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In Obama's Washington, Spending Fights a Constant

FILE - President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Department of Homeland Security on his FY2016 budget proposal, Feb. 2, 2015.
FILE - President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Department of Homeland Security on his FY2016 budget proposal, Feb. 2, 2015.

One of the enduring themes of the U.S. presidency of Barack Obama has been the contentious fights with Republican lawmakers over government spending priorities.

Time and again, the White House and Congressional Republicans have sparred over his proposals to spend more money for domestic programs, such as health-care reforms, more massive construction investment to fix the country’s deteriorating infrastructure, and environmental regulations. He often called for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

In turn, conservative Republicans have sought to boost government spending on defense and national security programs as the threat of international terrorism has grown, while trimming spending on programs inside the United States. Spurred on by conservative activists across the country, the Republican lawmakers sought to cut the size of government, and only once agreed to higher taxes on the most affluent.

Now, as Obama enters the last 15 months of his presidency, before departing the White House in January 2017, the end of the budget battles may be at hand.

While there are still likely to be tempests over the level of spending for individual programs, Congress completed work early Friday on a spending plan that carries into March 2017 and also increased the country’s borrowing authority. Obama says he will quickly sign the measure to avert the country’s latest financial cliffhanger, avoiding a first-ever default next week on the country’s long-term debt obligations.

From the earliest days in his first term in 2009, when Obama called for hundreds of billions in spending to help pull the world’s largest economy out of the biggest recession since the 1930s, through a lengthy fight that resulted in a 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013, and numerous spats since over lifting government spending caps, budget battles have been a Washington constant.

The 2013 government closure was spawned over funding to implement what came to be known as Obamacare, the large-scale national health-care reforms that Obama championed and Republicans have unsuccessfully sought to repeal on dozens of occasions. The law has helped millions of Americans buy health insurance, but millions more remain uninsured.

Other fights occurred with regularity over whether to boost the government’s borrowing authority, commonly known in Washington jargon as increasing the debt ceiling, now at more than $18 trillion. Obama and Democrats viewed the regular disputes as lifting the debt cap so the government could borrow more money to support spending — salaries for bureaucrats and troops, retirees' benefits, foreign assistance, health care and supplies for civilian workers and soldiers alike — that had already been authorized and approved by Congress. Republicans viewed this process as government spending run amok; they used debt-ceiling deadlines as a bargaining tool, trying to extract spending cuts from the president.

Obama and Republican leaders have, at various times, attempted to reach accord on a massive tax and spending agreement that could last for years. All those efforts failed. Everyone involved usually settled for more modest reforms covering as few months, until they faced a new deadline and another year’s budget turmoil.

In 2011, Obama and Congress agreed on the Budget Control Act, intended to set firm spending caps for the next decade. But as the new spending limits came up, year by year, Obama and Congress back-tracked, finding new ways to lift spending, increasing the country’s long-term debt but also boosting spending for favored defense and domestic programs.

Democratic and Republican leaders took the same path this week in reaching the new agreement with Obama, adding $80 billion in spending over the next two years, split evenly between domestic and defense programs.

As in years past, the lawmakers agreed that the pact was not ideal, and not everything that either side wanted.

But it was a deal, and because it extends into the first quarter of 2017, it could be the last of the Obama presidency.