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Democrats See Opportunity on Spending Cuts

Democrats smell an opportunity to define House Republicans as irresponsible and unready to govern when they vote on the specific details of their budget cuts in the next two weeks.

Republicans are putting together their continuing resolution to keep the government operating beyond March 4 and have to translate Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) cap cutting $35 billion from fiscal 2010 spending levels into the nitty-gritty legislative details.

Democrats are gearing up to take on the cuts as extreme and damaging to a host of popular programs, according to leadership aides on both sides of the Capitol. But they don’t want to be seen as merely defenders of big government either, and they acknowledge the public’s concern about the deficit.

“It’s definitely going to be threading the needle,” one senior House Democratic aide said.

They are looking to President Barack Obama to help them strike that balance. He’s already laid out a vision for a balance between austerity and new investments in education and infrastructure in his State of the Union address, and he continued to push that approach Monday before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“By stopping spending on things we don’t need, we can make investments in the things that we do need, the same way families do,” Obama said. “If they’ve got a fiscal problem, if they’ve got to tighten their belt, they don’t stop paying for Johnny to go to college. They cut out things they don’t need, but they still make investments in the things that are going to make sure we win the future.”

Obama’s speech didn’t appear to make any inroads with House GOP leaders, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who faces his first big test getting a CR through the House.

“Instead of committing to much-needed spending cuts and reforms, President Obama has urged Congress to raise the debt limit and pass more ineffective ‘stimulus’ spending disguised as ‘investment,’” Boehner said in a statement Monday. “It’s clear from his policies that President Obama isn’t as interested in winning the future as he is in rigging it for big government.”

Democrats said Obama will need to push back a lot more against sentiments like Boehner’s with the public.

“He’s really going to have to use the bully pulpit and show us the magic he showed around the table in the Blair House summit on health care,” the House senior aide said. “There’s a real opportunity here for Barack Obama to be the hero and leave Republicans looking like rabid ideologues.”

Aides said that Democratic leaders have deliberately tried to avoid attacking the size of the Republican cuts, waiting to see the specifics first.

“We are willing to work with Republicans on identifying wasteful programs, but we will go to the mat on defending the programs that will help us turn the corner on the economy,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “Let’s have a debate about the particular programs, not about the top-line number.”

That puts Democrats on sounder footing in the polls, which show the public wants to cut the deficit but generally opposes almost every specific measure that would do so.

Some Senate Democrats will be proposing cuts of their own, the Senate leadership aide said, to provide a contrast.

Republicans “would like to portray the debate as they are the ones that are interested in cutting spending and we are not,” the aide said. “That will not be the case. The debate is not going to be about whether to cut, it is going to be about whether to cut responsibly.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, are accusing Democrats of standing with special interest lobbyists rather than seriously addressing the $1.5 trillion deficit.

“Senate Democrats are poised to follow the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mantra that the Administration has adopted when it comes to getting spending under control,” said Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “They continue to say they want to see us get our fiscal house in order and reduce the massive $14 trillion debt, but when the rubber meets the road they abandon any sense of fiscal responsibility and instead voice support for more of the same failed stimulus-style spending.”

Republicans also point to the split within the Democratic Party over whether to seek a bipartisan budget-cutting deal.

“They’re facing an internal struggle on the topic that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon,” a Senate GOP leadership aide said. “And the first cracks began to show last week when Democrat leaders tried to focus their message on government shutdowns and couldn’t answer the question — what are you gonna do about the huge deficits and debt?”

The GOP trained fire last week on Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) for meeting with hundreds of lobbyists and advocates concerned about potential cuts as evidence that Democrats weren’t serious about fiscal discipline. The meeting was first reported by ABC News.

A Harkin aide fired back, however.

“There’s a lot of concern about irresponsible rhetoric against government efforts to serve people, and it’s ironic that so much noise is coming from those who want to create more massive deficits and debt through tax breaks to the most affluent in this country and repealing the health care law on behalf of insurance companies,” a spokeswoman for Harkin said.

The spokeswoman said the meeting was with Republicans, independents and Democrats and included advocates for child care, medical research and prenatal care for the poor.

Other Democrats have been pushing hard for steep spending cuts.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) recently signed on to a proposed spending cap that would slash trillions in spending over the coming decade, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that her own party is in “denial” over how big the problem is.

Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.) has also struggled to get his fellow Democrats to support a multitrillion-dollar deficit reduction package, with many Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) averse to touching Social Security.

But even Conrad and McCaskill have warned against cutting spending too soon while the economy is in a fragile state.

Conrad has repeatedly noted that bipartisan commissions like the president’s fiscal commission have urged delaying austerity a year or two.

Conrad has instead proposed a budget summit bringing the House, Senate and White House together quickly to try to hash out a long-term agreement. But House and Senate leaders and the White House have yet to embrace the idea.

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