- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

President Bush will tell Congress tonight that the $5.6 trillion projected surplus means Americans can have it all across-the-board tax cuts, billions of dollars more for education, a salvaging of Social Security and the end of federal debt.
All Congress has to do is regain "fiscal sanity" by slowing the rate of domestic spending from the 8 percent increase last year more than twice the rate of inflation to a more sustainable long-term growth rate.
"What I'm going to say to the American people is that had we kept spending at the rate we were spending last year, there would be no surplus; that the size of growth in the … budget we inherited was way too high; that we can meet our needs by slowing down the rate of growth in our budget," Mr. Bush said yesterday.
"But it requires a president to set priorities. And I'm going to set clear priorities in the budget. That's one of the reasons I became the president, because I said, 'Give us a chance, and we will have fiscal sanity in our budget.' "
Mr. Bush's speech to today's joint session of Congress begins at 9 p.m.
The president yesterday tested some themes of his speech written by chief speechwriter Mike Gerson and estimated by White House staff to be 40 to 50 minutes long with applause time before a White House gathering of the National Governors' Association. He used the occasion to announce a federalism initiative to "devolve authority back to the states."
"Real change comes from the bottom up, not the top down. The genius of the American system has been to let that change flow upward, from neighborhoods to cities to states and into the federal government. We need to keep that path open to give government a human face and bring decision-making closer to the people," the president said.
Some Democratic governors who attended the White House event yesterday said they would defer judgment on Mr. Bush's budget plan and for the time being work to develop a consensus.
"There's a time for politics and there's a time to extend a hand," said California Gov. Gray Davis, chairman of the Democratic governors group.
More partisan Democrats, like Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, have dismissed Mr. Bush's budget.
Mr. McAuliffe called the plan "Reagan redux: Put more homeless on the streets and take cops off the beat to pay for a massive giveaway to the wealthiest Americans."
White House officials released little new information yesterday on Mr. Bush's 150-page outline of the proposed fiscal year 2002 budget, to be sent to Congress tomorrow.
"Stay tuned for the president," spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday as he deflected reporters' questions on the substance of Mr. Bush's speech.
White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters news agency that Mr. Bush will revive his campaign theme of letting workers invest part of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts, with an eye toward capturing historically higher returns earned by investments in stocks and bonds.
One aide said Mr. Bush's budget proposal to Congress would outline plans to set aside a fund close to $1 trillion that could be used to finance the accounts.
Officials said the president's $1.9 trillion budget outline proposes holding discretionary spending to a 4 percent increase next year, to around $663 billion.
Discretionary spending, which accounts for about one-third of the budget, covers all government operations other than automatically paid benefits like Medicare and Social Security. The budget also includes the first phase of a $1.6 trillion across-the-board tax cut.
A large part of the proposed budget targets debt reduction.
"We'll be paying everything off that can be paid off," White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey said in a speech yesterday. "That is going to be some $2 trillion in debt reduction. We're going to be paying down every single Treasury issue that will come due in the next 10 years."
Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Bush's plan would put federal debt "at its lowest level in about a century."
The Congressional Budget Office said yesterday nearly $1 trillion of the $3.4 trillion currently held in public debt cannot be retired in the next decade because it is in savings bonds or Treasury bills that will not have matured or are held by foreign governments.
Mr. Fleischer said yesterday the plan calls for "streamlining" the federal government. For example, Mr. Bush wants to consolidate 60 education programs into five, the spokesman said.
Answering whether the nation is at a time "in our history where we can have it all," Mr. Fleischer said "we are a fortunate nation that we can wrestle with the reality of budget surpluses for as far as the eye can see."
The spokesman said more than $1.6 trillion would have been available to return to taxpayers if the last Congress had not gone on "a bipartisan spending spree."
"Spending went up 8 percent last year alone on domestic discretionary programs… . The surplus would be some $600 billion higher over the next 10 years had it not been spent by both parties in the Congress and by the previous administration last year," he said.
After he submits his budget plan to Congress, Mr. Bush will take his proposal on the road. He plans stops tomorrow and Thursday in Pittsburgh, through Nebraska to Council Bluffs, Iowa; Little Rock, Ark.; and Atlanta.
The trip puts Mr. Bush in the home states of four centrist senators Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican; Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat; Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat; and Max Cleland, Georgia Democrat.
The four senators "were mentioned" at a planning session this month at the White House, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
While Republicans expect to get the package through the House, where they hold a nine-vote advantage, the Senate is evenly divided and two Republicans Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and James M. Jeffords of Vermont have expressed reservations about Mr. Bush's plan.
On the other hand, Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, has conveyed support for the package.
To illustrate his points, Mr. Bush plans to sprinkle his speech with stories of Americans, including some that were highlighted at the Republican National Convention in August. First lady Laura Bush yesterday invited Adela Acosta, principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, Md., to join her in the House gallery.
His speech, though it will look like one, is not being called a State of the Union address. That moniker is never used for the first speech by a new president, who theoretically is not in position to issue such a report.
Some politicos say the speech is a make-or-break, prime-time appearance, but others see it as just another day in a four-year term.
"This will be a very interesting and, if you'll notice, relatively low-key, relatively direct way for the president to communicate to the new Congress," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.
Mr. Bush is taking the speech in stride. "I'm a person who tries to get to the point, to speak long enough so people will know where I'm coming from, but not too long for people to go to sleep," he said with a smile.

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