Wanting for details, some Dems wary of spending freeze plan

Liberal House Democrats responded warily Tuesday to President Obama's call for a five-year freeze on discretionary spending, voicing concerns that it could undermine the very investments the president says are crucial to job creation.

The spending freeze — perhaps the most striking proposal of the president's much-anticipated State of the Union address — will reduce deficits by $400 billion over 10 years and cut discretionary spending "to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president," Obama said.

But Rep. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranThe Hill's Top Lobbyists 2020 Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Star-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report MORE (D-Va.) wondered how Obama can "eviscerate domestic discretionary programs and still accomplish all of the worthwhile objectives he annunciated" during Tuesday's speech.

"If you want to move forward in research and development, and education reform, and health research and transportation, it's going to cost money. You have to make an investment," Moran said. "I don't see how he can freeze domestic spending for five years and still accomplish the initiatives that he talked about."

Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchThe Hill's Morning Report - Ins and outs: Powell renominated at Fed, Parnell drops Senate bid Welch to seek Senate seat in Vermont The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Biden hails infrastructure law, talks with China's Xi MORE (D-Vt.) echoed that concern, arguing that the "one-size-fits-all" freeze will have significant impacts on a number of vital programs.

"A five-year freeze on any budget — whether it's defense or healthcare or education — is very tough," Welch said. "Those programs will be significantly affected."

Obama's speech arrived on the same day the House passed a Republican proposal to freeze non-security spending at 2008 levels. Democrats had blasted that strategy, with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) distributing to reporters a recent quote from former-Secretary of State Colin Powell to drive home the criticism.

"Don't tell me you're going to freeze to a level," Powell said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "That usually is a very inefficient way of doing it. Tell me what you're going to cut."

On top of the spending freeze, Obama also emphasized that he's open to even further cuts as long as "we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens."

A number of Democrats, however, are skeptical such reductions won't threaten basic social services for poor communities.

"I am concerned about the programs that serve the middle class and low-income people," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "We have to be very careful that we don't make people who have become [financially] insecure even more so."

Still other Democrats wanted more assurances from Obama that defense spending wouldn't be immune from the spending freeze.

"You can't have a serious discussion about reducing the deficit without having a serious discussion about reducing our defense spending," said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.).

Despite the concerns, most Democrats — including Moran, Welch, Schakowsky and Andrews — applauded Obama's speech for both its bipartisan tone and its emphasis on job creation and deficit reduction. And Democratic leaders were even more laudatory.

“It was a great speech," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Hill. "It was music to my ears that he would talk about innovation and growing jobs. All of these [topics] aren’t partisan in any way, and we can work together on education of our children and innovation of our future and rebuilding America.”

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said the speech marks a turning point in a presidency that's often found Obama on the defensive in the face of economic crisis.

"He struck a great balance," Clyburn said. "He’s being the creative person that the American people voted for. He’s no longer in a crisis mode and I think you’re going to get to see exactly who he is now."

Even some Republicans gave Obama's speech good marks. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a newly elected member with Tea Party backing, gave the speech a score of 7.5 out of 10. He said the president "sounded like a conservative." Still, Obama's emphasis on investment, West added, was "hiding what seems like more big government spending."

Supporters and skeptics alike are now eagerly awaiting the White House's budget plan, which will be unveiled early next month. It's there that the broad themes outlined in Obama's speech Tuesday will be translated into specific policy proposals. And it's there that the Democrats will learn if their concerns were founded.

"The devil's in the details," Schakowsky said. "We're going to fight over all the details."

Jordy Yager and Christina Wilkie contributed to this report.