Top administration officials were on Capitol Hill yesterday defending President Bush's $3.1 trillion budget plan from attacks by Democrats that it adds almost $800 billion to U.S. debt and doesn't pay for the war in Iraq.
Democrats on two Senate panels tossed brickbats at Mr. Bush's budget, and some key Republicans criticized it as well, as lawmakers made it plain they would ignore the president's proposals to cut Medicare and Medicaid spending.
At the Senate Budget Committee, White House budget chief Jim Nussle put in a combative performance, returning criticism of Mr. Bush's budget with attacks on lawmakers for not fully funding his long-pending war request and challenging them to join Mr. Bush in curbing the rapid growth of benefit programs.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, slammed the budget for piling almost $800 million in debt onto the government's books, both in bonds held by investors at home and abroad and IOUs in the Social Security trust funds.
"The debt has done nothing under this president's watch but skyrocket," charged Mr. Conrad.
"Then let's open up mandatory spending," Mr. Nussle shot back, referring to the spiraling growth of benefit programs like Medicare.
Top panel Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire again criticized the Bush blueprint for having "some serious flaws from the standpoint of accuracy and even more serious flaws from the standpoint of policy." But he also attacked Democrats for assuming phony revenue boosts when passing a congressional budget plan last year.
A few floors below, at the Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes and Medicare, the atmosphere was more sedate, but the Bush budget plan wasn't faring any better.
"A good budget must be realistic," Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said at a hearing featuring Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. Mr. Baucus, Finance Committee chairman, said key aspects of the Bush budget — proposed cuts in health programs, making Mr. Bush's tax cuts permanent and omitting war costs in predicting a budget surplus by 2012 — failed that test.
The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, chided the administration for not considering the costs of adjusting the alternative minimum tax in future years and acknowledged the public's attention already was shifting to the next administration.
"The focus is not going to be on the president's budget. The focus is going to be on what the next president will do."
Mr. Paulson defended the first-ever $3 trillion federal budget proposal, introduced Monday, saying its emphasis on a pro-growth tax system, entitlement reform and a balanced budget is in the best interest of the country. But his opening remarks centered on prodding the Senate to act quickly on an economic-stimulus package aimed at keeping the country out of recession.
Mr. Bush's budget for fiscal year 2009, beginning Oct. 1, proposes spending just below $3.1 trillion. Last year, he proposed $2.9 trillion for the current budget year, but the administration now estimates spending in fiscal 2008 also will exceed $3 trillion, once all the costs of the continuing war in Iraq are included.