WASHINGTON–Connecticut lawmakers are embracing President Barack Obama’s call on Wednesday for a mix of spending cuts, tax increases, and entitlement reform to reduce the nation’s annual deficits, saying Obama put forward an aggressive, fair plan.

And they welcomed the President’s entry into a debate that, until now, has been largely dominated by House Republicans. But with the fiscal battle now fully joined, Connecticut representatives said it was unclear how well Democrats were positioned to fend off deep domestic spending cuts and dramatic changes to their party’s cherished programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare.

Rep. John Larson, who represents Connecticut’s 1st District and is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Obama offered a “stark contrast” to the Republican proposal unveiled last week by GOP Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

“I think it’s a defining moment for the principals and the values of the two parties,” Larson said. “I also think it was the opening salvo of the presidential race.”

But Larson repeated his contention that Obama gave away too much in the recent showdown over the 2011 spending bill. And he said House Democrats are itching for a tougher, hard-line approach in this next round, in which the fundamental size and focus of the federal government are at stake.

“I think the president went on offense today,” he said. “In our caucus, we want to get more offensive,” he quipped.

Strategy aside, Larson and others said they supported the substance that Obama sketched out in his speech Wednesday. The president called for reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 12 years. He would achieve this through several means, including:

  • Enacting $400 billion in defense cuts by 2023
  • Making $770 billion in non-security spending cuts by 2023
  • Reforming the tax code to get rid of special breaks, from corporate loopholes to the mortgage interest deductions.

“The president outlined… a holistic approach, which I think was more humane, more thoughtful, and more honest than what Congressman Ryan proposed,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District.

On entitlements, Obama proposed curbing health care costs in the Medicare program, in part by strengthening the Independent Payment Advisory Board. That’s a controversial panel created by the health care law to make cost-containment decisions about Medicare. The board is required to recommend spending reductions in Medicare, the federal health care program for the elderly, if costs exceed fiscal targets set out in the health care reform law.

Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-2nd District, has expressed opposition to the current IPAB’s powers and said he wouldn’t be thrilled to see those expanded. He has argued that an outside advisory body might not take into account regional differences in health care, and that Congress was best equipped to make tough decisions about Medicare spending.

But others in the delegation said Congress has often proven itself incapable of making difficult choices, particularly when it comes to health care for seniors, a critical voting bloc.

“The U.S. Congress is always going to have a predisposition to say yes to say everything,” said Himes. “And in a world where the key to fiscal responsibility is a reduction in health care cost growth, a counterweight is necessary.”

Indeed, Courtney said that Obama’s proposal was at least “more nuanced” than the GOP’s privatization proposal and would preserve some Congressional voice in the process.

Obama also suggested that Social Security be dealt with separately. It’s not a driver of the deficit, Obama said, and although the program’s solvency should be addressed, it can be done on a parallel track. That’s a tack that many in the delegation were happy, even relieved, to hear from the White House.

Obama did not offer specifics on proposed defense cuts Wednesday. Still, Larson called the $400 billion target “doable,” even as he expressed some concerns about protecting Connecticut’s defense interests, such as Pratt & Whitney, based in his district.

Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, similarly said he thought that dollar figure was reasonable but the details would be critical.

“I don’t think there’s any way to reduce the deficit without dramatically reducing defense spending,” Murphy said. “The amount of the defense cuts is important, but where we spend defense funding is more important,” he said, adding that deep reductions can be mitigated by ensuring that federal defense contracts go to U.S. based firms.

On the $770 billion in domestic cuts, the President similarly offered few specifics. But Himes and others said they thought Obama had done a good job emphasizing key investments, such as education and infrastructure, which would be most important to the U.S. economy.

The delegation also strongly backed the president’s call for a tax overhaul, including a call to let the Bush-era cuts for the wealthy expire in 2012.  Courtney said more broadly, Congress should do a “spring cleaning” of the tax code to weed out all the special-interest credits and reductions that have wormed their way into the code over the years.

Himes said the question was less about the specifics of the president’s plan than about “what happens now.”

Obama has called on top leaders in the House and Senate to designate lawmakers from their caucuses to participate in “bipartisan, bicameral negotiations,” to be led by Vice President Joe Biden.

Himes noted that Obama’s proposal lands just before a bipartisan group of senators, known as the Gang of Six, is expected to release another deficit-reduction package. He said he hoped Obama’s speech would “turbo-charge” the Senate group’s efforts to tackle this issue and that would spur the House to act as well.  But he noted there are major obstacles, particularly in the House.

“Some Democrats will find it hard to make sacrifices on programs that they hold dear,” he said. “And Republicans are promising us they won’t utter the word revenue,” a reference to House Speaker John Boehner’s remarks that any tax hikes are off the table.

And Larson said he was wary of Obama’s negotiating style, especially given the results of the fiscal year 2011 budget deal.

“He continues to believe that this is attainable by us sitting down and reasoning together,” Larson said. “Now is that frustrating to Democrats? You betcha. But it’s part of the process that we’re dealing with here, and I have to give him credit because he remains consistent in his beliefs of how he has to function as president.”

Murphy, too, said he was “worried about our ability to win this debate,” particularly in the arena of public opinion. But the president’s speech, he said, was a forceful entrée into the debate and showed that Democrats were not just going to “sit back and hammer away at Ryan’s budget proposal.”

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