily the small businesses that create a large share of the jobs across the country.

"We've got to provide the relief to the job creators," the Virginia lawmaker said.

Despite the rosy White House assessment of the House and Senate budget blueprints, the Democratic chairmen of both panels have been forced by ballooning deficit estimates to scale back White House requests for domestic programs in their versions.

The House plan would cut $7 billion from domestic agency budgets next year, while the Senate plan would cut $15 billion from those agencies.

The plan from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) would go further — scrapping Obama's signature tax cut after 2010. Conrad promises to reduce the deficit from a projected $1.7 trillion this year to a still-high $508 billion in 2014. To accomplish that, the Senate plan would end Obama's $400 tax cut to most workers and $800 to couples by the end of next year. Those tax cuts were part of the stimulus package.

In the House, budget Chairman John Spratt Jr. (D-SC) said his plan would employ fast-track procedures to allow Obama's overhaul of the U.S. health care system to pass Congress without the threat of a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

Also under threat are big increases to education and clean energy programs as well as Obama's controversial "cap and trade" global warming initiative, as neither House nor Senate Democrats have directly incorporated it into their budget plans.

The House and Senate blueprints — nonbinding outlines that spell out broad parameters for subsequent legislation — also leave out Obama's $250 billion set-aside for more bailouts of banks and other firms.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Obama's budget plan would result in red ink totaling $9.3 trillion over 10 years and a deficit of $749 billion in 2014.

Asked by reporters on Wednesday how his brief meeting with Senate Democrats went, the president said only, "It was great."

From NPR staff and wire services

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