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Budget Day's Wintry Mix of Bluster and Rhetoric

McConnell, second from right, and his leadership team (from left, Wicker, Sen. John Barrasso, Sen. John Thune and Cornyn) had more to discuss than just the budget on Budget Day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

"I don't have any news to make today on that subject," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday, when asked about President Barack Obama latest spending blueprint that landed on Capitol Hill a few hours earlier. It was just one indication of the diminished public debate over the president's budget.  

Take one part $4.15 trillion federal budget. Mix with New Hampshire's presidential primary. Shake with an East Coast snowstorm. Pour over any revelry associated with Mardi Gras. Stir with congressional theater, adding a pinch of concern about the Zika virus, the city of Flint's poisoned water supply and North Korea. Welcome to Budget Day 2016 on Capitol Hill. Even before copies of President Barack Obama's fiscal 2017 budget had arrived on Capitol Hill, Republicans ridiculed it and said it was going nowhere, and Democrats mocked the GOP for their promises to return to regular order, then barring the White House's chief budget officer from public testimony.  

The White House's choice of artwork for the budget document might have fueled some of the political jousting.  It featured a cover photograph of Mt. Denali in Alaska, the tallest peak in the United States and renamed last year by Obama, a decision that set off GOP howls at the time about not consulting Congress.  

The move particularly irritated Ohio Republicans (then-Speaker John A. Boehner is from the state) who preferred to leave the mountain named after the 25th president and fellow Buckeye Stater William McKinley.  

And that was before Congress had even convened for the day.  

"Rather than something that sends a signal that he wants to work with Congress, it basically is more of the same, a $4 trillion budget that is unserious, partisan and contains reckless spending," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on the floor. "And in it, he does include several new proposals, proposals he knows will be dead on arrival in the United States Congress."  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., a former Budget Committee chairman, said in a release that “This isn’t even a budget so much as it is a progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hardworking Americans."  

House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said, in effect, it's fine to disagree, but how about having Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan appear on Capitol Hill for a public debate about the spending plan?  

"Our budget debate should be an open exchange of ideas to move our country forward. Unfortunately, Republicans have decided to break longstanding, bipartisan tradition by refusing to allow the president to present his budget to the House Budget Committee, abdicating our responsibility to the American people," Van Hollen said in a release.  

Over in the Senate, Budget Committee Democrats sent a letter to Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi , R-Wyo., invoked one of Congress' darkest recent episodes to make their point that Donovan deserved a hearing.  

"As you recall, in February 2004, all Senate office buildings closed because of the presence of toxin ricin in a Senate office. Even so, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on the President's budget request using the House Budget Committee's hearing room. Even under those extraordinary circumstances, the committee carried out its duties," they wrote.  

For what it's worth, Senate Democrats' top budget guy, Budget ranking member Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., was not in Washington at all for Budget Day, but was up in New Hampshire sparring with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Democratic votes in the Granite State's presidential primary.  

Van Hollen is also seeking higher office himself, running to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.  

Left without a congressional outlet, Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan spoke to the White House press corps and allowed that the administration had tempered expectations about this year's blueprint.  

"With many final year budgets, you either see an administration dramatically trim its sails and dial back on ambition, or use a budget that is solely a vision document with little that's relevant to the debate. This budget falls into neither of those camps," Donovan said, adding that Obama's proposals on cybersecurity, cancer research and addressing opioid addiction are areas of bipartisan agreement.  

But up on the Hill, even members of the president's party didn't talk too much about the budget, instead choosing to criticize Republicans for not moving fast enough on issues such as addressing the lead poisoning in the city of Flint, Mich., and the spread of the Zika virus.  

"No more speeches!" Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the chamber's No. 3 Democrat boomed at the microphones after the Senate policy lunches. "It is time to act for the safety and security of the American people," the New York Democrat thundered.  

Senate Republican leaders followed up the Democrats' microphone moments with their own shows of concerns about Zika, as well as the latest saber-rattling from North Korea.  

Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri noted that the Appropriations subcommittee he chairs, the Labor-Health and Human Services panel, will hold a hearing on Thursday about Zika and that there is still money left over from the fight against Ebola to address the new virus. "There's no immediate shortage," Blunt said.  

That made almost seven minutes of the GOP discussing other issues before someone addressed the budget released that day, Sen. Roger Wicker.  

"I think it's worth noting that the president's new budget, his final budget ... has arrived with a resounding thud here in the Congress of the United States," he said.  

Wicker just happens to be his caucus's top campaign officer, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, underscoring the political nature of the day.  

Contact Dick at jasondick@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @jasonjdick.

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