Spending Freeze Hits a Lawmaker Cold Front

Posted January 26, 2010 at 6:24pm

President Barack Obama’s plan to freeze nonmilitary discretionary spending for three years is ruffling feathers on Capitol Hill as lawmakers try to gauge the effect of a halt in government spending during a recession.

Obama is proposing the spending freeze — projected to save $250 billion over the next 10 years — in the runup to his State of the Union address tonight. It also comes as Democrats are scrambling to redirect their agenda on job creation and the economy.

Senior administration officials dismissed the idea that Obama is vying to win support for his proposal by aligning with fiscally conservative Democrats rather than liberals, some of whom are already grumbling at the prospect of funds being slashed from their favorite programs.

“It isn’t really triangulating. It is a plan of necessity,— Rob Nabors, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a Tuesday conference call.

“We need to be in a position where we are balancing the budget and spending money wisely. I think the liberal criticisms will be somewhat muted when they actually see the details of what we’re proposing— when Obama unveils his budget on Monday, Nabors said.

Asked how Obama plans to persuade Democrats to support a spending moratorium when some have already come out against the idea, Nabors recalled advice the president gave him during the health care debate.

“The president said, ‘Don’t ever bet against me.’ … I look at the freeze in the same way,— Nabors said. “We need to have a conversation with Appropriations committees, Budget committees, the Ways and Means and Finance committees to find a way to put the country back on a more sustainable economic path. This is the president who can have that type of conversation.—

But until Obama releases his fiscal 2011 budget, it remains unclear how hard his spending freeze really is. In the meantime, liberals are worried about their key programs getting squeezed and Republicans are already calling the plan a “fake freeze— given the high level of discretionary spending already in effect.

Appropriators in both parties offered different reasons for not endorsing the proposal whole-heartedly.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, said he could support a halt in spending as long as it doesn’t exempt certain agencies.

“I mean, there’s a lot of waste in those departments,— Harkin said. “There’s just so much stuff going on there, and they’re not being tightened down on because it’s in the name of national security. And whenever you invoke national security, you can spend whatever you want.—

Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) gave tentative support for a freeze in some areas of discretionary spending.

“If the president is suggesting a real freeze in some broad areas of discretionary spending for three years, he will have my support, especially if he includes some kind of enforcement mechanism, such as statutory caps, to enforce the freeze levels,— Gregg said. But he expressed concern that, without major entitlement reform, a spending freeze would not have “a true impact on the impending meltdown of our federal fiscal house.—

But leading Congressional liberals were already balking at the prospect of cuts to domestic spending during an economic downturn.

The idea of cutting social programs as a way to reduce the deficit “is the wrong move at the wrong time,— Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Hardball.— He continued: “The government is the last resort in terms of investment. We don’t really have a choice here: We’re either going to go forward and advance or this economy is going to continue to tank.—

“I just question whether the proposed freeze wouldn’t kill rather than create jobs,— Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said. Instead of targeting “underfunded domestic programs,— Woolsey proposed cutting spending by targeting “Cold War weapons systems that we don’t need anymore— and by levying a tax on stock trades, which she said could raise $150 billion a year.

Others said they wanted to wait to review Obama’s budget before weighing in on the plan.

“Entitlements are protected,— Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said. “We’ll have to see.—

House Democratic leaders acknowledged that a spending freeze could be politically damaging for vulnerable incumbents who would be limited in their ability to deliver funds to their districts.

“Yes, the freeze will be a constraint,— House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday at the National Press Club.

Still, Hoyer said most lawmakers in swing districts “understand their publics, and they are committed to fiscal balance in the long term and I think that they understand that we have to make priorities. The freeze will certainly give the Congress the challenge to make a choice on priorities within those freeze numbers.—

Republicans were generally cool to the idea since many chalked up the move to political lip service.

“Just having the president say ‘spending freeze’ alone is progress. My sense is though, that it’s a faux freeze. It is a fake freeze. This administration and the Democrats in charge, over the past two years, have increased discretionary spending by 85 percent. If that’s their baseline … then that’s not a freeze at all,— said Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) compared the three-year proposal to “going on a one-day diet after a pie-eating contest— since it only applies to nonmilitary, discretionary funding, which translates to $250 billion out of $42.9 trillion over 10 years, according to Congressional Budget Office data.

“I appreciate the president’s gesture, but the impact won’t be discernible,— LeMieux said.

But not all Republicans panned the proposal. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who backed a similar proposal in his 2008 presidential campaign, said he is supportive.

“We need to do it. I think it’s important, and I’ll support it,— McCain said Tuesday on “Good Morning America.— But to have a real impact, he said Obama would also have to commit to vetoing appropriations bills with “pork-barrel spending.—