Bush vows `strict discipline' in budget

GOP lawmakers leery of harsh spending cuts

December 21, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush promised yesterday to send a "tough budget" to Congress next year that maintains "strict discipline" on spending, in what budget experts and congressional sources said could be a commitment to deeply cutting some domestic programs, and possibly eliminating others.

Bush said he would "submit a budget that fits the times" and puts the country on track to achieving a pledge he made during his re-election campaign to halve the deficit in five years.

Speaking at his last news conference of the year, Bush signaled that defense and homeland security programs would continue to be sacrosanct, and likely shielded from the budget axe, as he laid out an ambitious agenda including overhauling Social Security, which he said is in "crisis." He also said he would appoint a commission to study reforming the tax code, and push to strengthen his signature "No Child Left Behind" education measure.

"We will provide every tool and resource for our military. We'll protect the homeland. And we'll meet other priorities of the government," Bush said. "It's going to be a tough budget - no question about it. And it's a budget that I think will send the right signal to the financial markets and to those concerned about our short-term deficits."

Bush's tough talk on spending comes as Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are bracing for what they fear will be a particularly painful budget season, in which they expect to have to choose among a variety of unpopular cuts.

Bush will detail his plans, which will likely list programs the White House wants to scrap, when he sends his budget to Congress in early February. Lawmakers then begin writing the 13 annual measures to fund the government and meet the president's targets.

"If [Bush is] talking about cutting the deficit in half, that actually is a signal for a rather serious and significant reductions," said G. William Hoagland, senior budget aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Of particular concern to some lawmakers and aides is the potential for cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare, which could force seniors to pay higher co-payments and deductibles while the government scales back its contributions and payments to providers.

Most lawmakers, even Republicans who want to support Bush, would be loath to endorse such reductions.

"We talk a big story, we sound tough, but when it comes down to breaking the addiction to deficit-spending, Congress has a hard time," Hoagland said.

House and Senate leaders have been working to draw up a list of programs they would be willing to eliminate.

Freezing spending outside defense and homeland security "is pretty hard to do here. It doesn't mean everything in the federal government has to be held to zero, but it means you need to figure out what you're stopping doing, what you can stop doing, or aren't doing well, as a way to let other programs grow," House Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri said this month. "The president would be much better served if we'd work early together to give him some ideas as to which things we might be able to get enough intensity among our bodies to eliminate."

Bush gave no new details on his plans for overhauling Social Security, where he has endorsed the idea of diverting a portion of younger workers' payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts that could be invested in stocks or bonds.

"I'll propose a solution at the appropriate time. But the law will be written in the halls of Congress. And I will negotiate with them, with the members of Congress. And they will want me to start playing my hand," Bush said. "I'm not going to negotiate with myself. I will negotiate at the appropriate time with the law-writers."

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