Freshman Dems seeking action on the rising deficit

Freshman Democrats, worried that the ballooning budget deficit is stoking voter anxiety, are urging House leaders to put forward a “credible” plan this year to cut it.

They say the need is urgent and a serious deficit-reduction measure must be added by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders to an already jam-packed legislative agenda.

“My constituents are very concerned about the deficit,” said freshman Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), elected with 47 percent of the vote in a swing district last year. “This is really starting to resonate.”

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Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), the 2008 Democratic class president, said, “This really is a high priority for our class. We have to come up with our own deficit-reduction plan that is credible.”

The push comes the same week the federal deficit for the year inched over $1 trillion for the first time ever. The administration has projected a $1.84 trillion deficit for the fiscal year ending in October.

Freshman Democrats were campaigning as Congress approved a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street. Their first big vote was on President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, and they later voted on a $410 billion omnibus spending bill left over from the last Congress.

All that spending has the Democratic class of 2008 feeling significant pressure to show they are serious about eventually applying the brakes.

Senior Democratic aides are torn on how to handle their new members’ desire to hit the deficit more head-on.

“The freshmen obviously have a very deep and legitimate concern about the deficit,” one leadership aide said. “And it’s important that they are raising this issue, because not all members, on either side, are thinking about it. But it does seem like the public is.”

It’s also unclear exactly what freshmen want in a deficit-reduction program.

Connolly did not have a specific proposal in mind, but spoke openly of putting a “new kind of deficit reduction framework in place … that would have to have trigger-enforced mandatory spending cuts.”

Democratic leaders have been far from silent on the soaring deficit, arguing that they laid out a 10-year budget that will slash the deficit over the long run. They’ve said their healthcare bill will help close the budget gap by drastically bringing down the amount the government spends on healthcare in future years.

“They already have all the tools in place to make the argument that Democrats are doing all they can to reduce the deficit,” another leadership aide said. “Maybe leadership needs to do a better job showing them how to package this in a way that will resonate in their districts.”

Obama and Democratic leaders have also blamed President Bush for inheriting a surplus and turning it into a budget deficit, and have encouraged their freshmen to make the very same argument.

But there’s a concern among freshmen and other recently elected members that blaming Bush only gets Democrats so far.

“People are not focusing on what Bush did, they’re focusing on what we’re doing right now,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a third-termer.

Republicans readily agreed with that assessment.

“President Obama said [this week] that he takes responsibility for the economy, which is still losing jobs despite all the ‘stimulus’ spending, and that goes for House Democrats, too,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

As they fight off Republican charges of recklessly spending taxpayer dollars, House Democrats are preparing next week to bring up a long-awaited “pay as you go” bill that, if it can get through the Senate, will require Congress to find offsets for new expenditures.

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That will help, but it’s not enough for a number of freshmen.

“The deficit is a small part of a larger issue, which is our fiscal trajectory,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who is in a “likely Democratic” district, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Our unfunded liabilities make our deficit look like a rounding error.

“Right now I’m not a bit convinced that we’re where we need to be in addressing these issues,” Himes said.

A number of Democrats worry that an initiative spearheaded by Pelosi directing committee chairmen to offer proposals for cutting waste, fraud and abuse has fallen completely flat. At the same time, there has been increased chatter about the possibility of a second economic stimulus bill, which has been met with awkwardly mixed messages from Democratic leaders, who seem to be unsure of how to address the idea.

Medicare and Medicaid are largely driving the deficit, and Obama has indicated his desire to tackle entitlement reform after work is completed on energy and healthcare plans.

But addressing the tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security could make all of the infighting Democrats are facing on healthcare and energy look like child’s play — so much so that many of the most vocal deficit hawks in Congress have given up any hope of having Congress make the tough choices necessary to rein in entitlement spending.