POLITICS
04/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Centrists Demand Smaller Budget, But It's Unclear What They'd Cut

Republicans and some conservative Democrats have adopted a simple refrain in opposition to President Obama's budget: it's too big.

On Monday, Senate leaders brought placards before the press to demonstrate rising debt levels, and they assembled again on Tuesday to drive home the point. Obama was peppered with questions about the size of the deficit during his prime-time press conference Tuesday night.

The centrist Senators -- some of whom have been dubbed "ConservaDems" by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow -- who could decide the budget's fate have been parroting that line. They played the same role during the stimulus debate, persuading negotiators to shave some money off the top to get their support.

These "moderates" won the stimulus debate messaging battle when they hammered at its size. But the moment they suggested specific cuts, they started losing. Cut education? Cut healthcare? Cut funding for renewable energy?

This time around, they'll wait as long as they can to propose specific cuts.

"I'm very concerned that the levels of debt that the president's budget would entail are simply unsustainable and would pose a significant threat to the health of our economy," said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who plays a pivotal role in Senate negotiations. "I've had conversations with several centrist Democrats who have exactly the same concerns I do."

Well, what would you cut? "One of the areas I would look at are the huge agricultural subsidies," she said. Those farm payments are one of the few cuts Obama has already proposed, which Collins added was "to his credit."

Anything else? "I thought I did pretty well coming up with one right off the top of my head," she said.

Obama, at his presser Tuesday night, urged Republicans to come up with an alternative budget and insisted theirs would still have large deficits but would be missing beneficial investments in health care, energy and education.

"And there's an interesting reason why some of these critics haven't put out their own budget. I mean, we haven't seen an alternative budget out of them," said Obama.

"And the reason is because they know that, in fact, the biggest driver of long-term deficits are the huge healthcare costs that we've got out here that we're going to have to tackle and we -- that if we don't deal with some of the structural problems in our deficit, ones that were here long before I got here, then we're going to continue to see some of the problems in those out-years."

Collins and other centrists take the opposite approach, arguing that additional tax revenues should be used to pay down the debt (as President Clinton did) rather than to invest in long-term efforts.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she leans no on Obama's budget because of its size but is open to being convinced. She's not looking forward to cutting it, however. "That's always the problem. How to cut back and what to cut back," she said.

Yet the main change that Landrieu would like to see highlights the political contradiction at work. Tax hikes on independent oil and gas producers, many of whom operate in the Gulf, she said, are a "non-starter." Removing that tax hike, though, increases the deficit.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who was one of the Democrats negotiating over the size of the stimulus, agreed that cutting particular programs is the hardest part. So he hopes to focus on waste, overpayments and uncollected taxes. He cited the $400 billion "tax gap" -- the difference between collected taxes and the amount owed -- as well as billions that could be recouped in accidental overpayments to contractors and Medicare and Medicaid providers. Collecting unpaid taxes, however, costs money up front, as does reducing overpayments.

But it's politically easier than going after healthcare or raising taxes. "Before we raise taxes, why don't we collect the taxes that are owed to the extent we can?" he asked.

While moderates walk softly on particular programs and beat government in general with a big stick, liberals are getting fed up. A progressive group recently announced campaign-style attacks on wayward Democrats. And the threat of pushing through major policy changes using a parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation -- where only 50 votes would be needed -- is ever present.

"I think it's more of a threat than a reality," said Collins of reconciliation, made "in the hopes that it will give them leverage going along."

Leverage with whom? "Probably, uh -- well, I don't want to speculate on the motivations of others. I mean, you'd have to ask them," said the mild-mannered Collins, coming unusually close to a direct shot at Democratic leaders in the notoriously polite chamber.

"Reconciliation should not be used to impose a major policy change. It's unfair to those who hold a minority view," Collins added.

Isn't that undemocratic? Collins was asked why she and a handful of senators should wield so much power over the nation's policy.

"I don't really think I have all that much power but I'm glad you think so," she said, laughing.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the power structure of moderates," she added. "People want to see healthcare reform, want to see us deal with major issues, but not in an undemocratic fashion. I think people want to see fuller debate and deliberation and more involvement by the minority."

But isn't the need for 60 votes undemocratic? Didn't the nation have a full debate, followed by an election in which people voted for major change?

"I disagree totally with that," said Collins. "I do not believe the American people voted to short circuit debate and prevent people with a minority view on both sides of the aisle from having the ability to amend a bill."