Lawmakers cold on Obama's freeze

President Barack Obama’s proposal to freeze government spending is turning out to be a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

His liberal base warned Tuesday the three-year cap on most non-defense discretionary spending could hamper an economic recovery. Conservatives dismissed it as insufficient and just for show.

ADVERTISEMENT
Even the bipartisan group of lawmakers who praised Obama’s plan, most of them centrists, questioned whether he has the fortitude to veto plump spending bills that fail to adhere to the limits he has set. They also wonder if he will take further steps to rein in the $12.3 trillion federal debt.

Top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), offered tepid support for Obama’s plan, saying it wasn’t enough.

“Of course I’m glad, but now there’s got to be spending cuts,” said McCain, who called for a discretionary spending freeze during the 2008 presidential debates. “They’ve added nearly 20 percent in spending in the past year. So a freeze is the right thing to do, but we’ll have to see how it gets implemented.”

Some of the harshest criticism has come from the left, where interest groups and commentators have blasted the president for limiting spending during an economic recession. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said the proposal is similar to the kind of strategy “Herbert Hoover used in the ’30s to make the depression great.”

Liberal lawmakers also expressed strong objections.

“I’m just concerned that in a recessionary time, you don’t pull back government,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “What does that mean for job growth?”

The White House leaked the proposal two days ahead of the president’s first State of the Union address, in which Obama is expected to formally announce the plan. With the president’s top legislative priority — healthcare reform — in flux and polls showing increasing public dissatisfaction with Washington’s handling of the economy, Obama is turning to a new, more populist agenda focusing on middle-class and independent voters.

Most senior Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), withheld their backing for the proposed freeze, saying they needed to see details.

The strongest backing in Congress has come from centrists.

“I think it [sends] a very important signal that the government is getting serious about getting its own house in order,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

The freeze, as Obama administration officials described it Monday, would last from 2011 to 2013 and would apply to discretionary spending unrelated to the military, foreign operations, veterans’ affairs and homeland security. It also wouldn’t affect entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

It would keep spending levels at the affected departments at about $447 billion, about an eighth of the entire 2010 federal budget.

The administration said the freeze would lead to $250 billion in savings over the next 10 years.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the government’s official fiscal scorekeeper, said Tuesday that the government faces a “daunting” fiscal future. The 2010 federal budget deficit will be $1.35 trillion, nearly as large as last year’s record $1.4 trillion budget shortfall, and deficits will average $600 billion over the next decade, according to CBO’s budget outlook.

“U.S. fiscal policy is on an unsustainable path to an extent that cannot be solved by minor tinkering,” said CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf.

ADVERTISEMENT
He warned large amounts of debt often crowd out private investment, hampering worker productivity and income.

But the CBO report also gave ammo to those on the left concerned about cutting back on spending while the unemployment rate remains high.

The unemployment rate will average more than 10 percent for the first half of this year and then decline at a slower pace than in past recoveries, the CBO said. The jobless rate won’t return to a sustainable level of 5 percent until 2014, the budget office predicted.

Lawmakers were questioning the spending freeze on the same day senators rejected a bipartisan fiscal commission that would make recommendations to reduce deficits. The amendment, which required 60 votes to be adopted, failed on a 53-46 vote.

White House officials acknowledged the freeze wouldn’t fix the country’s red ink problem but would show the government is concerned about it.

“The president made these decisions like a family would sitting around the dinner table,” a senior administration official said. “It can’t spend more money than it has ... it has to make some decisions about what is vital.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged Tuesday that the administration could face a fight over spending levels, but he pushed back against suggestions that a freeze would slow down the economy.

“The president does not believe, the economic team does not believe that the overall macroeconomic effect would impact the recovery efforts,” Gibbs said during his daily press briefing.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) backed Obama’s call for a spending freeze and called for legislation that would “codify” the freeze to make sure lawmakers would adhere to it.

“No more tricks,” Bayh said. “The American people want responsible federal government.”

Bayh, who has partnered with McCain on legislation, is seeking a freeze on non-security discretionary spending until the federal budget is balanced. That freeze would also put a moratorium on earmarks until the deficit is eliminated and give the president a line-item veto to strike out wasteful earmark spending.

GOP senators who have blasted Obama for backing big-ticket items, such as the $787 billion stimulus and the bailouts of banks and the auto industry, said his spending freeze will do little to fix the economy.

“To me it’s totally meaningless,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “But it’s obvious why he’s doing it. The idea is smart: He’s going to try to make people think he’s concerned about spending, which he isn’t.”


Jordan Fabian contributed to this article.