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Irreconcilable Differences

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BARACK OBAMA

The president's annual budget -- actually a budget request -- traditionally provides the baseline for policy and budget negotiations between the two political parties, legislative chambers and the executive branch of government. Changes to the budget are typically incremental, and in recent years have raised rather than lowered spending. All the moving parts in the budget debate -- political parties, the House and Senate, and the executive branch -- simply have had to reconcile themselves to higher spending levels -- the debate has been around how much higher those levels will go. Historically, then, the budget process has been one of reconcilable differences, ultimately resolved without too much controversy or consequence for either side of the political aisle. That is about to change.

On Monday, this president's budget arrives at a unique time in our political history. In the midst of a fragile economic recovery, the president's budget calls for increased spending on infrastructure projects and easing debt requirements for states facing massive budget cuts of their own -- while meeting his State of the Union promise to freeze domestic spending for the next five years. As relevant and paramount as the President's budget will be, one could easily argue that the newly revised House Republican budget will be of greater importance to the upcoming debate. In what can be described as a mutiny among the new Tea Party members of the House Republican Conference, they have demanded that the Republican leadership radically revise and expand their proposed cuts, which now total close to the campaign promise of 100 billion dollars. The Republican leadership responded to these Tea Party criticisms as quickly as they forced Congressman Chris Lee out of the House.

These two budgets are irreconcilable.

What we are seeing is the start of what could be a once-in-a-generation battle over spending and priorities. It will not be the traditional battle of inches; instead, it will be a complex, philosophical battle between and within the two parties, and between and within the two legislative chambers and the executive branch. Cheering on these budget warriors will be the usual informed and impassioned spectators: highly energized activists, think tanks and policy groups in Washington and at the local level.

Hold on for the ride.