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Obama's new budget plan a lightning rod for criticism, praise

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 14, 2012 - WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's election-year budget-- which calls for more spending to boost infrastructure and economic growth as well as higher taxes for the very wealthy -- ran into heavy flak from Republicans who complained Monday that it does not do nearly enough to shrink the trillion-dollar budget deficit.

While U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., denounced the budget plan as "a campaign document" stuffed with "reckless spending," most congressional Democrats rallied behind the proposal as important to foster a slowly recovering economy.

"This is a budget that understands that the road to recovery and debt reduction requires investing intelligently in America's workers and creating new business opportunities," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He said the plan "takes a balanced approach ... by reducing our debt while sustaining the economic recovery and creating jobs."

The Obama administration's $3.8 trillion budget proposal, released Monday, is a mere blueprint, not likely to be adopted in either house of Congress this year. It calls for the "Buffett Rule" minimum tax on millionaires that Obama outlined last month and proposes $800 billion for job creation and infrastructure, including billions of dollars for roads, railways and schools across the country.

The White House projected that annual budget deficit to be about $1.33 trillion in fiscal 2012. That would represent about 8.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, but the deficit would fall to about 5.5 percent of GDP the following fiscal year.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., whose political opponents are trying to tie her to the Obama budget (see below), sought to distance herself from the plan on Monday. In a statement, she said the White House's proposed deficit levels were "unacceptable" and she called for a bipartisan compromise in Congress this year on budget issues.

"The president has submitted his ideas, but what we really need is for Congress to come together to forge a bipartisan compromise that cuts at least $4 trillion out of our national debt," McCaskill said. "Unfortunately, this budget still includes unacceptable deficit levels, and I'm ready to work with Democrats and Republicans alike to tackle this problem."

Plan Denounced by Congressional Republicans

In a speech Monday in Annandale, Va., Obama said, "The main idea in the budget is this: At a time when our economy is growing and creating jobs at a faster clip, we've got to do everything in our power to keep this recovery on track."

While Republicans accused him of worsening the deficit, Obama asserted that "if Congress adopts this budget, then along with the cuts that we've already made, we'll be able to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion by the year 2022.... I'm proposing some difficult cuts that, frankly, I wouldn't normally make if they weren't absolutely necessary."

But Blunt, the fifth-ranking Senate Republican, joined his GOP leadership colleages in blasting Obama's budget at a news conference Monday in the Capitol.

"Instead of working with Congress to pass a real budget that meets the nation's needs and reins in out-of-control spending, President Obama sent a proposal that includes the highest tax hike in American history and more of the same reckless spending that has forced our nation's record debt to skyrocket," said Blunt.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said the Senate will not vote on a budget this year -- having approved a spending blueprint as part of last summer's deficit-reduction law. Blunt criticized the White House for failing to insist on a Senate vote.

"The president's budget proposal is bad for job creation, bad for seniors, and will make the economy worse," Blunt contended in a statement. "People in Missouri and across America deserve better."

Taking the opposite view was Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat. He said Obama's budget makes some tough choices but also invests in three key areas -- education, innovation and infrastructure -- in an effort to create jobs and strengthen the U.S. role in the global economy.

Durbin said the White House budget plan, coupled with the discretionary spending caps included in last summer's Budget Control Act, would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years. That includes nearly $600 billion in savings in mandatory spending over the next decade, Durbin said, with much of that coming from health savings that build on the Affordable Care Act. Another $1.5 billion in savings would come from tax reform that lowers rates, reduces deductions and loopholes and bolsters economic growth.

Calling for greater fairness and "shared responsibilities," Obama told the Virginia crowd on Monday that Congress should approve his "Buffett rule" proposal for a minimum 30 percent tax on millionaires. He said that would replace the current alternative minimum tax, which now hits many middle-income taxpayers.

Reaction from Region's Delegation Follows Party Lines

Among members of Missouri's congressional delegation, reaction to Obama's budget tended, as usual, to fall along party lines.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said the budget "strikes a common sense balance by cutting $4 trillion in wasteful spending over the next decade while still making critical investments in job creation, worker retraining, community health care, access to higher education and stabilizing neighborhoods."

Clay said Obama's call for $50 billion for infrastructure projects -- as part of a new six-year $476 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill -- "would create thousands of skilled construction jobs in the St. Louis area and across Missouri." He also said Obama's budget would protect Medicare, Social Security and Pell grants for students.

Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, also praised Obama's focus on rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and manufacturing sector. "The president's deficit-reduction proposals, together with growth-focused investments in transportation infrastructure and manufacturing, are a blueprint for building an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded," Carnahan said.

Calling on Congress to approve more investment in transportation infrastructure, Carnahan said Obama's budget "recognizes the significant long-term investment we must make to rebuild our nation's crumbling infrastructure and create millions of jobs."

But Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, accused Obama of sending Congress an "irresponsible" budget. "With this budget, President Obama continues his reckless deficit spending -- buying political favor today by borrowing from future generations," said Akin, a member of the House Budget Committee.

"Simultaneously, the president is walking away from one of the primary jobs of the federal government: keeping our country secure," said Akin, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "The president talks about focusing on Asia while cutting Navy shipbuilding by 25 percent. The president talks about a more flexible military while cutting about a hundred airlift aircraft."

Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said he was "extremely disappointed that the president's proposed budget contains more spending we can't afford and increases taxes on hard-working Americans at a time when people need more money in their pockets."

While Obama "asks our military to continue to do more with less," Luetkemeyer asserted, "the president's proposed budget continues to enlarge the federal government and tax Americans more, and does nothing to spur job creation or economic growth."

Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, said he had "some concerns with individual pieces of the president's budget proposal," but in general he supports Obama's "continued emphasis on making targeted investments -- particularly in transportation infrastructure -- while cutting the deficit significantly over the long term."

Added Costello in a statement: "The president understands that improving our roads, bridges, airports and waterways not only puts people to work immediately, but it makes our economy more efficient now and for decades into the future." He said "maintaining Social Security, Medicare and an adequate social safety net also makes sense."

Universities Praise Commitment to Research

While the White House budget asks for only about a 1 percent overall increase in federal research funding, some universities and research institutes said that is better than a cut.

"The president's budget recognizes the importance of funding for the kinds of basic scientific research that is carried out at great American research universities," said Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University. He said Monday that Obama's budget request reflected the importance of continued investment in scientific research at universities and institutes around the country.

"Especially in the midst of a challenging fiscal environment, I appreciate that the president has chosen to maintain our nation's investment in scientific research." Wrighton said in a statement

In the last fiscal year, WU scientists, medical researchers and other scholars were awarded more than $600 million in research funding, of which about $450 million came from federal sources such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Under the budget proposal, the National Science Foundation would get a 5 percent budget boost; the National Institute of Standards and Technology would get more than 10 percent higher funding; and the Energy Department's science office would get an increase of about 2.5 percent.

U.S. Senate Gop Candidates Bash Budget

All three of the Republicans who are vying for the nomination to run against McCaskill in November issued statements Monday bashing the White House budget and seeking to tie the senator to it.

Calling Obama's budget plan "fiscally irresponsible and outrageous," Sarah Steelman said that "McCaskill and Obama, along with the rest of the Senate Democrats, sat and watched as our credit rating dropped last summer because of our debt outlook. And what do they do? Spend more money that we don't have."

GOP Senate hopeful John Brunner charged that Obama's budget "fails America. Rather than providing the leadership required to honestly attack our country's continually increasing annual deficits and unsustainable national debt, President Obama's 2013 budget uses trickery and sleight-of-hand to fudge the numbers." He contended that the $4 trillion savings over the next decade that the White House claims is "simply an illusion. In reality, the president's proposed 2013 budget only contains approximately $300 billion in actual deficit reductions over the next ten years."

Added Brunner: "Between the inability of Claire McCaskill and Senate Democrats to pass a budget for three straight years and President Obama's refusal to lead on economic policy, it is clear that Democratic leadership is failing."

In addition to comments quoted above, Akin's campaign issued a statement asserting that, "Today America is threatened with a clear and present danger from within -- creeping socialism. The Obama/McCaskill Team has America on the brink of insolvency and yet their only solution is more spending."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.