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As Spending Deal Looms, White House Waits While Progressives Simmer As Spending Deal Looms, White House Waits While Progressives Simmer

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Budget / BUDGET

As Spending Deal Looms, White House Waits While Progressives Simmer

Would compromise make Obama the most reasonable politician in Washington?

President Obama is hanging back in the fight over the stopgap spending bill.(Pool/Getty Images)

photo of Tim Fernholz
March 31, 2011

With Vice President Joseph Biden, the Senate Democratic leadership, and House Republicans pushing to resolve the 2011 spending debate--Biden told reporters on Wednesday night that negotiators were moving toward a $33 billion cut from current spending levels--it may well be that lawmakers will avert a government shutdown.

But while the spotlight in recent days has been on Republican leaders’ ability to persuade their fractious House freshmen to accept a compromise, some Democrats and many progressives aren’t pleased about the prospects of a compromise, either.

The apparent baseline for a deal is about equal in size to the resolution that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., authored earlier this year, which called for $30 billion in real spending cuts in fiscal 2011. After rebellious GOP freshmen demanded more, the House eventually passed a bill to cut $59 billion and has been locked in a standoff with the Senate, which rejected the plan, ever since.

 

Wherever the final line is drawn, Democrats appear willing to accept a deal close to Republican leaders’ original plan. White House aides say that such a deal could pay political dividends when the bigger fights start because the agreement would establish the president as the most reasonable politician in Washington. Progressives are not happy, however, even if Democrats are able to remove controversial GOP policy riders, such as those that eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and hamper the implementation of the health care law.

“Progressives could reasonably expect something that was more progressive than the House Republicans’ starting position,” said economic expert Michael Ettlinger of the Center for American Progress.

“There’s no victory here,” concurred Heather McGhee, the Washington director of the progressive think tank Demos. “Technically, not having any policy riders would be a win, but in terms of the pure economic impact of the budget, it is all bad for the recovery.”

White House and Senate leadership aides argue that the composition of the cuts is as important as their size, and say that they will fight to make sure that reductions aren’t borne by the most vulnerable. They also say that the need to gain at least nine Republican votes in the upper chamber to pass anything weakens their advantage. Yet many Democrats maintain that after laying out his 2012 budget, President Obama hasn’t done enough to draw a real contrast with Republicans, relying instead on a more subtle argument about balancing cuts with investment.

Tellingly, during a spirited discussion of economic policy and the congressional spending standoff on Tuesday night among policy wonks, congressional staff, and labor leaders--led by New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons and including SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.--Obama’s name did not even come up until The Economist’s Washington reporter, Peter David, asked whether the president had become irrelevant to the discussion.

“I don’t think that is fair,” Rob Nabors, the White House’s legislative-affairs director, said last week of the perception that Obama has been missing in action. “We brief him either in person or in writing every day on what’s going on with the CR negotiations. We meet with him several times a week to get his guidance on how he wants us to position ourselves for these negotiations. He has done multiple meetings with the leaders of the House and the Senate. He has had endless phone calls with the leaders in Congress.”

Another administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the White House’s position, said that the Obama team will marshal its resources for bigger fights down the road.

“This conversation right now isn’t about overall fiscal policy; it’s about funding the government,” the official says. “Next week, Ryan’s going to put out his [2012] budget, and we’re going to know what their vision is versus what our vision is. That’s going to set up a stark contrast with two different visions of the world. The CR is about 12 percent of the budget.”

Ettlinger, of the Center for American Progress, is dubious.

“If you want to look for logic in the administration’s approach, they have put themselves in the position where they can say, ‘Look, we’re not the intransigent ones here, and they just won’t budge,’ ” he said. “They have positioned themselves well vis-à-vis a shutdown by making so many concessions so publicly and early. The weakness is that you end up with a compromise that undermines what they think is best for the country in terms of public spending.”

Democrats note that public opinion polls show that Obama is more trusted than congressional Republicans on economic issues ranging from the deficit to protecting the rights of working people, and they say that their criticisms of the opposition's economic policy are gaining traction.

“It’s kind of played out that way in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, where you had three popular governors elected, and you’ve seen their approval ratings already drop. At the end of the day, 2012 is the big battle,” said Dean Aguillen, a senior vice president at Ogilvy Government Relations who was a senior adviser to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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