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Obama Touts Budget Plan as Republicans Seek Deeper Spending Cuts

February 15, 2011 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President Obama continued promoting his budget blueprint for 2012 on Tuesday and called on both parties to prepare for tough decisions about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Judy Woodruff talks with Political Editor David Chalian about the budget battles between Democrats and Republicans, and Congress and the White House.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The budget battles of Washington heated up today at the White House and on the floor of the House of Representatives. President Obama called his first formal news conference of the year to address the issue.

For the second day in a row, the president spoke up for his new $3.7 trillion budget blueprint for 2012. The plan does not include the sweeping recommendations of his deficit commission. Instead, he calls for negotiating tough choices with Republicans.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My goal here is to actually solve the problem.

It’s not to get a good headline on the first day. My goal is that a year from now or two years from now, people will look back and say, you know what? We actually started making progress on this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama budget projects a record deficit of more than $1.6 trillion this year. The red ink would top $7 trillion over the next 10 years.

The plan relies on a partial freeze on domestic programs, some tax increases, and reduced war spending to keep the deficit from being even larger. The president said he feels the pain those measures would cause but expressed optimism about getting a deal that’s good for the country.

BARACK OBAMA: My hope is that what’s different this time is we have an adult conversation where everybody says, “Here’s what — here’s what’s important and here’s how we’re going to pay for it.”

Now, there are going to be some significant disagreements about what people think is important. And that — that’s how democracy should work.

And, you know, at the margins I’ll end up having to compromise on some things. Hopefully, others will have that same spirit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Republicans charged the president failed to address the real issues.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander:

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-Tenn.): There’s only one person in our country who can, better than everybody else, see an urgent need, develop a strategy to deal with that need, and persuade half the people he’s right, and that’s the president of the United States.

We do not have a more urgent need than reining in the federal deficit. We are right now discussing what to do about, about 12 percent of the deficit. And that’s important. But the president missed the opportunity in his State of the Union address. He’s missed the opportunity in his budget. He has an opportunity now, and the nation has an urgent need for him to challenge us all across the budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The toughest challenge of all may be the burgeoning costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Mr. Obama did not address entitlements comprehensively in his budget, but he insisted today he wants action.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m confident we can get Social Security done in the same way that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were able to get it done: by parties coming together, making some modest adjustments. I think we can avoid slashing benefits, and I think we can make it stable and stronger for not only this generation but for the next generation.

Medicare and Medicaid are huge problems because health care costs are rising even as the population is getting older. And so what I have said is that I’m prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans to start dealing with that in a serious way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House moved ahead today on major spending cuts in the current fiscal year. The GOP plan being debated would cut $61 billion from hundreds of programs, roughly a 14 percent reduction.

Republican Congressman David Dreier of California said it’s time for urgent action.

REP. DAVID DREIER (R-Calif.): … that, if we don’t get our fiscal house in order and bring about dramatic spending cuts, our future is very much in question.

If we don’t bring about these kinds of spending cuts, we are — we are going to be passing on to future generations a responsibility that they do not deserve to have. That’s why it’s up to us to do our job and make sure we get our fiscal house in order.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican House proposal would make deep cuts in programs that feed the poor, provide job training and clean the Great Lakes. And it would eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and AmeriCorps.

Democrats, like David Cicilline of Rhode Island, warned the cuts will do far more harm than good.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-R.I.), Rhode Island: The Republicans are moving forward with a dangerous spending bill, one that continues to give rewards to the rich and literally guts the initiatives most meaningful to middle-class families. Simply put, the Republicans’ spending bill is irresponsible and tone-deaf to the needs of a healing nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But House Speaker John Boehner was unapologetic about the drive to cut spending and the size of government.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-Ohio), speaker of the House: Over the last two years, since President Obama has taken office, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs. And if — if some of those jobs are lost in this so be it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A vote on the House Republicans’ spending proposal is expected on Thursday.

Late today, a White House statement warned the Republican bill would undermine core government functions, and it said if the measure is not changed, the president will veto the bill.

For more on the politics of all this now, we turn to our political editor, David Chalian.

So, David, the White House making this statement they’re going to veto it. But why are they saying this when it — just about everybody expects the Senate, when they get ahold of this — this budget bill, they’re going to make big changes?

DAVID CHALIAN: Right. What comes out of the House will not be what lands on the president’s desk.

He needed to issue this veto threat, which is pretty much as you’re describing, an idle veto threat, because he had to buck up his troops in the House, the Democrats in the House that are fighting against this. I found it pretty interesting he didn’t issue that veto threat during his news conference today, on camera, for us all to play, because he does want to look like he’s tough on cutting the budget. So they did it on a paper statement later in the day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, just before that, we heard from Speaker Boehner making the statement that — and we know Republicans talk all the time about they want to create jobs. But he made it clear that, if those are government jobs, they’re expendable. Is that the widely held Republican view?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, Republicans have made it very clear throughout the campaign last fall and since they’ve taken power in the House that they do believe that the federal government is bloated and they want to shrink the size of it.

Democrats, of course, seized on that comment today. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats, went to the floor to rail against it, that every job should be protected, whether it’s government or private sector.

But the Republicans have said all along that they want to shrink the size of the federal government. That means maybe losing some federal government jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, back to what the president was saying at his news conference today, he — he is again making the argument two days in a row that he’s not taking on the entitlements, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, because he wants to wait until everybody can sit down at the table, Democrats and Republicans, and talk about it like adults.

Is that a position that is comfortable for the White House to be in?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, the White House doesn’t mind looking like it’s taking on a tough issue, willing to discuss it, saying that we have a framework for discussion. So I don’t think they’re uncomfortable, although they’re taking their hits on it. Even friendly editorial pages, like The New York Times editorial page, criticized the Obama budget for not dealing with those issues.

The Republicans, of course, are saying that this is a lack of leadership. You heard Lamar Alexander there say that. The president is saying, hey, we all have to get in the boat at the same time.

I spoke to a Republican aide on Capitol Hill that said, yes, we all have to jump into the pool at the same time. But nobody wants to be that first person in, because they’re afraid that there will be sort of demagoguing against what they present.

But I do think that the president is very comfortable and very happy with looking like he’s calling for this adult conversation on this very important issue. And if it means he takes his lumps a little bit for not getting out there by himself, that’s OK, as long as he thinks he’s moving the ball on it, you know, down the field later on with negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, David, he’s saying that he — that he is making tough choices. You know, this argument that he hasn’t taken on the entitlements, he’s saying, but I’m cutting things like home heating for poor families. We’re taking on clean water, clean air. We’re cutting these programs.

He’s not getting a lot of pushback from — from the Democratic side, or is he, on that?

DAVID CHALIAN: He’s — he’s getting some. You heard him today in the news conference refer to it as grumbling in his own party. This the White House really loves. They want to look like they are making tough cuts about programs that the president and his party care very much about, that he’s going against his own party, because that’s a real appeal to independent voters in the middle trying to show that you can do the tough things.

I think what’s working to the president’s advantage — and, in talking to some White House aides, I think they have this sense, too — is, the bill that is on the floor in the House right now about this year’s spending cuts, the Democrats are so focused on pushing back on that push by Republicans to cut $100 billion out of this year, that they’re not as focused on the things that they’re not thrilled with in the president’s budget, but you can only pick one fight at a time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and, just very quickly, speaking of that, this year’s fiscal — fiscal budget, there’s only a few weeks — what, a couple of weeks left. Is there a possibility they’re not going to work this out?

DAVID CHALIAN: That runs out March 4. This is the funding of the government.

This morning, the House Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan, said talk of a government shutdown is really not necessary, because he thinks that they will extend the continuing resolution, continue to fund the government on the short term, so that they can continue time for negotiations to get a final budget deal for this year’s budget.

The president also said today that he doesn’t want anyone talking loosely about a government shutdown. So, I don’t think we’re going to come necessarily to the full loggerheads that others have anticipated.

I think that they might get a short-term extension to give themselves breathing room to work out a deal. But make no mistake. The Republicans are pushing very deep cuts, and the Democrats are going to push back against it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Political editor David Chalian, thanks.

DAVID CHALIAN: Sure.