Bush budget aids defense, home security

$2.4 trillion spending plan forecasts record deficit, alarms conservatives

Democrats seize on issue

Proposal cuts education, environment, agriculture

February 03, 2004|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Saying the "nation remains at war," President Bush released a budget plan yesterday that calls for hefty increases for defense and national security and forecasts a record deficit this year of $521 billion, alarming even conservatives in Bush's own camp.

The proposal envisions an additional deficit next year of $364 billion - a figure that even the Bush administration concedes could easily top $400 billion once new costs of the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are included.

Bush said he is confident, though, that within five years he can halve the deficit. To do so, he would squeeze scores of programs and eliminate others. Many of the agencies targeted for cuts involve education, the environment and agriculture.

The president put off one enormous task in his $2.4 trillion budget plan: How to continue paying for military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq without further swelling the deficit. Aides said Bush would seek up to $50 billion for those needs after the November election. That would mean that the deficit would be higher than predicted under his plan.

Bush, who entered office at a time of huge surpluses, is seeking to explain to Americans in an election year why the nation now faces record deficits. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the government is on pace to pile up nearly $2.4 trillion in further debt over the next decade, beyond the current $7 trillion debt.

Speaking after a morning Cabinet meeting, Bush said the United States had been dealt severe blows - a recession and a terrorist attack, leading to costly wars - that pushed the government into red ink.

He praised his budget proposal as a way to pay for priorities in difficult circumstances, while reducing, if not eliminating, the deficit.

Bush said his plan reflects his top priorities, including defeating terrorism, protecting the nation, energizing the economy, educating children and making sure the elderly benefit from prescription drug coverage through a reformed Medicare system. The proposal also serves Bush's interest in portraying himself in an election year as a wartime leader intent on protecting America.

"We went through a recession, we were attacked and we're fighting a war," the president said. "These are high hurdles for a budget and for a country to overcome, and yet we've overcome them, because we've got a great country."

His proposal set off an avalanche of criticism on Capitol Hill even before it arrived, beginning a conflict that will put Bush on the defensive against some members of both parties and perhaps complicate his re-election campaign. Congress will be working to reshape his budget plan through the November elections.

Most troublesome for the president, his proposal appears to have strained relations with a key base of support - conservative Republicans. They complained that his budget plan, austere as it is, would not go nearly far enough to curb spending or to reduce the deficit.

"While [Bush] showed restraint in several areas, the total spending is still too high," said Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee. "Hard-working Americans have to watch their spending, and so should Congress."

Rep. Jim Nussle, the Iowa Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, said: "We want to move further and we want to move faster with regard to deficit control and with regard to spending control."

After a weekend Republican retreat at which some conservatives denounced Bush's budget approach, Nussle said lawmakers might call for a freeze on spending for programs other than the military. That would put a tighter squeeze on many federal programs than under the president's plan.

Some Republicans are not convinced that Bush's plan to hold spending - other than for the military, national security and "entitlements" such as Social Security and Medicare - to an increase of 0.5 percent next year would achieve the deficit reductions he projects.

"The numbers simply do not add up," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, the Republican who, as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, will lead congressional efforts to rein in spending.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, said there are "troubling gaps" in Bush's plan. And House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, usually one of the president's cheerleaders, issued a tepid response, calling the budget proposal "a good start."

Democrats, meanwhile, heaped criticism on what they called a misdirected assault on programs that ordinary Americans depend on.

"This administration pledged that its tax cuts and policy choices would not turn record surpluses into record deficits," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "But this budget shows that's exactly what's happened."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, called Bush's blueprint the "most anti-family, anti-worker, anti-health care, anti-education budget in modern times."

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