By Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; A04
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.
Senior Democratic aides said finding votes for the tax and war bills will be tough enough without an additional $23 billion in deficit spending for teachers. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will offer the teacher money as an amendment during Senate debate, but Democratic aides said the provision has no chance of passing.
"At some point we have to pivot" away from saving the economy and start reducing the deficit, said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). But he argued that the teacher initiative is "is the wrong place to do it," saying it would make more sense to "help teachers now" and lay down plans to deal with the deficit later, in part by increasing the federal estate tax. After the meeting with Summers, Casey's Senate colleagues disagreed.
Another fight is brewing over Pentagon spending. Last week, the House Armed Services Committee voted 59 to 0 to approve a bill that would continue funding for an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called the engine "unnecessary" and said he has "strongly recommended" that Obama veto legislation that would keep it alive.
On Friday, White House officials told House Democratic leadership aides that the threat from Gates was serious and urged them to omit the project from the bill. They also warned that Obama on Monday will begin to push for special "rescission" authority to cut pet projects, known as earmarks, from spending bills. Rescission -- a modified version of the line-item veto, which was ruled unconstitutional in 1998 -- would expand executive-branch power over spending and has long been controversial on Capitol Hill.
Increasingly, the battle over spending is also taking on a partisan edge. House Republicans recently launched "YouCut," a Web site that asks visitors to help target programs for elimination. GOP lawmakers want to force weekly votes on items that get the most clicks, such as the temporary welfare program that was last week's winner.
Senate Republicans are engaged in a similar, if less populist, effort, dispatching Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) to come up with $100 billion in cuts to help pay for the tax and war bills that Senate leaders want to approve before they leave town this weekend for the Memorial Day break.
And in the aftermath of the attempted Times Square bombing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano chastised New York lawmakers -- including Rep. Peter T. King (R) -- for seeking an increase in anti-terrorism aid. Napolitano noted that $275 million in port and transit security funding for the region was still sitting, unspent, in federal accounts.