In Congress, spending measures meet bipartisan resistance

By Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

Congress is headed for a showdown this week over government spending, an issue that is dividing Democrats as lawmakers prepare to face voters still hurting from the recession but also angry about the huge cost of federal efforts to revive the economy.

After delivering key pieces of President Obama's first-term agenda, Democratic leaders will be turning to the more mundane work of passing budget bills and renewing tax breaks set to expire. Ordinarily, they would have little trouble drumming up votes.

But they are facing stiff resistance in both chambers of Congress, not only from Republicans but also within their own ranks. With midterm elections looming and Republicans blaming Democrats for a national debt bloated by the downturn and its aftermath, many lawmakers are unwilling to sign off on more spending.

"It's time to start paying for things," said Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), a freshman who voted for last year's economic stimulus bill but said she is likely to oppose the next spending package, scheduled to hit the House floor Tuesday. "We've done some good things, but one of the best things we could do right now is get control of our fiscal house."

With the national debt at its highest level in nearly 60 years, the question of whether to cut spending -- and if so, how -- is pitting liberals against conservatives, and Congress against the president. The White House has proposed a three-year freeze in programs unrelated to national security and warned House leaders Friday that it might go further, targeting the Defense Department for cuts. Meanwhile, House leaders unable to agree on a long-term budget blueprint are considering other ways to signal fiscal toughness, including a one-year budget plan that would cut 2011 spending even more deeply than Obama's freeze.

"We're going to adopt that and may go farther," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the House leadership.

Still, House leaders view the spending package scheduled to reach the floor Tuesday as must-pass legislation, saying it would shore up support among key constituencies heading into the November elections. In addition to renewing a laundry list of popular tax credits and deductions, the measure would extend unemployment benefits through the rest of this year and set aside $24 billion to help states close huge budget gaps without layoffs or new taxes. The package would also direct nearly $6 billion to finance summer jobs and settle discrimination lawsuits against the Agriculture Department -- both are top priorities among black lawmakers.

Congressional budget analysts have yet to calculate the price of the package, but senior Democratic aides said it could approach $200 billion, most of it unpaid for by new revenue. Among the big-ticket items is a proposal to postpone until 2014 a scheduled pay cut for doctors who see Medicare patients. While many members favor the delay, its $65 billion cost is causing heartburn in both parties.

Many Democrats also are scrutinizing emergency spending on the economy. Dahlkemper, facing a well-funded Republican car dealer in the blue-collar district she seized from the GOP in 2008, said businesses back home complain that they want to start hiring but are getting few applicants because Congress has repeatedly extended unemployment benefits.

"Now, whether that's true or not, I'm still trying to decipher," she said. "But I think it's something we really need to look at."

While the House grapples with the tax bill, the Senate will focus this week on a $60 billion war bill that would finance an additional 30,000 troops for the conflict in Afghanistan. The Obama administration is urging lawmakers to add $23 billion in that bill to help cash-strapped officials avoid laying off up to 300,000 public school teachers this summer.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has argued that teacher layoffs would not only create hardships for dismissed educators and their students but also "create a new drag on the economy" at a time when unemployment is hovering near 10 percent. White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers called the money "very important" after meeting with Senate Democrats last week.

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