- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Congressional Democrats yesterday said President Bush's $2.2 trillion budget for 2004 is "breathtaking in its lack of fiscal responsibility," while a leading Republican said he was puzzled by the Democrats' newfound interest in reducing deficits.
Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said Mr. Bush's budget which projects $300 billion deficits in each of the next two years "is a policy of bankruptcy."
"This budget is breathtaking in its lack of fiscal responsibility," Mr. Conrad said. "This president's plan is plunging us deep into deficit, deep into debt."
Mr. Conrad singled out Mr. Bush's proposed $647 billion tax cut, stretching over 10 years, as "a profound mistake" that will drain funds from Social Security just as the baby-boom generation is about to retire.
Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said Democrats haven't historically been too concerned about budget deficits. He pointed to $500 million in additional spending that Democrats tried to add to the still-unresolved fiscal 2003 spending bills.
"They're only concerned about deficits when it comes to tax cuts," Mr. Nickles said.
Mr. Conrad said Democrats will offer an alternative to Mr. Bush's budget. Asked if it, too, will dip into Social Security funds, Mr. Conrad said yes.
"You can't [stop doing it] immediately," Mr. Conrad said.
Mr. Bush's budget dramatically increased spending for the military and homeland security. But to keep the increase in discretionary spending at just 4 percent, he had to scale back in other areas.
The National Institutes of Health received $27.9 billion in the president's budget, a mere 1.7 percent increase after years of big rises that have doubled the budget in just five years.
Overall discretionary spending for the Justice Department was cut by 3 percent, with the savings almost entirely attributed to some $1 billion in the crime-victims' fund. The fund pays for programs that benefit victims of crime, including state assistance and compensation programs.
The discretionary budget of the Labor Department was cut by $60 million, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was cut by $13 million, or three-tenths of 1 percent.
The president's budget proposes $400 billion over 10 years to modernize Medicare, including providing seniors with a prescription-drug benefit. While the budget did not provide all the details of Mr. Bush's plan, there are concerns in Congress that it will force seniors into private health plans if they want prescription-drug coverage.
"If in fact the president wants to make it a condition of participation that seniors go into an HMO, I don't think that will fly," said House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
Mr. Bush last week said any new Medicare program would not force seniors out of the current plan, but said he wanted to offer new alternatives to the government-run system that covers all Americans from age 65 and several million disabled people.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, complained that Mr. Bush has not yet detailed his plan.
"It's time for him to come clean on his proposals to force senior citizens into HMOs and other private insurance plans in order to get the prescription drugs they need," he said. "The American people have a right to know the specifics of the president's program."
Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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