Bush’s budget bashed

President Bush, constrained by wars, hurricanes and exploding budget deficits, has sent Congress a 2007 spending plan that is garnering howls of pain from farmers, teachers, doctors and a wide array of other groups with special interests.

Democrats, as expected, pronounced the Republican president’s budget plan dead on arrival. But many Republicans were equally sharp in their reservations about the $2.77 trillion spending blueprint the administration unveiled on Monday.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., called Bush’s proposed cuts in education and health “scandalous” while Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she was “disappointed and even surprised” at the extent of the administration’s proposed cuts in Medicaid and Medicare.

Given the level of congressional frustration, administration witnesses, led by Treasury Secretary John Snow, were expected to face a tough sales job before various congressional committees on Tuesday.

Bush’s spending blueprint for the 2007 budget year that begins Oct. 1 would provide large increases for the military and homeland security but would trim spending in the one-sixth of the budget that covers the rest of discretionary spending. Nine Cabinet agencies would see outright reductions with the biggest percentage cuts occurring in the departments of Transportation, Justice and Agriculture.

And in mandatory programs _ so-called because the government must provide benefits to all who qualify _ the president is seeking over the next five years savings of $36 billion in Medicare, $5 billion in farm subsidy programs, $4.9 billion in Medicaid support for poor children’s health care and $16.7 billion in additional payments from companies to shore up the government’s besieged pension benefit agency.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley noted that Congress has just completed a yearlong battle to achieve far smaller five-year savings in Medicaid, the joint federal-state health program for the poor, and Medicare as part of a $39 billion five-year trim in benefit programs.

“It wasn’t an easy legislative accomplishment,” said Grassley, R-Iowa. “Any more reductions of a significant scope could be difficult this year.”

Bush’s budget would meet his twin goals of making permanent his first-term tax cuts, which are set to expire by 2010, and cutting the deficit in half by 2009, the year he leaves office.

The administration’s new budget projects that this year’s deficit will soar to an all-time high of $423 billion, surpassing the old mark in dollar terms of $412 billion set in 2004, as the costs of rebuilding from last year’s devastating hurricanes and the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan push spending higher.

Democrats, hoping to wrest control of Congress from the Republicans in this year’s election, charged that Bush was forced into an austere spending plan because of the estimated $1.4 trillion over the next decade that it will cost to extend his first-term tax cuts, which Democrats claim primarily benefit the very wealthy.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said Bush’s budget was sending a clear message “that the most important thing to this administration are tax cuts being made permanent for the wealthiest of Americans.”

In addition to strict limits on most discretionary, non-security spending in the budget, Bush sought drastic cuts or total elimination on 141 programs that would produce savings of nearly $15 billion in 2007.

The targeted programs included 42 in the area of education ranging from drug-free schools to federal support for the arts, technology and parent-resource centers.

Those proposed cuts were coming at a time when the administration is seeking more spending to train 70,000 high school math and science teachers as part of Bush’s new American Competitiveness Initiative designed to relieve anxiety about the country’s ability to compete with emerging economic powers such as China and India.

Even previously favored agencies such as the National Institutes of Health were not immune from the budget knife with overall funding essentially frozen and many individual programs seeing budget cuts. That brought objections from groups ranging from the American Heart Association to the American Diabetes Association.

Robert A. Rizza, president for medicine and science of the American Diabetes Association, said Bush’s proposed cuts in diabetes research and prevention “would weaken the federal resources needed to fight this national epidemic.”

Bush’s budget submission is just the opening round in what opponents are promising will be a spirited fight in Congress over spending priorities.

“The president’s budget slashes resources for exactly the priorities we should be supporting _ groundbreaking medical research, health care for our seniors, and education for our kids,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

© 2006 The Associated Press

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