WASHINGTON (CN) - Top administration officials defended President Obama's economic stimulus efforts from the sharp attacks of House Appropriations Committee Republicans Tuesday. "Uncle Sam needs a diet," said the ranking Republican. But Democrats rushed to defend the administration in what became a colorful fight. "It's a little trying," said Texas Democrat Chet Edwards, "to be getting sailing lessons from the captains of the economic Titanic."
The hearing comes as Congress considers Obama's $3.8 trillion budget proposal for fiscal year 2011, which forecasts a $1.6 trillion deficit but carries a meager $250 billion cut in discretionary spending over three years.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Director Peter Orszag of the Office of Management, and chief White House economic advisor Christina Romer defended the proposal before lawmakers who used the opportunity to comment on administration policies well beyond the budget.
Republicans painted stimulus efforts as "a colossal waste of money" and they decried the big budget, ridiculing Obama's cuts as inadequate "gimmicks". They maintained that government should leave the private sector alone, saying that health reform and cap-and-trade legislation are freezing economic growth by sparking uncertainty among businesses.
Georgia Republican Jack Kingston said more people had reported Elvis sightings than have benefited of the stimulus package and said Obama's proposed spending freeze is "like taking a squirt gun to a forest fire."
Administration officials and Democrats said the Bush administration is to blame for the large budget and corresponding deficit. "The budget increase was baked into the cake before Obama stepped into office," Orszag told the committee, pointing to earlier Congressional Budget Office predictions of similar deficits.
Orszag said that the Bush administration's turnaround from inheriting a near-record surplus to leaving a record deficit of more than $1 trillion involved a shift of trillions of dollars. The largest deficit before that had been $292 billion when not adjusted for inflation.
Democrats also poked fun at what they characterized as the irony of Republicans who preach fiscal conservatism after former President Bush pushed through what they labeled as an unjustified war in Iraq, tax cuts for the wealthy, and prescription drug benefits - all of which were deficit-financed.
"It's outrageous to hear the selective amnesia of some of my friends on the other side," Pennsylvania Democrat Chaka Fattah, commenting on the effort by Republicans to cast themselves as fiscally responsible. "It's an amazing political feat that they're trying to pull off. I don't think it's going to work."
Republicans said both parties are to blame for the current economic outlook, noting that Democrats controlled Congress for two years during the Bush administration.
Faced with continued job loss and a modest recovery so far, Geithner and Romer directed focus toward improvement of the economy since the administration took power.
"It's going to take a lot of time to repair the wreckage," Geithner said, explaining why stemming of losses needs to come before net growth in jobs.
Romer said that shocks in the economy during this recession "were larger than what precipitated the Great Depression" and that the Recovery Act "played a key role" in turning the economy around. She compared the 780,000 jobs lost the month that Obama took office to the current "trickle" of losses, most recently posted at 36,000 in February, representing a 95 percent decrease.
Unemployment remains high at 9.7 percent.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the $862 billion Recovery Act has created as many as 2 million jobs so far.
Wisconsin Chair David Obey concluded by saying, "I would hate to see the shape of the economy today without the stimulus package."
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