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Obama Budget Strategy Irks Democrats

The White House’s negotiating position with Republicans leaves many from the president’s party scratching their heads Republican lawmakers say president’s plan may offer hope for spending deal

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Congressional Democrats continue to be baffled by — and frustrated with — the White House’s legislative strategy, with many aides questioning the wisdom of offering a compromise budget before negotiations have even begun.

Budgets, which have no force of law, are largely viewed as the outline of the party’s political priorities. Several Democratic sources outside the White House — girding for yet another budget battle over the debt ceiling again this summer — said Obama’s budget release this week is not just a bad bargaining stance but also another instance in which the president appears to be taking a position in the middle, only to later be pushed by Republicans to the right.

Democrats on the Hill, for example, were loath to agree to the fiscal-cliff deal in January. Though they passed the New Year’s Day deal, they felt they surrendered their peak position of leverage because the administration was obsessed with getting a “deal.”

Congressional Democrats had feared that without the pressure of the expiring tax breaks for all Americans, Republicans would never resume talks over how to replace the across-the-board cuts mandated by the sequester. And Republicans haven’t, taking the position that the sequester is better than raising taxes again as the president has proposed.

With his budget’s unpopular entitlement cuts, many Democrats caution that Obama not only is starting talks from a position that might alienate the Democratic base but also is helping Republicans make Obama and the Democrats own even more spending cuts — including those to Medicare or Social Security, which Democrats have used as a political bludgeon for years.

“I’m well past the point of trying to understand what, if any, strategy is behind anything this administration does,” one Democratic aide said. “It most definitely does not outline party priorities, as evident by the reaction from the base. And it most definitely doesn’t accomplish anything [in terms of] a long-term ‘deal’ because — news flash — he has tried all this before and it never got anywhere.

“The GOP has no interest in working with [Democrats] on anything,” the aide continued. “After a certain point, you’d think that the White House would change [things] up, but I guess we’re not there yet.”

According to a senior administration official late last week, the budget to be unveiled Wednesday is intended as more of an olive branch to Republicans than an outline of Obama’s view of the budget and economy.

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