Dems join GOP criticism of budget

Democrats joined Republicans on Tuesday in criticizing President Obama’s budget request for doing too little to bring down the national debt. 

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) faulted Obama for not taking on entitlement reform, and during testimony by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jack Lew, suggested the administration was not being serious enough about reducing the deficit. 

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Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of Conrad’s panel, said Obama should have followed through on the recommendations of his own debt commission, which in December proposed nearly $4 trillion in cuts over the next decade that included reforms to Medicare,  Social Security and the tax code. 

Coons said the commission “laid out the kind of strong, broad vision that we need to take on not just the deficit but the debt.”

 “I think in large part, the strongest work of the commission is absent in this budget,” he said.

 Harsh criticism from House Republicans continued for a second day as Lew testified before both Conrad’s committee and the House Budget panel led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who will be writing his own budget for 2012. 

Ryan said Obama had squandered a prime opportunity to deal with the country’s “crippling burden of debt.”

 “Why did you duck?” Ryan asked Lew at the hearing. “Why did you not take this opportunity to lead?”

 Even the Democratic chairman of Obama’s debt commission, Erskine Bowles, said the White House budget request goes “nowhere near where they will have to go to resolve our fiscal nightmare,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

 The tough criticism left Obama playing defense. 

 At a surprise press conference on Tuesday, Obama defended his budget as a starting point and pleaded for patience. 

 “You guys are pretty impatient,” he told reporters. “If something doesn’t happen today, then the assumption is it's just not going to happen.”

Obama insisted the fact that his proposal did not include entitlement and tax reforms recommended by his debt commission only a month ago did not mean the panel’s proposals had been left to die. 

 “The notion that it has been shelved, I think, is incorrect,” Obama said.

The president also pressed the message that his proposal was a more responsible way of getting the budget deficit under control than what Republicans are offering.

 “What we have done is taken a scalpel to the discretionary budget. Not a machete,” said Obama. Hours later, OMB released a statement threatening a veto of the House GOP bill funding the government for the rest of fiscal 2011.

 Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ryan promised that when they offer a budget for 2012, it will include entitlement reforms. The promise came a day after Ryan had dodged the question of whether his budget would include such reform. 

While Conrad and other Democrats were not as tough on Obama, they suggested the president had failed to take the lead in coming up with a long-term solution to the deficit.

 Conrad, who announced his retirement last month to better focus on the budget crisis in his last two years in the Senate, said that while Obama’s budget stabilizes the deficit at 3 percent of GDP starting in 2017, that figure remains too high. 

 “You have to walk before you run,” said Lew, who directed OMB and helped balance the budget for President Clinton in the 1990s. 

“In that answer, I don’t hear a plan for how we get to a serious discussion. I hear the reasons for doing the budget proposal that is out there,” Conrad responded after telling Lew he respected the work he had done more than a decade ago. 

Conrad said he couldn’t accept the budget proposal unless he heard a way to move toward the discussion on the budget deficit that needs to happen. 

“It cannot be the answer that we are going to have a debt of over 100 percent of GDP,” he said. 

Republicans have accused the administration of using rosy economic scenarios and gimmicks to find $1.1 trillion in savings over the next decade. 

 Ryan said he does not buy the administration’s assumptions of 4 percent GDP growth by 2013, particularly if it raises taxes on multinationals and wealthier families after 2012, which Ryan believes would slow growth. 

Other Republicans on the panel said the budget assumes the U.S. will pay less interest on its debt to shrink the size of future annual deficits.

Lew replied that the top tax rate was higher in the Clinton administration and did not slow the robust economic growth of the 1990s.

Other Democrats on Conrad’s panel criticized the cuts Obama’s budget did make to a variety of programs. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) worried about cuts to the Great Lakes cleanup initiative, while Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) criticized the budget for cutting funding for NASA. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said that by not flatly removing Social Security benefits from the table, the president put the program’s benefits at risk.

In the House, Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sought to defend Obama and attack Republicans, whom he said were irresponsible in looking to slash at least $61 billion in discretionary spending this year. 

Van Hollen noted that the fiscal commission, which Ryan said Obama should have done more to embrace, asserted that immediate cuts before 2012 could jeopardize the economic recovery.

He said that Democrats look forward to Republicans putting forward their own budget proposal in the spring.