- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2014

The budget President Obama will release Tuesday bows more to political realities than it does to the government’s fiscal picture, as the White House looks to do no harm to fellow Democrats in the run-up to November’s elections.

The fiscal 2015 document will call for about $56 billion in spending on top of the more than $1 trillion level already set by Congress as part of a bipartisan budget deal in December, and will tick off a laundry list of Democratic agenda items.

“You can view it as a reflection on the president’s priorities for spending, and that means in an election year it’s likely to have a lot of bullet-point campaign stickers in it,” said Lara Brown, director of the graduate school of political management at George Washington University.

“Let’s face it: The overall budget deal was essentially done in December, so we know what the top-line number is. What this is about — the devil is in the details — this is about what’s in the budget and the White House wanting to set up some contrasts,” she said.

Mr. Obama is submitting his budget a month later than what is required by law, and the plan is unlikely to make much difference on Capitol Hill, where Senate Democrats have ruled out passing a budget.

House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio has said he and his fellow Republicans will try to pass a budget in his chamber, though that could prove to be difficult as the party tries to balance the politics of reducing the deficit versus the hard cuts to popular programs that would be necessary to get there.

“Splits? There are no splits in our party,” Mr. Boehner joked with reporters last week, shaking off those worries.

It’s been five years since Congress has passed a normal budget, and Mr. Obama’s blueprints over the past few years have been shrugged off by Capitol Hill. Even last year’s olive-branch opening to Republicans — a proposal to lower the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits — didn’t gain traction, and Mr. Obama has erased it from this year’s document.

Much of this year’s plan remains under wraps, but the president is expected to argue that the deficit is now less than half what it was his first year in office, and so the federal government can afford to spend more on education, infrastructure, scientific and medical research, and manufacturing.

In other areas, the administration will call for cuts. The proposal will pare the size of the active-duty military but beef up special operations forces, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said.

Mr. Obama also will repeat his call to raise the nation’s hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 in what has become a major campaign issue for Democrats heading into the fall elections.

Speaking at a party gathering last week, Mr. Obama framed his “opportunity agenda” — which will be spelled out in detail in his budget proposal — as key to the nation’s economic future and said voters must elect Democrats in order to implement it.

“The choice could not be clearer: Opportunity for a few, or opportunity for all. That’s what this election is about,” the president told the Democratic National Committee.

Specifically, the White House has announced that it will call for a $1 billion federal “climate resilience” fund to better prepare the nation for the effects of climate change. The president also will propose a $302 billion infrastructure program that the White House argues will put Americans back to work while repairing the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, tunnels and ports.

The president also will call for expansions of the childless-worker earned-income tax credit and child care tax credits while proposing to make permanent tax credits for college students.

To pay for that spending, the president has called for the elimination of tax loopholes.

All told, the president’s budget is likely to call for nearly $1 trillion more in taxes over the next decade by getting rid of or limiting tax breaks for businesses such as oil companies and wealthier Americans.

But those are unlikely to gain traction in Congress, where Republicans have ruled out tax increases. They say the revenue side of the ledger was settled with last year’s “fiscal cliff” deal, which increased payroll taxes for all Americans and income tax rates for the wealthiest.

Congress doesn’t need to pass a full budget because spending levels for 2014 and 2015 were set in the December deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat.

That deal eased some of the sequester cuts and raised the cap on discretionary spending in exchange for a promise of deeper cuts later in the decade.

The fact that Congress already has set a spending level may open the door for a longer-term deficit reduction agreement, some analysts say, though such a deal is unlikely given the politics during an election year.

“You could make the case that because we had the budget deal in December, the president’s budget is less important. But I think you could make a case for the opposite,” said Mattea Kramer, research director at the National Priorities Project, a bipartisan, nonprofit research organization that focuses on the federal budget.

“We’re actually going to have more smooth sailing when it comes to the budget [as a result of last year’s deal], and that may open up space for more productive discussions between the president and Congress. But because it’s an election year, we may see nothing in terms of productive discussion,” she said.

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