WASHINGTON — Repeatedly since taking office, President Barack Obama has said his administration was combing through the federal budget "line by line" to root out wasteful spending.
Finding it is one thing; getting Congress to sign on is another. By Republican accounts, he hasn't found that much anyway.
Obama sent Congress a detailed budget Thursday proposing to eliminate or trim 121 programs and save $17 billion next year — not a trifle, for sure, but only about half of 1 percent of the $1.3 trillion in federal spending for the fiscal year beginning in October.
The size of the savings clearly was a sore subject at the White House.
"It is important … for all of you, as you're writing up these stories, to recognize that $17 billion taken out of our discretionary, nondefense budget, as well as portions of our defense budget, are significant," Obama said. "They mean something."
Still, Obama's hit list was smaller than the one President George W. Bush included in his budget last year targeting 151 programs for $34 billion in savings.
Bush didn't have much luck in getting those cuts through the Democrat-controlled Congress. Obama may run into some of the same difficulties.
"None of this will be easy," Obama said at the White House.
Even with the cuts, the White House estimates the government's red ink will still be $1.2 trillion, down only slightly from this year's record.
Republicans scoffed that Obama's cuts were not nearly enough. "They appear to be a diversionary tactic — an effort to change the subject away from the unprecedented debt this budget heaps on future generations," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
The president defended the cuts, which he portrayed as a mix of some "more painful than others."
"In Washington, I guess that's considered trivial. Outside of Washington, that's still considered a lot of money," he said. "But these savings, large and small, add up."
In more than 1,500 pages, Obama sought to flesh out the bare-bones budget outline he submitted in February shortly after taking office. Both the House and Senate last week approved a $3.4 trillion budget blueprint reflecting most of Obama's priorities and clearing the way for new spending on health care, energy and education. More details are due from the White House next week.
Fellow Democrats may reject some revisions, including Obama's proposal to stop paying states and counties that keep illegal immigrants in their jails.
Despite redoubling its efforts to portray itself as tough on waste and spending, the administration and Congress have taken the nation on a steady course of higher federal spending. In rapid succession has come passage of a $787 billion economic recovery bill, a $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill and Congress' $3.4 trillion budget for next year, which calls for increases of almost 10 percent over current funding for non-defense agency budgets.
Obama said that Americans are tightening their belts in difficult times and want to know if Washington "is prepared to act with the same sense of responsibility."
"I believe we can and must do exactly that," he said.