By Martin Crutsinger
AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama is sending Congress a "hard choices" budget that would boost taxes on the wealthy and curtail Medicare payments to insurance companies and hospitals to make way for a $634 billion down payment on universal health care.
Obama's first budget, which will top $3 trillion, predicts the deficit for this year will soar to a whopping $1.75 trillion, according to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity before the public unveiling of the budget Thursday. The huge deficit reflects the massive spending being undertaken to battle a severe recession and the worst financial crisis in seven decades.
As part of the effort to end the financial crisis, the administration will propose boosting the deficit by an additional $250 billion this year, enough to support as much as $750 billion in increased spending under the government's financial rescue program. That would more than double the $700 billion bailout effort passed by Congress last October.
Obama, in a morning briefing, spoke of "hard choices that lie ahead." He called his budget "an honest accounting of where we are and where we intend to go."
One administration official called the request for additional bailout resources a "placeholder" in advance of a determination by the Treasury Department of what will actually be needed.
The spending blueprint Obama is sending Congress is a 140-page outline, with the complete details scheduled to come in mid to late April, when the new administration sends up the massive budget books that will flesh out the plan.
However, the submission of the bare budget outline was certain to set off fierce debate in Congress over Obama's spending and tax priorities. The document includes additional requests for the current year and Obama's proposals for the 2010 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
The budget balances efforts to fulfill Obama's campaign pledges to deliver tax cuts to the middle class, expand health care coverage and combat the economic crisis with an effort to keep an exploding deficit over the next few years from becoming a permanent drag on the economy. However, Republicans assailed the budget for the tax increases and some Democrats worried that Obama was not doing enough to get the deficit under control.
"I would give him good marks as a beginning, but we have to do a lot more to take on this long-term debt buildup," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
Republicans zeroed in on the tax increases to fund half of Obama's health care expansion.
"Everyone agrees that all Americans deserve access to affordable health care, but is increasing taxes during an economic recession, especially on small businesses, the right way to accomplish that goal?" asked House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The $634 billion down payment on expanding health care coverage would come from a $318 billion increase over 10 years in taxes on the wealthy, defined as couples making more than $250,000 per year and individuals making more than $200,000. The tax increase would occur by reducing the benefit the wealthy get on tax deductions. As one example, taxpayers in the current top tax bracket of 35 percent would see their tax deduction for every $1 given to charity drop from 35 cents to 28 cents.
The other half of the down payment on Obama's drive toward universal health care — $318 billion — would come from curtailing payments to hospitals and insurance companies under Medicare and drug payments under Medicaid.
To meet his pledge of tax cuts for the middle class, the president wants to make permanent the $400 annual tax cut due to start showing up in workers' paychecks in April as part of the $787 billion stimulus package just passed by Congress. Obama's budget also extends the middle class tax cuts passed by the Bush administration in 2001 and 2003. Those cuts were due to expire at the end of 2010. If Congress approves Obama's recommendations, the Bush tax cuts would expire only for couples making more than $250,000 per year.
The cost of the stimulus bill and the increased bailout support would push the deficit for this year to $1.75 trillion, nearly four times last year's record $455 billion and a percentage of the economy — just over 12 percent — not seen since World War II. The deficit is expected to remain around $1 trillion for the next two years before starting to decline to $533 billion in 2013, according to budget projections.