Obama's Spending Freeze to Spark Budget Battle

Today could be called budget-eve day in Washington: On Monday, the Obama administration will unveil is 2011 budget, but officials have already outlined some budget cuts that the president will announce in tomorrow's State of the Union address. They come in the form of a freeze of non-defense, security and veterans spending.

On Capitol Hill, the Senate will vote on the creation of a budget commission that would have authority to make tough decisions on federal spending and budget issues, an attempt to get the over $1 trillion budget deficit under control. The commission's recommendations would then be voted up or down by the Congress.

The White House now supports this idea, but if it fails, as it is expected to, they could fall back to their original idea, which is a commission that is created by a presidential executive order. It would make the tough budget decisions, but would not have legal authority to do anything about them.

So there'll be a lot of talk and doubletalk in Washington today on who's to blame for the huge budget deficits. After last week's Massachusetts election, politicians are especially attuned to voter attitude over exploding government debt.

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The White House's announcement is the first volley in that battle. Republicans pounced on what they see as an Obama flip-flop on a spending freeze.

In an email sent to reporters, a Republican operative wrote "Oh how times have changed" and pointed to what Obama said in a fall 2008 debate, when he said an freeze was bad policy.

From the October 15, 2008 debate hosted by CBS's Bob Schieffer:

"McCAIN: what would I cut? I would have, first of all, across-the-board spending freeze, OK? Some people say that's a hatchet. That's a hatchet, and then I would get out a scalpel, OK?

Because we've got -- we have presided over the largest increase -- we've got to have a new direction for this country. We have presided over the largest increase in government since the Great Society.

Government spending has gone completely out of control; $10 trillion dollar debt we're giving to our kids, a half-a-trillion dollars we owe China.

I know how to save billions of dollars in defense spending. I know how to eliminate programs…"

A few moments later:
"OBAMA: Well, look, I think that we do have a disagreement about an across-the-board spending freeze. It sounds good. It's proposed periodically. It doesn't happen.

And, in fact, an across-the-board spending freeze is a hatchet, and we do need a scalpel, because there are some programs that don't work at all. There are some programs that are underfunded. And I want to make sure that we are focused on those programs that work."

The White House would point out that what is being proposed today is not an across-the-board spending freeze, but a targeted one. CBS News producer Jill Jackson reports that the freeze would not apply to defense, international, homeland security or veterans affairs spending. Additionally, the freeze would be aggregate in its effect, meaning that individual programs could be affected differently to achieve the overall goal of reduced spending. The goal is to save $250 billion over 10 years.

While Republicans would like to argue that it's a flip-flop, it's really not. However, critics could legitimately seize on the fact that over the same period as the freeze would save $250 billion, the debt is expected to be increased by as much as $9 trillion.

Robert Hendin is a CBS News White House producer. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.

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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.