Centrist Dem Rebels Yet to Air Specific Gripes on Obama’s Budget

We told you this morning about a group of centrist Democratic senators who have begun closed-door meetings to discuss how to pool their influence during the coming debate over President Obama’s budget — and perhaps slow the roll of its more ground-breaking spending programs.

When I asked a key member of that centrist group, Sen. Mary Landrieu (LA), which particular elements of the budget are sparking her concerns, she told me that senators “did not get into specifics” at their first meeting.

“We are hearing legitimate concerns that there is not enough focus right now on the intermediate and long-term fiscal concerns for the country,” Landrieu said. Although “the mess the Bush administration has left is going to take years” to clean up, she added, 5-7 years is a reasonable period of time to “be able to start seeing the end of the red ink.”

As Obama observed earlier today, however, he inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit from his predecessor, making total erasure of the deficit an incredibly heavy lift. The administration has vowed to cut the deficit in half by the end of Obama’s first term, but that outcome relies on a series of revenue-raising moves that may not pass muster with Congress.

What does this mean for Landrieu’s group of centrists?The group will meet formally every two weeks, she said, and “hopefully we’ll have an influence on how the budget is shaped.” And one suspects that these centrists will have Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) on speed dial, given his front-and-center role in the drafting of the official congressional budget.

Which brings up another question: Did Conrad attend the first meeting of budget-skeptical Dems? He joined their ranks during the stimulus debate, so it’s not inconceivable that he would sit in with the group once more.

Late Update: Sen. Claire McCaskill (MO), another member of the centrist group, confirmed that its members have yet to settle on specific elements of the budget that they find objectionable. Asked if Conrad had attended the first meeting, she demurred: “It’s a pretty fluid deal right now.”

Sen. Ben Nelson (NE), a lead centrist negotiator on the stimulus who appears poised to play the same role on the budget, was a bit more forthcoming. “The amount of the budget is eye-popping,” he said, describing Obama’s top-line number of $3.55 trillion (a 9.3% spending increase over the previous year) as more of a concern than individual programs.

When I asked Nelson if he could support permitting the Bush tax cuts for upper-income earners to expire on schedule in 2010, as Obama has proposed, Nelson said he could potentially support the $250,000 cap. Indeed, he joined every other Democrat in a test vote on last year’s budget that asked senators whether they would support extending all the Bush tax cuts, for both individuals and investors.