- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The record federal deficit would be halved by 2007, though that year’s red ink still would remain an enormous $224 billion, under a Republican-written budget the Senate Budget Committee began debating yesterday.

Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican and the panel chairman, described a fiscal blueprint that would cut deficits faster and curb spending more tightly than President Bush has proposed and would leave room for smaller tax cuts than the White House wants.

“We’ve got an enormous deficit,” Mr. Nickles said. “It’s far too high and we have to get it down.”

Democrats said Mr. Nickles’ plan understated the shortfalls by omitting likely costs such as reducing the impact of the alternative minimum tax on middle-income families, and by not showing that deficits would rise later this decade when baby boomers begin to retire.

“We’re squandering this moment and leaving us very vulnerable to what’s to come,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expects this year’s deficit to be $477 billion. Last year’s shortfall was $374 billion, a record in dollar terms.

Mr. Nickles’ budget claims to reduce the red ink to $202 billion by 2009.

This is Congress’ first step in reshaping the election-year spending plan that Mr. Bush introduced last month. The House Budget Committee plans to vote on a similar package next week.

With this year’s deficit expected to reach the half-trillion dollar range — easily a record in dollar terms — most Republicans want a slimmer budget than Mr. Bush has proposed. But when the plan reaches the full Senate next week, enough moderate Republicans leery of paring spending in a campaign year could join opposition Democrats and put the plan’s fate in doubt.

“The tension is money. There isn’t enough,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, whose panel writes spending bills.

The Senate and House budgets also will depart from Mr. Bush’s plan by indicating how much they think it will cost for U.S. military operations in Iraq next year.

Arguing that costs are unpredictable, Mr. Bush’s budget omitted any funds for Iraq, but his aides said they would request up to $50 billion after the November elections.

The Senate plan will assume $30 billion, said a Senate Republican aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, said he would include up to $50 billion.

The emerging congressional proposals reflect a widespread Republican belief that Mr. Bush’s budget does not aggressively restrain spending or cut the deficit enough, and could be vulnerable to Democrats’ criticisms.

Mr. Nickles’ plan would cut this year’s deficit in half in three years, said a Senate Republican aide.

Mr. Nussle said his budget would “come close to, if not fully cutting the deficit in half” in four years, going “further and faster than the president.”

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