When Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama became the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee this year, veteran Senate watchers figured he would bring a far harder edge and much more ideological passion to the post than did his predecessor, former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. In the past three months, Sessions hasn’t disappointed.
The 64-year-old former prosecutor has blistered President Obama for failing to provide leadership on the growing debt and deficit, for making “false” statements about the White House’s proposed budget, for fiscal 2012 and for “taking a risk with his credibility.” In other words, Sessions has all but said the president has lied about his budget proposal.
American people. The [president’s budget]
is quite different than how he has portrayed it.”
When pressed on his hard-hitting style, Sessions told The Fiscal Times this week, “I feel like somebody needs to speak for the American people. The [president’s budget] is quite different than how he has portrayed it. It just is.” He added, “It does not call on us to live within our means. It is breathtaking that the administration continues to say … that they’re cutting spending. It’s almost as if there is some sort ofcoordinated effort to create a false impression about this administration’s plans.”
Concern from the Experts
While Session gets high marks as a lawmaker from many of his GOP colleagues, some budget experts worry that his inflexibility and unrelenting attacks on Obama will impede a bipartisan budget deal later this year, when Congress and the White House must agree on spending policies for fiscal 2012 and beyond. “You’re trading somebody who was fiscally conservative but not bound by ideology for somebody who is far more rigid in his ideological stance on the federal government across the board,” Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor, said in contrasting Sessions with Gregg.
Sessions concedes he is being a lot more aggressive in his new job than he anticipated, but says that events forced his hand. He is especially rankled, he said, by Obama’s unwillingness to address long-term entitlement costs and by his budget that calls for more spending at a time when the deficit is projected to reach a record $1.5 trillion this year. “I didn’t realize we would have a budget this dramatically off course,” he said.
The Alabama lawmaker telegraphed his take on Obama even before the president unveiled his budget in an op-ed in The Washington Post, on Jan. 24, in which he excoriated Obama. “As record levels of federal spending bring us ever closer to a tipping point, the Obama administration blissfully continues business as usual,” he wrote. “We have seen no real plan, no strong leadership, no apparent willingness to confront the growing danger on the horizon … We are headed toward a cliff, yet the president hits the accelerator.”
Straining to Reach Agreement
It is already apparent that Sessions and Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., will have quite different approaches to dealing with the debt and deficit. Conrad, who has announced he is not seeking re-election next year, is part of the so-called Gang of Six that is trying to find a way to reach a bipartisan long-term blueprint for spending and tax policy.
having been here a while, I’m inclined
to believe that it will be just like 1994.”
The group, including conservative Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., are attempting to convert the recommendations of the president’s fiscal commission into legislation. Count Sessions as a skeptic of those efforts.
“We have senators working — they think they are going to work out something,” he said. “I’m excited for them. Maybe that will happen. But having been here a while, I am inclined to believe that it will be just like 1994, when it was a long series of battle after battle.”
Despite his politeness and Southern drawl, Sessions has never shied from engaging in high-profile battles since his election to the Senate in 1996. The low-key but tough-minded Alabamian, who has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, had already shown that he doesn’t hesitate to take the lead on high-stakes battles.
Building a Reputation
He came to Budget after having served for two years as the ranking Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, where he opposed Obama’s two nominees to the Supreme Court—Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. He viewed them as “activists” who would “legislate” from the bench, but they both easily won confirmation. Ironically, Sessions was himself rejected by the Judiciary Committee after President Reagan nominated him to a federal district court seat in 1986 amid allegations that he had made racially insensitive remarks. But he persevered and continued to serve as U.S. Attorney in Alabama, and later was elected attorney general.
He built a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor and went on to be elected to the Senate, where he wound up serving on the Judiciary panel with several senators who had opposed his nomination.
Before taking the top GOP spot on the Budget committee, some quiet jitters arose in the party that he would be hard-pressed to fill his predecessor’s shoes. “There was a fear that he would under-perform,” a veteran GOP Senate staffer said. “Gregg was a giant, an absolute legend [on budget issues]. So far, Sessions gets high marks.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., who has been Sessions’ colleague on both the Judiciary and Budget panels, observed in an interview with The Fiscal Times, “Judd was a New Hampshirite. He was inscrutable and not particularly emotional. I would say Jeff brings a lot more personal passion to the fight.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who also has served with Sessions on the Judiciary and Budget committees, put it another way. “Judd was a unique character in the Senate; he was really a budget guru, Jeff is well-informed and a bulldog – a budget bulldog.”
“Encoded in the DNA”
But long-time Senate experts see Sessions as a tenacious partisan not in the mold of either Gregg or former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who also served as the top Republican on the budget panel for many years. “You lose almost all of your flexibility in negotiating: You go from somebody who was willing to sit at the table, even if he may not agree with everything, to somebody who won’t even come to the table unless you agree to terms beforehand,” noted Wendy Schiller of Brown University. “He’s also willing to walk away from the table much more easily.”
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said that his Judiciary experience might also color Sessions’ approach. “Spending as much time on Judiciary as he has, that hard-edged partisanship sort of becomes encoded in your DNA,” Baker said.
Given Session’s conservative views on fiscal policy, it is not surprising that he does not share Conrad’s willingness to put everything on the bargaining table, including the possibility of raising taxes as well as cutting spending to try to tame the deficit. At a recent committee hearing at which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appeared, Conrad made clear that taxes must be a part of the mix.
But when Sessions was pressed about the need for more revenue, he disputed the notion of raising tax rates. “We don’t have to raise taxes. We could do this with spending reductions,” he said. “The danger in raising taxes is that if we get our spending under control I think we’ll have steady growth. As the country prospers, we’ll have more revenue.”
“Step Forward with a Plan”
Session also doesn’t buy Conrad’s argument that a long-term budget deal should originate on Capitol Hill, arguing that the president should take the lead. “Is this an acknowledgment that the president refuses to lead?” Sessions asked in the interview. He underscored that point to Jacob (Jack) Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, ata hearing on Feb. 15. “Did Winston Churchill say he was waiting for parliament to come up with a plan to win the war? When our nation is faced with any threat, great or small, financial or military, it's the job of the nation's chief executive to step forward with a plan,” Sessions said. “Not only has the president failed to lead, but his administration, sad to say, has consistently attacked Republicans when they do step up and put forward bold ideas to reduce spending or address our spiraling debt.”
After Sessions berated Lew and said he “can't respect a position that suggests this budget reduces the debt,” Conrad reacted by praising the White House’s efforts. “I give you good grades for a beginning,” he told Lew, adding that the administration must still “help us understand their vision of how this process comes together. And, you know, we don't have a whole lot more time.”
Meanwhile, expect to hear Sessions keep up the attacks as the battle over the budget intensifies in the coming months. “It is a defining moment for America,” Sessions said in the interview. “I believe this administration is irresponsible in its actions and inaccurate in what it says. And the loyal opposition has a responsibility to point that out. I intend to do it.”
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