President Obama's proposal to force Congress to trim the fat from future budgets comes as Democrats prepare to abandon plans to approve a budget for the next fiscal year.
The White House proposal would allow Obama and future presidents to scour spending bills for wasteful earmarks and other expenditures and then send Congress a package of cuts that lawmakers would have to either accept or reject by an up-or-down vote.
Meanwhile, neither the House nor Senate has plans to take up a budget resolution before the government's fiscal year ends in September. Instead, Congress is likely to begin writing appropriations bills without setting any outline of budget priorities or ceiling on what they can spend.
"It rings hollow to have this administration and congressional Democrats talking about new budget authority from the president at a time when they refuse to create a budget," said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind.
In a conference call with reporters on Monday, White House budget director Peter Orszag said the proposal differed from the line-item veto, which he said was unconstitutional and provided the president with a knife. "Here, we are providing a way for the president to give the knife back to Congress to help it cut out unnecessary fat," Orszag said.
But skeptics pointed to the unwillingness of Congress to pass any spending plan as proof that future promises of fiscal restraint were hollow.
The reason, says senior tax policy analyst Curtis Dubay of the conservative Heritage Foundation, is purely political.
"They would have to take a vote on a budget that would spend more than last year's budget, and it's a huge number," Dubay said. "I think they are unwilling to go on the record for the levels of spending that the budget lays out."
Without the budget, Dubay said, "there is no way to set any priorities or make any trade-offs."
Congressional Democrats on Monday were lukewarm in their response to Obama's plan for budget-cutting power. A similar plan was rejected three years ago under President George W. Bush.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., refrained from praising the proposal on the Senate floor and instead talked about the Gulf oil spill. His spokesman said later that Reid "is willing to work closely with the relevant committees and other senators to give serious consideration to this proposal by President Obama."
Democrats may have little choice but to support Obama's proposal as fall elections approach and polls show the public is increasingly worried about the pace of federal spending and the size of the deficit. There will be clamoring among some congressional Democrats, especially those from swing districts, to cut spending. The fiscally conservative Democratic House Blue Dog Coalition, comprising 54 members, called on their Democratic leaders to pass the measure.
"Talking tough about cutting spending is easy. It's where the rubber meets the road that members on both sides of the aisle have fallen short," said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, the coalition's spokesman.