WASHINGTON (AP) - Congressional Democrats advanced budget outlines Wednesday that largely mirror President Barack Obama's tax and spending plans while imposing marginal changes to tame ballooning deficits. "This budget will protect President Obama's priorities - education, energy, health care, middle class tax relief and cut the deficit in half," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after the president met privately in the Capitol with rank-and-file Democrats.
Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the purpose of the president's visit was not to round up votes to assure passage of the plan. "He came here to show leadership and to show we're together on his priorities," the senator said.
Conrad indicated changes had been made to reflect concern about the deficit, the most notable of which was to assume the president's middle class tax cut would expire after 2010. Future attempts to extend the tax reductions would have to be paid for from elsewhere in the budget to avoid adding to the red ink, he said.
Obama came to the Capitol as committees in the House and Senate settled down to review similar budget plans, with votes on the floors of both houses expected by the end of next week.
A version put forward by the House Budget Committee foresees a $598 billion federal deficit after five years. And there would be a $1.2 trillion red-ink figure for the 2010 budget year, as opposed to $1.4 billion under Obama's plan as scored by the Congressional Budget Office.
Obama, after describing his tax and spending plan Tuesday night as essential for economic recovery, traveled to the Capitol for a meeting with Senate Democrats on the issue.
Budget director Peter Orszag said the companion fiscal blueprints in the House and Senate would bolster administration efforts to give a higher priority to education and clean energy programs as well as taking into account Obama's desire to overhaul health care.
In a briefing for reporters in advance of Obama's Hill visit, Orszag said the plans were "fully in line with the president's key priorities." Obama has said that he understands the process will require considerable give and take, but that he doesn't want to lose sight of the overall goals. He characterized them as "98 percent the same as the budget proposal the president sent up in February."
The most immediate impact of the budget outlines - which are nonbinding blueprints spelling out the parameters of subsequent implementing legislation - is to impose a cap on the amount of money that can be doled out by the appropriating panels for the budget year starting Oct. 1.
The House plan, unveiled by Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt Jr., D-S.C., would cut spending less - just a $7 billion reduction from Obama's domestic agency budgets for next year - than would the companion Senate plan, which would curb such spending by $15 billion.
On larger issues like taxes, health care and combating global warming, the congressional Democratic plans simply seek to punt difficult decisions into the future.
The House measure also backs Obama's plans to essentially eliminate the federal guaranteed student loan program, replacing such loans with direct loans made by the Department of Education. The proposal would be advanced on a fast-track under the plan, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would save $92 billion over 10 years that could be used to fund other aid to students.
Obama has been hearing increasingly vocal opposition to the blueprint he sent to Congress last month, however. Some of the opposition on spending, particularly, has come from moderate to conservative members of his own party. For their part, Republicans have almost universally assailed his spending plan as overly ambitious, saying that it would dump trillions in debt on future generations.
While the budget plans that Democrats started pushing through Congress largely mirrored Obama's blueprint, the plan advanced by Senate Democrats employs some sleight of hand - such as assuming that Obama's signature $400 tax cut for most workers and $800 for couples will not be renewed beyond 2010 - to cut projected deficits to a more sustainable level.
Orszag also revealed Wednesday that the administration was studying ways to simplify the U.S. tax code, seeking to close loopholes with an eye toward further budget savings.
Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor charged that Obama's budget is "so far out of the mainstream" that even members of Obama's own party are reluctant to support it.
The Virginia Republican said it puts too many taxes on businesses and said that policymakers must "provide relief to the job creators."
Both the House and Senate budget chairmen have been forced by worsening deficit estimates to scale back Obama's requests for domestic programs, while deeply controversial revenues from his global warming initiative won't be included either.
Conrad announced a budget blueprint Tuesday that would scrap Obama's signature tax cut after 2010 while employing some sleight of hand to cut the annual budget deficit to a sustainable level.
The senator promises to reduce the deficit from a projected $1.7 trillion this year to a still-high $508 billion in 2014. Along the way, the Senate plan would have Obama's "Making Work Pay" tax credit, which will provide $400 tax cuts to most workers and $800 to couples, expire at the end of next year. Those tax cuts were included in Obama's stimulus package.
Democrats point out that Obama inherited an unprecedented fiscal mess caused by the recession and the taxpayer-financed bailout of Wall Street. Rather than retrenching, however, they still promise to award big budget increases to education and clean energy programs, while assuming Obama's plans to overhaul the U.S. health care system advance.
"The best way to bring our deficit down in the long run is ... with a budget that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest," Obama said in a Tuesday night news conference.
Conrad's budget version makes several shaky assumptions, especially that Congress will raise taxes by about $114 billion over 2013-14 to make sure middle-class taxpayers won't get hit by the alternative minimum tax. He also saves $87 billion by promising Congress will come up with spending cuts or new revenues to avoid cuts in Medicare payments to doctors.
Neither budget includes Obama's $250 billion set-aside for more bailouts of banks and other firms.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.