By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009
Congressional Democrats have advanced a streamlined version of President Obama's first budget request, as committees in both chambers endorsed a $3.5 trillion spending plan that clears the way for lawmakers to pursue the president's most ambitious and costly initiatives.
Voting along party lines yesterday in the Senate and late Wednesday in the House, the budget panels agreed to support a spending blueprint that would generate a projected $1.2 trillion deficit in the fiscal year that begins in October, but would dramatically narrow the gap between spending and revenue as the economy recovers over the next five years.
While both chambers have trimmed spending compared with Obama's $3.6 trillion proposal, the Senate would cut more deeply, slicing $15 billion from the president's request for non-defense programs next year compared with $7 billion in the House. Deficits would remain elevated under both versions, however, forcing the nation to borrow nearly $4 trillion over the next five years.
"Given the financial mess we inherited, we are moving in the right direction," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
Republicans object that the spending plan, while pared back, would still drive the nation deeply into debt. "We don't think prosperity can be provided by a government that spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much," said Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
Democrats expect the blueprints to easily win approval of the full House and Senate next week. Even Senate Democrats who have complained about the massive deficits generated by Obama's policies are not likely to block the proposal.
A bigger fight is looming, however, over whether to use a powerful procedural maneuver to push Obama's signature health, education and clean energy initiatives through the Senate without any Republican votes. The House advocates the maneuver, known as reconciliation, in its budget plan, but influential Senate Democrats have joined Republicans in opposing the move and said they will fight to block it when the chambers meet to resolve their differences in a conference committee next month.
"That's going to be a real interesting negotiation," said Conrad, who argues that the reconciliation process was intended to make it easier to pass tax increases and spending cuts that reduce the deficit, not to ram significant policy changes through the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that he's not ready to "take anything off the table," and has suggested that reconciliation could be used to link Obama's two most contentious initiatives: health care reform, which is expected to cost more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years, and a tax on greenhouse gas-emitting industries, which is expected to generate at least $646 billion over the next decade. "That's exactly how much we need for the first phase of health-care reform," Reid told reporters Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made a strong pitch for the maneuver yesterday, saying "it is absolutely essential that we come out of this year with a substantial health-care reform."
"We want a robust initiative about prevention, about biomedical research, about health IT, about community health centers, reaching out, about personalized customized care," she said. "This is a big agenda, and . . . I think the best prospect for that to happen is to do it under reconciliation."