War on Fiscal Discipline Rages as Democrats Weigh Alternatives

Posted April 12, 2011 at 6:52pm

President Barack Obama’s decision to respond to House Republicans’ 2012 budget blueprint is complicating matters for Democrats on Capitol Hill.

The president’s address at George Washington University today comes as Senate and House Democrats have been working for weeks on their own deficit reduction and budget plans that were intended to provide a clear alternative to what the GOP has proposed.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), ranking member of the Budget Committee, will introduce today the House Democratic budget proposal. House Democrats hoped Van Hollen’s plan would form the basis for a countermessage to Republicans on budget cutting and federal spending.

Meanwhile, three Senate Democrats have been working as members of the “gang of six” to put together a bipartisan deficit reduction proposal of their own.

While Obama is not expected to present a detailed plan during his speech, it is anticipated that he will endorse the work of the bipartisan group of Senators.

White House Spokesman Jay Carney said in a briefing Monday that Obama “will very clearly lay out his vision for deficit reduction, the need for it to be balanced, the need for it to be bipartisan, the need for it to address the long-term drivers of our debt and for everyone to share in the burden of bringing our fiscal house into order.”

Obama’s support of the gang of six could undercut Van Hollen’s plan and muddy the message for Democrats on how they approach fiscal discipline. And with presidential politics already influencing Washington, Obama’s endorsement could make it more difficult for the bipartisan group to come to a final agreement if it helps Obama look good. Republicans who are part of the group already have said that they are having a hard time finding a way forward and that a plan would not be announced until after the two-week Easter recess.

Despite the potential for mixed messages, Senate and House Democrats publicly support Obama’s decision to step out on fiscal policy.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday during his weekly press briefing that he thinks the “president needs to set forth a responsible way to get to the deficit.”

“I think the president feels a responsibility and he feels philosophically that he wants to set forth a reasonable path towards fiscal balance and fiscal stability and a growing economy, and I welcome that,” the Marylander added.

Senate Democrats echoed Hoyer’s support. 

Majority Whip Dick Durbin said even though Obama is expected to propose changes to Medicare, it won’t be tough for voters to distinguish between the Democrats’ proposals and the Ryan budget.

“I can say with certainty there will be a clear difference between Paul Ryan and Barack Obama on Medicare,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Durbin, a gang of six member, said the group will continue moving forward regardless of Obama’s speech.

“I think it’s important that we continue to do what we’ve done for four months, and that is finish our effort to have a bipartisan alternative,” he said.

Asked whether the president’s speech could affect the substance or time frame of the gang of six talks, Durbin responded, “I haven’t heard it yet.”

Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Nebraska Democrat who is up for re-election in 2012, also discounted any worries that having multiple Democratic proposals would make it harder for the party to present a clear message on fiscal issues.

“I don’t know that the message is muddy,” Nelson said. “I think you just may have different ideas about where to cut and how much.”

Privately, however, Democratic aides acknowledged there is a growing frustration with Obama letting Republicans take the lead before becoming involved in policy discussions.

Still, some Democratic Senators want Obama to steer clear of details.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will be among a bipartisan group of lawmakers that will travel to the White House for a morning briefing before Obama’s speech, said Tuesday that Obama would do well to stick with the “long-range view” for how to get the nation on more secure fiscal footing.

“I don’t know how specific we need him to be,” the Nevada Democrat told reporters. “I think we need an outline of what he thinks needs to be done.”

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said the speech was an opportunity for Obama to lay out a “big, bold plan to get the debt down and to get the country back on a strong track.” The North Dakota Democrat and gang of six member said he hopes Obama outlines ideas in line with the recommendations of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which would mesh with the approach the gang of six is taking.

Sen. Tom Carper said Obama’s speech could actually help get Democrats more in step on their fiscal talking points.

“I’m pleased to see the president providing the kind of leadership that I expect from a president,” the Delaware Democrat said.

Carper said it made sense for Obama to follow up on his fiscal 2012 budget proposal as Congress wraps up debate on the continuing resolution and turns its attention to more long-term fiscal debates.

Republicans, meanwhile, dismissed Obama’s decision to put forward a proposal different from his original budget. Key Senate Republicans also were doubtful that Obama’s speech would be as fiscally conservative as they would like.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “about time” for a course reversal from Obama on spending and the debt, describing the budget proposal the president submitted earlier this year as “laughable.”

But, the Kentucky Republican cautioned, “until he indicates he’s willing to sign something, it’s all just talk.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) used his weekly press briefing to poke at Obama’s decision to step into deficit reduction talks now. But House Republicans may have problems of their own in getting support from a wide swathe of their Conference on Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposal.

GOP aides maintain they will have at least 218 votes behind the budget and attribute the support to a monthlong outreach effort led by Ryan, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). The three have held listening sessions over the last month, during which Members were briefed about the budget while Ryan was crafting the plan. Those sessions helped leaders get buy-in from Members leading up to this week’s vote, one Republican aide said.

The aide acknowledged that a faction of Members remain squeamish about the budget, particularly over the Medicare and Medicaid provisions, but predicted Republicans will ultimately pass the document with overwhelming support.

“I think Members are very comfortable with where the debate is and the budget is because they’ve been a part of this process since day one, and I think they appreciate that,” the aide said.

David M. Drucker, Jessica Brady and John Stanton contributed to this report.