Budget fight: Obama claims the upper hand over Congress
Washington — Bolstered by a spate of upbeat economic news, President Barack Obama is claiming the upper hand in the budget fight unfolding in Congress, aiming to exploit recent Republican stumbles to give Democrats an advantage despite their status as a weakened minority. But while Obama retains full use of the bully pulpit, his leverage over matters of government spending may prove limited.
The White House has put a spotlight on GOP missteps and infighting in recent weeks, arguing that Republicans who promised to govern effectively are falling down on the job since taking control of Congress earlier this year. Drawing an implicit contrast, Obama has been playing up his own, unilateral economic steps as a way to show he’s the one setting Washington’s agenda.
“We’re going to have a robust debate,” Obama pledged Tuesday shortly after House Republicans released their $3.8 trillion budget.
Obama has stood firmly behind his insistence that Republicans increase spending on domestic programs — not just the Pentagon.
“The defining feature of this new Republican majority in Congress is them being on defense responding to the president’s agenda,” Brian Deese, an Obama senior adviser, said in an interview.
The current debate is over a budget resolution, a non-binding measure that doesn’t require Obama’s signature. Typically, Congress uses separate appropriations bills to fund various parts of the government, which makes it harder for the president to insist that Republicans pass funding for his priorities before he’ll approve funding for theirs.
As a result, the White House strategy is not so much designed to negotiate a bargain with Republicans as it is to keep Obama’s underlying economic message at the forefront while Republicans play out their own internal struggles. Such GOP divisions were on full display earlier in March when Republicans dropped their insistence on repealing Obama’s immigration directives and agreed to fund the Homeland Security Department — calling into question the GOP’s broader strategy to use spending bills as leverage against the president.
Still, the White House is taking a much more aggressive stance than it has in the past. In his budget proposal this year, Obama called for an equal surge in both domestic and defense spending, and his budget director, Shaun Donovan, told Congress on Monday that Obama “will not accept a budget” that does otherwise.
“It gives Democrats cover to say ‘no,’” said Stan Collender, a long-time budget analyst now with the Qorvis-MSL Group. “It gives them some backbone.”
The House Republican plan released Tuesday proposes major increases in military spending accompanied by big cuts to social programs like food stamps and Medicaid. The Senate GOP was to follow with its proposal on Wednesday.
“It’s not a budget that reflects the future. It’s not a budget that reflects growth.” Obama said following a St. Patrick’s Day meeting with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. “I’ll keep my four-leaf clover in my pocket and see if the speaker and (Senate Republican Leader) Mitch McConnell and others are interested in having that conversation.”
Even before unveiling their budget, the GOP leadership was struggling to calm tensions between defense hawks who want more money for the Pentagon and budget hard-liners who want to rein in federal spending. That may create an opening for Obama to exploit the fact that his budget calls for more money for defense than many conservative Republicans are willing to spend.
“They have Republicans in a bind — they really do,” said Steve Bell, a former Republican director of the Senate Budget Committee. “The Republican Party, which used to be the party of hawks, is now split.”
Obama’s aides said there was little concern at the White House that by holding his position in support of domestic spending, Obama would take the blame for the political logjam if Congress fails to increase spending for the military, which enjoys broad support amid growing threats from extremist groups and instability in the Middle East. White House advisers said the economy’s resurgence under Obama’s leadership had exposed the “austerity fallacy” pushed for years by Republicans who argue the government must downsize to bring deficits under control.
Helping Obama claim the upper hand is a wave of positive indicators that suggest the economy is gaining strength — despite Obama policies that Republicans for years have warned would keep the U.S. stuck in recession.
Annual budget deficits have fallen precipitously on Obama’s watch, as has the unemployment rate, although wages have remained far too stagnant for Obama’s liking. The Obama administration announced Monday that more than 16 million Americans have gained coverage since the president’s health care law took effect, and a new estimate from congressional scorekeepers shows the law will cost taxpayers far less than previously expected.
Yet on the issues that Obama has touted as his greatest prospects for working with the new Congress — tax reform, authority to negotiate trade deals, and war powers to fight the Islamic State — Obama’s fiercest opposition has come from lawmakers from his own party, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Republicans.
“Where’s the Democrats’ agenda?” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Democrats are the biggest obstacle to the few realistic proposals that have been floated. Beyond that, they don’t have a serious legislative agenda.”