Obama's budget a 'campaign brochure'

Last updated 15:46 05/03/2014

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US President Barack Obama's election-year budget seeks to rally fellow Democrats with new help for the working poor and fresh money for road-building, education and research. It also pulls back from controversial cuts to Social Security that had been designed to lure Republicans to the bargaining table.

Otherwise, Tuesday's US$3.9 trillion (NZ$4.6t) submission for the 2015 budget year, which begins in October, looks a lot like Obama's previous plans. It combines proposals for more than US$1.1 trillion (NZ$1.3t) in tax increases on the wealthy with an array of modest initiatives such as job training funds, money to rehabilitate national parks and funding for early childhood education.

"Our budget is about choices. It's about our values," Obama said at a Washington elementary school. "As a country, we've got to make a decision, if we're going to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans or if we're going to make smart investments necessary to create jobs and grow our economy and expand opportunity for every American."

Obama's previous budgets have mostly gone nowhere, and that's where Tuesday's submission appears to be headed as well. Instead, Congress is likely to adhere to last year's mini budget deal as it looks ahead to midterm elections this fall.

Said Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee: "This budget isn't a serious document; it's a campaign brochure."

The president unveiled his budget eight months before congressional elections in which Republicans are expected to gain seats in the House and have a chance of seizing control of the Senate. Republican control of Congress in the final two years of his presidency would leave his agenda in tatters.

Obama's submission purports to adhere to the budget limits negotiated in December by Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, and Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state. But it also proposes a US$55 billion (NZ$66b) "Opportunity, Growth, and Security" fund that would supplement the 2015 limit on agency operating budgets set by the Ryan-Murray agreement. Half of the additional money would be for defence and half for domestic programs. And the increase would continue into the future. All told, Obama proposes US$304 billion (NZ$362b) above existing limits on agency operating budgets over the coming five years, an almost 6 per cent increase.

This includes extra spending for the Pentagon for readiness, repair of deteriorating military bases and the purchase of aircraft. On the domestic front, the plan promises grants to states for preschools, new research financed by the National Institutes of Health and modernisation of aviation safety systems, among other initiatives.

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The Obama budget projects a 2015 deficit of US$564 billion (NZ$673b) and a shortfall this year of $649 billion (NZ$774b). If those come true, it would mark three straight years of annual red ink under US$1 trillion (NZ$1.2t), following four previous years when deficits exceeded that mark every time.

Overall, the 2015 budget projects a US$250 billion (NZ$300b) increase in spending over the record $3.65 trillion (NZ$4.3t) expected for the current year. Spending actually dropped to US$3.46 trillion (NZ$4.12b) in the 2013 fiscal year completed last September 30.

Republicans instead want Obama to join them in taking on expensive benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security, whose growth is driving future deficits and squeezing other priorities like defence, education, transportation and research. Medicare costs are projected to almost double over the coming decade, from US$513 billion (NZ$612b) this year to $947 billion (NZ$1.1b) in 2024, but funding for non-defence programs appropriated by Congress would increase by less than inflation.

"The president has just three years left in his administration, and yet he seems determined to do nothing about our fiscal challenges," said Ryan, who was Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate in the 2012 national election.

But many Republicans complained that the US$496 billion (NZ$592b) proposed for Department of Defense core operations — a freeze at current levels — falls woefully short. The proposal would shrink the Army from 490,000 active-duty soldiers to 440,000-450,000 over the coming five years, take away helicopters and other equipment from the National Guard, cut purchases of the much-criticised littoral combat ship by almost 40 per cent and retire the Air Force's A-10 attack aircraft.

Obama also requests US$79 billion (NZ$94b) for overseas military operations related to Afghanistan and Iraq, but he says a more detailed request will follow, so that figure is likely to change.

EUROPA MISSION

Obama’s 2015 NASA budget plan includes funding for a robotic mission to an ocean-bearing moon of Jupiter and could help boost commercial ventures to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA officials say.

The White House is requesting a US$17.5 billion (NZ$20.9b) budget for the US space agency in the fiscal year that begins October 1.

That marks a 1 per cent decrease from NASA’s 2014 budget. But NASA could also have access to an additional US$900 million (NZ$1.1b) from Obama’s proposed Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative, a $56 billion (NZ$66b) fund for special projects that is separate from the regular budget.

If approved, the agency would have US$1.1 billion (NZ$1.3b) next year to help at least two companies develop commercial space taxis to fly astronauts to and from the space station. The US$100 billion (NZ$119b) research outpost, a project of 15 nations, flies about 420 km above Earth.

Since the space shuttles were retired in 2011, the United States is dependent on Russia to fly crews to the space station at a cost of more than US$65 million (NZ$77m) a seat.

For now, escalating US tensions with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine have not affected the space partnership, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters on a conference call.

‘‘We are continuing to monitor the situation,’’ Bolden said. ‘‘Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians,’’ he said.

Currently, NASA is supporting space taxi designs by Boeing Co, privately owned Space Exploration Technologies and privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp.

The agency intends to select at least two companies for a final round of development funding this summer. Obama wants to have US options for flying astronauts to the station before the end of 2017.

One of the first operational Orion missions would send astronauts to an asteroid that has been robotically relocated into a high orbit around the moon. Planning for the so-called Asteroid Redirect Mission gets a boost to US$133 million (NZ$158m) in the 2015 budget proposal, up from US$78 million (NZ$93m) in 2014.

As currently envisioned, hiking spending on the asteroid initiative means cutbacks in other programs, warns the Coalition for Space Exploration, a Houston-based industry advocacy organization.

‘‘We remain concerned and opposed to the annual effort to drain funds from our nation’s exploration programs,’’ the group said in a statement.

Science missions would share nearly US$5 billion (NZ$6b) in 2015, including US$15 million (NZ$18m) to begin planning for a mid-2020s mission to Europa, an ice-encrusted moon of Jupiter.

Scientists have strong evidence that the moon has a vast ocean beneath its frozen surface. Water is believed to be essential for life.

‘‘It’s one of those places where life might occur, in the past or now, and so we’re really excited about going there,’’ said NASA’s Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson.

The proposed budget keeps the Hubble Space Telescope successor program — an infrared observatory known as the James Webb Space Telescope — on track for launch in 2018. It also lets NASA begin planning for a new telescope to probe the mysterious force known as ‘‘dark energy’’ that is driving the universe apart at faster and faster rates.


- AP

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