Senior Democratic Senators To Obama: Please Engage On Budget Talks

March 9, 2011 3:18 a.m.

Senior Democratic senators are practically begging and pleading for President Obama to roll up his sleeves and engage with Republicans on budget negotiations.

Distracted by world events and crisscrossing the country talking about job creation, President Obama these Democrats say is shrinking from the heavy lifting required to leverage the full weight of the White House to sell smaller spending cuts to the American people and gain an edge in the negotiations with Republicans in Congress.“The President needs to play a much greater role in these negotiations,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told TPM. “The President doesn’t want to engage in this fight because it’s really, really hard, because we’re up against a government shutdown and we can’t keep funding the government with these stop-gap measures.”

A temporary funding bill expires March 18.

When asked what Feinstein thought would help Democrats gain an upper hand she was blunt: “Presidential leadership.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said the fight is being framed as cuts or no cuts, when the debate the country should be having is about spending priorities. There’s no way Stabenow can support the House-passed continuing resolution that aims to cut $61 billion from 2011 spending levels because too many jobs would be lost, she says. She wouldn’t say whether she would support the President’s plan, which is offering $6 billion in cuts from current levels.

A nonpartisan analysis by Goldman Sachs found the House Republican spending bill for 2011 would reduce employment by 700,000 and 20,600 of those job would come from Stabenow’s Michigan, a state already hard hit by the economic downturn. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke countered that claim, saying the GOP plan would probably reduce “growth on the margins and lower gross domestic product by only one- or two-tenths of a percent.

“I would very much like to see the President engage a little more loudly,” Stabenow said.

The sharp remarks came the same day freshman West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin took to the Senate floor and blasted Obama on his budget proposal, charging him failing to provide true leadership on reducing spending, while at the same time criticizing Republicans for pie-in-the-sky “unrealistic” proposals. Manchin faces a touch reelection in 2012 and is undoubtedly concerned about the politics of deficit spending.

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment.

Vice President Joe Biden, who helped negotiate a tax-cut deal with Republicans in December, held budget talks with congressional leaders last week and was designated as the White House point-person on the negotiations. But Biden and his family are traveling in Finland and Moldova, leaving a week-long vacuum on the White House position during crucial budget talks in Washington.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told a gaggle of reporters on Air Force One Tuesday that Obama’s “leadership and seriousness about the need to live within our means, cut spending where … we can is quite clear,” according to the pool report.

Carney, who previously worked for Biden, has said that budget negotiations continued at the staff level in Biden’s absence.

“There are,” Carney said Monday, “continued conversations at the staff level that have continued through the weekend and through today, and will continue as the Senate begins to take action on the bills that are on the table, which, I think will be an important milestone as we make progress in these negotiations.”

Carney wouldn’t specify exactly which staffers were handling the negotiations in Biden’s absence and said Biden was always available by phone.

“And then I would simply say that in the era of modern communications, it’s certainly possible that the Vice President could get on the phone with anyone here in Washington who needed to speak with him,” Carney added.

That answer was not good enough for Feinstein, who said that Obama himself needed to expend some political capital in these budget talks in order to prevent the government from having to continually run this year on a series of stop-gap spending bills known as continuing resolutions.

“Government is like any company — you have to have some certainty to operate,” Feinstein said. “The only solution is for leadership to do what leadership is supposed to do, and that’s sit down and figure this out.”

Other pivotal Demorats facing tough re-election fights in 2012 called on the President to produce more cuts before they could agree to sign on to his plan.

“More cuts, more cuts,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) shouted to reporters when asked what she wanted to see from the President on the budget talks.

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