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GOP challenges Obama on spending

CHALLENGING OBAMA “This is not a time to be looking at pumping up government spending in very many areas,” Senator McConnell said. CHALLENGING OBAMA
“This is not a time to be looking at pumping up government spending in very many areas,” Senator McConnell said.
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
New York Times / January 24, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans, seeking to recapture the debate over economic recovery in advance of President Obama’s State of the Union address, warned yesterday that they would oppose any new spending initiatives and press ahead with their plans for budget cuts in every realm of government, including the military.

In a series of carefully choreographed appearances on Sunday morning talk shows, Republicans sought to draw the battle lines for tomorrow night’s speech over government spending. With Obama planning to call for “investments’’ of tax dollars in targeted areas such as education, infrastructure, and technology, Republicans insisted that investment is just another name for spending that the nation can ill afford.

“With all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it investment, so I think you will hear the president talk about investing a lot Tuesday night,’’ Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said on “Fox News Sunday.’’ “This is not a time to be looking at pumping up government spending in very many areas.’’

McConnell’s House counterpart, Representative Eric Cantor, said that his party would demand “deep spending cuts’’ in all areas and that the military, an area of the budget that Republicans ordinarily view as sacrosanct, would not be exempt. “Every dollar should be on the table,’’ Cantor said in an appearance on “Meet the Press’’ on NBC.

The appearances laid the groundwork for a fierce clash between the Republicans and Obama over spending, the size and scope of government, and the federal deficit; that fight could have profound effects on the path the nation takes as it emerges from worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It occurs against the backdrop of the early days of the 2012 presidential race, as Obama prepares for his reelection campaign and Republicans position themselves to pick a candidate to challenge him.

At issue is whether government should be a tool for strengthening a fragile recovery through spending of the sort Obama suggests, or whether the federal deficit, already in excess of $1.4 trillion, is so threatening that Washington must make the kind of sweeping and immediate spending cuts that Republicans are calling for.

The public itself seems split, or perhaps confused. Americans overwhelmingly say that in general they prefer cutting government spending to paying higher taxes, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll published last week. Yet their preference for spending cuts, even in programs that benefit them, dissolves when they are presented with specific options related to Medicare and Social Security, the programs that directly touch millions of lives and are the biggest drivers of the long-term deficit.

The spending versus cutting debate is, in effect, a reprise of the fight Obama has been having with Republicans since the outset of his presidency. But this one occurs in a very different political context, with a divided Congress and a president who is trying to reposition himself as a centrist after the self-described “shellacking’’ his party took in the November midterm elections.

Republicans, vowing to make spending cuts a top priority, took control of the House and increased their numbers in the Senate. Now, two months later, Obama is himself doing better in the eyes of the public. Americans are showing the first hints of optimism about the recovery and are giving the president credit for working in a bipartisan way during the lame-duck Congress — sentiments that are reflected in his job approval ratings, which are inching upward.

Now, each side is trying to gain the upper hand in the spending debate. Where Republicans campaigned on a theme of deep reductions in federal spending, calling for $100 billion cuts this fiscal year alone, Obama is trying to sell the public a more nuanced, gradual approach.

In speeches over the past several months, and especially over the last week, he has outlined an approach that emphasizes growth and competition, and a slow easing of government intervention in the economy — as opposed to the quick pullback Republicans want.

“To borrow an analogy, cutting the deficit by cutting investments in areas like education, areas like innovation — that’s like trying to reduce the weight of an overloaded aircraft by removing its engine,’’ Obama said in a speech at a community college in Winston-Salem, N.C., in December.

Republicans, meanwhile, are themselves divided over how much of the budget they can realistically slash. The leadership has already acknowledged that it would be difficult if not impossible to fulfill the $100 billion campaign pledge, and instead has suggested that cuts prorated for the balance of the fiscal year would be more realistic. Tea Party movement conservatives, meanwhile, are pushing the leaders to stick to the $100 billion target. Now the leaders face the task of uniting the rank-and-file around challenging the president.

“The simple message is, ‘We’re broke and there’s a lot that America can invest in without having the government do it,’ ’’ said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who spent years as a top aide on Capitol Hill.

“I think the point that Republicans and conservatives would make is that we have already spent way too much, and most of that spending is not well targeted and did not do what it was supposed to do. So why not leave it to the private sector?’’

Obama previewed his State of the Union themes in a speech Friday in Schenectady, N.Y., and again over the weekend in a video address to supporters. The video made clear that his speech would be geared broadly to independent voters, business owner, and executives who are alienated by the expansion of government.

After two years of watching himself be defined by Republicans as a tax-and-spend liberal — especially after the bitter debate over health care — and alienating business leaders, Obama is reaching out to the business community as he delivers a pro-growth message. Republicans said yesterday that they are watching cautiously.

“Well, it’s about time,’’ McConnell said, “because the only way we’re going to get unemployment down and get out of this economic trough is through private sector growth and development.’’

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