- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

The Senate passed its $2.36 trillion version of next year’s budget early yesterday, giving President Bush the majority of what he wanted, but not his most prized goal of making his tax cuts permanent.

On a largely party-line vote of 51-45, Senate Republicans were able to bump up defense spending by 7 percent to $421 billion, and restrain domestic spending at $16 billion, a number promised by Senate leadership. It also takes steps to pare down the deficit, cutting it in half in three years, much faster than Mr. Bush’s proposal.

“We are very excited we were able to accomplish something we didn’t think we would be able to do, pass the budget and cut the deficit in half in three years with a reconciliation to stop tax increases that would take effect next year,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Republican Caucus.

But making Mr. Bush’s tax cuts tamperproof was beyond the Senate’s grasp because of fears of expanding the already gaping deficit.

The Congressional Budget Office projected the deficit to reach $477 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

“I’m very confident we sent the right message to the budget community and the economists on whether or not the president and the Senate will take fiscal responsibility seriously,” Mr. Santorum said.

Now the spotlight turns to the House, where the budget is expected to mirror the Senate’s version. In fact, the House Budget Committee, headed by Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, Thursday debated the fiscal outline, which has smaller tax cuts, less spending and a faster reduction of the deficit than Mr. Bush proposed.

But the House is notoriously more conservative on budget issues than the Senate and budget hard-liners in the committee are already demanding separate votes to revive pay-as-you-go rules in the budget, making it more difficult for Congress to increase spending not covered with other savings.

The House, Senate and Mr. Bush get much of their deficit reduction not from budget cuts, but from assumptions that a strengthening economy will produce more federal revenue.

Senate approval came after Republicans fought off a mountain of Democratic amendments. Many would have trimmed tax cuts on the richest Americans and shifted the money to health care, schools, firefighters or other popular programs.

Senate Democrats said the Republicans were making matters worse by calling for more tax cuts, shortchanging necessary domestic programs and doing nothing to relieve the deficit.

“I don’t see any cutting of the deficit in half,” Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, told the Associated Press.

Mr. Conrad said absent in the plan were certain costs for the ongoing reconstruction of Iraq and easing the alternative minimum tax’s growing impact on middle-income families.

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was the only Republican to vote against the budget. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia was the only Democrat to vote for the bill. Democratic Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Minority Whip Harry Reid of Nevada, and Tim Johnson of South Dakota didn’t vote.

This story is based in part on wire-service reports.

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