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Obama claims the upper hand in budget fight with Congress

March 18, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama, bolstered by upbeat economic news, is trying to exploit recent Republican stumbles and infighting to claim the upper hand in a largely symbolic budget fight currently unfolding in Congress.

The White House contends that Republicans who promised to govern effectively are falling down on the job since taking control of Congress earlier this year. Drawing an implicit contrast, Obama has been playing up his own, unilateral economic steps as a way to show he’s the one setting Washington’s agenda.

The current debate is over a budget resolution, a non-binding measure that doesn’t require Obama’s signature. Typically, Congress uses separate appropriations bills to fund various parts of the government. Nevertheless, the budget battles are likely to dominate the next two years in Congress and could influence the 2016 legislative and presidential elections.

As a result, the White House strategy is not so much designed to negotiate a bargain with Republicans as it is to keep Obama’s underlying economic message at the forefront while Republicans play out their own internal struggles. Such Republican divisions were on full display earlier in March when lawmakers dropped their insistence on repealing Obama’s immigration directives and agreed to fund the Homeland Security Department — calling into question the Republicans’ broader strategy to use spending bills as leverage against the president.

On Tuesday, Republicans in the House of Representatives unveiled a $3.8 trillion budget plan for next year that effectively breaks tight budget restraints on military spending while promising a familiar roster of big cuts to social programs that almost certainly will not be approved.

Obama responded that the Republican plan will not help boost the middle class, fails to invest in infrastructure and does not reflect the country’s future needs.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, posted a series of messages on Twitter saying the Republican budget plan “fails Americans” on investments in jobs and economic growth, would cut college aid for students and undermine Obama’s health care law.

The new Republican budget pads Pentagon and State Department accounts for overseas operations — a sleight of hand that has raised objections from some conservative groups and is unlikely to win approval in the Republican-controlled Senate. The overseas account, separate from the core defense budget, has covered the cost of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the military campaign began in 2001.

The Republican leadership is also struggling to calm tensions between defense hawks who want more money for the Pentagon and budget hard-liners who want to rein in federal spending. That may create an opening for Obama to exploit the fact that his budget calls for more money for defense than many conservative Republicans are willing to spend.

“They have Republicans in a bind — they really do,” said Steve Bell, a former Republican director of the Senate Budget Committee. “The Republican Party, which used to be the party of hawks, is now split.”

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