What a politician says on the campaign trail often gets washed out by a cold splash of reality once he or she takes office and begins to govern. That's what's happening to both President Obama and the new Republican leaders in the House of Representatives in the budget debate.
Many of Obama's bromides about changing Washington and persuading all the major players to compromise have run afoul of the deep divisions in the capital. And many of the GOP's bromides about getting control of the deficit and taking on the sacred cows of Washington are meeting the same fate. It's a time of testing for all sides. And the pressure is more intense than ever, because if there is no agreement by March 4 on a spending plan for the rest of the current fiscal year, the federal government will shut down.
For House Republicans, it's a question of whether they can meet the demands of Tea Party conservatives who want them to slash the deficit and stop the growth of government. But with all the factions and entrenched interests in Washington, GOP leaders are running into trouble achieving that goal. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia have been dealing with an explosive situation in which the conservative majority rejected a spending plan fashioned by House leaders because the proposed cuts fell far short of the $100 billion that many conservatives had promised in their 2010 campaigns. The leaders are now scrambling to find more cuts and are targeting many popular programs, including funds for road construction, aid to police, and money for education.
The overall GOP plan is to start the government on a path toward deep spending reductions not seen in generations. "We have a budget deficit right now of nearly $1.5 trillion," Cantor told reporters last week. "We have a lot of work to do." The question is whether the Republicans can stand up to the withering criticism they will endure for what their opponents will call an austerity program that will hurt the vulnerable, the poor, and the middle class.
Senate Democrats, who hold a slim majority, are expected to come up with their own spending plan in early March, and it's sure to differ radically from the House version. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a key party strategist, says his fellow Democrats favor "some reasonable cuts" but won't go as far as the House Republicans. He adds that, "The president has put together a pretty good blueprint," suggesting that the Senate Democrats will ally themselves with Obama in the coming budget showdown.
For Obama, the question is whether he can balance a spirit of accommodation with resolve to protect the programs he most believes in, especially education and the new healthcare law. He issued a warning last week by promising to veto any short-term bill for the current fiscal year that undermines key government functions, threatens job creation, or harms military readiness.
But Obama's new $3.7 trillion budget plan for 2012 is taking its own hits. The proposal, in fact, seems dead on arrival, which has been par for the course for presidential spending blueprints in recent years. At his news conference on February 15, Obama admitted that he is facing many tough choices but argued that his approach is superior to the Republicans' because it is more balanced and less extreme. "We've taken a scalpel to the discretionary budget, rather than a machete," he said. Obama's plan is a blend of gradual spending reductions and modest tax increases that would slow the growth of spending but still allow the deficit to rise to a record of about $1.5 trillion this year. He promised to work with Republicans to find the compromises that will be needed for a final resolution, but no consensus is in sight, especially on the costly entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that consume a vast and growing amount of the federal budget.