After State of Union, will Congress go along with Obama?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 27, 2010 

President Barack Obama addresses Congress.

ROBERT GIROUX / MCT

WASHINGTON — Any glow from President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Wednesday is unlikely to translate into dramatic congressional action anytime soon.

The tone in Congress was more somber and conciliatory than it's been in recent years.

Republicans stood and applauded when Obama urged cooperation to improve health care coverage, tackle the debt crisis and restore public confidence in government, but the challenges for lawmakers, most of whom face re-election in November, are daunting.

They're scrambling to figure out how to take bold, even historic steps to ease the government's growing fiscal crisis — while it's fighting two wars, trying to rescue the economy and seeking ways to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent.

The congressional effort will continue Thursday, when the Senate is scheduled to vote on a series of budget-cutting steps, while Republicans from the House of Representatives head to Baltimore for a two-day retreat. Obama will address the Republican session Friday.

Taking meaningful action to slice the projected $1.35 trillion fiscal 2010 deficit will be difficult, however, because lawmakers remain reluctant to cut favored programs and raise taxes — especially in an election year — and they also are uncertain how to act in an increasingly tense political climate.

"The most important thing you can have between a president and legislature is trust, and I don't think the trust is there," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a former mayor of Cleveland, a heavily Democratic city.

There were signs Wednesday that lawmakers from both sides want to try.

Both sides cheered when Obama said, "We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years." They stood and clapped when the president said that if anyone had "a better approach" to revamping health care, "let me know." They offered warm applause for his call for a "clean energy economy."

"Tonight, President Obama outlined a welcome, although small step toward fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.

Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa, a Blue Dog Democrat, said he liked Obama's fiscal message but questioned whether it would attract GOP support. "They feel from the electoral perspective, they have things going the way they want it to go," he said. "Why change?"

Democrats will control 59 of the 100 Senate seats when Republican Scott Brown replaces Democrat Paul Kirk as the successor to the late Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Democrats also hold 256 of the 435 House seats.

Many Democratic centrists — the 52 House "Blue Dogs," mostly from Southern and Rocky Mountain states, plus eight to 10 senators — are growing increasingly nervous about their re-election prospects, however. Last month, 38 House Democrats opposed a Democratic job-creation plan largely because it would increase the federal budget deficit.

Tuesday, the Blue Dogs offered a 15-point budget plan calling for restoring pay-as-you-go rules, limiting discretionary spending, passing a constitutional amendment to require Congress to balance the budget by 2020 and closing tax loopholes.

Obama will submit his fiscal 2011 budget to Congress on Monday. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated this week that deficits will average $600 billion annually for the rest of the decade, while the national debt will grow to 67 percent of the gross domestic product by 2020. Such huge national debts traditionally slow economic growth.

Despite all the warnings, members of both parties face a familiar obstacle: reluctance to cut their favorite programs.

Obama's call for a three-year freeze on discretionary non-security spending, which would barely make a dent in the deficit, hasn't been enthusiastically received.

Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was circumspect. "We have to make sure we have money to take care of the . . . police, fire. We have all kinds of programs I'll look at very closely, but I mention two of those that are extremely important to me," he said.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a leading moderate, called the freeze "a good start," one that could be a building block to more serious efforts.

"The key question is whether there will be bipartisan support for that and other measures," he said.

That was unclear Wednesday. Republicans stayed in their seats, while Democrats cheered when Obama got specific about how he proposes to control spending, create that clean energy economy or overhaul health care.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he left Obama's speech "seeing areas where there's common ground to be found."

He was skeptical, however, about the president's proposed federal spending freeze, saying it's limited to a small part of the budget.

Many Republicans have a different fiscal priority — extending the Bush administration tax cuts that will begin to expire at the end of this year.

"I was pleased to hear President Obama acknowledge that our economy must be a national priority, and I applaud him for taking some important first steps," said Massachusetts' Brown. "But putting America back to work requires bold action. Bold action means broad-based tax cuts for families and businesses to create jobs, and not merely targeted tax relief."

Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the CBO, estimated Wednesday that extending the tax reductions, along with adjusting the alternative minimum tax for inflation, could add $4.5 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years.

Asked how that money would be made up, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., repeated the long-held Republican mantra that tax cuts spur economic growth, which in turn means more government revenue and less spending. McConnell couldn't cite an economic model to support his assertion, and even the Bush administration's Treasury Department acknowledged that tax cuts reduce more government revenue than they generate.

The next test of whether Congress will make tough choices is expected Thursday, when the Senate is expected to vote on a plan authored by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. They propose to permit only small increases in spending for the next five years. Under their plan, it would take 67 votes to waive the restrictions.

The bipartisan effort, another in a recent series of proposals to limit spending, provides fresh evidence that Congress is searching for solutions, and wants Obama to help.

"Policies announced in a speech are only words until they are implemented and enforced," Sessions said. "Given the crisis at hand, we need budget rules that have the force of law."

(Allison Stice and Sananda Sahoo contributed to this article.)

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