Divided Congress Takes Up Obama's Plans Now that President Obama has laid out his budget and plans for reviving the economy, it's up to Congress to put them into action. But lawmakers are deeply divided. Democrats say the federal government should take the lead in turning things around; Republicans insist that's a cynical ploy to pump up big government.
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Divided Congress Takes Up Obama's Plans

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Divided Congress Takes Up Obama's Plans

Divided Congress Takes Up Obama's Plans

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon, in for Liane Hansen.

Now that President Obama has presented his budget and plans for reviving the economy, Congress gets to debate and vote. But lawmakers are deeply divided. Democrats say that the federal government has to take the lead by pouring money into the economy. Republicans say they see that as a ploy by the president and Democrats to pump up the size of big government. We're joined now by NPR'S congressional correspondent David Welna from the Capitol. Thanks very much for being with us, David.

DAVID WELNA: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And help us understand how deep is this ocean, the divide between Democrats and Republicans.

WELNA: Well, Scott, you know, I think it's about the deepest I've seen during more than eight years of covering Congress. And that includes the aftermath 9/11 attacksc when we saw virtually all the Democrats in Congress close ranks with Republicans, who were in power then, at a moment of national emergency. Contrast that with what many are calling a national economic emergency or meltdown now.

And the vote we saw on the stimulus bill that was crafted as a response to that emergency, you had only three Republicans in the entire Congress voting for it. Republicans, I think, are very worried about the survival of their own party as a consequential political force in Washington. And I don't think that they see that there's much in it for them right now to side with Democrats in opening the spending floodgates.

Their political bet is that if spending doesn't have its desired effect - the Congress has been approving, they'll able to say, I told you so campaigning for next year's midterm elections. And you heard a similar, collective no way from Republicans this past week when Mr. Obama sent his budget to Congress that pays for expanding social services by raising taxes on the wealthy. Here's the House Minority Leader John Boehner reacting to the budget.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): American people know that we can't tax and spend our way to prosperity. It's just the formula that appears the president's budget is relying on. The era of big government is back, and Democrats are asking you to pay for it.

SIMON: And how do Democrats respond to that argument?

WELNA: Well, they're trying to portray Republicans as out of touch with voters. Take a listen to the man who's perhaps the leading attack dog for Democrats in Congress, New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Unfortunately, many of our Republican colleagues are mired in the past. They still think we're in 1980. They still think the only thing you do during this economic crisis is shrink government.

WELNA: But both Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insist that they'll keep reaching out to Republicans. And they say they're convinced that constituents will force Republicans to get with the program here.

SIMON: David, as we sometimes pointed out, sometimes more politely than others, the Democrats not only won the White House, but big majorities in both chambers, and I believe even former Speaker Gingrich said the other day, look, they have the votes. All this debate is very interesting, but they have the votes. Do they really need help from Republicans?

WELNA: Well, they don't need Republicans' help so much in the House, where the Democrats only need a simple majority to pass legislation, but even in the House, there are a lot of Democrats from red states who are nervous about repeatedly voting for increased spending even if it is in the name of battling a crisis. In the Senate, it's a different story.

Democrats are short of the 60 votes they need to stop filibusters. They have 58 members right now in the Senate. But of course, Roland Burris from Illinois, his situation is uncertain. Ted Kennedy is out for illness and in Minnesota, the battle continues for the other Senate seat that Norm Coleman held, and that Al Franken is claiming as his.

That's hung up in court now. So, Democrats generally need two to three votes from Republicans to pass things. So that's one of the reasons they're concerned with getting Republicans onboard.

SIMON: Let me ask you what else might be on the Democratic agenda because Republicans have charged they want to take advantage of that to push through an entire agenda. And even some Democrats have said this is a time to generationally seize the challenge.

WELNA: Indeed. I think many Democrats see this as an opportunity for that kind of change. And I think that President Obama's budget really is the, sort of embodiment of the ambition of the size of that change. But there may be problems even with Democrats in Congress when it comes to things such as cutting farm subsidies, as Mr. Obama proposes in his budget, and reducing the value of itemized deductions for wealthy people, which could hurt giving to charities.

There's also health-care reform. Majority Leader Reed has promised to start this before August. That's a very heavy lift. There's the cap in trade bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And this past week, we had a debate over letting the District of Columbia have a seat in the House.

And Republicans in the Senate tried to add on an amendment that would make it very hard to put any restrictions on owning guns in the district. And the number two Democrat in Congress, Dick Durbin, responded this way. And it shows you that - how difficult the lift is for them.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We don't debate guns around here much anymore. We used to. Basically, we reached a point where there just aren't many people who will stick their political necks out to vote for sensible gun control. Just too big a hassle. NRA's going to target you back home.

WELNA: And many Democrats voted for that amendment in the end, showing how tough it is, even with all those Democrats in Congress, to get things passed.

SIMON: NPR's David Welna, thanks so much.

WELNA: Cheers, Scott.

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