Looking for an Elusive Middle Ground on Government Spending

BY Judy Woodruff  January 26, 2011 at 4:56 PM EDT


No matter what the conversation, for Republicans, all roads seem to lead back to government spending.

GOP’ers believe there’s way too much of it. President Obama and most Democrats agree, but argue it’s dangerous to cut too deeply while the economy is still struggling to get back on its feet. It’s a fundamental disagreement that doesn’t lend itself to compromise. For all the comity on display last night at the State of the Union address, finding middle ground looks tough.

The seats in the House chamber were still warm, the air was still echoing with applause from both Republicans and Democrats, all wearing black and white ribbons in honor of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Congressman recovering from a gunshot wound to her head, when the first rumblings began. In fact, President Obama had not yet reached his motorcade to leave the Capitol when criticism of his “invest now for a better future” proposals found its way to the nation’s airwaves.

One Republican member of Congress after another pronounced President Obama’s ideas as wrong-headed. Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri: “Whether it is called a stimulus, a bailout or an investment- it means more spending.” Georgia Republican Paul Broun didn’t wait for the speech to end; he reportedly tweeted some 40 times during the address messages like this one: “Mr. President, you don’t believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Washington state was more subdued: “I would have preferred to see the president display a greater commitment to using free-market solutions to revive our economy and put our fiscal house in order.” But second term Republican Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida was direct: “The president just doesn’t get it. …. The explosion of federal spending over the last two years has left our country in a deep hole. We have to stop digging ourselves deeper and start looking for a way out of this mess.”

It was not easy to find a Republican with a word of agreement, although some, like Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, gave President Obama credit for focusing on the national debt and the need to create an environment for job creation. But Snowe added: “While the president’s call for a five year spending freeze on non-security discretionary spending and ban on congressional earmarking are certainly welcome steps in the right direction, words alone will neither balance our nation’s debt-ridden budget nor create jobs. … It will take the administration and all of us in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, working in tandem where possible to address the most urgent issues of our time, and this effort should start with bipartisan support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which I have long supported.”

Snowe and 20 other Republican Senators announced Wednesday their support for that Constitutional amendment, which they argue will bring down the national debt by requiring balanced budgets every year, and prohibiting deficit spending or tax increases, unless ok’d by 2/3 of the House and the Senate. The Senators are pushing to have the amendment included in negotiations over raising the federal debt ceiling.

Even among normally supportive friends, the president couldn’t count on support: the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, at the New America Foundation, and the bipartisan members of the Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission, have all called for a more drastic attack on spending, especially entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and government retirement benefits. They warn that unless these politically-charged programs are targeted, the debt will swallow up America’s best hopes for the future.

That’s in direct contrast to President Obama’s State of the Union call to “win the future.” He argues the country can’t get where it needs to go, unless it spends. The others argue the spending will make that future impossible. Somehow, some way, there will likely have to be compromise. But at this early stage of the battle, if both sides stick to their beliefs, it’s hard to imagine what it looks like.

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