- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Top administration officials tried to steer President Obama’s new $3.8 trillion budget through a U.S. congressional minefield on Tuesday as the day-old plan drew fire from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Democrats took shots at the budget’s proposed hits on some favored programs, including the elimination of NASA’s manned moon flight program and Army Corps of Engineers projects.

Republicans generally contended the package didn’t do enough to trim deficits while increasing taxes too much.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee, said Mr. Obama’s promise to freeze some domestic spending was more symbolism than substance.

“Sure, it’s the right sentiment, but it doesn’t get you anywhere,” Mr. Gregg said. “It’s small ball.”

He also blasted Mr. Obama’s proposal, being promoted on Tuesday on a presidential visit to New Hampshire, to use $30 billion in funds from the 2008 bank bailout program for a small-business lending program.

Mr. Gregg pointed out that money repaid by banks from the Troubled Assets Relief Program to the government is by law supposed to pay down the federal debt.

“It’s not for a piggy bank because you’re concerned about lending to small businesses,” Mr. Gregg told Peter R. Orszag, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

Mr. Orszag told Mr. Gregg the administration was well aware of the provision in the TARP legislation requiring money to be paid back and anything extra used to pay down the national debt.

That is why the administration is seeking legislation to authorize the $30 billion small-business lending program, Mr. Orszag said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, who chairs the Budget Committee, faulted the administration for not doing enough to stanch the deficit flood. While he said he agreed with Mr. Obama’s plan to spend more now to maintain the fragile economic recovery, Mr. Conrad said that the administration does not do nearly enough to address out-of-control deficits in the next few years.

“I don’t see the pivot” to tackling the deficit, Mr. Conrad said. “I don’t see the focus on bringing down that long-term debt.”

The expressions of skepticism and complaints showed how difficult it will be for Mr. Obama to win even the support of his own Democratic Party for his new budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

In a sign that not all of the budget’s proposals were in trouble, Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, said there is bipartisan support in the Senate to pass a bill that offers tax credits to employers that add workers.

Mr. Baucus said he supports Mr. Obama’s plan, and he noted that other senators on the committee, including Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, have proposed similar bills.

“We need to work on legislation that will create jobs,” Mr. Baucus said, “and we need to work across the aisle so that the legislation on which we work can become law.”

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told the committee the U.S. economy is stronger than it was a year ago, yet the government must continue to act to stimulate job growth.

Administration officials mounted a spirited sales pitch for Mr. Obama’s new budget, saying that overall it would help lift the economy and keep the nation strong.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the $768.2 billion defense part of the budget would help pay for “a broad portfolio of military capabilities” as it fights wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Gates said the spending also would help the United States “prepare for a much broader range of security capabilities.”

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel that the war in Afghanistan is now the Pentagon’s top priority. “The Afghan people are the center of gravity and defeat of al Qaeda the primary goal,” he said.

Administration officials testified at three separate Senate committees — Armed Services, Budget and Finance — to outline Mr. Obama’s new budget, stuffed with initiatives to spark jobs and lift the economy.

The budget was getting an early test with lawmakers weary of record deficits, wary of Mr. Obama’s tax ideas and nervous about winning re-election in November’s general election.

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