Hill balks on Bush’s budget

Democrats, already looking ahead to the next White House occupant, quickly relegated President Bush’s final budget to the ash bin of history, saying his proposals to rein in spending on programs are untenable and won’t happen.

Even the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, invoked a note of reality. “Let’s face it. This budget is done with the understanding that nobody’s going to be taking a long, hard look at it.”

Nonetheless, Bush dispatched his budget director and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to defend the first-ever $3 trillion federal budget proposal he unveiled a day earlier.

White House Budget Director Jim Nussle urged congressional Democrats to adopt the same cooperative spirit that produced a quick House agreement on a $160 billion economic stimulus package of tax rebates and business tax cuts now being debated in the Senate.

Democrats, who now control both the House and Senate, were emphatic that the Bush plan won’t be the model as they put together their own budget proposals over the coming weeks.

“We will be going our way and they will be going their way and we won’t likely converge,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., said.

“The only real significance of the president’s budget is to serve as a legacy of his disastrous fiscal management over the last seven years,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, one of two Senate Democrats competing for their party’s presidential nomination this year.

Bush’s budget for fiscal year 2009 beginning Oct. 1 proposes spending just below $3.1 trillion. Last year, he proposed $2.9 trillion for the current budget year, but he now estimates that spending in fiscal 2008 will also exceed $3 trillion once all the costs of the continuing war in Iraq are included.

Excluding the war, Bush is proposing an 8 percent increase in the Pentagon’s base budget, to $515.4 billion, next year. Overall defense spending would decline from $670.5 billion this year to $588.3 billion in Bush’s 2009 budget. The request includes just $70 billion in initial war costs, a figure certain to be exceeded when Bush leaves office.

Bush also wants to boost homeland security spending by almost $4 billion, with big increases devoted to cybersecurity, tightening borders, detecting nuclear materials arriving in port and improving airport passenger and cargo screening. The Homeland Security Department itself would get $40 billion, a 2.5 percent decrease from this year.

Some of the spending increases would be offset by prescribing $196 billion in savings to Medicare and Medicaid programs over the next five years and reducing or eliminating 151 programs, saving $18 billion.

But slowing spending in those programs also reflects Bush’s determination to preserve his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts after he’s gone. Many of those tax cuts expire in 2010, and the cost of writing them into permanent law would be $635 billion over five years.

“It’s a good budget,” Bush said after meeting with his Cabinet. “This budget is one that keeps spending under control; discretionary spending is held to less than 1 percent.”

Democrats made it clear they’re not even going to consider most of Bush’s ideas for saving.

“We’re not going to cut the COPS program 100 percent,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said of a community policing program. “We’re not going to cut weatherization assistance 100 percent. Those aren’t the priorities of the American people. So I think there will be significant differences.”

Other proposed savings or cuts that Congress is likely to reject affect programs for low-income heating assistance, Environmental Protection Agency clean water grants and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Democrats also said the White House’s projection that the budget deficit will hit $410 billion this year and $407 billion in 2009, just under the $413 billion record set four years ago, was overly optimistic.

The White House predicts the economy will grow at a 2.7 percent rate this year, higher than what private sector economists and the Congressional Budget Office are anticipating.

Also in dispute are White House claims that its budget puts the federal government on the path to a small budget surplus in 2012, fulfilling a promise Bush made two years ago when the economy was stronger.

Democrats said the plan doesn’t take into account future costs of the Iraq war or the price tag of assuring that higher alternative minimum tax rates originally aimed at several hundred very wealthy people don’t hit tens of millions of middle-income earners.


On the Net:

The budget: http://www.budget.gov/