Thursday, October 27, 2005

President Bush yesterday expressed support for an across-the-board budget cut to help offset federal expenditures on hurricane relief and urged Congress to slash discretionary spending.

The president said lawmakers should be focused on making tax relief permanent and “restraining the spending appetite of the federal government.”

“Earlier this year, I submitted the most disciplined proposal for nonsecurity discretionary spending since Ronald Reagan was in the White House,” Mr. Bush said in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington.

“My budget proposed an actual cut in spending on nonsecurity discretionary spending. Congress needs to make that cut real. I’m open to further across-the-board spending cuts, as well.”

Conservatives have criticized the president for the level of federal spending since he took office, and Republican lawmakers have balked at projections of up to $200 billion to help rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

A recent Heritage Foundation analysis of the budget’s growth in the past five years found that government has expanded 33 percent and has pushed federal spending to nearly $22,000 per household — the most since World War II.

But Mr. Bush said that despite high projections for hurricane relief, his administration can still achieve his goal of cutting the federal deficit in half in a decade.

“We can help the people of the Gulf Coast region recover and rebuild, and we can be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars at the same time — which means we’re going to have to reduce unnecessary spending elsewhere in the budget,” he said.

Mr. Bush said he is working with Congress to identify places to cut the budget as well as to take back allocated money that has not been spent.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Karen Finney criticized the president’s speech, saying it was “loaded with empty rhetoric and broken promises on the economy today.”

“President Bush apparently thought it was more important to use a major speech on economic policy to appease his base with tired rhetoric than to present any new ideas for fixing the real problems facing America’s working families,” she said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said, “Hurricane Katrina demonstrated in stark terms that so many Americans live every day on the brink of economic disaster and for them any setback becomes a major obstacle to survival. … Not a single proposal in Bush’s speech will help these Americans.”

The president’s remarks came as congressional Republicans continued to work toward sharp reductions in spending, moving forward on a budget implementation bill to curb federal expenditures by as much as $50 billion over five years.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Bush met with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and other lawmakers to identify offsets and rescissions in the budget that can provide for emergency relief in a “fiscally responsible” way.

“We’re continuing to work on the spending cuts,” said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean. “The president’s helping provide momentum so our goals are accomplished.”

The spokesman said various House committees are trimming projected expenditures in an effort to save $35 billion to $50 billion.

House leaders yesterday were forced to delay a vote when they couldn’t rally enough support for additional cuts. Instead, Republican leaders will spend the next week or two seeking support for $50 billion in specific savings over five years to mandatory federal programs.

Legislation to trim $39 billion from federal spending over the next five years took a step forward in the Senate when the chamber’s Budget Committee approved a measure to find savings in health care programs for the elderly and poor and cut other programs.

Mr. Bush encouraged Congress to “push the envelope when it comes to cutting spending,” saying there are federal programs that should be eliminated altogether.

“See, believe it or not, up here in Washington, there’s a lot of programs that simply don’t deliver results,” he said to laughter from the audience.

“And if it doesn’t deliver results, we ought to get rid of them.”

Late yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee passed its budget package with a renewal of the 1996 welfare reform law and spending cuts of $8 billion over five years.

The recommendations keep welfare spending at $16.5 billion a year, add $500 million over five years for child care and provide $300 million a year for the promotion of healthy marriages.

The recommendations save $3.3 billion by reducing, from 66 percent to 50 percent, the amount of federal matching funds for local administration of child support enforcement. Another $3.2 billion is saved by repealing an antidumping trade-related “Byrd amendment,” which has subsidized a handful of companies, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

• Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.

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