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In 2012, Another Budget Battle Brews

Republicans and Democrats alike are hoping to make 2012 a grudge match over the budget, closely tracking the topic that helped drag Congressional approval ratings to record lows last year and despite concerns among political operatives that the public is unmoved by the issue.

Although little more than a nonbinding resolution — made largely moot by last summer’s Budget Control Act — members of both parties’ leadership see this year’s budget as a prime battleground of the 2012 elections and are ramping up similar messaging machines to those used last year.

The decision to relitigate the budget is particularly surprising given the fact that, at least privately, some GOP strategists have warned that budgetary fights are, at best, a tough sell with the public and open the door to Democratic attacks over changes to Medicare.

But while Republican acknowledge they need to do a better job of linking the budget and the economy, particularly what they view as the negative effects of the administration’s plans, they say it will become a central theme when President Barack Obama releases his budget next week.

“The contrast with the president is good” when it comes to the budget, a senior House GOP leadership aide said Monday. The aide said that while “people get the link between the budget and the economy,” Republicans in the House understand that they need to do a better job of making that case this year.

According to GOP aides, Republicans will continue to hit the same themes that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) used during last year’s fight, arguing that reducing the “crushing burden of debt” is key to creating “certainty” for businesses and the need to reform entitlements to ensure their long-term viability.

Ryan made clear his intention to continue the war over the budget late last month when he slammed Obama’s decision to submit his budget to Congress late.

“The president’s failures to meet his legal obligations are symptomatic of a failure to meet his more critical moral obligation to the American people by tackling our most pressing fiscal and economic challenges,” Budget Committee Republicans argued in a Jan. 27 press release that hammered the White House for announcing it would miss its statutory deadline for submitting a budget by two weeks.

Likewise, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team have continued to keep up the pressure on the issue, releasing fake movie posters and a fake movie trailer last month to highlight the lack of a budget in the Senate. Boehner and his lieutenants have also repeatedly woven attacks on Senate Democrats into their statements and talking points, hammering Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) for going for more than 1,000 days without passing a budget resolution.

According to GOP leadership aides, those attacks are part of a stepped-up coordination between Republicans in the two chambers on the budget. Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Ryan are working closely together on the issue, as are Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Likewise, House Democrats are essentially preparing for a repeat of last year’s budget fight. Daily talking points distributed to Members’ offices during the past several weeks have repeatedly focused on the budget and specifically on Ryan’s proposed changes to Medicare.

Democratic aides pointed to the Republicans who sought to distance themselves from Ryan’s budget last year because of the House-passed budget’s treatment of Medicare, and leadership felt that attacks on the GOP were proving successful through much of the spring. In fact, Democrats said, it was only when former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) sex scandal dominated national headlines that their efforts were derailed, and they acknowledge they never fully recovered from that.

This year, aides said, they hope it will be different. For instance, a Jan. 31 missive to House Democrats and reporters from leadership was entitled “Déjà Vu: Dems Stand Up for Seniors as GOP Plans Vote to End Medicare Guarantee.” Similarly, talking points sent to the Caucus urged Members to argue that “Democrats stand strong for jobs and Medicare while Republicans refuse to offer a jobs agenda and promise to end the Medicare guarantee.”

Likewise, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made Medicare and the budget a central part of its attacks on Republicans.

In a Jan. 30 release, DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson hammered Ryan and House Republicans, saying they have “made crystal clear they won’t back away from this ideological crusade to dismantle Medicare that seniors have paid into for a lifetime and depended on for generations. House Republicans will once again show their true priority is the ultra wealthy and will leave seniors to wither on the vine.”

A GOP leadership aide downplayed the effectiveness of the Medicare attacks, insisting “the silver bullet didn’t work the way they thought it would” last year.

A second House GOP aide agreed, arguing that “if President Obama and Harry Reid and [Senate Conference Vice Chairman] Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.] just want to demagogue this issue to death, OK … game on.”

The White House, meanwhile, isn’t expecting any major budget deal before the election. Senior administration officials on Monday argued there remains a large gulf between the parties over Medicare and taxes. The gameplan is to continue drawing a contrast between Ryan and Obama on the budget.

The Obama budget blueprint, meanwhile, won’t contain many surprises, the officials said. It will include the deficit reduction plan Obama proposed last year and the spending levels agreed to in the Budget Control Act.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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