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Conservative Democrats Walk Budget Tightrope

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The budget battles have officially started. President Obama was on Capitol Hill today and on TV last night pushing his spending plan. Democratic leaders of the House and Senate released their budgets today. These are blueprints for actual spending bills to come later in the year, but they force politicians to put real numbers on paper, setting priorities for the government.

And as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, this year's budget represents a major shift in those priorities.

ANDREA SEABROOK: It is a signal of how bad the economic situation is that one of the most committed fiscal conservatives in Congress said this today.

Representative JOHN SPRATT (Democratic Chairman, House Budget Committee): It's all but impossible to balance the budget when the economy is in recession. And for that matter, it's also not advisable.

SEABROOK: South Carolina's John Spratt, the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee. He has been a sharp-eyed deficit hawk. But today, he agreed with President Obama's view that pushing cash into the economy is necessary for recovery, even though over the next five years, it means spending trillions of dollars the government doesn't have.

To Congressman Paul Ryan, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, it is a strategy that sounds old fashioned, at best.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, House Budget Committee): With this budget, the president and the Democratic majority are attempting nothing less than the third and great final wave of government expansion, building on the great society and the New Deal.

SEABROOK: Democrats on the Budget Committee hailed the big increases for education and renewable energy. This budget also establishes so-called reserve funds. These are places in the budget where lawmakers can store saved money to be used later on big priorities, like a health care overhaul and energy independence. For Democrats representing rural areas, there was also good news.

Representative MARION BERRY (Democrat, Arkansas): We hadn't heard a president in eight years say the word infrastructure.

SEABROOK: Arkansas Democrat Marion Berry.

Rep. BERRY: It is such a relief to have a president that understands that if you don't make the necessary investments in education and infrastructure, no matter what else happens, you have absolutely no reason to expect that anything is going to get any better.

SEABROOK: And as those deficit hawks on the committee pointed out, the budget does cut annual deficits to about half their current size in five years.

Now, it may sound like your typical partisan fight, Democrats against Republicans, blue versus red. But when it comes to fiscal issues, there is a fuzzy purple area where the parties overlap. Fiscal conservatives who are social moderates, they're caught in the middle in this debate, especially the so-called Blue Dog Democrats.

Rep. RYAN: I want to make a plea to a special select audience.

SEABROOK: Republican Paul Ryan.

Rep. RYAN: I want to ask my friends, the Blue Dog Democrats, do you really want all this government? Do you want your fingerprints on this massive and unprecedented growth in our national debt?

SEABROOK: Conservative Democrats are getting hit from the left, as well.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: It's what's wrong with Wall Street and Washington. AIG executives get millions in bonuses after running their company into the ground, and we get to pay for it.

SEABROOK: And these blows are hitting home literally. This is a radio ad sponsored by the liberal advocacy group, moveon.org, that is running in the home districts of 10 Democrats who are fiscal conservatives.

(Soundbite of moveon.org ad)

Unidentified Man #2: President Obama's new budget will make Wall Street pay its fair share and use the savings to invest in energy, education and health care.

SEABROOK: The ad aims to get voters to pressure conservative Democrats to support this budget. And if you're feeling a little deja vu, it's because it does sound just like a campaign commercial from last year. This time though, the vote everyone will be watching will be in Congress on the budget scheduled for next week.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.
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