TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. As the battle to put the global economy back on an even keel continues, President Barack Obama is facing opposition from a number of Republicans and from some key Democratic figures as he continues to shape his budget. His $410 billion budget comes after billions have already been put aside for the economic stimulus package. But how much more money is the commander-in-chief going to need to address some of society's key issues? To explain more now, I am joined by NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Hello, Ron.
RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Tony.
COX: So, we've had the stimulus package, $787 billion has been set aside to try to kick start the economy and the omnibus spending bill. So, Ron let's separate these piles of money, OK.
ELVING: Good idea.
COX: The first...
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COX: The $410 billion is for what? Describe some of its key elements.
ELVING: All right, the $410 billion is really old news. That is the omnibus appropriations package leftover for the current fiscal year which began back on October 1st. It's business that was transacted between President George W. Bush and the 110th Congress. And it's been left around, never got approved. Essentially the two sides agreed to disagree in advance of the election and to wait and let the next Congress and the new president - whoever that would be - fight it out in the New Year. And it's taken several months for them to fight it out in the New Year but it is basically a budget that was agreed on for the current fiscal year way back between those earlier players. And President Obama decided he's got plenty of other things on his hands. He's got the stimulus bill. He's got his budget for next year, his own first budget. And he's got the mortgage bailout plan, the bank bailout plan and a lot of other issues that he wants to get to in foreign policy and domestic policy. So, he just let last year's business be last year's business and let that go through as it was 410 billion.
COX: Now, we do not have a figure yet, do we, for the President's proposals for his next budget?
ELVING: Well, it's going to be an enormous budget. It's going to be several trillion dollars. It's going to have the biggest built-in deficit we've ever had. The current year will run up the biggest deficit we've ever had. It will be well over a trillion dollars, and it will probably be well over a trillion dollars for the first Obama budget as well, although the president pledges that he will ratchet that down each year and expects to cut it in half, cut this year's, if you will, hang-over Bush deficit in half by the end of his first term.
COX: Now, the budget has been criticized by some economists who say that the plan is too optimistic, and the GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell says the plan has three flaws in his view which are: it spends, number one; taxes, number two; and borrows too much, number three. But there are even some Democratic heavyweights, Ron, who have key roles in devising this budget plan who disagree with some of President Obama's ideas. We're going to hear from one of them shortly - Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel. But my question for you is, is this code for leave my earmarks alone?
ELVING: The earmark is an important part of the disagreement between this administration, the Obama administration and the Congress as the Congress has pretty much always been. We didn't always call them earmarks. We used to have various and sundry the other ways of getting special pork spending into the bill for the use of particular senators in their state or for particular districts and their congressmen. This has been part of getting people to go along with bills they otherwise might be somewhat embarrassed to vote for for a very long time, for generations in Congress, because any bill is going to look big in the context of its own time. And that big spending bill can be justified back home much more easily if it includes a bridge or it includes money for a local college or it includes some other special project that the folks back home are all for. If the congressman brings that home, he's a hero. If other congressmen are bringing the same thing home to their districts, then we call them earmarks and they become unpopular. They become pork-barrel spending and everybody wants to run against it.
COX: I've go time for one more question about a minute or so, Ron. It's this, is the president's spending proposal likely to run into a bipartisan buzz saw the same way that the stimulus did?
ELVING: If it does, it will be highly successful because the stimulus had a lot of opposition but it passed. It got 60 votes in the Senate which meant several Republicans had to vote for it. If the president is as successful with his own budget and with, let's say, the health care overhaul - he wants to overhaul the entire health care delivery system in this country - and such things as re-balancing the energy and environment issues. If he is as successful with those things as he was with the economic stimulus package which got passed despite the buzz saw, he will be one successful president in the first year in office.
COX: Ron Elving, thank you very much.
ELVING: My pleasure, Tony.
COX: That was Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. He joined us from NPR's headquarters in Washington D.C. Well, one of the key Democrats who has spoken out against elements of President Obama's budget plan is Congressman Charles Rangel. He is House Representative for New York's 15th District and chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means. He joins us now. Congressman, welcome to News & Notes.
Representative CHARLES RANGEL (Democratic, 15th District, New York; Chairman, House Committee on Ways and Means): Good to be with you again.
COX: Let's get right to the nuts and bolts, congressman.
Rep. RANGEL: Why not?
COX: We've had a string of financial measures passed by Congress from the stimulus to the bank bailout to the new $410 billion budget. But as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, you are one of the congressional leaders who is expected to support the president while also protecting the interests of your constituents. Does this budget allow you to do that and to what degree?
Rep. RANGEL: Well, it's going to be difficult because of the cost of so many things that the - our president is calling for. We're going to have to make a lot of painful political decisions. But we are confident that - we wish really we could persuade the Republicans. But we are confident that we'll have enough votes in the House to reach the number of votes that we need to pass the president's budget. And a lot of it has to do with the president's dreams and aspirations. And the things that we will have to be able to sell our colleagues as to how important it's going to be with the ever overwhelming expenses of the recovery package that we concern ourselves with the future of our kids and our children's children.
COX: Well, let me ask you some specifics because the president has made an issue of earmarks generally, but there is already push back from both sides of the aisle. Realistically, Congressman Rangel, how much actual reform is likely to get passed with regard to these earmarks?
Rep. RANGEL: Well, I would say, Tony, at a very minimum, that if there's anyone - you know, I don't take the position that the national administration, Republic or the Democrat, know what's best in terms in infrastructure of our Congressional District. And since we're not adding anything but in terms of appropriations, we've been assisted by our local officials in identifying. I've been here 38 years and I - every group that I've helped has either been a nonprofit or a government group, a school, hospital. And so to me, I always opposed these things, earmarks report into a budget or appropriation bills without any fingerprints on it. I've always taken the position - I still hold on to it - that if a member is proud and transparent and is willing to not only put his name on it, but to put his legislative reputation on it, I don't have any problem in debating with this or any other president that earmarks a good for the country and good for our congressional district.
COX: But this puts you on a collision course with President Obama - direct collision course, doesn't it?
Rep. RANGEL: I've had a lot of people ask me questions like that because I disagree with a great president and I just don't like the word collision. I kind of believe that the White House Executive Branch is supposed to tell the Congress what it needs and what it wants, with the understanding that if you agree with me on the principle, which we do, then you come up with a better idea of how to raise the revenue. ..TEXT: COX: Well, the president has out forward an ambitious domestic agenda in his first couple of months in office - education, health care, Iraq draw down, earmarks, etc.
Rep. RANGEL: I cannot begin to tell you the - how my heart beats fast when you just repeat these cold facts. But what it means to people in communities such as mine - the number of jobs, the educational opportunity, the kids that would be finishing school, the AmeriCorps or the - to me, it is one of the most - not withstanding the physical crisis and the fact that this budget is going to be tight in order to make certain that there's a pay for(ph) at the end. To me, this is a revolution that's going to improve the quality of health competition, housing, the whole works, so...
COX: Well, the...
Rep. RANGEL: Yes, I hated to interrupt, but those things are just more than words to me.
COX: Well, I was going to go beyond just the economy in terms of the president's agenda to talk about some of the other areas. And there have been many, including, again, stem cell research, the draw down from Iraq. My question was going to be, sir, is this an overly ambitious, a too ambitious agenda for the beginning of a new presidency?
Rep. RANGEL: If he had decided to go slower and people would be critical of him, I would be one of his first defenders and say, give the guy a chance and let him go at a slower pace. And it was just an ordinary bland president we'd say hey, let's take one step at a time. But I think he's got America excited, and it could very well be the broader the agenda, the more people find what they would like to see in terms of environment and health reform and a better school system and improving trade. It could very well be that he's getting America back to a spirit of can-do, we can do it, at a time when we really need a shot in the arm because of the stock market and the failure of our banking institution.
COX: Congressman, thank you very much for your time.
Rep. RANGEL: Thank you for calling me.
COX: That was Congressman Charles Rangel. He is the House representative for New York's 15th district and also chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.