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Obama Budget Strategy Irks Democrats

The White House’s negotiating position with Republicans leaves many from the president’s party scratching their heads Republican lawmakers say president’s plan may offer hope for spending deal

Congressional Democrats continue to be baffled by — and frustrated with — the White House’s legislative strategy, with many aides questioning the wisdom of offering a compromise budget before negotiations have even begun.

Budgets, which have no force of law, are largely viewed as the outline of the party’s political priorities. Several Democratic sources outside the White House — girding for yet another budget battle over the debt ceiling again this summer — said Obama’s budget release this week is not just a bad bargaining stance but also another instance in which the president appears to be taking a position in the middle, only to later be pushed by Republicans to the right.

Democrats on the Hill, for example, were loath to agree to the fiscal-cliff deal in January. Though they passed the New Year’s Day deal, they felt they surrendered their peak position of leverage because the administration was obsessed with getting a “deal.”

Congressional Democrats had feared that without the pressure of the expiring tax breaks for all Americans, Republicans would never resume talks over how to replace the across-the-board cuts mandated by the sequester. And Republicans haven’t, taking the position that the sequester is better than raising taxes again as the president has proposed.

With his budget’s unpopular entitlement cuts, many Democrats caution that Obama not only is starting talks from a position that might alienate the Democratic base but also is helping Republicans make Obama and the Democrats own even more spending cuts — including those to Medicare or Social Security, which Democrats have used as a political bludgeon for years.

“I’m well past the point of trying to understand what, if any, strategy is behind anything this administration does,” one Democratic aide said. “It most definitely does not outline party priorities, as evident by the reaction from the base. And it most definitely doesn’t accomplish anything [in terms of] a long-term ‘deal’ because — news flash — he has tried all this before and it never got anywhere.

“The GOP has no interest in working with [Democrats] on anything,” the aide continued. “After a certain point, you’d think that the White House would change [things] up, but I guess we’re not there yet.”

According to a senior administration official late last week, the budget to be unveiled Wednesday is intended as more of an olive branch to Republicans than an outline of Obama’s view of the budget and economy.

“While this is not the president’s ideal deficit reduction plan, and there are particular proposals in this plan … that were key Republican requests and not the president’s preferred approach, this is a compromise proposal built on common ground and the president felt it was important to make it clear that the offer still stands,” the official said. “The president has made clear that he is willing to compromise and do tough things to reduce the deficit, but only in the context of a package like this one that has balance and includes revenues from the wealthiest Americans and that is designed to promote economic growth.”

But that posture has put congressional Democrats in an awkward position this week as they prepare to face questions about their support for the president’s framework after most of them have already voted for budget resolutions put forward separately in the House and Senate.

“I think most people just see this as the starting point for talks on the debt ceiling and this being their attempt to stakeout their bargaining position. Simple as that,” another Democratic aide said.

But Sen. Bernard Sanders, for example, slammed the president for making concessions on Social Security by considering a change to the way inflation is calculated, known as “chained CPI.” Using a new formula of inflation would reduce future payments for Social Security.

The Vermont independent said in a statement late last week that he was “terribly disappointed” with Obama’s decision to include such provisions in his plan and said he would do “everything in [his] power to block President Obama’s proposal to cut benefits for Social Security recipients.”

While most Democrats have largely tried to keep their annoyance quiet, some Republicans have said the president’s budget gives them hope that they might be able to work with him on spending matters.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday that he was pleased the president “is showing a little bit of leg” on entitlements. Of course, Obama has proposed entitlement changes before and been rebuffed by Republicans.

“There are nuggets of his budget I think are optimistic. It’s overall a bad plan for the economy, but when you look at chained CPI and Medicare reductions, we’re beginning to set the stage for the grand bargain,” Graham said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This is somewhat encouraging.”

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