Obama Seeks Allies

President Looks for Votes in Budget Fight

Posted March 11, 2009 at 6:44pm

President Barack Obama on Wednesday huddled with Democrats on the Senate and House budget committees, the latest in a series of White House meetings designed to set the table for the year with key factions of the Democratic Caucus.

Obama on Tuesday gathered with New Democrats, a session that followed a meeting last week with the Congressional Black Caucus — which is entirely Democratic — and before that with the moderate-to-conservative Blue Dogs.

Obama’s charm offensive comes with his budget blueprint already stalled in the Senate, where it faces criticism from conservative Democrats who are resisting plans for tax increases, cuts in farm subsidies and a cap on carbon emissions.

Although the measure technically needs only a bare majority, cannot be filibustered and is nonbinding, it has emerged as an early proxy fight for the rest of Obama’s agenda.

Obama is hoping to preserve as many of his budget priorities as possible, but Senators emerging from the White House said he was talking flexibility and acknowledged that some of his specific proposals would change.

“He has sent us a blueprint, but he fully anticipates changes will be made to accommodate the interests of our colleagues,— Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said.

The disagreement between Democrats and the president on raising taxes is emerging as a key source of irritation for Obama.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Tuesday that he did not intend to vote for any tax increases, such as Obama’s proposal to reduce tax breaks for the rich who give to charities. Nor does he plan to support a cap-and-trade carbon emission plan if it would lead to higher utility bills every time a consumer turns on a light switch.

Similar revolts are building against other tax changes that Obama has proposed, including one to limit deductions that many Democrats privately consider to be a nonstarter.

At the meeting, according to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Obama said of his tax plans, “If you don’t care for ideas that I have, I’m going to be open to alternatives.—

Nelson has said like-minded Democrats could try to recruit enough Members to block any plan to use budget reconciliation rules to put tax increases or cap-and-trade legislation on a fast-track that would be exempt from filibusters.

Conrad has resisted talk of using those fast-track rules and is one of several Democrats to complain about cuts to agriculture subsidies proposed by Obama.

Without a consensus about new revenue or cuts in spending, the budget could either squeeze Obama’s ambitious priorities or lead to even larger deficits. Or lawmakers could simply punt on passage of a budget resolution, as Congress has done several times so far this decade, and simply move on to appropriations bills.

The Democratic Senators were eager after the White House gathering to emphasize areas where much of Obama’s budget may be preserved, pointing to consensus on general outlines of Obama’s plans for energy, education and health care.

Agriculture and earmarks, two key bones of contention, were barely discussed.

Many lawmakers are far more eager than Obama to preserve their ability to earmark. And powerful members from rural areas are wary of Obama’s plans to cut agriculture spending.

As he has previously, Conrad noted that Obama does not now have the votes to pass his budget. But he said he expects the votes to materialize as discussions progress.

Asked about the prospects for another stimulus package, Conrad said, “We’re certainly not there yet,— adding that “this would probably not be the moment to try to pass judgment on a package that nobody has put forward.—

Obama has yet to meet with GOP leaders on the budget, including Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (N.H.), Obama’s one-time pick for Commerce secretary.