White House officials and Congress’ top budget writers tried rallying support Tuesday for President Bush’s $2.57 trillion budget, but cracks in Republican unity showed as lawmakers digested the plan’s proposed spending cuts.
“Stay in the game the rest of the year,” House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, urged colleagues who have voiced support for paring the deficit since the budget’s release Monday. “Don’t claim you want to cut the deficit in one breath and demand we spend more in the next.”
Joshua Bolten, Bush’s budget chief, told Nussle’s committee that the president “won’t hesitate” to veto excessive spending bills – which he has yet to do in four years.
“I don’t anticipate it will be necessary this year,” Bolten added.
Even so, Republicans across the Capitol flashed signs of concern about Bush’s proposals, raising questions about how closely the GOP-led Congress will follow the president’s fiscal outline. Bush has proposed increasing defense and domestic security spending while culling $137 billion in 10-year savings from Medicaid and other benefits, plus eliminating or deeply cutting more than 150 education and other programs.
“Maybe some things the president doesn’t want to keep we’ll put back in,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a top member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “But I think we’ll keep the budget discipline.”
Underscoring GOP fault lines, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., opened Tuesday’s Senate session by voicing support for Bush’s plan. Gregg called Bush’s plan “courageous” and said he was willing to lead a charge to find savings from benefits like farm subsidies and Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the poor and disabled.
The very next speaker, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., also praised Bush. But then he asked lawmakers to take “a sound and sensible” approach to the president’s proposals to reduce farm subsidies and cut planned weapons purchases. Chambliss’ state has a major production facility of Lockheed Martin Corp., the defense manufacturer.
Though Republicans can survive some defections, they will need solid support to push a budget and separate spending bills through the House and Senate this year. GOP lawmakers will have to choose between their desire to shrink record deficits and their instinct to protect programs of special interest back home.
Bush’s budget targets include technology subsidies to business, beach replenishment, parkland purchases by states, and foreign aid for child survival.
Gregg said that cuts were so broadly aimed that it “gores everybody’s ox.” But that didn’t blunt the pain for some lawmakers.
“Some are very drastic,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in an interview of Bush’s planned cuts for education, child care and home-heating aid. “There should have been a more balanced approach in these areas.”
While Bolten touted Bush’s fiscal blueprint at Nussle’s panel, Treasury Secretary John Snow visited the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.
Both men heard the predictable praise from Republicans and attacks from Democrats, who said the package cut veterans, education and health care too deeply while masking the enormity of future deficits by omitting the costs of the Iraq war and Bush’s vision of reshaping Social Security.
“Cuts like this hurt,” Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., told Bolten regarding Bush’s proposal to cut non-security domestic programs by 0.7 percent next year. “But in the end, they barely make a dent in the deficit” because those programs comprise only 15 percent of the overall budget.
At the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was amazed that the president’s two top domestic priorities, overhauling Social Security and making his first-term tax cuts permanent, would not show up in any significant way in the budget until 2010, after Bush has left office.
“How can we take this budget seriously when it just puts off two major liabilities until after the president’s term is over?” Schumer asked.
Snow replied: “We are not trying to hide anything. We are trying to put it all out there.”
Other senators pressed Snow to say when or if the administration would present a complete Social Security plan, beyond his description of the private investment accounts he wants.
Snow said the president wanted to generate a debate so others would present their own ideas.
“I think you are going to have to fill in more blanks” on Social Security, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., told him.