WASHINGTON -- Faced with election-year defections from his hard-won budget pact, President Bush warned Americans last night that if they do not insist on speedy congressional action to cut the deficit, they are risking their children's future and threatening the nation's survival.
"No family, no nation can continue to do business the way the federal government has been operating and survive," the president said in a 10-minute Oval Office address intended to stiffen the backbones of lawmakers wary of the controversial deficit-cutting deal he worked out with their leaders.
Mr. Bush argued that the proposed tax increases and benefit cuts are necessary to cure "a cancer that is gnawing away at our nation's [economic] health."
Without action, he said, the government's pattern of spending on the cuff would result in a gap this year between income and expenses of $300 billion, weakening the economy and driving it toward recession.
"This budget agreement is the result of eight months of blood, sweat and fears -- fears of the economic chaos that would follow if we fail to reduce the deficit," he said.
Mr. Bush noted that this was the first time in his 20-month-old presidency that he was making a direct appeal to the American people to get their lawmakers to act.
Responding to election-year jitters on both sides of the aisle, Mr. Bush told his audience, "Your senators and congressmen need to know that you want this deficit brought down, that the time for politics and posturing is over."
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, delivering what is usually a rebuttal to a presidential address, echoed Mr. Bush's remarks.
"We recognize that this budget demands sacrifice from all Americans," he said. "But if enacted, it holds the promise of restoring a sound economy, from which all Americans will benefit."
The success of their efforts may not be certain until tomorrow, when the House is scheduled to vote on a resolution endorsing the broad outlines of the budget package. But leading opponents of the agreement conceded that the president was almost certain to win on this first test of the five-year plan to slice $500 billion from the deficit.
"In a loyalty test to the president, of course, the president's going to win," said Representative Vin Weber, R-Minn., one of the conservative Republicans who have reacted most negatively to the budget package.
Senate leaders of both parties say they are confident of victory when the budget resolution comes to them later this week.
But in the House, most counts indicate the vote is still very close. Many members had urged Mr. Bush to help shield them from criticism over their votes for tax increases on gasoline, cigarettes, beer, wine and liquor and to support such politically unpopular measures as reducing Medicare benefits.
Furthermore, the passage of the budget resolution will only start a process that must continue through the enactment of the specific spending and tax legislation within the following two weeks. Wrangling has already begun over different interpretations of whether a cap on defense spending is a ceiling or a floor.
Mr. Bush's speech last night capped a day of intense lobbying for the budget agreement, during which he entertained three dozen GOP lawmakers at the White House, jawboned a few FTC more over the telephone and made a separate appeal to a hastily assembled gathering of business executives in the Old Executive Office Building.
His message was threefold: that he had reached the best deal he could without a Republican majority in Congress; that the deal wasn't as bad as it could have been because it wouldn't raise personal income tax rates or "mess with Social Security"; and that, in the end, there was no alternative.
That last argument was the most persuasive, according to Representative Jack Buechner, R-Mo., who said he was leaning against the agreement Monday but was looking upon it more favorably yesterday.
"I don't see anyone trying to come up with something better," he said.