President Obama Faces Tough Budget Fight

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told me today that while she voted for the president's $787 billion stimulus package, she doesn't intend to vote for his $3.6 trillion budget that will be debated this week in both the House and the Senate.

Collins cited a Congressional Budget Office report Friday that estimated the deficit will actually be $2.3 trillion higher over the next 10 years than the president's initial budget estimates.

"It brings our debt levels to an unprecedented level.  It would double the public debt in five years, triple it in 10 years, the highest percentage of GDP since after World War II, CBO says, by the year 2019, 82 percent of GDP.  That's the equivalent of the public debt. That is not sustainable.  It poses a threat to the basic health of our economy," Collins said on "This Week" Sunday.

"Look, $2.3 trillion over 10 years is a stunning amount of money," said Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

"In fairness to this administration, they locked down their forecasts three months ago.  There's been a lot of bad news since. So we've got a worsening situation.  That requires adjustments, and it's going to have to be across a broad front, including agriculture," he said.

Jared Bernstein, the vice president's chief economics adviser, said President Barack Obama intends to "stand very firm" on priorities including health care.

"The president is prepared to negotiate on this budget with folks like those at this table, and certainly Senator Conrad has been a longtime budget negotiator at times like these.  And the president's been very clear about this, as has our budget director. We don't expect these folks to sign on the dotted line," Bernstein said. "What we do expect -- what we do expect and what we are going to stand very firm on, because this president, this vice president have made this clear, that there are these priorities that brought them to the dance here:  energy reform, health care reform, education, alldone in the context of a budget that cuts the deficit in half over our first term."

Bernstein acknowledged the president's budget "ramps up" deficit spending in the first few years.

"The reason we do that is because this economy is facing something we really haven't talked about yet today, one of the deepest and more far-reaching recessions of any of our lifetimes, backed up by a -- a crisis in financial markets that we haven't seen since the days of the Great Depression," Bernstein said.

Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana said House Republicans are going to come up with a comprehensive budget alternative.

"It's going to be a comprehensive alternative.  And let me tell you, after -- it's after months of runaway spending on the federal level.  I mean, we saw last -- last year's Wall Street bailout, the part of -- auto bailout, and then we saw the so-called stimulus bill, then the omnibus bill. You know, the American people have had it.  I mean, the president's budget, the American people know, spends too much, taxes too much, and it borrows too much.  And they want this government and this administration to start doing what families in my district in eastern Indiana, small businesses and family farms are doing, and that is making decisions, setting aside tomorrow what we don't have to spend until today, and putting the family budget ahead of the federal budget," Pence said.

But Conrad argued that if the government hadn't intervened in the economy, "we'd be back to Hoover economics."

"If we did not take these aggressive steps to give lift to the economy at this time of significant contraction, we could have faced an economic collapse.  And that wasn't just my view.  That was the view of the head of the Federal Reserve.  That was the view of the Republican secretary of treasury.  That was the view of the Republican president of the United States," Conrad said.

Conrad said he will be presenting a budget that makes investments the president's priorities without adding to the deficit in an unsustainable way over the long term.

"I will present a budget that I think begins to move in that direction.  It acknowledges in the short term, yes, we have got to have added deficits and debt to give lift to this economy, but longer term, we have got to pivot.  We have got to have fundamental reform of our entitlement programs.  We've got to have fundamental reform of our revenue programs, because we've got a tax system that was really built 50 years ago and is no longer relevant," Conrad said.

Collins said that if the president's health care reform provisions are put inside the budget reconciliation legislation -- which would avoid a 60-vote Senate showdown -- she wouldn't vote for it.

"It would be a big mistake," Collins said. "You don't make major changes in policy using a system that shuts out the Republicans, that limits debate, that prohibits amendments. And I know it's not just Republicans who are concerned about this, the centrist Democrats who are very concerned about this."

Bernstein said that while the president would like to avoid this fast-track approach, it's still "on the table."

"I don't think he took it off the table.  I think it has to stay on the table.  But it's something we would rather avoid," Bernstein said.

Conrad said the fast-track approach isn't included in his budget.

"It is not included in the budget that I will present to my colleagues.  I have said for weeks, I don't think it is the right way to write substantive legislation, because if you get into the details -- and we won't do that here -- it just doesn't work very well," Conrad said. "But what they're -- what they're talking about...is negotiating leverage, sending a signal that it still remains open."

-- George Stephanopoulos

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