Reaction to Obama freeze proposal comes with caveats

A proposal from President Obama to freeze nonsecurity discretionary spending for the next three fiscal years in his fiscal 2011 budget got mixed reviews even amid bipartisan calls to tackle the deficit.

The proposal is expected to save $250 billion over 10 years, but the savings is small compared with CBO's projected $6 trillion deficit over 10 years. Defense Department spending, veterans programs, foreign aid and the Homeland Security Department would be exempt.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he wants to see the proposal before passing judgment. "We have to make sure that we have money for education. We have to make sure we have money to take care of the -- our civil society, police, fire. We have all kinds of programs I'll look at very, very closely," he said.

Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he favored a freeze but added that many of the programs under his panel's jurisdiction should also be exempted.

"National security has more implications than just defense or homeland security," Harkin said. "It has to do with the health and the welfare of our people, the education of our kids, the safety of our streets, the availability of jobs and economic opportunity all has to do with the security of this country."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said that he is not sure about the proposal.

"I'm concerned that the people that are most hurting in this society may be hurt by this, so I need to be convinced," he said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he "generally favors" the Obama proposal and added that Congress is more apt to go along with the idea because of the deficit. "I gotta kinda see the details, but my instinct is that it's the right way to go," Levin said.

CBO said Tuesday the deficit is expected to hit $1.35 trillion in fiscal 2010, or 9.2 percent of the gross domestic product.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the freeze sends an important signal that Obama takes the deficit seriously. While the proposal affects about one-seventh of the budget, and amounts to "a modest contribution," Conrad said, "more needs to be done."

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said "the president's commitment to freeze ... spending is a major step" toward fiscal responsibility.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said, "this is a good first step by the president to begin getting our fiscal house in order."

Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said he would likely back the freeze.

"If the president is suggesting a real freeze in some broad areas of discretionary spending for three years, he will have my support, especially if he includes some kind of enforcement mechanism, such as statutory caps, to enforce the freeze levels," Gregg said.

Other Republicans were skeptical, citing recent spending trends. "If you take something that's an eight and you raise it to a 20, and then you freeze it at the 20, you're still 12 over eight and that's kind of where he is," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on Obama to ask Democrats to pass legislation imposing spending caps to enforce the freeze.

"Without the adoption and enforcement of strict annual spending caps, the federal budget deficit will continue to spiral out of control, and any 'spending freeze' is destined to be a mirage," Boehner said.

Darren Goode and Dan Friedman contributed to this report.

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