Tough budget choices ahead for GOP

Record deficit drives plans for major spending cuts

February 07, 2005|By Jill Zuckman | Jill Zuckman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - When President Bush sends an austere budget to Capitol Hill today, it will be received by lawmakers worried about the record deficit, anxious to rein in spending and nervous about how they can eliminate federal programs without suffering serious political consequences.

And those are just the Republicans.

"I think members, especially Republican members, went home for the election and heard that people are quite upset that we are running up these deficits," said Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the Budget Committee.

Nevertheless, few GOP lawmakers are optimistic about their ability to eliminate or substantially cut 150 domestic discretionary programs, a budget goal noted by Bush in his State of the Union address.

Bush's budget is expected to propose flat domestic spending levels, not counting the money needed for the war in Iraq or homeland security. The president also said he would seek to make the tax cuts passed in his first term permanent and cut the deficit in half by 2009.

"When the details come out and people say, `You mean you're not increasing spending for our program?' it's going to be a tough budget," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

To be sure, the budget is a blueprint proposed by the administration and almost never adopted to the letter by Congress. Lawmakers in both chambers will spend much of the year haggling over which programs to fund and which to scale back.

But Republicans, who have long billed themselves as fiscal conservatives, say their voters are leaving them feeling conflicted.

"We're getting a mixed message: Get it in balance, keep my taxes low and don't cut my programs," said Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon. "We're riding three horses in this circus."

The Bush administration predicts that the deficit will rise to $427 billion this year.

Brian Riedl, a federal budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Republicans must bear responsibility for their current predicament.

"The Republicans have controlled the House, Senate and White House for the past few years, therefore the budgets were their creation," he said. "Many in Congress are not used to working within strict budget limits, and the days of lawmakers playing Santa Claus may be over."

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill said last week that they are bracing themselves for proposed cuts to agriculture programs, Amtrak operating subsidies, Medicaid, Community Development Block Grants, vocational education, the Even Start literacy program, and Upward Bound and Talent Search, which are college-access programs for the disadvantaged.

And they said they know that the programs in the federal budget didn't get there by accident.

"Every one of these programs has a favorite senator or a favorite congressman," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican.

Vice President Dick Cheney defended the budget in a Fox News Sunday interview.

"It's not something we have done with a meat ax," he said, "nor are we suddenly turning our backs on the most needy people in our society."

Democrats blame Republicans for throwing away President Bill Clinton's balanced budgets and surplus revenues.

"My hope is that at some point, conservatives will come back to being conservatives and we'll have restraint in some areas," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, calling Bush's fiscal policy "reckless" and describing the president as "relatively unconcerned" about the deficit.

Budget experts and members of Congress acknowledge that eliminating some domestic programs is not going to put a dent in the deficit.

"It's more symbolic than anything else," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group dedicated to educating the public about the federal budget.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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