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War on Fiscal Discipline Rages as Democrats Weigh Alternatives

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call
House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen plans to unveil his alternative to the Republican budget Wednesday.

“I can say with certainty there will be a clear difference between Paul Ryan and Barack Obama on Medicare,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Durbin, a gang of six member, said the group will continue moving forward regardless of Obama’s speech.

“I think it’s important that we continue to do what we’ve done for four months, and that is finish our effort to have a bipartisan alternative,” he said.

Asked whether the president’s speech could affect the substance or time frame of the gang of six talks, Durbin responded, “I haven’t heard it yet.”

Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Nebraska Democrat who is up for re-election in 2012, also discounted any worries that having multiple Democratic proposals would make it harder for the party to present a clear message on fiscal issues.

“I don’t know that the message is muddy,” Nelson said. “I think you just may have different ideas about where to cut and how much.”

Privately, however, Democratic aides acknowledged there is a growing frustration with Obama letting Republicans take the lead before becoming involved in policy discussions.

Still, some Democratic Senators want Obama to steer clear of details.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will be among a bipartisan group of lawmakers that will travel to the White House for a morning briefing before Obama’s speech, said Tuesday that Obama would do well to stick with the “long-range view” for how to get the nation on more secure fiscal footing.

“I don’t know how specific we need him to be,” the Nevada Democrat told reporters. “I think we need an outline of what he thinks needs to be done.”

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said the speech was an opportunity for Obama to lay out a “big, bold plan to get the debt down and to get the country back on a strong track.” The North Dakota Democrat and gang of six member said he hopes Obama outlines ideas in line with the recommendations of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which would mesh with the approach the gang of six is taking.

Sen. Tom Carper said Obama’s speech could actually help get Democrats more in step on their fiscal talking points.

“I’m pleased to see the president providing the kind of leadership that I expect from a president,” the Delaware Democrat said.

Carper said it made sense for Obama to follow up on his fiscal 2012 budget proposal as Congress wraps up debate on the continuing resolution and turns its attention to more long-term fiscal debates.

Republicans, meanwhile, dismissed Obama’s decision to put forward a proposal different from his original budget. Key Senate Republicans also were doubtful that Obama’s speech would be as fiscally conservative as they would like.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “about time” for a course reversal from Obama on spending and the debt, describing the budget proposal the president submitted earlier this year as “laughable.”

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