- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2009

Forget about Republican objections. The biggest obstacle to President Obama‘s progressive budget comes from Democrats from states with a lot of conservative voters, a lot of farms or a lot of old-time industry.

The factious caucus already has forced Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill to trim some of Mr. Obama’s spending plans and proposals, and will whittle the budget further as it moves through both chambers and a final conference committee negotiation.

“I think most Democrats have the approach that we are not here to represent the president. We’re here to represent the states that sent us here,” said Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas. “That means that even though we’re Democrats, our first priority is to do what’s right and what’s best for our states.”

With Mr. Obama largely relegated to the sidelines now, work by Senate and House committees Wednesday reflected the majority party’s competing regional and economic interests, some of which are at odds with the president’s $3.6 trillion plan.

Democrats catering to fiscally conservative states and districts succeeded in trimming the budget by $100 billion in both the chambers, while the Senate version also let Mr. Obama’s signature “Make Work Pay” tax cut expire after 2010 to help rein in future deficits.

Farm state lawmakers managed to save agriculture subsidies that Mr. Obama wanted to eliminate. That’s a fight White House budget director Peter R. Orszag said will continue as the party’s Hill leaders try to find other places to cut agriculture payments.

Mr. Orszag said the administration also will try to reverse other omissions, such as getting a long-term middle-class tax cut through a task force the president will set up to overhaul the tax code.

One of the most striking setbacks was on Mr. Obama’s ambitious energy and climate change agenda.

Rather than wrestle with Democrats from Rust Belt states opposed to Mr. Obama’s plans fight climate change with a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, budget negotiators in both the House and Senate omitted the program and the $646 billion in “climate revenue” anticipated from selling pollution credits to businesses.

The White House nevertheless declared victory Wednesday, with Mr. Orszag claiming the House and Senate versions are “98 percent the same” as the administration’s plan.

“Yes, there are some differences, but I think the big story is how similar these two things are, rather than the small adjustments,” Mr. Orszag said in a conference call with reporters.

Besides omitting details for any of Mr. Obama’s top priorities of health care reform, education and green energy, both the Senate and the House omitted $250 billion that the administration wanted for future financial industry bailouts.

The House version projects a $1.2 trillion deficit for 2010 that drops to about $598 billion in 2014, similar to the Senate’s deficits of $1.2 trillion next year and $508 billion in 2014.

“You can go through almost anything in this budget and you will find at least one of the caucuses within our caucus would be raising issues about them,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat. “But that’s what the legislative process is all about.”

Just as Democrats find themselves bargaining with their flanks, Republicans have been in the same awkward position in the past.

In 2003, trying to win passage of a second round of tax cuts under President George W. Bush, Republican congressional leaders had to negotiate with two Senate Republicans who insisted the tax cuts be limited to $350 billion.

Realizing they couldn’t get a budget without the votes of Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Republican leaders yielded.

In a move to keep the congressional budgets from diverging too far from his original blueprint, Mr. Obama visited the Capitol Wednesday to lunch with his party’s senators and urge them to keep his goals intact.

“He didn’t make a pitch for his plan - he made a pitch for his priorities,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat. “That’s the process; he kicks off, we receive, we run the ball, we call the plays and he likes some, he doesn’t like some.”

But Mr. Nelson, a fiscal conservative, questioned the budget’s overall price tag and would not commit to supporting it. “If I can support him I will, if I can’t I won’t. But I won’t obstruct,” he said.

Other lawmakers downplayed dissension within the caucus.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad said the decision not to allocate money for Mr. Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal does not kill the idea.

“We didn’t exclude or include,” the North Dakota Democrat said. “What we did is leave open to the committees of jurisdiction maximum flexibility to make these judgments so they can write climate change legislation if it’s paid for.”

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