WASHINGTON - First House Republicans, now Senate Democrats, are staking out positions at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum with rival federal budgets, an annual ritual conducted in pursuit of political ends more than any compromise on deficit reduction.
Yet compromise is the stated purpose of President Barack Obama's ardent wooing of lawmakers in recent days - even though he chose to delay his own budget until next month. Only then will it become clearer how far he might be willing to go in finding savings from Medicare and other benefit programs that have escaped significant cuts in earlier agreements that sliced $3.6 trillion from deficits over a decade.
"The president believes that there is an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to come together around a balanced plan to grow the economy," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday in a relatively mildly worded statement issued after House Republicans unveiled their version of a 10-year budget.
Carney went on to dismiss the GOP plan, which features $4.65 trillion in deficit savings, calls for repeal of Obama's signature health care law, refrains from raising taxes and promises a balanced budget in a decade. But his wording was less bellicose than the rhetoric Obama employed in last year's election campaign, and that he has used at the White House podium since.
Contrast that with the reaction from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, whose overarching political goal is to win the House majority in 2014 and reclaim the speaker's gavel that once was hers.
"It destroys jobs and puts our economic recovery at risk," she said of the GOP plan advanced by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, his party's vice presidential candidate last fall. "It still protects the wealthiest at the expense of the middle class. ... It still ends the Medicare guarantee and shifts costs to seniors."
Republicans see things differently as they focus on eliminating deficits and finding savings from costly health care programs, beginning now with Medicaid and in a decade's time with Medicare.
The immediate political objective for Ryan and the GOP leadership was to present a budget that balances in a decade, fulfilling a promise made over the winter to their combatively conservative rank and file. Those lawmakers, in return, had agreed not to threaten a Treasury default or a government shutdown in hopes of maneuvering Obama into accepting cuts in benefit programs.
The theory then, as now, was that a desire to end the $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts that have just begun taking effect would be incentive enough for Obama to accept savings in Medicare, Medicaid and perhaps even Social Security. And that Republicans wouldn't pay a political price, as they have for their previous rounds of budget brinkmanship.
If that isn't enough, there's at least one incentive for Obama to make a deal, although he and Republicans rarely if ever acknowledge it publicly. Without one, he has virtually no chance of winning additional funding he seeks for bridge and highway repairs, clean energy and other administration priorities.
If the House Republican budget was aimed at securing the votes of rank-and-file conservatives, it came wrapped in rhetoric designed to reassure the middle class.
It promises a "Debt-Free Future" sometime after 2050, and includes sections titled "Opportunity Expanded," "A Safety Net Strengthened," "Retirement Secured," "Fairness Restored and "A Nation Protected."
In sum, wrote Ryan, the budget he authored "is more than a list of numbers. It's an expression of our governing philosophy."
A day later came the Senate Democrats, with a different philosophy and a budget to match.
It claims just shy of $2 trillion in deficit savings over a decade, but $1.2 trillion, more than half, would simply replace the across-the-board cuts they seek to eliminate.
The plan calls for $100 billion in new spending to repair or replace aging bridges, roads, schools and other structures, as well as to install broadband in classrooms - the new money of the type that Obama would seek as part of any eventual deal.
Perhaps the two biggest contrasts with the Republican budget are these: Tax increases total roughly $1 trillion over a decade under the Democratic plan, and deficits are projected to decline for three or four years before resuming their rise.
Democrats make a virtue of both. They say the higher taxes will come from closing loopholes, a politically popular position. And they note that deficits will quickly stabilize at an economically sustainable level of less than 3 percent of the size of the overall economy.
The chief political objective for Democrats in this case was to produce a plan that satisfied liberals and moderates within their own party - to assure it can command a Senate majority. The plan's mere existence - after an absence of four years - marks something of a concession to House Republicans who pushed through legislation that requires lawmaker salaries to be withheld in either house that fails to pass a budget.
Of greater concern for Democrats than a constitutionally dubious pay provision is the series of politically difficult amendments Republicans will no doubt require them to vote on before the full budget. Campaign commercials to follow, much closer to the 2014 elections.
On Wednesday, it was the Republicans' turn to criticize.
"Their budget will never balance. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever," said Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP Senate leader. "We hear it won't prevent programs like Medicare from going bankrupt," he said before details were formally released. "We hear it contains yet more wasteful quote-unquote 'stimulus' spending. ...
"And, in order to finance more spending, we hear it relies on more than $1 trillion, that's trillion with a 't' - in tax hikes, including on the middle class."
Like Ryan a day earlier, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, conceded nothing.
"While House Republicans are doubling down on the extreme budget that the American people already rejected, Senate Democrats are going to be working on a responsible pro-growth budget that reflects the values and priorities of middle class families across the country," she said.