- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama emerged from this year’s congressional budget debate with a half-victory: a green light to pursue an overhaul of health care, accompanied by a rebuke over how to pay for it.

Obama’s plan to tackle global warming fared worse. Nine Democratic senators broke with him on a symbolic but politically resonant vote to cut inheritance taxes.

In short, Obama’s Democratic allies embraced providing health care to the uninsured, boosting education and promoting clean energy. But the second part of the equation _ finding billions of dollars to finance his agenda without further exploding the deficit _ suffered repeated setbacks in the Senate.

Good thing he got his two-year middle-class tax cut and many education priorities done early, in February’s stimulus bill. Those successes came considerably easier because they were cast as an antidote to a recession that has devoured 5 million jobs.

Still, Obama’s allies look upon the budget dance so far as a victory illustrated by the sizable votes this past week backing the companion House and Senate plans: a 233-196 tally in the House and a 55-43 vote in the Senate, where only two Democrats defected.

“It’s a realistic blueprint for restoring the promise of the American dream _ getting people back to work, ending our energy crisis, improving education for millions of students, and at long last achieving the goal of quality, affordable health care for all Americans,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

But Rep. Paul Ryan, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, said in his party’s radio address Saturday that the U.S. is in an economic crisis and the president’s plan “will make the crisis much, much worse. Rather than getting spending under control, it sends spending out of control.”

After a two-week spring vacation, lawmakers will try to merge the rival plans into one in late April. That will set the stage for later debates to put in place the goals in the nonbinding spending outline. They broadly track Obama’s agenda and promise action on many of his priorities.

But not all.

Democrats took pains to make sure their responses to Obama’s ambitious budget left out contentious proposals. They include auctioning permits for polluters to emit greenhouse gases or reducing the tax benefits that wealthier people take on itemized deductions such as charitable gifts and mortgage interest.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she won’t bring up a global warming bill until Democrats find an approach they can agree on. That might not happen this year.

A survey taken March 25 by the Gallup Poll showed that 39 percent of respondents had positive views of Obama’s budget plan and 27 percent had negative views. That was slightly worse than a poll taken just after the budget’s release in February.

Several votes taken in the Senate during last week’s debate further eroded Obama’s position.

On health care, the Senate voted 94-3 against lowering the tax benefits available to wealthier people taking advantage of deductions on charitable contributions. Obama wanted to have people in the upper brackets limited to a 28 percent deduction on itemized deductions instead of a maximum rate of 35 percent. That was projected to raise $318 billion over 10 years to pay for health care changes.

Obama’s global warming initiative, which relies on an approach that mean higher utility bills for consumers, lost several important votes. One was a 67-31 vote against allowing a future global warming bill to pass the Senate with fewer than 60 votes.

Nine Democrats broke with their leaders to vote for cutting taxes on multimillion-dollar estates. The 51-48 vote endorsed a nonbinding plan by Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to exempt estates up to $10 million from the estate tax, and taxing estates at a 35 percent rate instead of the $7 million exemption and 45 percent rate proposed by Obama.

“Certainly there are some storm clouds here. I think his budget so far has remained intact but there is some resistance to the specifics,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

Despite uncertainty about the future, Obama has claimed significant victories: a $400 tax cut for most workers and $25 billion in the stimulus bill for economically disadvantaged students and special education. The measure also raised the maximum Pell Grant by $500.

“He’s on track,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He got what he needed to fight another day. He didn’t get any guarantees of victory down the road.”


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Andrew Taylor has covered Congress since 1990.

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