WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats gave President Barack Obama a warm welcome on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, even as they prepared to cut as much as $180 billion from his proposed $3.55 trillion fiscal 2010 budget.
Democrats downplayed the adjustments and said that they felt only harmony with the president.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a centrist leader, said "there's nothing unusual about the Senate making some changes," while Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who led the effort to modify the budget, said he'd "preserved the president's key priorities."
The White House was similarly pleased, and Budget Director Peter Orszag called the congressional budgets "98 percent the same" as Obama's.
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Budget committees in the House of Representatives and Senate hope to finish writing their versions of the 2010 budget on Thursday, with votes expected next week in both the full Senate and House.
Obama's Capitol visit was his latest public-relations effort on behalf of his $3.55 trillion fiscal 2010 budget. It followed last weekend's mobilizing of volunteers to knock on doors urging public support — which failed to generate much pressure on Capitol Hill — and a Tuesday night prime-time news conference.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the president's budget would create a $1.38 trillion deficit next year and a $749 billion deficit in 2014.
The congressional budget committees worked Wednesday from blueprints prepared by their chairmen. The House approach would reduce the federal deficit, estimated at $1.7 trillion this year, to $1.22 trillion next year — $158 billion less than Obama's deficit — and to $598.4 billion by 2014. The Senate version aims for a 2010 deficit of $1.2 trillion — $180 billion less than Obama's — and forecasts a $508 billion deficit by 2014.
The House and Senate plans eliminate the $250 billion "placeholder" that Obama wanted for future government bailouts of ailing companies.
They also reduce Obama's bid to increase by 10.1 percent nondefense discretionary spending, which includes many of his key domestic initiatives. Conrad proposed a 7 percent increase, while House Democrats want to trim the increase to 9.5 percent.
Congressional Democrats' changes could be seen two ways: As the work of lawmakers gently asserting their independence from the president, or as members of Congress smoothing the legislative path for Obama by making the budget more palatable to moderates and thus easier to pass.
Conrad said the motivation was simple: The CBO's new, bigger deficit projections last week made adjustments to the Obama budget necessary.
"When we got the new forecast, and I had the responsibility of delivering that news to him, he understood immediately the implications," Conrad said. "He understood immediately that I would have to make adjustments."
The outline the committees are writing is only intended to set legally-binding general guidelines for spending and revenue for next year. The budget bills leave to other committees future crucial decisions on health care, global warming initiatives, the federal role in education and Obama's "Making Work Pay" tax break — his core priorities.
Though no funds are provided for any of those plans, the budget leaves doors wide open for congressional action.
"We didn't exclude or include. What we did is leave open to the committees of jurisdiction maximum flexibility to make these judgments," Conrad said. "We have not prejudged a legislative outcome."
The reason for the vagueness, he and others suggested, is that including controversial items would hurt the budget's chances of passage. Once Congress passes its final budget, probably next week, other committees can begin creating what Conrad calls "reserve funds that could include the president's proposals," as long as any new spending is offset by cuts or revenue generators.
That's why, after the Obama meeting, Democrats could claim victory, because they'd met the president's broadest goals of cutting the inherited deficit in half in five years, making a "down payment" on health-care changes, creating a "path to energy independence" and examining the federal role in education.
No one even asked about specifics, said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. "We just came together," she said.
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