WASHINGTON — Members of Congress headed home this weekend for a holiday recess without any Democratic plan for reducing trillions of dollars in federal budget deficits over the next decade, and Republicans won't let them forget it.
President Barack Obama's fiscal 2012 budget plan doesn't seriously attack the deficit; it would add $7.1 trillion to the national debt over 10 years. The budget by Democrats in the House of Representatives would add $7.5 trillion over 10 years. And Senate Democrats haven't produced any budget at all.
GOP lawmakers think they have a terrific issue in this to take to the voters, one that could even help cool the fire that's raging from the Democrats' charge that the Republican plan to end Medicare in its current form is an assault on seniors.
The GOP Medicare plan would change the program from direct government payments to health care providers for services to seniors; instead, it would offer subsidies for seniors to purchase private health insurance.
One veteran analyst, Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, said the two issues wouldn't have the same impact on the public, however.
"It's good to return fire, but it doesn't ease the concerns of seniors most aggrieved by the Republican proposal," he said.
Just before the House voted on the Republican budget that included revamping Medicare, a McClatchy-Marist poll found that 80 percent of Americans opposed cuts in Medicare.
Still, Republicans say that before this year is over, Democrats will have to accept some cuts in Medicare, a major driver of projected deficits. In addition, GOP lawmakers say, Democrats will have to explain how they'll cut other programs in order to reduce deficits that are projected to reach $1.5 trillion this fiscal year and more than $7 trillion over the next 10 years.
"I think we have to ask at this point: What is the Senate Democratic plan to do something about the most predictable crisis in American history? We're waiting for it," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"They cannot run from the issue," added Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Senate Budget Committee Republican.
Senate Republicans sent a letter Thursday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., saying that the Senate — which isn't due to convene again until June 6 — should stay in Washington to consider budgets.
"The Senate plans to adjourn for a weeklong recess on Friday to coincide with Memorial Day, a holiday that honors our men and women in uniform," they wrote. "As our service members put their lives on the line to defend this nation, surely the least Congress can do is produce a plan to confront the debt that is placing the whole country at risk.''
Conservatives also point out that the public's regard for Congress — the Republican-led House and the Democratic-run Senate — remains unusually low. A May 5-8 Gallup poll found that 24 percent approved of the job lawmakers were doing while 70 percent disapproved.
"Americans believe bickering members of Congress (of both parties) care more about their jobs than those of suffering Americans," said Mark Meckler, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, a grass-roots conservative group.
Democrats dismissed the Republican budget complaint.
"People aren't that concerned about whether we write a budget in April or July," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
What matters most are the bipartisan congressional talks, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, that have been under way for three weeks, Conrad said. The public should understand that budget-writers are methodically engaged in a lengthy process, he said.
Last year's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform "did the seed work for the Biden effort," Conrad said. As government borrowing authority wanes — it's expected to run out by Aug. 2 — there'll be a "grand bargain" on budgets between Democrats and Republicans, he said, probably sometime in July.
"This is a normal bargaining process," he said, especially when control of the government is divided between two parties.
Meanwhile, Democrats plan to keep saying that Republicans are being cruel to the elderly. Democrats claimed an important triumph Tuesday when Kathy Hochul, who railed against GOP Medicare proposals, won an upstate New York congressional race in a traditionally Republican district.
There's growing evidence that some Republicans are less eager to embrace the Medicare plan that Republicans passed in the House. Five Republican senators voted this week against the House budget, which included the controversial Medicare plan.
McConnell said he didn't see Medicare remaining a volatile issue if the Biden talks succeeded.
"Anything we agree to do together will not be an issue in next year's election," he said.
Meanwhile, Republicans have a political problem, and Miringoff doesn't think it'll be neutralized by their demands for a Democratic budget.
"That gives them (Republicans) some political cover," Miringoff said. "But Medicare really struck at the heart of a senior population that Republicans had been cultivating."
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