Dana Milbank
Opinion writer April 13, 2011

It was spitting rain outside the Capitol, but the Congressional Progressive Caucus opted not to move indoors for the launch of its new spending plan, “The People’s Budget.”

“We’re going to call forth the sun!” Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who is co-chair of the caucus, proclaimed theatrically. His colleagues huddled under umbrellas and the wind knocked their promotional poster from its easel.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Ellison and the progressives probably would have a better chance of influencing the weather than they would passing their budget, which they are floating as an alternative to the House Republican bid and President Obama’s plan.

Among the highlights: A $4 trillion tax increase over 10 years. An increase in the top tax rate to 49 percent. A $2.3 trillion cut in defense spending – and an increase in domestic spending. Oh, and they would revive the “public option” to offer government-run health care.

Even the most starry-eyed of the progressives know the proposal is as much of a non-starter as Paul Ryan’s House Republican plan, which requires only spending cuts and actually reduces taxes. The real target is President Obama, who the progressives fear will capitulate and negotiate a deal that cuts heavily into entitlements and social programs.

“It’s about time we started joining with our allies and marching and protesting and going to the White House!” exhorted Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) “You get my drift?”

Obama, who outlined his plan 90 minutes after the progressives unveiled theirs, may find their proposal useful because it gives him a far-left counterweight to the far-right Ryan plan. The president’s fiscal commission recommended a proportion of two-thirds spending cuts and one-third tax increases. Even Bob Greenstein of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says fifty-fifty would be a reasonable mix. The Progressive Caucus budget is 80 percent tax increases.

It’s difficult to evaluate the liberals’ dream scheme because they don’t make projections beyond 10 years (after which entitlement spending problems become larger), and, rather than having the proposal “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office, they used as their referee the Economic Policy Institute, a like-minded think tank.

Still, it gives a sense of how things would be if liberals ran the world: no cuts in Social Security benefits, government-negotiated Medicare drug prices, and increased income taxes and Social Security taxes for the wealthy. Corporations and investors would be hit with a variety of new fees and taxes. And the military would face a shock-and-awe accounting: a 22 percent cut in Army forces, 30 percent for Marines, 20 percent for the Navy and 15 percent for the airforce. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would end, and weapons programs would go begging.

The progressives, in their rollout, were not quite ready for prime time. The lawmakers and staffers kept poking each other with their umbrellas, and they found themselves competing with the whine of a Capitol tractor. Their oft-repeated slogan, “The People’s Budget,” conveyed an unhelpful association with “the people’s republic” and other socialist undertakings.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) announced that 30 members of Congress were fasting on Wednesday to “raise the level of awareness about the People’s Budget.” (A separate press conference highlighting the fast was called off; it was unclear whether this was because of rain, hunger or something else.)

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) suggested a more militaristic form of resistance. “We are the soldiers on the battlefield. We wear the armor of the People’s Budget,” she announced. She predicted that if the Republican budget becomes law, seniors in nursing homes “will be lifted out in stretchers and you’ll see them carried out one by one.”

But their ire was directed as much at their own president. “It’s not always a choice of compromising in the middle,” complained Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the Progressive Caucus co-chair, who convened the session wearing a tie that hung loose from his neck and ended five inches above his waistband.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs, who joined the lawmakers for the rollout, went Grijalva one further. “Unfortunately, the president is not in the middle on this. He’s to the right,” Sachs said.

So, if Obama is on the right, where does that leave the left? “This proposal is in the center,” Sachs maintained. “We have the far right, we have a president that is to the right of center, and we have a broad center that is represented by this proposal.”

The Progressive Caucus will win that argument, just as soon as they gain control of the weather. The drizzle, alas, did not let up.

danamilbank@washpost.com