- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

President Bush is putting the finishing touches on a proposed $2 trillion-plus budget for fiscal 2003 that ordinarily would trigger an explosive political debate over national priorities, especially in an election year.
But the chances that Mr. Bush's budget will be seriously undercut by the Democrats this year are unlikely in a time of war and recession because his major proposals will be aimed at fighting terrorism at home and abroad and rebuilding the economy issues that polls show are the nation's biggest concerns.
A nationwide survey of 1,201 adults by the Pew Research Center reported Friday that the vast majority of voters said that defending the United States against terrorism and strengthening the nation's economy were the two top priorities facing Mr. Bush and the Congress polling 83 percent and 71 percent, respectively.
Other problems paled in comparison. Pew said that many domestic concerns that scored highly in previous polls crime, poverty, health care, the environment, education and retirement programs "have fallen in importance."
"If the budget revolves around defense and the terrorism issue, if those are the pivotal and defining issues, that certainly puts the Democrats in a bad position," said a chief House Republican analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"One can argue for more domestic spending, and the Democrats will, but that would have to come at the expense of a stronger defense and fighting terrorism, and that's a tough row to hoe politically," he said.
The Democrats are also operating at a deep disadvantage in the upcoming budget debates because the president's 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax-cut plan, along with the economic slump that erased the budget surplus, has taken off the table money that Democrats hoped to spend on their election-year agenda.
That is why Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, called this week for repealing the rate cuts for the 31 percent, 36 percent and 39.6 percent tax brackets and retaining the estate tax, changes that he said would produce $350 billion for new spending.
But there seemed to be little support within his party for his proposal, as Democratic leaders balked at calling for any repeal of the Bush tax cuts. With the Republicans in control of the House and with the Senate evenly split, the tax cuts are safe from any attempts by the Democrats to curtail them, Republican legislative strategists said.
That reality, plus the return of budget deficits that will hit $100 billion in 2002 and slightly under $100 billion in 2003, leaves little room for the Democrats to maneuver on the budget front.
Politically, the White House sees the emerging budget battle lines sharply divided between two diametrically opposed economic policies: tax cuts to boost growth vs. more domestic spending and bigger government.
The administration continues to believe that the Bush tax cuts will lift the economy out of the doldrums, though nervous Bush advisers now acknowledge for the first time that the long 10-year phase-in period is too backloaded and they want to speed up the rate cuts through a stimulus bill.
Meanwhile, the Democrats, hoping to make gains in the Senate and win back the House, need to reach out to their political base this year with bread-and-butter issues.
"The Democrats are stuck and they're frustrated. Their problem is procedural. They can make a fuss about this for political purposes, but they can't get tax-cut repeal through the Senate and they are not going to muster a two-thirds vote to override Bush's veto," a Senate Republican official said.
Mr. Bush is going to present a budget that will offset much of his defense and anti-terrorism spending increases with substantial cuts elsewhere in the budget, officials at the Office of Management and Budget said. But in a move to prevent the Democrats from outflanking Republicans on popular spending issues, his budget will also call for increases in some domestic programs.
"Bush will make sure we increase funding for certain social spending, but overall he's going to try to contain social spending," said a Senate Budget Committee official.
The president's proposed budget cuts are another matter. "Frankly, I don't think he's going to be very successful at it. It's hard to reduce spending in an election year," the official said.

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