President Barack Obama plans to unveil a three-year freeze on all discretionary spending in an attempt to address growing concerns about the size of the nation's debt.
The freeze will cover about one-sixth of the federal budget, touching such areas as housing, health and human services, energy and agriculture. Money spent on defense, entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and homeland security would be exempt, White House officials said.
Obama's drastic move comes as voters and lawmakers alike are eying the $1.4-trillion federal deficit with increasing concern. A proposal under consideration in the Senate would establish a bipartisan debt-reduction commission with the ability to recommend to Congress drastic cuts in long-untouched programs or new fees to raise much-needed revenue. But while the president supports that plan -- and has floated the possibility of an executive order to create it -- it remains unclear whether lawmakers are as enthusiastic.
The president's freeze could also score as many political opponents as it does supporters. But it is likely to be especially popular among centrist Democrats, who have made deficit reduction their signature issue.
House Republicans downplayed the impact of the proposed spending freeze, which wouldn't apply to emergency spending bills like the job creation bill that Democrats and Obama is pushing for. Democrats also passed the $787 billion stimulus as an emergency spending bill last year.
"Given Washington Democrats’ unprecedented spending binge, this is like announcing you’re going on a diet after winning a pie-eating contest," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
An Obama administration official pushed back against GOP criticism of the freeze, noting that non-security discretionary spending increased by $190 billion, or 90 percent, when Republicans held the House from 1995 to 2006.
"Ironic that they are being critical of our efforts to freeze spending in the accounts that they almost doubled," the administration official said.
However, White House officials were careful to note Monday that not every aspect of discretionary spending would experience a cut in next year's budget. Some areas, healthcare especially, could see slight increases as a result of pending legislation, while others could be cut to offset those new expenses, administration officials suggested.
"So while there's an overall freeze it doesn't mean that every single program or every single agency is frozen. It's a more sophisticated and nuanced approach than that," one senior administration official said Monday.
The freeze marks a slight departure from the president's 2008 campaign rhetoric. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed a more aggressive, across-the-board spending freeze, Obama described the plan as "using a hatchet where you need a scalpel."