Democrats unify around Obama budget

House, Senate plans embrace key priorities

By David Espo and Andrew Taylor
Associated Press / March 26, 2009
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WASHINGTON - In a show of unity, congressional Democrats welcomed President Obama to the Capitol yesterday and unveiled budget blueprints that embrace his key priorities and point the way for major legislation this year on healthcare, energy, and education.

Even so, both the House and Senate versions lack specifics for any of the administration's signature proposals. And Democrats decided to cut spending - and exploding deficits - below levels envisioned in the plan Obama presented less than a month ago.

Administration officials and congressional leaders insisted that any differences were modest; White House budget director Peter Orszag told reporters while the plans "may not be identical twins . . . they are certainly brothers that look an awful lot alike."

"This budget will protect President Obama's priorities - education, energy, healthcare, middle-class tax relief, and cut the deficit in half," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after Obama met privately with rank-and-file Democrats.

Neither house included the $250 billion that the administration seeks for any future financial industry bailout. Additionally, Senate Democrats assume in their version that Obama's middle class tax cuts will expire after 2010, and the House blueprint allocates $200 billion less to tax cuts over five years than the president's.

But none of that means the tax cuts cannot be kept in place in 2011 and beyond, only that lawmakers would have to find offsetting revenue to pay for them, said Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

The House and Senate plans both call for spending $3.6 trillion in the year that begins Oct. 1, according to the Congressional Budget Office, compared with $3.7 trillion for Obama's plan.

The House plan foresees a deficit of $1.2 trillion for 2010 but would cut that to $598 billion after five years. The comparable Senate estimates are $1.2 trillion in 2010 and $508 billion in 2014. Obama's budget would leave a deficit of $1.4 trillion in five years' time, according to congressional estimates, a level that is viewed by numerous experts as unacceptable over time if the economy is to recover and remain healthy.

Given the strong Democratic congressional majorities in both houses, there is little or no doubt the spending blueprints can clear both houses by the end of next month. But Republicans greeted them with criticism nonetheless.

Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, said the president had laid out a "blueprint to move the government dramatically to the left . . . hard left."

Gregg, the senior Republican on the Budget Committee, added that Democrats were masking the true deficits left by their plans by leaving out the cost of legislation that is politically essential.

In the House, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, said Democrats were advancing "the president's high-cost, big-government agenda in camouflage."

House Republicans are expected to unveil an alternative today. No similar effort is expected in the Senate.

Yesterday, House Budget Committee Democrats batted down on party-line votes a host of GOP amendments to curb spending, preserve tax cuts for wealthier taxpayers and small businesses, and oppose Obama's plans to curb greenhouse gases.

The budget is largely a nonbinding statement of targets for lawmakers to meet as they look ahead to the next fiscal year.

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