Dems embrace 'tough-love' budget, aim criticism at GOP spending plans

House Democrats have embraced President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal despite a host of cuts to programs long championed by party leaders. 

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Pell Grants for education, state clean-water funding and heating assistance for low-income households are among the popular programs facing the ax.

Still, Democratic leaders on Monday rallied behind the proposal, arguing that it strikes the right balance between fiscal responsibility and economic development.

The initial praise is an early indication that Democrats are hoping to downplay any budgetary disagreements with the White House and concentrate their criticism on the Republicans’ spending plans.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, called the proposal a “tough-love budget” — one that recognizes that current spending levels are unsustainable but “doesn’t do violence” to education and research programs Democrats consider vital to the economy. 

Rep. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.), the No. 2 Democrat on the Budget panel, delivered a similar message, telling reporters the president’s plan represents “a strong, serious proposal for reducing the deficit and investing in the future.” 

“The cuts are targeted and the investments are targeted,” she said.

The House Democratic Caucus will gather Tuesday morning for a meeting largely focused on the president’s budget. Party leaders are anticipating some push-back from rank-and-file members over the proposed spending cuts. Rep. Jess Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), for instance, slammed Obama’s budget as something “right from the Republican plan.”

“The president’s budget looks like it is straight out of President Reagan’s ‘starve the beast’ strategy,” Jackson said. “Instead of cutting vital programs for the neediest, which will literally leave poor people in the cold, we should be focusing on ending unemployment.”

Van Hollen conceded that some Democrats will likely object to some of the proposed cuts, but he also warned colleagues that opposition alone won’t be enough: Lawmakers will have to offer alternatives to keep intact Obama’s proposal to freeze discretionary spending over the next five years. 

The Maryland Democrat said he has concerns with the cuts in state clean-water programs. But on top of his criticism, he added, “I would have the responsibility to identify an off-setting cut elsewhere.”

As of Monday night, however, it remained unclear whether House Democrats will offer their own comprehensive budget plan, or fall back on the White House proposal as their starting point for the year’s coming budget debate. 

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) welcomed Obama’s proposal, saying it “takes critical steps” toward reducing deficits and growing the economy.

Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) issued a statement Monday blasting the Republicans’ proposal to cut tens of billions of dollars in federal spending through September. That bill, Hoyer charged, “would make indiscriminate and shortsighted cuts to the investments our economy needs to stay competitive.”

With its “cut-and-invest” strategy, the White House budget blueprint marks a sharp departure from the Democrats’ stimulus efforts of the past two years, when new spending was not accompanied by cuts elsewhere in the budget. The proposal — which also includes a series of tax hikes on corporations and wealthy Americans — would reduce deficit spending by $1.1 trillion over a decade, while still piling $7.2 trillion onto the federal debt. 

Highlighting the difficulty facing Democratic leaders as they try to sell the blueprint to voters and lawmakers alike, groups from both ends of the political spectrum are already slamming different aspects of the proposal.

“Every proposed cut to necessary programs like Pell Grants and heating for low-income seniors needs to be judged in the context of the unnecessary tax cuts for Wall Street millionaires that passed at the end of last year,” Adam Green, head of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Proposing even more tax breaks for Wall Street banks while slashing and burning necessary government programs is right-wing radicalism, and no Democratic president should be part of it.” 

Conservatives maintain the White House budget places too many burdens on businesses amid a jobs crisis, when resources would be better spent on hiring. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office who now heads the American Action Forum, said the Obama plan would lead to “more spending, higher taxes and crushing debt.”

“Today’s budget ignores recommendations from his own Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and offers little more than a cosmetic reworking of last year’s irresponsible plan,” Holtz-Eakin said in a statement. “The past two years are proof positive that we can’t spend our way to a recovery.”

Van Hollen rejected such criticism, noting that all the House Republicans sitting on the White House deficit commission — Reps. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Dave Camp (Mich.) — voted against that panel’s recommendations. 

Blaming Obama for ignoring provisions opposed by Republicans is nothing short of “political opportunism,” Van Hollen charged.

White House budget director Jack Lew is scheduled to testify before the House Budget panel on Tuesday.

This story was first posted at 2:14 p.m. and updated at 8:51 p.m.