- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Facing misgivings within his own party, President Barack Obama mounted a stout defense of the administration’s economic blueprint Thursday, arguing that delay on health care, energy and education would make “recovery more fragile and our future less secure.”

The president’s far-reaching plans faced skepticism from both Democrats and Republicans, as senators questioned his long-term budget outlook and the deficits it envisions in the middle of the next decade.

Sen. Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Budget Committee called the track of future deficits “unsustainable” and singled out Obama’s proposal for spending $634 billion on health care over the next 10 years.

“Some of us have a real pause about the notion of putting substantially more money into the health care system when we’ve already got a bloated system,” said Conrad, D-N.D.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, testifying before Conrad’s committee, also encountered blunt questions about the administration’s plans for shoring up the nation’s banks. He reiterated the administration’s goal to lay out a private-public partnership fund designed to make up to $1 trillion in financing available to help banks clear their books of toxic, mortgage-related assets that have led to a national credit freeze.

Geithner hinted more money might be required beyond the existing $700 billion financial rescue fund. “We certainly can start with the resources we have,” he said.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., played down talk that Democrats would consider a second economic stimulus bill.

“I know that people have made suggestions that we should be ready to do something, but I really would like to see this stimulus package play out,” Pelosi said. “It’s just not something that, right now, is in the cards,” she added later.

The flurry of comments illustrated the complicated moving parts confronting Washington as the economy continues to decline, credit remains clogged and a new president advances broad and expensive initiatives. The money set aside to address those needs so far has been staggering _ $787 billion for an economic stimulus designed to save and create jobs, $700 billion approved by Congress for the financial rescue package and hundreds of billions more through programs from the Federal Reserve Bank.

On top of that, Obama wants to overhaul health care, reduce greenhouse-gas pollution and undertake major changes in energy policy. He’s projecting a federal deficit of $1.75 trillion this year, by far the largest in history, but says he can get it down to $533 billion by 2013.

“I am not choosing to address these additional challenges just because I feel like it, or because I’m a glutton for punishment,” Obama said in prepared remarks to the Business Roundtable. “I am doing so because they are fundamental to our economic growth, and to ensuring that we don’t have more crises like this in the future.”

Obama said his health and energy changes would build a foundation for a lasting economic recovery, arguing that the current economic crisis was precipitated by an “illusion of prosperity.”

Critics of Obama’s budget, such as Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., complained that the spending blueprint does not tackle the rising costs of Social Security and Medicare. Geithner said the administration intends to confront higher health care costs with broad changes that will lower Medicare spending.

Geithner is at the center of Obama’s economic policy, advocating for its budget proposals and tax policies, as well as the rescue program for the financial sector. He faced questions on all those fronts before heading to London for talks Friday and Saturday with finance officials from the Group of 20 nations.

Obama’s budget would raise taxes, starting in 2011, on individuals earning more than $200,000 and on households earning more than $250,000. Geithner said the increases would kick in after the economy was expected to be in recovery.

But he sidestepped a question by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, about whether the administration would let the increases take effect if the economy had not recovered in two years. “We have to watch how the economy evolves,” Geithner said.

At the White House, the administration conferred with state officials about how the $787 billion in stimulus money will go out.

Vice President Joe Biden opened the meeting by warning state officials that if they misuse money from the stimulus package, they should not expect more help from the federal government for a long time.

“If we don’t get this right, folks, this is the end of the ability to convince Congress that anything should go to the states,” Biden said.

Added Obama: “If we see money being misspent, we’re going to put a stop to it.”

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