Tight-fisted budget will be test of GOP's grip

Bush plan puts pressure on Republican lawmakers

January 13, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Republican-led Congress is straining to finish an agonizing job that President Bush says is key to his agenda: Pass a tight-fisted budget, Bush has demanded, and do it before his Jan. 28 State of the Union address.

Riding a wave of popularity, with his party in control of both chambers, Bush wants Congress to squeeze the budget into constraints that even his allies say are tight - and he is gambling that the slim Republican majority will back him.

Far from starting the 108th Congress with a clean slate, lawmakers began last week with 11 pieces of unfinished business from the previous session - the must-pass spending bills that fund everything from education to space research in the new fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Together, the measures amount to nearly $400 billion in spending.

The bills are "hanging around like unwanted houseguests," said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the fiscally conservative Concord Coalition. "Everybody wants to get rid of them."

Those bills pay for the government's operations. Without them, parts of the government must shut down - as they did during the budget showdown of 1995 - or temporary measures must keep it running at current levels. Six such temporary bills have been passed since the fiscal year began.

To avoid a veto, Republican leaders must slash billions from their wish lists. Yet they must also make the bills generous enough to win passage in the closely divided Senate. Democrats want to add up to $10 billion for popular items such as housing, veterans and environmental programs.

`Some squeezing'

What's shaping up is a test of whether the Republican Congress can make the sacrifices needed to maintain spending restraint and to cast the Democrats as would-be spendthrifts who must be reined in.

"It is going to require some squeezing on the part of appropriators, especially on the Senate side," said G. William Hoagland, a budget adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican. "It will be the first big test of the new Republican conservative House, Senate and White House."

This week, the Senate will begin to roll the 11 remaining spending bills into one catchall measure that cuts $10 billion from the versions that the Senate, then in Democratic hands, proposed last year. But the rules allow any senator to propose further spending.

Bush and his budget director, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., want Congress to spend no more than $385 billion in the bills. That equals growth of about 2 percent for the programs Congress controls, compared with increases of about 6 percent a year between 1998 and 2001, during the Clinton administration.

One day before proposing his $674 billion tax-cut package last week, Bush demanded that Congress curb budget deficits by showing spending restraint.

"Our administration's concerned about deficits, and the way they deal with deficits is you, one, control spending. And the second way to deal with deficits is to encourage revenue growth," Bush said. He says his tax-cut plan will boost the economy and eventually ensure a fiscally sound budget.

Democrats and some moderate Republicans complain that Bush wants Congress to short-change social programs in the name of restraining deficits while passing a tax-cut plan that could swell deficits for years to come.

"How can you justify spending $650 [billion], $700 billion on the tax code, but not enough to fund the education programs?" said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat and leading moderate. "You can't justify that."

The president has signed the only two fiscal 2003 spending bills that Congress finished last year: a $355 billion defense measure and a $10.5 billion military construction bill.

As for the remaining bills, "Can the Senate accomplish on the floor in a week what it has not been able to accomplish in eight months prior?" said a House Republican aide.

The answer depends in part on the new majority leader, Frist, who has no experience in guiding a budget to enactment.

"This first round for Senator Frist when this comes to the floor is going to be a real tough one," Hoagland said. "It's going to be a real challenge to hold people together on this package."

With just a two-vote margin of Republican control, Frist could cut deals with Democrats that would expand the cost of the bills and irritate Bush. Or, more likely, he could keep every one of his 51 Republicans in line so they could pass the bills without any Democratic support.

That might be difficult if Democrats offer popular and costly amendments to boost funding for such priorities as education, the Low Income Heating Assistance Program or homeland security. Republican moderates might be tempted to support such additions.

"There will clearly be amendments, and I'm not sure that the Republicans will be able to hold all their votes," Hoagland said.

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