- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Democrats last night criticized President Bush's budget as an irresponsible raid on retirement benefits and said his plan to return $1.6 trillion of the federal surplus to taxpayers would imperil the nation's economy.
"If what we heard tonight sounds too good to be true, it probably is," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said in the Democrats' response to the president's first budget address. "President Bush's budget numbers simply don't add up. Ours do."
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, praised Mr. Bush's performance and predicted that lawmakers will approve the president's proposals on tax cuts, increased education and defense spending, and paying off $2 trillion in federal debt.
"For the first time in eight years, the American people can be proud that the president has sent Congress a fiscally responsible budget," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican. "My Democratic colleagues should honor their pledge to practice bipartisanship by putting politics aside and supporting the president's plan."
"It was off the charts, it was wonderful," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "The atmosphere in the chamber is so much better than in recent years."
Said Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat: "I liked it. The question is, does it add up? If it does, sign me up."
Mr. Bush's nationally televised speech opened the first federal budget season in eight years in which congressional Democrats cannot rely on the White House to hold out for increased spending on their priorities. Even some Democrats acknowledged they are groping to drive home their budget message without benefit of the presidential bully pulpit.
"President Bush seems to be a likable man, and that's, I guess, what they call the 'charm offensive,' " said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, who ran for vice president last year. "I think … the charm stops here, and we've got to begin to look at the guts, the truth of the Bush proposals. He's spending more than we have."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Bush made a strong case for tax cuts.
"I think it's not 'if' but 'how much,' " Mr. Davis said. "That's where we want the argument to be."
Rep. Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican and chairman of the House Budget Committee, said "people needed to hear how it all fit together. The speech did just that." His panel will begin hearings on the budget tomorrow.
Mr. Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota argued that Mr. Bush's tax cuts would leave virtually nothing for extra social spending.
"It will consume nearly all of the available surplus at the expense of prescription drug coverage, education, defense and other critical priorities," Mr. Daschle said.
The federal surplus is projected at $5.6 trillion over 10 years. Even accepting Democrats' claim that Mr. Bush's tax cuts would total about $2.2 trillion, that would leave another $3.4 trillion in surplus.
Democrats now are favoring more than $900 billion in tax cuts over 10 years. Last year, Democratic leaders supported about $250 billion in tax relief. Three weeks ago, Mr. Daschle was advocating tax cuts of about $700 billion.
Last night when Mr. Bush told Congress he was seeking a refund for overcharged taxpayers, Republicans in the chamber erupted in cheers and applause while many Democrats sat still, some with expressions of bemusement.
"The president's plan is deeply unfair to middle-income Americans," Mr. Daschle said later. "The wealthiest 1 percent people who make an average of $900,000 a year get 43 percent of the president's tax cut."
The White House says most of Mr. Bush's tax relief goes to taxpayers earning less than $50,000 annually.
Democrats said Mr. Bush intends to borrow about $900 billion in projected surpluses from Social Security and Medicare to make room in the budget for his tax cuts and increased education spending.
"The president's plan actually takes money from both programs," Mr. Daschle said. "That is irresponsible, and it's wrong."
Congressional Republicans say the money will be spent only on retirement benefits. They said Democrats are trying to scare the public to undercut Mr. Bush's tax relief and to keep more money in Washington to increase the rate of federal spending.
"No Social Security and Medicare moneys will be spent on anything other than that," House Majority Leader Dick Armey told reporters yesterday. "This born-again fiscal conservatism on the part of the Democrats impresses me, but they are very late to the party."
Mr. Bush said last night that his budget sets aside $1 trillion over 10 years he did not specify the source as a "contingency fund" for emergency spending on defense, agriculture or Medicare.
Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, said he wanted to hear more from Mr. Bush on military spending.
"It was OK, but I would like to have seen more attention on defense spending, to be honest," Mr. Barr said. "He was short on specifics and there is an immediate emergency in that we are running out of money for guns and ammunition… . We can't wait six months for a top-to-bottom study. The needs have to be met now."
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland Republican, called it "a good budget, and a good budget for Maryland," noting Mr. Bush's proposed increases for the National Institutes of Health and for the military.
The Senate, with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, poses the larger challenge for Mr. Bush's tax cuts. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said yesterday that Democratic Sens. Max Cleland of Georgia and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana will "probably" support the president's plan, although Mr. Daschle disputed it.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said yesterday he has "concerns across the board" about Mr. Bush's plan and wants to see the final version before deciding whether to support it.
Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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