Obama comes off sidelines on budget

Obama comes off sidelines on budget

President Obama assumed responsibility for avoiding a government shutdown Wednesday, ordering the White House to find a deal with Republicans on spending despite the growing backlash from the left over cuts to cherished programs.

The talks over spending will force Obama to walk a tightrope, as he must find a way to avoid a government shutdown that could hurt the economy without alienating the liberal base critical to his reelection.


The Senate passed a two-week spending bill that Obama quickly signed to fund the government through March 18. But even as the president signed that bill, he said a short-term fix is no way to govern, and called for a bipartisan solution to the budget standoff.

“We cannot keep doing business this way,” Obama said. “Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible, and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy.”

Obama on Wednesday asked Vice President Biden, White House Chief of Staff William Daley and Budget Director Jack LewJacob (Jack) Joseph LewThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis On The Money: Senate confirms Yellen as first female Treasury secretary | Biden says he's open to tighter income limits for stimulus checks | Administration will look to expedite getting Tubman on bill Sorry Mr. Jackson, Tubman on the is real MORE to hammer out a spending bill with the GOP that funds the government through Sept. 30.

But cutting a deal won’t be easy. Although Democrats this week helped approve a two-week extension of government funding — a bill that included $4 billion in cuts over that short span — party liberals are vowing a more intense fight over the larger, more controversial reductions proposed by Republicans before Oct. 1, when the fiscal year ends.

The politically charged negotiations over funding the government will once again test Obama’s ability to hold his party together. 

The White House faces the delicate task of finding common ground with Republicans on a bill that cuts funding for Planned Parenthood, Title X and public broadcasting, among other programs favored by liberals.

The left has launched an all-out offensive against the spending cuts in the long-term Republican bill. Progressives say the $61 billion in funding chopped in the GOP measure disproportionately targets the nation’s most vulnerable.

Enhancing pressure on the White House, Democrats were trounced at the polls in November, a result that Republicans have interpreted as a mandate to slash government spending immediately.

House Republicans have signaled that steep cuts to federal spending are non-negotiable, and Tea Party-backed freshman members are unlikely to accept a bill that does not take an ax to the budget.

Liberal advocates weren’t encouraged by this week’s swift passage of the two-week stopgap bill, which they said was a capitulation by Senate Democrats.

Although most of the $4 billion in cuts was also included in Obama’s budget request, making them low-hanging fruit, the bill didn’t use any of the savings to fund comparable initiatives, as Obama did.

Some advocates wanted Democrats to fight harder for something in return. Others said they’re concerned the short-term negotiations set a bad precedent for things to come.

Bruce Lesley, head of First Focus, a children’s welfare advocate, noted that more than 20 percent of the $4 billion in cuts came from an education sector that constitutes just 3 percent of federal spending.

“We are worried that kids will continue to be the place where cuts are made,” he said of the coming talks.

Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s legislative branch, said Wednesday that she’s “very concerned about how much fight” lawmakers have in them as the standoff evolves. A must-pass appropriations bill is no place for provisions of such significance, she added.

“I’m alarmed that such issues of major consequence … are handled this way,” she said.

Among the most talked-about provisions of the GOP proposal is the elimination of Title X, which currently provides roughly $318 million for family-planning services.

Emily Stewart, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood, the top recipient of Title X funding, said the cuts would prevent millions of low-income women from receiving basic healthcare services. 

The GOP proposal, Stewart said last week at a Capitol Hill forum hosted by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), represents “the most dangerous legislative assault on women’s health in American history.”

In its 2012 budget request, the White House proposed an $11 million increase in Title X funding.

Another group on the chopping block under the GOP proposal is the Legal Services Corp. (LSC), a coalition of 136 nonprofits that offers legal help to people earning below 126 percent of the poverty level, or roughly $28,000 for a family of four. At 2010 levels, LSC receives $420 million, of which $394 million goes directly to low-income legal services. The Republicans’ bill would cut $70 million from LSC this year, all of it from the $394 million direct-services grants.

Don Saunders, director of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, warned that if the cuts are enacted, “It will be very hard for people living in poverty in this country to realize justice.”

In contrast, the White House has proposed a $30 million increase in LSC funding next year, of which almost $26 million would go to front-line services for the poor.

Other provisions that would affect low-income communities include steep funding cuts to community health centers, refugee assistance programs and juvenile justice initiatives.

The proposal has low-income advocates crying foul.

“How is it that those who have the least, and need the most, are the first to be asked to sacrifice?” said Arley Johnson, government-relations director at the National Association for State Community Services Programs.

Asked Wednesday about such accusations, Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFeehery: The next Republican wave is coming Rift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power MORE (R-Ohio), offered a one-sentence response. “House Republicans are listening to the American people, who want us to keep the government open and cut spending to help the private sector create jobs,” Steel said in an e-mail.