Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag downplayed the major structural changes that Democrats in Congress are making to the Obama budget, saying the similarities far outweigh the differences, including on hot-button topics like health care, energy and education.
The president's and Congress' budget proposals were "98 percent the same," Orszag declared on a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning. "The resolutions may not be identical twins to what the president submitted, but they are certainly brothers who look an awful lot alike."
But while Orszag was stressing commonality, others couldn't get over the differences. On Wednesday morning, a slew of publications ran headlines and stories that described Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad as taking a hatchet to the president's budget proposal. The biggest change, perhaps, came on the issue of health care, with the North Dakota Democrat leaving out new spending for the proposed expansion of coverage (Obama had called for a $634 billion down payment).
Orszag, a committed health care reform advocate, tackled the topic at the onset of his call Wednesday morning, telling reporters that the president, like the senator, was tackling the topic in a manner that wouldn't increase the deficit.
"With regard to health care, exactly as under our budget submission, both the House and Senate include deficit-neutral reserve funds to kick-start the health reform process. I think there has been some misunderstanding about what a budget resolution does. The way the budget resolution implements the proposals that the president puts forward and the concepts that the president puts forward is through a deficit neutral reserve fund. The reserve fund that we had in our budget was also deficit neutral. And so, again, the budget resolution is just reflecting precisely the approach that the president put forth in our budget."
And, as other Obama administration officials have done before, he refused to take off the table the parliamentary vehicle that could prove most useful for health care reform passage.
"Reconciliation is not where we would like to start, but we are not willing to take it off the table," he said. "There clearly are some differences between the Senate and the House on this topic. And assuming that both resolutions are adopted by their respective bodies, that is something that would be worked out in conference."
Also of note from the call: Orszag downplayed Conrad's decision to strike a proposal to make permanent an $800 tax credit for working families, saying the administration and Congress had two years to work out the details.
"We had tied the extension of Making Work Pay to revenue from cap and trade," said the OMB Director. "The House and Senate resolutions do adopt a different approach. I will note that in Making Work Pay that we have already in the recovery act, gotten two years of that tax credit. So we have two years to figure it out."
He also defended Obama's approach to health care against charges that it was a massive government expansion by saying corporate leaders had deemed it a necessary topic to tackle. And he took Republicans to task for lobbing criticisms of the president's budget proposal without offering an alternative of their own.
"I think it is easy to lob criticism," he said, "but part of the policy process needs to involve putting forward alternatives. I haven't seen on the Senate side an alternative budget and my understanding is there won't be one. It seems odd to be criticizing without putting forward an alternative."