WASHINGTON - President Bush proposed the tightest fiscal squeeze of his presidency yesterday, sending Congress a $2.57 trillion budget that would slash environmental and housing programs and sharply cut farm subsidies and health benefits for veterans and the poor.
The budget proposal calls for slightly increased spending for the military and homeland security but would freeze or reduce all other areas and demand the elimination or drastic shrinking of about 150 government programs.
"It is a budget that sets priorities. Our priorities are winning the war on terror, protecting our homeland, growing our economy," Bush told reporters at his first Cabinet meeting of the year. "It's a budget that focuses on results. Taxpayers in America don't want us spending their money on something that's not achieving results."
But Bush's budget may be little more than an ill-fated wish list designed to showcase the president's priorities - which include halving the record deficit - without forcing Congress to accept them.
Many of the cuts Bush is requesting are likely to be rejected by a Congress that jealously guards its spending powers and is filled with lawmakers concerned about facing voters if they accept huge spending reductions.
Even if Congress were to break with custom and go along with the president's blueprint, the budget picture that Bush painted appears far rosier than is likely.
Bush's plan omits some of his major priorities, including funding the war in Iraq and the reconstruction of Afghanistan, making permanent the tax cuts he signed into law during his first term and enacting further changes, and, most of all, his overhaul of Social Security.
Those items are estimated to cost hundreds of billions more, when administration officials are projecting a deficit of $427 billion this year and $390 billion in 2006.
Taken together, the spending cuts Bush has proposed and the huge expenditures he has left out are provoking ire among Republicans and Democrats, and promise to make this year's budget battle one of the toughest fights of his second term.
It is a struggle that Bush has signaled that he welcomes. He and his aides describe the new budget as a chance to test the will of members of Congress in both parties who have urged him to exercise fiscal discipline.
Lawmakers "on both sides of the aisle have said, `Let's worry about the deficit,'" Bush told an audience in Omaha, Neb., during a recent visit to promote his Social Security plan. "I said, `OK, we'll worry about it again. My last budget worried about it; this budget will really worry about it.' And I'm looking forward to working with members of Congress to make tough choices."
GOP leaders praised Bush for making the unpopular decisions necessary to submit an austere budget, which proposes substantial cuts not only to the small portion of federal spending that Congress controls, but also to so-called "mandatory" funding for programs such as crop subsidies and Medicaid.
But some Republicans are fretting about Bush's proposed cuts. And Democrats condemned the budget as immoral and misleading, criticizing the cuts to social programs and accusing Bush of trying to mask the costs of the Iraq war, tax cuts and his Social Security plan.
"The administration is just not leveling with the American people," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, calling Bush's budget "sleight of hand."
"It is posturing, pretending and prevaricating," he said.
Some Republicans said they could have trouble swallowing the plan, though some conservatives said that was a sign that Bush had made the right choices.
"You have to congratulate him for being willing to step up," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, adding that lawmakers, especially Republicans, have a "renewed interest" in tackling the deficit.
"This is a budget which is going to create some significant angst amongst my colleagues," the New Hampshire Republican said. "But the fact that everyone is probably going to be upset by it, because everybody's ox gets gored, including defense, ... probably means they've done a good job."
Bush "is calling us back to our roots of being a fiscally responsible party," Gregg said.
Bush administration officials sounded a hopeful tone about the fate of Bush's proposal, with Joshua B. Bolten, the president's budget chief, dismissing lawmakers' early protestations as "political theater."
"I think we have a stronger interest now on both sides of the aisle in pursuing fiscal responsibility," he told reporters. "Every individual member will be disappointed about something in this budget. ... Overall, I think they understand in the aggregate the need to restrain the federal government spending appetite, and I'm hopeful we're going to get some good support."