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GOP Faces Delicate Balance in Budget Critique

The release of the Obama administration’s first budget this week will send House Republicans back to the drawing board to figure out how to pivot from their strategy of triangulating on the economic stimulus to the delicate balance of criticizing the commander in chief’s economic blueprint without attacking the popular president himself.

And while they have not yet seen the text of President Barack Obama’s budget, several House Republicans said there would likely be provisions in the plan that would be wildly unpopular in their Conference — naturally causing them to speak out against the offending provisions.

“With the budget it will be difficult not to be critical,” Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas) said, adding that many of his fellow Republicans will look at the budget as a move in the wrong direction if Obama truly wants to cut spending.

However, Brady indicated that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would likely still be the main recipients of Republican criticism.

“This is a pretty headstrong Congress,” Brady said.

He predicted that like the stimulus, the real battle would be waged under the Dome. “Among the Conference, the problem is really with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid.”

A GOP leadership aide agreed and explained that while the bill would ultimately come out of the White House, it will not be free from the fingerprints of Congressional Democrats.

“This will be an interesting test,” the aide said. “This will be the first time that Obama will be visible to the American people not reacting to a crisis.”

And unlike the economic stimulus debate, where House Republicans were able to contrast House Democrats excluding them from the legislative process with Obama’s open ideological door, the nature of the budget lends itself to a more policy-oriented debate.

But a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) held out the likelihood that GOP criticism on the budget would not focus solely on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We’ve been focusing most of our fire on the Democratic leadership in Congress — but that does not mean we are not engaging the president directly when appropriate,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “With this budget, it is appropriate, and it is necessary.”

However, sources also said that any public criticism of Obama is done with an eye toward his popularity, which has continued despite the bleak economic outlook.

According to a New York Times/CBS poll released on Tuesday, 74 percent of those surveyed believed Obama was trying to work with Republicans, while only 31 percent believed they were reciprocating his efforts.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) said he didn’t think Republicans had to worry about any electoral pitfalls when opposing the budget, and he also stressed the policy argument as the hinge to the debate.

“Anyone who supports wayward policy deserves the [scrutiny] of the American people,” he said.

Others, such as House Budget ranking member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said there was no room in his view for political maneuvering and that the more critical matter is about whether Obama’s budget promotes good or bad government policy.

“To me, it’s all about substance and policy,” Ryan said. “I really don’t care about politics, I’m not one of those people that sit around and strategize how I can point my finger at people.”

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said the bill would be judged on its economic merits.

“Ultimately, the president’s budget will be evaluated by House Republicans on whether it creates jobs, whether it strengthens America’s long-term fiscal outlook, and whether it helps middle-class working families and small businesses,” he said.

Obama publicly teased Cantor for his opposition on Monday during a press conference with Congressional lawmakers following the president’s fiscal responsibility summit.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who asked Obama during the same press conference to communicate his wish for bipartisanship to Pelosi, said Obama would need House Republicans eventually and that they should not be overly concerned about being completely sidelined — if Obama is true to his word.

“He said at the White House that he wants to cut the budget in half by 2012. He is going to have to work with Republicans to do that,” Barton said, pointing out that Congressional Democrats would be much less amenable to cutting programs. “He’ll get some of them, but he won’t get all of them.”