- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

1:35 p.m.

President Bush sent a $2.9 trillion spending plan to the Democratic-controlled Congress today, proposing to spend billions more to fight the war in Iraq while squeezing the rest of government to meet his goal of eliminating the deficit in five years.

Democrats widely attacked the plan, and even a prominent Republican said it faced bleak prospects.

Mr. Bush’s spending plan would make his first-term tax cuts permanent, at a cost of $1.6 trillion over 10 years. He is seeking $78 billion in savings in the government’s big health care programs — Medicare and Medicaid — over the next five years.

Release of the budget in four massive volumes kicks off months of debate in which Democrats, in control of both the House and Senate for the first time in Mr. Bush’s presidency, made clear that they have significantly different views on spending and taxes.

“The president’s budget is filled with debt and deception, disconnected from reality and continues to move America in the wrong direction,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, South Carolina Democrat, said, “I doubt that Democrats will support this budget, and frankly, I will be surprised if Republicans rally around it either.”

Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, agreed with the bleak assessment of Mr. Bush’s prospects of getting Congress to approve his budget as proposed.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think it has got a whole lot of legs,” Mr. Gregg said, contending there is a wide gulf between the two parties. “The White House is afraid of taxes, and the Democrats are afraid of controlling spending,” Mr. Gregg said.

The president insisted that he had made the right choices to keep the nation secure from terrorist threats and the economy growing.

“I strongly believe Congress needs to listen to a budget which says no tax increase and a budget, because of fiscal discipline, that can be balanced in five years,” Mr. Bush told reporters after meeting with his Cabinet.

Just as Iraq has come to dominate Mr. Bush’s presidency, military spending was a major element in the president’s new spending request. Mr. Bush was seeking a Pentagon budget of $624.6 billion for 2008, more than one-fifth of the total budget, up from $600.3 billion in 2007.

For the first time, the Pentagon included details for the upcoming budget year on how much the Iraq war would cost — an estimated $141.7 billion for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the cost of repairing and replacing equipment lost in combat.

But White House spokesman Tony Fratto cautioned that the 2008 projection was likely to change. “We’re not saying the number for ‘08 is the final number,” he said.

The Bush budget includes just $50 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2009 and no money after that year, but the president rejected the suggestion that the administration was setting a timetable for troop withdrawal.

“There will be no timetable set,” Mr. Bush told reporters. He said that would send the wrong signal to the enemy, the struggling Iraqi democracy and the troops.

Mr. Bush projected a deficit in the current year of $244 billion, just slightly lower than last year’s $248 billion imbalance. For 2008, the budget year that begins next Oct. 1, Mr. Bush sees another slight decline in the deficit to $239 billion. He sees that decline continuing over the next three years until the budget records a surplus of $61 billion in 2012, three years after Bush has left office.

Democrats, however, challenged those projections, contending that Mr. Bush only achieves a surplus by leaving out the billions of dollars Congress is expected to spend to keep the alternative minimum tax from ensnaring millions of middle-class taxpayers. His budget includes an AMT fix only for 2008.

Mr. Bush projects government spending in 2008 of $2.9 trillion, a 4.9 percent increase from the $2.78 trillion in outlays the administration is projecting for this year. However, the administration notes that the 2007 total is only an estimate, given that Congress is still working to complete a massive omnibus spending bill to cover most agencies for the rest of this fiscal year.

To help achieve what would be the government’s first surplus since 2001, Mr. Bush is proposing $95.9 billion in savings in mandatory spending, the part of the budget that includes the big benefit programs of Social Security and health care.

Medicare, which provides health insurance for 43 million older and disabled Americans, would see the bulk of those savings — reductions of $66 billion over five years. That would come about primarily by slowing the growth of payments to health care providers.

Additional savings would be achieved by charging higher-income Medicare beneficiaries bigger monthly premiums.

Though Mr. Bush said something had to be done to get control of spiraling health care costs, Congress refused to go along last year with his effort for smaller reductions in Medicare.

Mr. Bush would seek to eliminate or sharply reduce 141 government programs for a five-year savings of $12 billion. However, he has proposed many of those reductions in past budgets only to see them rejected by Congress.

Mr. Bush once listed overhauling Social Security as the No. 1 domestic priority of his second term. However, his effort two years ago to accomplish this goal by diverting some Social Security taxes into private investment accounts went nowhere in Congress. He included the private accounts again in this year’s budget, but to minimize the impact, he only showed the program taking effect in 2012, when the private accounts would cost $29.3 billion.

The president’s budget also includes an initiative to expand health care coverage to the uninsured through a complex proposal that would give every family a $15,000 tax deduction for purchasing health coverage but would make current employee-supplied health coverage taxable for certain taxpayers.

Mr. Bush is also proposing to increase the maximum Pell grant, which goes to low-income students, from the current $4,050 to $4,600. Democrats are pushing for even larger increases.

Mr. Bush’s energy proposals would expand use of ethanol and other renewable fuels with a goal of cutting gasoline use by 20 percent over the next decade.

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