Sunday, March 1, 2009

The White House on Sunday downplayed massive deficit spending and President Obama‘s pledge not to sign legislation laden with billions in earmarks amid Republican criticism that he was recanting on a key campaign promise.

The administration’s top budget official, Peter Orszag, said Mr. Obama would sign the $140 billion spending bill despite a campaign pledge that he would reject tailored budget requests that let lawmakers send money to their home states. Mr. Orszag said Mr. Obama would move ahead and overlook the time-tested tradition that lets officials divert millions at a time to pet projects.

It was the Washington equivalent of officials pinching their nose and swallowing a bitter pill.

“This is last year’s business,” Mr. Orszag said, offering an acknowledgment that Mr. Obama would sign a bill that doesn’t conform with his campaign vows. “We want to just move on. Let’s get this bill done, get it into law and move forward.”

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, offered mirrored language: “That’s last year’s business.”

The House last week passed the measure, which would keep the government open for business through Sept. 30, when the federal budget year ends. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, identified almost 8,600 earmarks totaling $7.7 billion; Democrats say the number is $3.8 billion.

Regardless of the precise number, it was still far more than Mr. Obama promised as a candidate. He refused earmarks for the economic stimulus package he championed, as well as a children’s health bill.

“We’re going to be working with the Congress. We want to make sure that earmarks are reduced, and they’re also transparent. We’re going to work with the Congress on a set of reforms to achieve those,” said Mr. Orszag, who is director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Mr. Obama’s top hands assigned responsibility to their predecessors and President George W. Bush. By blaming Bush-era proposals for deficits, Mr. Obama wanted to set up his own budget, which he unveiled last week with a bold proposal to cut the deficit by half within his four-year term with the budget that would start Oct. 1.

“First, this is a $1.7 trillion deficit he inherited. Let’s be clear about that. We inherited this deficit, and we inherited $4 trillion of new debt,” Mr. Emanuel said. “That is the facts.”

Facts, aides said, would be the cornerstone of the administration’s public relations push. Officials faced a tough haul, even as Mr. Orszag and others said the proposal would raise taxes on wealthy Americans and increase energy costs.

Mr. Emanuel said energy costs are too low anyway. U.S. car companies have relied too long on gas-guzzling autos and failed to invest in alternative energy vehicles, he said, and contended that the time for new auto fuels is now.

“They never invested in both alternative energy cars. They got dependent on big gas guzzlers. They didn’t do — they have a health-care cost structure that’s outdated,” Mr. Emanuel said, repeating the administration’s premise that health costs must come under control or else risk breaking all other pieces of the budget.

Republicans were not persuaded. Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and House minority whip, said Mr. Obama was failing on his promises.

“Listen, I mean, the president was elected by the people of this country to institute change in Washington and to finally demand a federal government that is accountable to the people,” he said. “The fact that there are 9,000 earmarks in this bill and the fact that the vetting process just doesn’t take place the way it should, we ought to stand up and draw the line right now and stop the waste.”

Mr. Orszag and Mr. Cantor appeared on ABC’s “This Week.” Mr. Emanuel spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

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