Bush Budget Faces Tough Political Fight

President Bush says he has produced a “lean” $2.57 trillion spending plan that would promote his key goals of fighting terrorism and protecting the homeland while seeking to weed out ineffective government programs.

But critics are complaining about the president’s priorities and charging that the budget is more notable for what has been left out.

Setting the stage for months of partisan squabbles in Congress, Republican lawmakers generally praised Bush’s budget for 2006 while Democrats heaped scorn on the proposal.

Sen. John Kerry, Bush’s defeated Democratic presidential opponent, said Bush had reached “new lows of fiscal irresponsibility” by proposing a spending plan that “takes cops off the street, hurts veterans and punishes school children while saddling future generations with record budget deficits and mountains of debt.”

Bush defended the spending blueprint, saying, “It’s a budget that focuses on results.”

He told reporters that “the taxpayers of America don’t want us spending our money into something that’s not achieving results.”

The president was traveling to Detroit on Tuesday to promote his agenda for economic prosperity, which includes budgetary restraint, tax cuts, deregulation and free trade.

On Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary John Snow and Joshua Bolten, Bush’s budget director, were testifying Tuesday at separate congressional hearings that begin a long legislative process that will stretch into the fall as Congress crafts its own budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Bush sent his massive multivolume set of spending documents, trimmed in bright blue, to Congress on Monday, saying the new budget focused on his priorities while targeting 150 government programs for either outright elimination or drastic reductions, including Amtrak passenger train subsidies and grants to communities for hiring police officers.

In the most tightfisted budget of his presidency, Bush proposed giving nine of 15 Cabinet-level agencies less money in 2006 than they are getting this year. And overall non-security domestic spending – excluding such automatic benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare – would be reduced by 0.7 percent next year.

Bush said this was the first outright cut in this wide swath of government programs proposed by any president since Ronald Reagan.

“I understand that sometimes it’s hard to eliminate a program that sounds good,” Bush said Monday at the White House. “I’m saying to members of Congress, show us the results as to whether or not this program is working.”

Republicans, while generally endorsing Bush’s approach, noted that Congress will have its own opinions about what spending priorities to set. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., called the administration’s plan “a good starting point for the Congress to begin its work.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., conceded that “obviously this is a budget that is going to create some significant angst among my colleagues.” But he praised the administration for producing a budget of “fiscal responsibility” that would call Republicans “back to our roots.”

Democrats, however, were less kind, accusing Bush of budgetary sleight of hand to keep some huge costs out of the budget.

While the administration has said that it will request $81 billion in new spending for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan within a few days and will have to come back to Congress for more money in 2006, new money for the two military operations in the two countries was omitted for 2006 and beyond.

Likewise, the administration’s top domestic priority, overhauling Social Security by creating private investment accounts, was kept out of the budget even though the administration has already estimated that transition costs for the first decade will total $754 billion.

In both cases, the administration said not enough was known about future needs in Iraq or the ultimate shape of Bush’s Social Security proposal to come up with realistic budget estimates.

Bush’s proposed 4.8 percent increase for the Pentagon would bring its budget next year to $419.3 billion, excluding Iraq war costs. That was $3.4 billion less than he projected for 2006 just a year ago, with weapons procurement among the leading areas feeling the crunch.

Bush wants to make his first term tax cuts permanent at a 10-year cost of $1.1 trillion. However, most of that expense will not show up until after 2010, when the bulk of tax cuts are set to expire, and the Bush budget did not provide any deficit estimates past 2010.

Bush’s spending plan showed deficits totaling $1.8 trillion from the current year through 2010, including a record $427 billion imbalance this year. After this year, Bush’s budget projects that the deficits will decline to $233 billion in 2009, the year the president pledged during the campaign to cut the deficit in half, a goal he would achieve at that level in terms of the deficit’s share of the total economy.

Democrats said if Bush had shown the real costs of the Iraq operation in future years, the transition costs for Social Security and the price of making his tax cuts permanent then deficits over the next decade would total more than $4 trillion.

© 2005 The Associated Press