WASHINGTON -- House Democrats launched a pre-election year attack on President Bush's social policies yesterday, unveiling a federal spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year that would put more money into domestic programs than the White House wants.
"This budget is aimed directly at the needs of America's working people," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif.,the proposal's chief architect. "It's fair and it's fiscally responsible."
Mr. Panetta's plan was scheduled to be sent to the House Budget Committee today, as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after a two-week Easter recess.
The blueprint, which also represents the leading edge of a partisan assault on the GOP domestic agenda, is sure to be approved by the Democratic-dominated panel.
Other congressional committees were to buckle down this week to the task of writing legislation to reduce health-care costs, increase literacy, and impose a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases.
None of these issues cleaves easily along party lines. The handgun waiting period, for example, had been opposed by the White House, as well as by anti-gun-control Democrats and Republicans. Now, the president is signaling tacit approval of the idea, blurring the debate's political implications.
The ever-contentious budget remains one of the last provinces of unambiguous partisanship. Last year's five-year deficit-reduction agreement puts restraints on this year's budget-making process. But there is still plenty of room to politic, and Mr. Panetta's plan reflected the dimensions of this year's impending fight.
The chairman would not quarrel with the size of the administration's proposed defense budget, which, at $298 billion, would consume more than a fifth of the $1.45 trillion budget. Of the $200 billion the White House proposed to spend on social programs, Mr. Panetta suggested the reallocation of $10 billion.
The differences between the administration and Mr. Panetta sharpen over mandatory entitlement benefits. The Panetta plan brushes aside White House proposals to trim such programs, including $25.2 billion from Medicare and $1.5 billion from veterans' compensation and pensions.
But his plan does not suggest increases in other areas, listing instead several potential possibilities for the future, including an expansion in hunger assistance and health care for women and children. New budget rules prohibit the expansion of benefit programs without offsetting tax increases or reductions in other benefits.
On so-called discretionary domestic programs, Mr. Panetta's plan similarly toys with the edges of the White House outline.
It turns aside an administration initiative to force the better-off from shouldering a greater portion of the cost of school lunches and student loans. On the other hand, the plan says nothing about White House proposals to make those same individuals pay more for Medicare premiums and surrender some agriculture benefits.
The Democratic plan would also boost White House spending proposals in more than two dozen domestic programs -- though in some of these areas, the White House's proposed budget already represents an increase over current funding.
The Head Start program, which provides care for preschool youngsters, would see its budget increased under the Panetta plan from $1.95 billion this year to $2.3 billion next year. That is $250 million more than the president suggested -- a level which, itself, is nearly $300 million more than the program currently receives.
Still, Mr. Panetta would increase the budget in areas where the president would cut.
For example, he would add $64 million to the $1 billion the government would give the poor to help them pay energy bills. Mr. Bush would slash that fund by $585 million. And Mr. Panetta would spend an additional $100 million on community development grants, a $3 billion program the White House wants to trim by $280 million.
Mr. Panetta's plan projects a 1992 federal deficit of up to $281 billion -- the second-largest shortfall in history, after this year's record-breaking $300 billion budget deficit.