President Bush is sending Congress a $2.5 trillion spending plan, constrained by war and record deficits, that seeks to slash spending in a number of popular programs from farm subsidies to poor people’s health care.
While calling it the tightest budget of Bush’s presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney defended the spending blueprint against Democratic complaints that its austerity falls hardest on the poor.
“It’s not something that we’ve done with a meat ax, nor are we suddenly turning our backs on the most needy people in our society,” Cheney said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The budget’s arrival Monday on Capitol Hill sets off months of contentious debate, with lawmakers from both parties expected to fight to protect favorite programs.
Bush has targeted 150 programs for either outright elimination or severe cutbacks as part of an effort to meet his campaign pledge to cut the deficit in half by 2009, the year he leaves office.
For the 2006 budget year that begins next Oct. 1, he proposes spending $2.5 trillion as he seeks to put the government on a path of declining deficits. That would occur, however, only after the government has recorded three straight years of record deficits, in dollar terms, including a projected $427 billion in red ink this year.
Critics say Bush’s plan achieves its deficit-reduction goals only by leaving out big-ticket items such as the cost of keeping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and paying for his No. 1 domestic priority – overhauling Social Security by permitting younger workers to set up private accounts.
Also omitted was the cost of making Bush’s first-term tax cuts permanent or fixing the problem of the alternative minimum tax, which was designed to tap the wealthy but is ensnaring more and more middle-income taxpayers.
Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, called Bush’s budget the “tip of the iceberg” because once beyond its five-year window “the cost of everything he advocates just explodes.”
Bush’s proposal restrains the growth in discretionary programs to less than 2.3 percent. Defense and homeland security are slated for large increases, meaning many other programs will face either outright cuts or only tiny increases.
The military budget would rise 4.8 percent to $419.3 billion in 2006, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. That figure does not include the $80 billion the administration has said it soon will seek to pay for the costs of continued military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even with the increase a number of major weapons programs, including the missile defense system and the B-2 stealth bomber, would see cuts from current levels.
Aside from defense and homeland security, some Bush priorities that see spending increases include a new $1.5 billion high school performance program, expanded Pell Grants for low-income college students, job-training efforts and more support for community health clinics.
One of the most politically sensitive targets on Bush’s hit list is the government support program for farmers, which he wants to trim by $587 million in 2006 and by $5.7 billion over the next decade. Price supports would be reduced for a wide range of crops, from cotton and rice to corn, soybeans and wheat.
Other programs set for cuts, the AP has learned, include the Army Corps of Engineers, whose dam and other waterway projects are extremely popular in Congress; the Energy Department; several health programs under the Health and Human Services Department and federal subsidies for the Amtrak passenger railroad.
About one-third of the programs being targeted for elimination are in the Education Department, including federal grant programs for local schools in such areas as vocational education, anti-drug efforts and Even Start, a $225 million literacy program.
Bush’s budget also advocates restraining growth in Medicaid, the big federal-state program that provides health care for the poor.
Many of the spending cuts in the budget represent repeats of efforts the administration has proposed and Congress has rejected previously.
Last year, the president proposed eliminating 65 programs and sharply cutting spending in 63 others. However, only four programs were abolished, while spending was cut in 20 others, according to the House Appropriations Committee.