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Budget Battles Resume in US Congress

  • Michael Bowman

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (r) accompanied by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad speaks about the Congressional Budget Office's economic outlook during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Jan 26 2011

One day after President Barack Obama urged bipartisan cooperation to tackle America's ballooning national debt and budget deficit, Democratic and Republican lawmakers traded accusations Wednesday of fiscal irresponsibility and proposed radically different plans to reduce a $1.5-trillion federal deficit.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama called for bipartisanship, saying the nation "will move forward together, or not at all."

Less than 24 hours later, finger-pointing was alive and well among senators of both parties.

Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin:

"As the president urged Congress to invest in education, innovation and rebuilding, the Republicans continue pushing a budget plan that calls for decimation, stagnation, and complacency," he said. "The Republicans view the [federal] budget like a piñata. They believe if you put on a blindfold and swing away, not matter what you hit is wasteful [spending]. That is a mindless view when it comes to budgeting."

Meanwhile, many Republicans accused Democrats of leading the United States on a path to fiscal suicide and economic ruin.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah:

"Last night, the president spoke about our dangerous debt and his commitment to bringing it down," said Durbin. "But actions speak louder than words. He, unfortunately, recommitted to spending more money we don’t have on so-called ‘investments.’"

The comments reflect a decades-old ideological divide in American politics between those who view the government as indispensable for promoting and expanding economic progress, and those who see the government as a costly and wasteful burden on free enterprise.

To remedy the nation’s fiscal imbalance, Senator Hatch is reviving a proposal he made in 1997 - amending the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget, except during times of war.

Nevada Republican Senator John Ensign is a co-sponsor of the amendment, which he says is necessary to force discipline on a spendthrift Congress.

"By 2020, we will be paying over $1 trillion a year in interest on the national debt," he said. "That is unsustainable. It is critical that we pass the balanced budget amendment. Votes to cut spending are difficult. It is much easier to get reelected by giving money away than by taking tough political votes to cut spending."

Amending the U.S. Constitution requires passage by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states.

Few Democrats have ever embraced a balanced budget amendment.

Once again, Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin:

"I am just not one of those people who races to amend the Constitution," he said. "Taking a roller to a Rembrandt [defacing a painting masterpiece] has never been my goal."

Democrats say that if Republicans are serious about reducing the deficit, they should stop defending reduced tax rates for the wealthy and embrace targeted spending to boost economic output.

New York Senator Charles Schumer:

"You can’t say, ‘I’m for reducing the deficit, I’m for a balanced budget amendment,’ and then propose $1 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthy, which increase the deficit," he said. "You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth."

Republicans counter by saying that tax hikes hamper free enterprise and that Congress always finds ways to spend new revenue, rather than setting it aside for deficit reduction. Republicans also dismiss President Obama’s proposed five-year freeze on domestic federal spending because it would lock in higher spending levels enacted during Mr. Obama’s first two years in office.