Republicans Split on Need to Offer Rival for Budget
By CARL HULSE
March 13, 2009
WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are engaged in a highly coordinated political assault on President Obama’s budget, but they are not so united when it comes to offering an alternative to the spending plan they have been shredding as irresponsible.
Breaking with the House, Senate Republicans say they do not intend to offer a full counterproposal to Mr. Obama’s sweeping $3.6 trillion spending blueprint, a decision that will spare them from outlining potentially painful decisions required to bring federal books more in line with their call to hold down spending, cut taxes and reduce the deficit.
“The responsibility of the majority is to produce the budget,” said Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, senior Republican on the Budget Committee, “and we think it is more constructive to point out how we would improve their budget.”
With a month to go before Congress is supposed to pass a budget resolution, Democrats say the absence of a competing Senate Republican plan makes Republican complaints about the Obama approach ring hollow. Would Republicans, they ask, continue to keep the costs of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan off the books? Account for the costly annual change to protect middle-class taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax? Set up a disaster fund to prepare for emergencies?
“They are long on criticism and short on a plan,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “They have a communications strategy instead of an economic one.”
House Republicans said they intended to deliver a comprehensive alternative to the Obama plan to show how they would respond to the federal government’s deepening fiscal difficulties but were not ready to provide details.
As they try to reassert themselves as guardians of fiscal discipline after their own years of deficit spending, Republicans have been providing a steady stream of complaints depicting Mr. Obama’s plan as spending too much, taxing too much and borrowing too much.
The effort is being made with more than the usual level of cooperation between House and Senate Republicans, with Republican leaders of the two chambers appearing in tandem and lawmakers repeating their antibudget criticism almost as a mantra.
In contrast to the first weeks of the Obama presidency, the attacks are aimed squarely at Mr. Obama, whose popularity initially shielded him from Republican criticism.
“Republicans in the House and Senate, with some degree of cooperation and collaboration, are going to attempt to both challenge the assumptions and the content of the president’s budget,” said Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, the No. 3 Republican in the House.
Democrats are trying to exploit the absence of a Republican alternative, creating a Web page with a clock counting the hours since the Obama budget was introduced on Feb. 26 with no Republican alternative put forth. It lampoons Republicans as the “Party of No.”
Some Republicans acknowledge that the constant repetition of their budget message could turn it stale in Washington, but they say such persistence is required to break through with the general public.
With their majorities in the House and Senate lost, Republican leaders say that an effective communications strategy is their best hope. They say they have little ability to influence the legislative debate, particularly in the House, if Democrats are determined to press ahead with Mr. Obama’s plan to take on health care, climate change, education, transportation and other major issues.
“As I told my colleagues, we don’t have enough votes to legislate,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader. “We are not in the majority. We are not kind-of in the minority; we are in a hole. They ought to get the idea out of their minds that they are legislators. But what they can be is communicators.”
The House has a history in which the minority party and other coalitions have often proposed their own budgets to draw distinctions with the party in power. Senate Democrats have offered alternative budgets in the past, including one in 2001, the first year of the George W. Bush’s presidency.
Compared to Republicans in the Senate, it will be easier for those in the House to push forward a competing spending plan because so many of them represent conservative areas where cuts in federal spending are less of a political liability.
Senators have broader constituencies and a budget that meets Republican fiscal goals could be a difficult vote for some Republicans.
House Republicans offered an alternative to Mr. Obama’s economic stimulus that they said was less costly and created more jobs, though economists and others challenged the Republican economic assumptions and claims. Mr. Pence and Mr. Boehner said House Republicans believed they needed to propose their own budget to bolster the credibility of their criticisms of the Obama plan.
“It is incumbent for us to get out there and make sure people understand we have a better solution,” Mr. Boehner said.
Republicans are taking a political risk in offering such relentless resistance to Mr. Obama’s agenda, given his popularity and the gains Democrats made in Congress last year.
But they say they believe the public is becoming alarmed at the level of spending being pursued by Democrats. They intend to use the next month of budget debate to reinforce that impression.
“The question before the American people is whether the American family can afford the Democrats’ spending, the Democrats’ taxing and the Democrats’ borrowing,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. “We have four weeks to make that case.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2009, on page A9 of the New York edition