Two-front crapshoot

March 25, 2003

JOHN McCAIN, a Republican senator from Arizona, called it Orwellian. Martin O. Sabo, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, said he felt like he was in fantasyland.

As they spoke, the United States was undertaking a massive invasion of Iraq. But that's not what they were talking about.

No, the most bizarre activity under way was congressional approval of a budget blueprint that turned on its head all prior conventional wisdom about how such things should be done.

Like trying to balance spending with income. Or putting money aside to pay for anticipated future expenses. Or forsaking tax cuts when the government is deeply in the red. Such tight-fisted tactics are out of vogue in George W. Bush's Washington.

Just as he's gambling that a pre-emptive strike on Iraq will make the United States safer, he's betting that a huge tax cut coupled with huge defense spending and huge deficits will make the country more financially secure.

Perhaps more amazingly, Congress is following him almost in lockstep.

Despite fierce objections raised by most Democrats and some Republicans, including Mr. McCain, the lawmakers are headed toward approval of a budget blueprint with the president's proposals largely intact.

The Senate's performance, given its usual balky independence, was particularly disappointing. Senators managed to trim the president's $726 billion, 10-year tax cut by only $100 billion - and then only on the strength of the argument that some means had to be found to pay for the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

But the $100 billion wasn't actually put aside. This is money the country will almost certainly have to borrow. With a deficit expected to reach $300 billion for this year alone, the hole will only deepen as taxes are cut while security spending grows.

Spending money not yet in hand is a practice almost every American can relate to. Less understandable is the only suggestion House GOP leaders offered to economize: squeezing $255 billion from social programs such as Medicaid, student loans, federal pensions and veterans' benefits.

That's right, veterans' benefits. They want to tighten the belt on veterans during wartime to help make up for revenue lost from cutting taxes paid mostly by the rich. Who dreams up this stuff?

President Bush is gambling that the tax cut, which also includes some relief for middle-class families, will kick-start the economy in time for his re-election campaign in 2004. If he's wrong, he'll be just one of many out of a job.

The best news about the budget blueprint is that it's not binding. If we're lucky, by the time the tax-cut legislation comes up for a vote, the caution caucus will gain a majority.

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