Election year jitters mean trouble for Bush’s budget

President Bush’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill are nearing votes on his austere budget blueprint for next year, and it’s clear it will look a lot different by the time they’re finished.

Nervous lawmakers are flinching from proposed spending cuts, and as GOP loyalists draft plans to implement the budget, election-year politics are driving their decisions.

The first item to be tossed overboard is likely to be Bush’s proposal for $36 billion in savings from the politically sacrosanct Medicare program. A similar fate awaits proposals to cut spending on food stamps and crop subsidies.

"On our side of the aisle, in an election year, the message is: ‘Can’t we put this off?’" Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said Wednesday of the plan to cut payments to Medicare providers.

One item that can’t be put off much longer is a bill to raise the $8.2 trillion limit on the national debt. Congress must act before lawmakers leave Washington on March 18 for a weeklong recess or else the first-ever default on U.S. obligations could occur.

Gregg and his House Budget Committee counterpart Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, have tentatively scheduled committee votes on the budget next week, though they’ve yet to detail their plans. Intractable budget deficits guarantee that whatever they produce won’t play to rave reviews.

Both men are torn between the demands of conservatives for spending cuts and the reluctance of politically vulnerable Republicans from swing districts and states to cast risky votes to cut popular programs such as Medicare and education. The need to raise the debt limit at about the same time complicates their efforts.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have yet to act on Bush’s $92 billion request for emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for additional hurricane relief.

The first step under Congress’ arcane procedures for implementing the federal budget is to pass a budget resolution. That’s a nonbinding blueprint that sets the limits of subsequent bills to implement the plan, including the appropriations bills that Congress passes each year.

Far less frequently, a budget resolution spins off a so-called reconciliation bill to cut benefit programs like Medicare. Last year’s budget-cut bill _ signed by Bush last month _ was the first in eight years, and went through a legislative slog that showed rifts within the GOP and exposed many lawmakers to uncomfortable votes.

Nussle and Gregg both would like to try another round of cuts to entitlement programs whose budgets rise automatically with inflation and population growth. But they acknowledge it’ll be difficult.

"In an election year it’s very hard to do major entitlement savings," Gregg said.

"Members are a very nervous bunch," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.

Bush called for $65 billion in benefit cuts over five years when submitting his budget a month ago. But many of his proposals, such as opening an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling and the curbs to food stamps and crop subsidies, were rejected by lawmakers last year.

"We’re going to work with the committees and see what’s doable," Nussle said.

A major complication in passing the budget is taxes. A key pillar of Bush’s budget is extending his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, most of which are set to expire in 2010. But to add the cuts _ to tax rates, the estate tax and dividend and capital gains income tax _ to the budget would cost $120 billion in 2011 alone, which is virtually certain to run into resistance from deficit hawks such as Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio.

Bush is likely to have more success in clamping down on domestic agency budgets. He has proposed a cut of about 1 percent in so-called discretionary spending for domestic agencies, except for the Homeland Security Department. Even though a similar cut passed last year, squeezing even further promises to be very difficult. But veto threats should bring lawmakers to heel.

Congress hasn’t wrapped up its appropriations work before Election Day in an even-numbered year since 1998, raising the likelihood of a postelection lame duck session to deal with the 11 appropriations bills.

"I don’t see how the overall discretionary caps are going to be adequate," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who chairs an Appropriations panel that funds education, health research and labor programs. Bush proposed cutting $4 billion, or more than 3 percent, from programs under Specter’s jurisdiction, a move the Pennsylvania moderate called "scandalous."

He made his comments Wednesday after a hearing featuring Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in which he repeatedly upbraided the administration for proposing a 4 percent cut in the department’s budget.

"Education is simply underfunded," Specter said.

© 2006 The Associated Press

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