Lawmakers' gripe: Obama's budget avoids big challenges

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 15, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's budget got a frosty and at times hostile reception Tuesday from Republicans as lawmakers complained bitterly that he failed to confront the spiraling cost of Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Some Democrats, notably Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., joined the chorus of skeptics, while Obama scrambled to defend his $3.73 trillion fiscal 2012 budget at a news conference.

"What we've done is we've taken a scalpel to the discretionary budget rather than a machete," Obama said, contending that just because he didn't propose plans for curbing entitlement spending didn't mean that he was ignoring the issue.

The president said such fixes could be achieved only through complex and prolonged bipartisan negotiations, not by unilateral presidential framing of a solution.

"If you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically it's not because there's an Obama plan out there; it's because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way," he said. He cited the 1983 partnership of President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill in fixing Social Security as a model of how to proceed.

While the Republican criticism was expected, it was laced with disappointment that the president hadn't been more conciliatory. Many Republicans liked Obama's willingness in December to compromise on tax cuts and his recent efforts to engage GOP leaders in policy talks.

But on Monday, Republicans were jolted by an Obama budget that raises taxes on some businesses and high-income people while adding $12.8 trillion to the gross national debt over the next 10 years.

Entitlements — so called because people are legally entitled to certain benefits, such as Social Security and Medicare — are a big reason that the debt will soar absent fixes.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last month estimated huge increases in the cost of the government's major mandatory health care programs — Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and health insurance subsidies to be provided through insurance exchanges starting in 2014 — along with Social Security.

The CBO figured that spending on them will increase from roughly 10 percent of the gross domestic product this year to about 16 percent over the next 25 years.

Throughout the day, House of Representatives and Senate Budget Committee members quizzed White House Budget Director Jacob Lew about Obama's failure to lay out a plan to control entitlement costs.

"We're all baffled that you haven't tackled the entitlements that are driving our long-range projections right off a cliff," said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.

Lew showed no emotion.

"I don't think it's fair to say we haven't dealt with entitlements," he said. "We haven't dealt completely with entitlements."

Lew countered that the immediate problem is to get federal spending on a path where deficits will be reduced; Obama's plan would cut projected deficits by $1.1 trillion over the next 10 years, though they'd still be enormous.

Even some Democrats found that unacceptable.

"The question many of us are struggling with is how do we get to the serious discussion of not only getting the debt stabilized ... just stabilizing it for 10 years at a level that's too high can't be the answer," Conrad said.

Lew patiently explained that stabilizing the current fiscal situation was the administration's top priority, but said that it certainly also was committed to tackling the bigger issues.

"I can't give you a date or time. . . . We have a lot of immediate issues facing us," Lew said.

Conrad wasn't satisfied with the answer.

"I don't hear a plan for how we get to a serious discussion," he said.

On the other hand, Republicans, who control the House, weren't offering any specific entitlement-control plan, either.

Asked whether a forthcoming House GOP alternative budget would include entitlement changes, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said, "I am not committing what's going to be in our budget because we haven't even written our budget yet."

Ryan for some time has promoted a "road map" for reducing deficits that includes a plan to allow workers younger than 55 to set up private accounts with part of the payroll tax they'd pay to Social Security. Former President George W. Bush spent 2005 promoting a similar plan, but it never proved popular and Congress ignored it.

At his news conference, Obama addressed the massive debt increase, blaming it largely on problems he's inherited.

"We still have all this accumulated debt as a consequence of the recession and as a consequence of a series of decisions that were made over the last decade. We've piled up — we've racked up — a whole bunch of debt. And there is a lot of interest on that debt," he said.

But at the House Budget Committee hearing, which took place as the president was speaking, the GOP ire wouldn't cool, as Lew kept referring to the importance of creating what he called "sustainable deficits."

"If our goal over the next 10 years is to just have sustainable deficits, we'll never pay down the debt," said Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.

Don't look at it that way, Lew urged. Getting down the debt "is not a simple process," he said. "We're not going to get there quickly."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told a news conference Tuesday: "When it comes to the real issues facing our country, the president punted."

ON THE WEB

President Obama's 2012 budget

Congressional Budget Office budget and economic outlook

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget road map

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For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

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