- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

President Bush’s budget drew derision from Democrats who said it ignores reality, protests from some Republicans whose programs were on the chopping block, and cautious praise from fiscal conservatives, who said Mr. Bush’s success depends on his willingness to enforce his proposed cuts.

“I am optimistic that the Congress is going to take him seriously, and because that is the case, I think he’ll fare all right,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and a leading budget hawk. “But it still depends on the president. We’ve proven we can’t control spending, and he’s going to have to exert pressure.”

That was underscored yesterday by the number of Democrats and Republicans already calling for their own projects and interests to be protected.

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, called for Congress to reject the proposed reduction of the nation’s aircraft carrier fleet from 12 to 11 by eliminating the USS Kennedy, a Virginia-based carrier.

“I am one who believes that in a time of war, you don’t start cutting our military capabilities. It is vital that we keep 12 carriers in service so that our Navy can respond to any contingency on any part of the globe,” he said.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican, said Mr. Bush’s proposal was bold, but ignored congressional realities by cutting some popular programs.

“Programs like Amtrak, beach replenishment and education funding have so much support in Congress that I believe the funding will be restored,” he said.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, called the budget “a fiscally irresponsible fraud,” and fellow Democrats almost unanimously declared it next to useless because it didn’t include projected costs military operations of in Iraq, revamping Social Security, and fixing parts of the tax code, which both parties agree needs overhauling.

“There are cuts here that I would support. There are cuts here that I would oppose,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and his party’s point man in the Senate on budget issues.

“The larger question to me is where this has got us headed as a nation,” he said. “And I believe it has us headed right over the fiscal cliff because of all the things the president hasn’t included that we all know he supports. And they have a cost attached to them, and it’s an enormous cost.”

Mr. Bush is proposing an overall increase of slightly more than 2 percent in discretionary spending, which includes a 1 percent cut in funding not related to defense or homeland security.

Budget watchdogs said the early negative comments show this year’s budget fight could be the toughest Mr. Bush has faced so far. But they said there’s room to go deeper still.

“This is a positive first step in spending restraint, but there has to be more done, particularly in entitlements. Still, this is a good start,” said Brian Riedl, chief budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, one of Mr. Bush’s severest critics on spending.

Mr. Flake said the key to the budget process this year will be Mr. Bush’s readiness to use his veto.

“I think he’s going to have to use it before the Congress believes he’s serious,” Mr. Flake said.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, said he hoped Mr. Bush wouldn’t need to use his veto, but “if I was him, I’d make sure there was a full ink cartridge in that pen.”

Mr. Bush has never vetoed a bill, and in an interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times earlier this year, he said he believes a veto would actually hurt his ability to win concessions in the future.

“All that would do would make the next budget negotiating session impossible. As a matter of fact, there wouldn’t be one. They’ll just say, ‘We’ll bring you what we feel like.’ That’s not my style. I like to be involved with the budgets,” the president said.

The White House yesterday said that while the deficit has grown, Mr. Bush deserves credit for restraining domestic spending growth.

“We have worked to slow the growth of discretionary spending each year in this term, bringing it from when it was 15 percent before he took office, on nonsecurity discretionary spending, to about 1 percent — or less than 1 percent last year,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. “This year, nonsecurity spending, discretionary spending, will be a cut of nearly 1 percent.”

Analysts were intrigued by Mr. Bush’s proposal to eliminate or severely reduce 150 programs, but said he must follow through this time. Mr. Bush proposed 65 program eliminations in last year’s budget blueprint, which added up to $4.9 billion in spending cuts. But only three were implemented, resulting in negligible savings.

However, there is a difference this year, spending cut advocates say. Mr. Bush ran for re-election last year on cutting the deficit in half in five years, “so there is more political pressure on him to reduce spending,” said Mr. Riedl of Heritage.

Overall, the Bush budget cuts push many political hot buttons in veterans programs, health care and education that Democrats hope they can exploit to their advantage in next year’s congressional elections.

But fiscal conservatives said Mr. Bush has significantly increased all of these budget items in his previous four years, leaving him plenty of room to cut and without a re-election bid to hold him back.

They said that’s where Congress will have to help Mr. Bush.

“By Washington standards, it’s a huge step in the right direction, and I applaud the president for it,” Mr. Hensarling said. “I hope to help him take more steps.”

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