- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

President Bush defended his 2005 budget, which will be officially introduced Monday with a projected deficit of $520 billion, maintaining it is consistent with his plan to cut the deficit in half in five years as long as Congress “is willing to make tough choices.”

“The budget we’ll submit Monday does fulfill that promise that we’ll reduce the deficit in half,” Mr. Bush told reporters yesterday after a meeting with economic advisers. “Congress is now going to have to work with us to make sure that we set priorities that are fiscally wise with the taxpayers’ money.”

Conservatives are grumbling about Mr. Bush’s $2.3 trillion budget, complaining that it continues a spending spree greater than that of even the past two Democratic presidents.

“We’ve got to protect the family budget from the federal budget,” said Sean Spicer, spokesman for House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican. “There is definitely some concern from some of the members” over the higher Medicare price tag.

The spokesman said Mr. Nussle, however, will wait until he sees Mr. Bush’s budget on Monday before commenting.

“The chairman is reserving judgment until he sees it,” Mr. Spicer said. “He has no reason to doubt the president.”

Mr. Bush defended the 30 percent increase in the cost of the Medicare bill he signed in December and claimed it fits in with his budget plan.

Donald Devine, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, said conservatives see Mr. Bush as “the biggest-spending Republican president ever.”

“You can’t find any proof that he’s a limited-government conservative,” said Mr. Devine, who served in the Reagan administration. “Discretionary nondefense spending is up 8.2 percent across the board, more than four times the increase under [Democratic presidents] Carter or Clinton.”

Democrats quickly pounced on the revised Medicare numbers to accuse Republicans of being poor stewards of the public’s money.”

“The Bush administration’s admission that the Medicare prescription-drug bill will cost far more than advertised is yet another example of its misleading rhetoric in support of a flawed policy,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

“This is what happens when the Republicans design a bill that dismantles Medicare piece by piece, helps special interests and does nothing to reduce the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs,” she said.

In a Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina Thursday night, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean accused Republicans of poor fiscal management.

“Not one Republican president has balanced the budget in 34 years in this country,” Mr. Dean said. “You cannot trust the right wing with your money.”

The White House insists it will keep discretionary spending under 1 percent next year, if homeland security and defense spending are excluded from the equation.

Conservatives are also concerned about the growing cost of the Medicare prescription-drug plan — sold to Congress this year with a 10-year, $400 billion price tag. The Health and Human Services Department now put the cost of the drug program at $540 billion.

“It points again to the number-one agenda item that needs to be addressed by Congress,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, told the Associated Press.

“I asked two questions to [the administration] estimators,” Mr. Bush said. “One, does the Medicare reform do what we want it to do, which is to provide modern medicine for our seniors and to introduce competition, which will eventually hold down the costs of Medicare?

“And secondly, does the new estimate of Medicare costs fill my promise to reduce the deficit in half over a five-year period of time?

And the budget we’ll submit on Monday does fulfill that,” he said.

Mr. Bush put the onus on Congress to make sure his budget plan reduces the deficit.

“I’m confident we can do that if [Congress] is willing to make tough choices,” he said.

However, many are skeptical, especially after experiencing sticker shock on the Medicare plan, the first new entitlement program signed into law since the 1960s.

House Republican leaders were forced to take the unusual step of extending the vote to persuade wavering fiscal conservatives to give Mr. Bush a major legislative victory.

When asked whether the administration misled Congress about the Medicare bill’s cost, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “of course not.” Mr. McClellan downplayed the huge increase in the program’s price, saying it falls within “a reasonable range” of expectations.

“[Mr. Bush] is very comfortable with the fact that seniors are going to have better health care and more choices to choose from,” he said, suggesting that the prescription-drug plan “could be less expensive” years from now because reforms will wean Medicare from a government-run system to one more responsive to market forces.

Mr. Devine doesn’t buy that argument.

“We predicted from the beginning that it was going to be more expensive than $400 billion,” Mr. Devine said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Congress has been given no incentive to control spending, Mr. Devine said, because Mr. Bush has yet to veto a single bill. The president will soon sign an $820 billion omnibus spending bill to finish the 2004 fiscal year that critics say is laden with excessive and unnecessary spending programs.

“[Mr. Bush] is not using the main tool the Founders gave him to deal with Congress — the veto,” Mr. Devine said. “If you don’t use your main power, you’re not going to effect the results. All a budget is, is a piece of paper. If you don’t try to enforce it, Congress is going to spend more.”


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