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Obama's Budget Salvo Opens Next Political Fight

Feb 12, 2012
Originally published on February 12, 2012 12:29 pm

When President Obama unveils his budget Monday, it will project a $1.3 trillion deficit this year, and just under $1 trillion in 2013. It would increase spending on education, research and development, and transportation. It would also increase taxes on the wealthy and cut spending, including on defense.

Presidential budgets are almost always aspirational documents. They lay out a vision, not what the president actually thinks will happen.

"You know, every president's budget is part political statement, part policy document," says Stan Collender, a senior partner at Qorvis Communications, and a longtime federal budget guru.

"This is an election [year]; the president is facing a hostile Congress — if not very hostile Congress — in a hyper-partisan environment," Collender says. "Just like the State of the Union, that makes this year's president's budget a campaign document more than a serious proposal."

If the pre-buttals are any indication, the hostility toward this budget plan is quite fierce.

"The president likes to call his new plan, 'America Built to Last.' I would call it, 'America Drowning in Debt,'" said Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, at a Capitol Hill press conference last week. "It seems as if the president's doing little more than class envy and the status quo."

Ryan called it the greatest threat to the nation's health, retirement, national and economic security. He says House Republicans will outline their own budget soon, but the House GOP budget has about as good a chance of becoming reality as the president's budget — which is to say, none.

"We do not need to bring a budget to the floor this year. We already did that," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "That's what that big, long, drawn-out obstruction resulted in."

That "big, long, drawn-out" thing Reid is talking about was last summer's debt ceiling fight, which led to passage of the Budget Control Act, which lays out spending caps every year for years to come.

"For heaven's sake. We have a law, not some idea. Not some wish," Reid said. "We have a law that guides how we do our spending this year."

There's one more thing that puts next year's budget closer to fantasy than reality, says Scott Lilly at the Center for American Progress. There's another $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts set to start Jan. 1 as part of the Budget Control Act, unless Congress moves to change it.

"This is the starting point for a very big fight over priorities and very substantial reductions in spending," Lilly says.

It's a fight many say will not be resolved before November's election.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

President Barack Obama unveils his federal budget tomorrow, and it will project a $1.3 trillion deficit this year and just under one trillion in 2013. It would increase spending on education, research and development and transportation. It would also increase taxes on the wealthy, and cut spending, including on defense. We'll hear from Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman about those defense cuts in a few minutes, but first, NPR's Tamara Keith on the political realities facing the president's budget.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Presidential budgets are almost always aspirational documents. They lay out a vision, not what the president actually thinks will happen.

STAN COLLENDER: You know, every president's budget is part political statement, part policy document.

KEITH: Stan Collender is a senior partner at Qorvis Communications and a long-time federal budget guru.

COLLENDER: This is an election year, the president facing a hostile Congress, if not a very hostile Congress in a hyper-partisan environment. Just like the State of the Union, that makes this year's president's budget much more of a campaign document than it does a serious proposal.

KEITH: If the prebuttals are any indication, the hostility towards this budget plan is quite fierce. Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan is the House Budget Committee chairman.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: The president likes to call his new plan America Built to Last. I would call it, America drowning in debt.

KEITH: This was Ryan speaking at a Capitol Hill press conference last week.

RYAN: It seems as if the president's doing little more than class envy and the status quo, which is the greatest threat to our health security, our retirement security, our national security and our economic security.

KEITH: Ryan says House Republicans will outline in their own budget soon. But the House GOP budget has about as good a chance of becoming reality as the president's budget - which is to say, none. Here's Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, speaking on a conference call earlier this month.

SENATOR HARRY REID: We do not need to bring a budget to the floor this year. We already did that. That's what that big, long, drawn-out obstruction resulted in.

KEITH: That big, long, drawn-out thing Reid's talking about was last summer's debt ceiling fight, which led to passage of the Budget Control Act, which lays out spending caps every year for years to come.

REID: For heaven sakes, we have a law, not some idea, not some wish. We have a law that guides how we do our spending this year. It's done.

KEITH: And there's one more thing that puts next year's budget closer to fantasy than reality, says Scott Lilly at the Center for American Progress. There's another $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts set to start January 1st as part of the Budget Control Act, unless Congress moves to change it.

SCOTT LILLY: This is the starting point for a very big fight over priorities and very substantial reductions in spending.

KEITH: A fight many say will not be resolved before November's election. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.