WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's budget proposal faces a difficult road in Congress, as Democrats struggle to balance Obama's call for quick help for the economy, which liberals champion, along with moderates' demands for immediate steps to curb long-term spending.
Congress will begin formally considering the $3.83 trillion fiscal 2011 budget proposal on Tuesday, when Budget Director Peter Orszag is scheduled to testify before the Senate Budget Committee in the morning and the House of Representatives budget panel in the afternoon.
"Democrats are conflicted," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan budget watchdog group. "The liberal impulse is to spend more to boost the economy. On the other hand, there's been this inclination to preserve the image of fiscal responsibility Democrats have built since the Clinton years."
Congress' first major budget vote is supposed to come by April 15, the deadline for approval of a budget outline. Once that's done, Congress' appropriations committees use the guideline to write a dozen separate spending bills, each covering a different subject area, that specify how money will be spent.
Those bills are supposed to be passed by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, though that rarely happens. It's those bills, however, that will become the flashpoints throughout this year for disagreements that could hamstring Democratic efforts to look fiscally responsible.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the chairman of the Budget Committee, said party leaders will try to balance all interests.
"We know that economic weakness continues and that our debt is growing. Addressing that requires a two-part strategy, one for the near-term and one for the long-term," he said.
Finding consensus will be tough however. Already, there's a dispute over Obama's call for a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has suggested including military contracting in the freeze, but Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is cool to that.
Then there are parochial interests that often mean more spending, particularly in a congressional election year.
"I thank the president for his recommendations, but Congress writes the budget. I intend to support measures to reduce the deficit but fight many of the president's proposed cuts that will harm farmers, ranchers and rural communities," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats.
In the House, 52 Blue Dog Democrats, a coalition of centrists, offered similar declarations of independence. They, along with Senate moderates, are taking the lead in pushing for long-term solutions this year. Their votes are crucial in any budget roll call. It takes 60 votes to cut off Senate debate, and once Massachusetts Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown is sworn in, probably next week, the Democrats will control 59 seats.
In the House, Democrats control 256 seats, meaning if 39 of their members bolt the party on any roll call, they've lost a majority. Last month, 38 Democrats voted against a heavily lobbied party plan to create jobs because it would have increased the deficit.
Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., a Blue Dog leader, is seeking what he regards as an honest discussion of the budget outlook, and he and others will be looking for that in the days ahead as they quiz administration officials. Among his proposals is establishing "results-oriented budgeting: that sets goals and performance targets for agencies, and measures their results, much like a small business."
The Blue Dogs want to create a tough commission to recommend ways to cut the federal deficit and debt. The Senate last week came within seven votes of approving such a commission, as 36 Democrats were joined by one independent and 16 Republicans, but still fell short of the 60 votes needed.
Creating such a commission could be the price liberals have to pay to get short-term deficit spending — an option that may explain why congressional leaders offered carefully worded statements Monday vowing to consider budget solutions that would satisfy all sides.
Inouye, for instance, issued a sobering reminder that his committee "has a responsibility to address the immediate challenges facing the American people during these difficult economic times, while also recognizing the long-term economic threat posed by the national debt."
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