House Republicans lit into President Obama's budget director Tuesday morning, demanding to know why Obama failed to take the advice of his own deficit commission to offer a comprehensive strategy for paying down the soaring national debt.
"Why did you duck?" House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) demanded of White House budget director Jacob J. Lew. "If George Bush brought this budget to the House, I would say the exact same thing. . . . We agree on the size and the scope and the nature of the problem. So, why did you duck? Why are you not taking this opportunity to lead?"
Lew responded in measured tones, saying that the president had achieved the goal he had set for the commission to reduce deficits to 3 percent of the economy by the middle of the decade. Deficits of that size would stabilize borrowing as a percentage of the economy, causing the national debt - which has doubled over the past three years - to stabilize at 76 percent of gross domestic product.
The president has called his blueprint for fiscal 2012 "a down payment" toward fiscal solvency, Lew said. He said that Obama has "acknowledged that we need to work together" to address the biggest drivers of the national debt, including Social Security, Medicare and an inefficient tax code.
"I know we're going to have a serious debate about priorities," Lew said. But "if our goal is to get to a sustainable deficit by 2015, our budget puts down a comprehensive path."
House Democratic leaders pushed back against the Republican criticism, saying that many Republicans who are attacking the president for not heeding the advice of the deficit commission had opposed the panel's creation, as well as some of its recommendations.
"I think it's at least a little bit opportunistic for Republicans who opposed the formation of the bipartisan deficit and debt reduction commission -- and then when every Republican in the House voted against it -- to be criticizing the president for not including more of the recommendations that they themselves voted against," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, said Tuesday morning ahead of House Democrats' closed-door caucus meeting.
Van Hollen was referring to the three House Republicans on the deficit commission who last year voted against the panel's plan, which would trim the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade. Two of the three House Democrats on the panel also voted against its recommendations.
Questioning Lew, Republicans also blasted the president for recommending higher taxes for businesses and top earners, for failing to actually balance the budget - as Lew did when he was budget chief under President Bill Clinton - and for proposing to significantly expand the federal workforce when voters are clamoring for smaller government.
"Seriously? You want to increase the number of federal employees now?" inquired Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.).
Lew defended Obama's proposals, noting that the new hires would come in areas such as airport security, in which "new missions" have bipartisan support. The overall budget, he repeated again and again, is a "down payment" that stabilizes the nation's finances and stops the bleeding.
If Republicans want to do more, Lew said, they can work with the White House.
Read more at The Washington Post.