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Obama's Budget Salvo Opens Next Political Fight

When President Obama unveils his budget Monday, it will project a $1.3 trillion deficit this year, and just under $1 trillion in 2013. It would increase spending on education, research and development, and transportation. It would also increase taxes on the wealthy and cut spending, including on defense.

Presidential budgets are almost always aspirational documents. They lay out a vision, not what the president actually thinks will happen.

"You know, every president's budget is part political statement, part policy document," says Stan Collender, a senior partner at Qorvis Communications, and a longtime federal budget guru.

"This is an election [year]; the president is facing a hostile Congress — if not very hostile Congress — in a hyper-partisan environment," Collender says. "Just like the State of the Union, that makes this year's president's budget a campaign document more than a serious proposal."

If the pre-buttals are any indication, the hostility toward this budget plan is quite fierce.

"The president likes to call his new plan, 'America Built to Last.' I would call it, 'America Drowning in Debt,'" said Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, at a Capitol Hill press conference last week. "It seems as if the president's doing little more than class envy and the status quo."

Ryan called it the greatest threat to the nation's health, retirement, national and economic security. He says House Republicans will outline their own budget soon, but the House GOP budget has about as good a chance of becoming reality as the president's budget — which is to say, none.

"We do not need to bring a budget to the floor this year. We already did that," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "That's what that big, long, drawn-out obstruction resulted in."

That "big, long, drawn-out" thing Reid is talking about was last summer's debt ceiling fight, which led to passage of the Budget Control Act, which lays out spending caps every year for years to come.

"For heaven's sake. We have a law, not some idea. Not some wish," Reid said. "We have a law that guides how we do our spending this year."

There's one more thing that puts next year's budget closer to fantasy than reality, says Scott Lilly at the Center for American Progress. There's another $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts set to start Jan. 1 as part of the Budget Control Act, unless Congress moves to change it.

"This is the starting point for a very big fight over priorities and very substantial reductions in spending," Lilly says.

It's a fight many say will not be resolved before November's election.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.