President Obama’s new budget director took a lashing Tuesday from Senate Republicans who accused him of aiding and abetting a deceptive spending request.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, interrogated Jeff Zients about whether Obama’s 2013 budget would actually increase federal spending over the next decade rather than cut $4 trillion from the deficit, as the administration claims.
When Zients replied that he’s confident in the $4 trillion figure under Obama’s measuring stick, Sessions suggested he should resign.
“Let me ask you this: If you are incorrect, if you are incorrect in saying that you do not increase spending more than current law, would you consider resigning your office?
“I am disappointed that we can’t get an honest response to these difficult questions at this important time in our history,” Sessions said.
When Zients responded again with baseline spending assumptions, Sessions pounced.
“Mr. Zients, there is no spending reduction in this budget!”
Later, a red-faced Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the Budget Committee’s chairman, came to Zients’s defense and said witnesses must be allowed to answer questions. When Sessions tried to speak again, Conrad pounded the gavel.
Sessions, the panel’s ranking Republican, said the GOP wanted yes-or-no answers.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is considered more conciliatory than Sessions, cut off Zients several times during his questioning and accused him of reciting talking points from the White House.
Portman, a former budget chief under President George W. Bush, asked Zients if he agrees with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) position that there is no need to pass a new budget resolution in the upper chamber.
“I think the mechanics and the process are not my area of expertise,” Zients said.
“I take that as a ‘no,’ ” Portman quipped, followed by a reprimand from Conrad for not allowing a full reply.
It was a rough debut for Zients, who assumed the director position earlier this month, after Jack Lew left the Office of Management and Budget to become Obama’s chief of staff.
Zients stood by Obama’s spending plan throughout the hearing as Republicans peppered him with questions.
Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) tried to pin Zients down on what exactly a “fair share” of taxes would be for the wealthy, given Obama’s call to raise their taxes.
Johnson asked Zients whether Democrats would be satisfied if Obama’s budget were enacted, and “never come to us again saying the rich have to pay their fair share.”
The Wisconsin senator produced a chart showing that the 2012 Obama budget would have spent $46 trillion over 10 years, while the 2013 version spends $47 trillion. To claim progress on spending cuts, he declared, is “smoke and mirrors.”
While the prosecutorial questioning did not move Zients off the administration’s line, it appeared that softer questioning did.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) asked for the administration’s plan to stop Medicare from reaching bankruptcy in the mid-2020s.
After Zients said Medicare needs to “increase its productivity, decrease variation in care which results in poor healthy outcomes … while preserving the compact,” Ayotte replied that there clearly is no administration plan.
Ayotte pointed out that the Obama budget would increase the $15 trillion debt to nearly $26 trillion by 2022.
“How are my children going to repay $26 trillion?” she said.
Zients conceded that the budget is not an “end state” on deficit reduction.
“It is a major milestone. … There is obviously more work ahead,” he said.
The appearance is a foretaste of the treatment Zients is likely to receive Wednesday at the House Budget Committee. That panel’s chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), labeled Obama’s budget a “recipe for a debt crisis and the decline of America.”
Other Cabinet members will head to Capitol Hill in the coming weeks to testify on the budget. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was grilled at Senate Finance on Tuesday and will appear before the House Budget panel on Thursday.
— Posted at 1:03 p.m. and updated at 8:13 p.m.