By Erik Wasson - 03/05/14 12:42 PM EST
WH official faces GOP ire on budget proposal
White House Budget Director Sylvia Burwell was in the hot seat on Wednesday, defending President Obama's new $3.9 trillion budget proposal before Congress.
Senate Republicans on the Budget Committee sparred with the White House's top budget official over the increased discretionary spending in the proposal and whether Obama has abandoned attempts at long-term entitlement reform.
Burwell, who participated in months of backroom talks with many members of Congress last year in a failed quest for a deficit bargain, got her roughest treatment from committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who was part of the talks.
Sessions repeatedly tried to get Burwell to agree that the proposal spends $56 billion more in fiscal 2015 than allowed under the budget caps signed into law in December.
Burwell acknowledged the spending but continued to make the point that the administration uses other savings and tax increases to pay for it.
“Are you spending more than the law? Why can’t you say yes or no?” Sessions asked.
“Some questions are not yes-or-no questions,” Burwell retorted.
At one point, an angry Sessions said "you look real innocent, the way you are looking at me" and admonished Burwell for not saying yes.
“This is the way a nation goes broke,” Sessions said.
Burwell argued that the annual deficit is on a downward trajectory, dropping to $434 billion in 2024 from $680 billion in 2013.
Over in the House, Burwell was confronted by a testy Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), who pressed her on when the budget ever balances.
After Burwell said it does not in the next ten years, he pressed on.
“Will you give me a year?" Garrett said, repeatedly cutting her off.
Burwell told the House Budget Committee that the American people are more concerned about jobs and the economy than the total amount of deficit reduction.
"They don’t ask you about the economy and they don’t ask you about jobs? Burwell asked Garrett regarding his constituents.
Other Republicans took a less confrontational approach but nonetheless said they were frustrated by the fact Obama was proposing more than $1 trillion in tax increases to pay for nearly as much new spending, rather than dedicating it to deficit reduction.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argued that the budget cuts defense too deeply and asked Burwell if the White House would accept a deal that just turns off defense cut in exchange for a package of tax increases and spending cuts.
Burwell said the White House believes domestic program cuts should be reversed in equal measure to defense cuts.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has said he would accept some increased tax revenue in exchange for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, repeatedly tried to get Burwell to say whether she personally believed in raising the retirement age for the programs.
Burwell was careful not to voice her opinion, arguing that a conversation could come later and that the budget follows Obama’s preferred deficit reduction methods of closing tax loopholes for the wealthy while stimulating economic growth through targeted investments.
Sen. Ron Portman (R-Ohio), who served as a Bush administration budget director, said that adopting Obama’s approach would allow Social Security and Medicare to go bankrupt. He added that the administration needs to acknowledge the need for cuts beyond the $402 billion in healthcare cost reduction in the budget.
“I think the president has an opportunity to lead on this and he has chosen not to,” Portman said. “I guess your answer today is that we will just increase taxes more and more.”
On the Democratic side, Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) praised the budget for making investments in infrastructure and education while closing tax loopholes. She also praised the president for taking a cut to entitlements achieved through a new measure of inflation out of the budget.
“I personally believe there are better ways to create jobs, grow the economy, and tackle our long-term fiscal challenges than this policy, and I am glad it was not included this year,” she said.
Centrist Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he hopes to get back to a conversation on a larger deficit bargain eventually.
“One of the things we do have to come back to after this year is entitlement and tax reform,” he said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) countered the GOP, arguing that if the party had been more willing to end tax breaks for the wealthy, a bigger deficit deal could have been done.
“For many of my colleagues, the debt and the deficit is much less important than keeping the carried interest loophole,” he said, referring to a tax break used by private equity fund managers.