- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A $2.8 trillion Republican budget plan approved by a conservative-dominated House panel faces a worrisome hurdle for party leaders plotting a floor debate for next week.

A rift between Republican conservatives eager to crack down on agency budgets and party moderates determined to reverse cuts to education and other popular programs could delay floor debate. Republican unity is essential to passing the plan, because none of the House’s Democrats is expected to back it.

“I would say there is a challenge there,” said conservative Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican.

The Budget Committee approved the Republican plan, written by Chairman Jim Nussle of Iowa, by a party line 22-17 vote late Wednesday. Mr. Nussle had dropped President Bush’s proposed cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, crop subsidies and other politically sensitive programs but preserved his plan to trim spending by most Cabinet agencies.

The plan, for fiscal 2007 beginning Oct. 1, adopts Mr. Bush’s $873 billion cap on agency budgets renewed by Congress each year. But it also assumes just $50 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, less than one-half of expected spending for the current year.

The plan endorses Mr. Bush’s call for a 7 percent increase in the core defense budget — which doesn’t include Iraq war costs — for next year. That increase comes at the expense of domestic programs such as education, health research and grants to local governments and relief agencies.

The plan also assumes $226 billion in additional tax cuts over five years, more than half of which would go for extending Mr. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, most of which are set to expire in 2010.

Democrats criticized the Republican blueprint, which would produce a deficit of $348 billion in 2007 and deficits totaling more than $1 trillion through 2011 if Congress enacts its policies.

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., South Carolina Democrat, said the national debt would almost double to more than $9 trillion under Mr. Bush, a natural result “from a fiscal policy that says you can have guns, butter, tax cuts, too, and never mind the deficit. … It holds no real plan or prospect of balancing the budget.”

Although the House Republican plan would drop $65 billion in benefit cuts over five years proposed by Mr. Bush’s budget — such as curbs to Medicare, Medicaid and crop subsidies — it goes further than the president in attacking appropriated spending.

The plan would cut federal spending on education by more than $5 billion, about 7 percent.

After allowing for an increase next year, Mr. Nussle’s plan would have cut the budget for veterans’ medical care below current levels through the rest of the decade. Democrats said that would feel more like a $10 billion cut after inflation and expected growth in the number of veterans seeking benefits are taken into account.

Reflecting sensitivity over veterans issues, an amendment by Rep. Jeb Bradley, New Hampshire Republican, approved unanimously, added back $4 billion over five years for their medical benefits.

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