- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004


Republicans pushed a $2.36 trillion budget through the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, a plan that trims spending and record federal deficits beyond what President Bush proposed.

The party-line 12-10 approval for next year’s budget came after Republicans foiled Democratic efforts to shrink its tax cuts and funnel money to deficit reduction, schools and ports.

Republican senators gave their plan a more conservative imprint than Mr. Bush’s budget, underscoring an election-year worry that federal shortfalls approaching half a trillion dollars could hurt them with voters.

But in a sign of the political crosscurrents buffeting the GOP, the budget’s fate next week in the full Senate seems uncertain. Democrats hope to attract enough moderate Republicans to force changes while shining a spotlight on the federal shortfalls that have sprouted since Mr. Bush took office.

“You’ve got to go back to the drawing boards here and have much less adding to debt,” said North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, the top Democrat on the committee.

Committee Chairman Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, has conceded the full Senate is likely to erase a $7 billion cut to Mr. Bush’s $421 billion proposal for defense, and could boost domestic spending, too.

House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, also is encountering problems a week before his panel debates a similar plan.

Pro-defense House Republicans are threatening to vote “no” because it would slice Mr. Bush’s military proposal by $2 billion. But Republican moderates insist the entire budget — including the Pentagon — brings savings.

“We want an equality of burdens so no government program escapes strict scrutiny,” said moderate Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican.

At a closed-door meeting, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, delivered an emotional plea for the two factions to resolve their differences quickly, participants said.

His remarks underlined a desire by Republican leaders for lawmakers to wrap up their campaign-season budget work.

In addition, under congressional rules, completion of a budget means the House is considered to have approved an increase in the government’s $7.4 trillion borrowing limit. That would let lawmakers avoid a politically painful separate vote later on raising the limit — which the Senate budget proposes boosting by $664 billion.

Congress’ budget, which does not need the president’s signature, sets overall tax and spending ceilings for the year. Its detailed proposals are not binding and actual changes in revenues and expenditures are made later.

At the Senate Budget Committee, the panel’s solidly conservative Republicans cut down a parade of Democratic amendments on party-line votes.

One amendment would have made it harder to cut taxes or raise spending without paying for it with other budget savings. Another would have added $20 billion to the $30 billion already in the budget for U.S. operations in Iraq next year, paid for by reducing future tax cuts.

Others would have forced the GOP to pay for the $144 billion in five-year tax cuts the budget would permit, and added money for veterans health care, port security and education.

“No matter what figure we put in … people are going to come in and say, ‘We want more,’” Mr. Nickles said.

Much of the Senate budget’s deficit reduction comes from assumed economic growth, which generates extra federal revenue. It proposes modest savings from Medicaid and the earned income-tax credit for the working poor.

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