- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the nation’s first-ever $3 trillion budget, President Bush seeks to seal his legacy of promoting a strong defense to fight terrorism and tax cuts to spur the economy. Democrats, who control Congress, are pledging fierce opposition to Mr. Bush’s final spending plan.

The 2009 spending plan sent to Congress today will project huge budget deficits, about $400 billion for this year and next and more than double the 2007 deficit of $163 billion. But even those estimates could prove too low given the rapidly weakening economy and the total costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Mr. Bush does not include in his request for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Last year, when Democrats were newly in the majority, there were drawn-out veto struggles. This year’s fights could be worse because it is an election year.

As in past years, Mr. Bush’s biggest proposed increases are in national security. Defense spending is projected to rise by about 7 percent to $515 billion and homeland security money by almost 11 percent, with a big gain for border security. Details on the budget were obtained through interviews with administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity until the budget’s release.

The bulk of government programs for which Congress sets annual spending levels would remain essentially frozen at current levels. Mr. Bush does shower extra money on some favored programs in education and to bolster inspections of imported food.

Mr. Bush’s spending proposal would achieve sizable savings by slowing the growth in the major health programs: Medicare for retirees and Medicaid for the poor. There he will ask for almost $200 billion in cuts over five years, about three times the savings he proposed last year.

There is no indication that Congress is more inclined to go along with this year’s bigger cuts; savings would come by freezing payment rates for most health-care providers for three years.

Democrats attacked the plan as a continuation of failed policies that have expanded the national debt under Mr. Bush, wiped out projected surpluses of $5.6 trillion and put huge deficits in their place — reflecting weaker revenues from the 2001 recession, the terrorism fight, and, Democrats contend, Mr. Bush’s costly $1.3 trillion first-term tax cuts.

“This administration is going to hand the next president a fiscal meltdown,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said yesterday in an interview with the Associated Press. “This is a budget that sticks it to the middle class, comforts the wealthy and has a set of priorities that are not the priorities of the American people.”

Mr. Bush’s budget reflects the outlines of a $145 billion stimulus plan that he is urging Congress to pass quickly to combat the growing threat of a recession. While the House passed a stimulus bill close to Mr. Bush’s outline, Senate Democrats are trying to expand the measure to include cash relief for older people and extended unemployment benefits.

Mr. Bush’s five-year blueprint makes his first-term tax cuts permanent while still claiming to get the budget into balance by 2012.