- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2002

The politics of budgets and deficits have been altered dramatically by the war against terrorism and the recession, giving President Bush much more leeway to get his priorities through Congress this year.
Nearly every poll in the past few months shows that Americans are overwhelmingly focused on three big issues, almost to the exclusion of everything else: fighting the war against terrorism, strengthening homeland defense and reviving the economy. And the bulk of the budget increases that Mr. Bush proposed to Congress yesterday are in these three areas.
A year ago, the public's top concerns ranged over wider territory and more defense spending was not among them. Then the big issues were improving education, paying down the national debt, and a variety of other issues, like Medicare prescription-drug coverage and protecting Social Security.
The September 11 terrorist attacks turned that list upside down and Mr. Bush's budget reflects these sharply changed priorities. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle believe the president will get what he wants for the war and homeland protection.
Whether he will get the tax cuts he wants for businesses and taxpayers to further stimulate the economy is in question right now as a result of increasing signs that the economy is making a comeback on its own.
But the changed climate on the nation's agenda, dominated by a president whose job-approval ratings are in the 80s, has put the Democrats is a fiscal box on the additional social-welfare spending that is critical to their political base.
Outside of the increases in defense spending that Mr. Bush has proposed, all other discretionary spending would rise by only 2 percent.
That has led Democrats to attack Mr. Bush's proposal for $1.35 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years, blaming the cuts for shrinking the budget surpluses that they had hoped to spend and the return of the deficits that will exceed an estimated $100 billion this year and $80 billion next year.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, warning that the deficits will push up interest rates and weaken the economy, has called for "fiscal responsibility."
But Democratic leaders insist that they do not want to repeal Mr. Bush's tax cuts, and there does not seem to be much public concern about the deficits that the White House and analysts say are modest and will be temporary.
"The deficit will be less than 1 percent of the economy's entire gross national product of $10 trillion in this fiscal year," said a congressional economist. "Since it is so small relative to the economy, it will not have any impact on the economy or on interest rates."
Meanwhile, Republican strategists see no evidence that the Democratic attacks on Mr. Bush's fiscal policies are gaining any political traction among voters.
"It is not resonating out there. It is clear from the polls that the American people aren't buying it," said Christopher Ingram, a Republican media adviser.
Republican strategists said Democrats are going to have an especially difficult time attacking Mr. Bush's budget because he has covered his political flanks with major increases in popular spending programs such as medical research, prescription-drug coverage and veterans programs, as well as with his education reforms.
Still, others said that because this is an election year, when control of Congress is up for grabs, they expect spending will be increased in a number of other non-defense areas.
"There's no question that Congress is going to unify behind the president on his requests on defense and homeland security. The big problem will be whether the administration can draw the line on some of the domestic priorities that Democrats will emphasize," said former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.
"The big question is not whether the deficit will go up, but by how much?" said Mr. Panetta, who also served as President Clinton's budget director.
"The danger I see is that when the lid comes off the budget and both sides begin borrowing and spending, both sides will get what they want in terms of spending. When you are running a $100 billion deficit, the attitude is always why not a little more spending," he said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide