Republicans seek ways to ease pinch of budget

Members of Congress alarmed at cuts aimed at popular programs

February 09, 2005|By Janet Hook and Warren Vieth | Janet Hook and Warren Vieth,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Republicans in Congress started searching yesterday for ways to achieve President Bush's overall deficit-reduction targets without slaying such political sacred cows as farm subsidies, Amtrak and aid to states.

Many of the proposals in Bush's $2.57 trillion spending plan drew fire not only from Democrats but from members of his party who are reluctant to cut programs because they - unlike Bush - will face re-election in 2006 and beyond.

Concern about persistent budget deficits, as well as resistance to deep spending cuts, could make it harder for Bush to achieve other domestic priorities, such as making his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent.

Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, who provided a key vote for Bush's tax cuts, said he opposes making them permanent because of the deficit. Other Republicans argued that Congress should limit the extension of Bush's tax cuts to the handful of provisions that expire this year. Other decisions could be put off; most of the major tax cuts do not expire until 2007 or later.

Fractures among Republicans emerged on Capitol Hill as Bush traveled to Detroit to defend the budget he delivered to Congress Monday. That plan, for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, calls for substantial reductions in some domestic programs to offset bigger outlays for national security and another round of tax cuts.

"We will insist on a budget that limits and tames the spending appetite of the federal government," Bush told members of the Detroit Economic Club, a business group.

For all their dissent over the particulars of Bush's plan, however, Republican leaders generally endorsed the broadest outlines of his budget: the amount he intends to spend overall.

"It's not going to come out exactly what the president has suggested," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, "though I think the bottom line ... will come out very close to where he is."

For most of his first term, Bush generally tended to insist on overall funding figures but gave Congress lots of room to set priorities. Only rarely did he threaten to veto a spending bill - and never has he done so.

This year, some Republicans say that Bush will have to weigh in more heavily if he wants Congress to scale back popular programs - including entitlements, or programs in which money can be saved only if Congress changes the laws setting eligibility criteria, benefit levels and other fundamentals.

At a hearing yesterday, House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle of Iowa told Bush budget director Joshua B. Bolten that Congress already was besieged by complaints and needed the White House to exercise more assertive leadership.

"There's a number of us that are willing to make some tough decisions, but I think we're going to need a little help from the administration," Nussle said. He urged the White House to be bolder in wielding veto threats to help enforce spending limits.

Bolten said the president "won't hesitate to do that."

It was clear, however, that there would be pressure from all quarters to reorganize Bush's priorities. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas suggested even Bush's proposed increases in defense and homeland security would not be sacrosanct. "From my perspective, everything has to be on the table," the Republican leader said.

Among the most controversial proposals for Republicans was Bush's plan to curb farm subsidies and other aid to rural areas - measures that hit hardest in Farm Belt states that voted heavily for Bush.

"Those who are currently advocating these draconian cuts would not be in office today if it weren't for rural America," said Rep. John E. Peterson, a Pennsylvania Republican who is co-chairman of the Congressional Rural Caucus.

Bush's farm proposals drew opposition from two key Republican Senate committee chairmen: Thad Cochran of Mississippi, of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Saxby Chambliss of Goergia, of the Agriculture Committee.

Other Republicans complained about Bush's plans to restructure and scale back Medicaid - the federal-state health program for the poor - and other programs aiding state and local governments. Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a former mayor, assailed Bush's proposal to cut Community Development Block Grants to cities, calling it a "nonstarter."

"The president's budget proposal is only that," Coleman said. "I hope to take the good ideas the president has offered, drop the bad ones and come up with a budget that cuts the deficit in half."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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