SEATTLE – Voters should be skeptical of Republican candidates calling for smaller budgets and ask what they’d cut, President Barack Obama said Thursday.
Appearing in a northeast Seattle neighborhood for a “backyard conversation” with about 35 local residents, Obama hit on two things that could be key to Washington’s U.S. Senate race: Federal spending and female voters.
Sen. Patty Murray, who joined Obama behind Erik and Cynnie Foss’ remodeled home in Wedgwood, is locked in a re-election battle with former state Sen. Dino Rossi, one of those Republicans calling for smaller government and less spending.
Hoping to stem Democratic losses in Congress halfway through his term, Obama is on a western swing that included Oregon on Wednesday, Nevada today for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and California Friday and Saturday, where he’ll campaign for Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Without mentioning Rossi by name Thursday morning, Obama said voters should ask anyone calling for less government, “What exactly do you mean to cut? If they can’t answer the question, they’re not serious about it.”
Thursday afternoon, Rossi parried with a Seattle event of his own, a press conference in a building on the shores of Lake Union, which he described as “across the way” from the former Odyssey Maritime Museum. The museum received $4 million in federal funds through Murray-sponsored earmarks and later closed. (The museum was actually a couple of miles away, on the waterfront in Seattle’s Belltown.)
Rossi said he’d try to get Congress to drop the use of “earmarks,” by which members direct funds to projects in their states or districts. Even if he wasn’t successful, he wouldn’t seek earmarks for Washington until the federal budget is balanced, he said.
When a reporter pointed out that earmarks are a very small piece of the massive federal budget, Rossi replied that they still represent a serious problem: “They use earmarks to get a senator to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do on their own.”
He wouldn’t rise to Obama’s challenge to name what he would cut. Instead, he said the budget would have to be studied line by line, then recalled putting together the state budget in 2003 and having other legislators fighting proposed cuts because it was just a small amount of money. “Those small amounts all added up.”
Julie Edwards, a Murray spokeswoman, said Rossi doesn’t understand the federal budgeting process and was essentially saying he wouldn’t help community leaders who come to him with worthy projects.
In the backyard session, Obama defended policies his administration and congressional Democrats have pushed through in the last 21 months. He acknowledged the effects of some things, such as health care reform, are just starting to be felt, but insisted they will be regarded as “absolutely the right thing in 20 years.”
The stimulus package “did cost money and it added to the deficit,” Obama acknowledged, but he defended it as necessary: “Had we not taken those steps, had we dropped into a depression, the deficit would have been even worse.”
The theme for Thursday’s session was helping women in the difficult economy, and Obama used it as a chance to highlight some emerging Seattle businesses owned or operated by women that are growing, with government help, despite the economy. Jody Hall, owner of Cupcake Royale, said she was able to open a fourth and fifth shop in the last 18 months, adding 30 workers, in part because of a Small Business Administration loan that she secured. Christina Lomasney of Modumetal, a high-metals manufacturer, said her company received a U.S. Energy Department contract through the Recovery Act.
Men were hit harder first, Obama said, in part because they are the largest part of the construction industry which shed jobs as the recession set in. But women make up half of the work force and are a growing number of entrepreneurs, so they are affected by tight credit and the inability to borrow money to start or expand their businesses.
There’s also a good political reason to highlight women’s issues in Seattle. A recent Washington Poll shows Murray enjoys a significant lead among female voters, while she and Rossi are virtually tied among men. And a close race could depend on mobilizing voters in heavily Democratic King County, the state’s most populous county.
State Republicans, who have been calling recent visits by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton the “D.C. bosses tour,” criticized the stop as “a blatant abuse of taxpayer money” that should be repaid by the Murray campaign. “If this is a taxpayer-funded official event, why is the president suggesting questions to ask Republicans on the campaign trail?” Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for the state GOP, asked in a post-event press release.
After an hour in the Fosses’ backyard, Obama and Murray headed to the University of Washington’s Hec Edmundson Pavilion, where they spoke to an overflow crowd at a get-out-the-vote rally.