Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Congressional Republicans, in an extraordinary break with the White House in an election year, say President Bush’s 2005 budget proposal “doesn’t go far enough” to restrain government spending and are considering pursuing further cuts in outlays.

Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, chairman of the House Budget Committee, yesterday said Republicans and the White House should even be willing to trim wasteful spending in the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

“We also have to look at defense and homeland security,” Mr. Nussle said, referring to Mr. Bush’s effort in his $2.4 trillion proposed budget to eliminate or scale-back inefficient or wasteful federal programs. “My bet is that there is some [waste] going on.”

Also in the sights of some congressional Republicans is last year’s prescription-drug benefit, which the president’s budget team now says will cost $140 billion more than first estimated, angering the party’s base at a time when Mr. Bush’s approval rating is slipping.

The president is now suffering the lowest job approval rating of his presidency as measured by the Gallup poll, at 49 percent, down from 63 percent just after the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

“Our party’s credibility on spending is slipping. We need to get that credibility back,” said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.

Rep. Sue Myrick, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, said a bloc of about 90 House Republicans, both conservatives and moderate “deficit hawks,” want to cut or freeze a number of discretionary spending programs beyond the reductions proposed in the president’s plan.

“I think we need to do a little more,” than what Mr. Bush proposed, said Mrs. Myrick — who backs an outright freeze or a reduction of all discretionary spending.

“We’re saying his budget does some good things but still leaves total spending too high and won’t satisfy the conservative base — the people back home we’re hearing from,” Mrs. Myrick said. “People back home are very upset with spending.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said that the theme of controlling government spending was the “real thrust of the conversation” at the House and Senate Republican retreat last weekend.

The Bush budget would boost defense spending by 7 percent and homeland-security spending by 10 percent, but hold all other domestic discretionary spending to a $2 billion net increase, which comes out to a growth rate of less than 0.5 percent over last year.

According to Mr. Ryan, this is “a few steps in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough to limit discretionary spending.”

Mr. Nussle said he hopes the administration will be willing to take a look at homeland security and defense for waste and to “find savings.”

“We shouldn’t be wasting one penny. We’re going to look in every nook and cranny,” he said.

Mr. DeLay and Mr. Nussle said they are getting many suggestions from Republicans, including possibly trying to save money in the government’s massive mandatory spending side, or possibly a “rescission” bill that would essentially take back some of the money handed out in the last round of spending.

Mr. DeLay stressed that all Republicans, including the White House, are willing to work together to craft a 2005 budget that can get 218 votes in the House.

Some lawmakers said on the condition of anonymity that a few colleagues were so angered by the huge disparity in estimated costs and the latest budget projections on the prescription-drugs program that they are discussing a move to rescind the benefits.

Conservatives outside Congress are also picking up the call. Michael Schroeder, former California Republican party chairman, said he and fellow conservatives want to see rescission of the drug benefits passed last year.

“We can’t afford another federal entitlement for drug benefits,” he said. “Its cost already has escalated from $400 billion in the congressional estimate to $540 billion in Bush’s estimate.”

“Our voters know that there has never been a federal program in history that didn’t end up costing many multiples of the original number, and this one will go into the trillions of dollars,” he said.

The chairman of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) gave spending hawks more cause for concern yesterday, saying that the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan will require another supplemental defense appropriations bill next year.

Testifying before Mr. Nussle’s committee yesterday, OMB chief Joshua B. Bolten said the administration will ask for another supplemental spending bill this year to fund the war on terrorism in those two countries.

He said the administration does not currently know how much it will ask for, though the 2004 costs for these efforts is about $50 billion.

“We have a budget here that you are telling us is incomplete,” complained Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat.

Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, said some members of the Republican Study Committee said even conservatives who want further budget cuts are nonetheless adamant about retaining and making permanent Mr. Bush’s tax cuts.

In his hearing yesterday, the first on the administration’s proposed budget, Mr. Nussle made it clear that he also supports the Bush budget priorities of investing in defense, cutting wasteful spending and making Mr. Bush’s tax cuts permanent.

“I can guarantee you that we will support that in our budget,” he told Mr. Bolten, referring to the permanent tax cuts.

Mr. Bolten told committee members that tax cuts have stimulated the economy and that continuing that tax relief, as well as holding down non-defense, non-security discretionary spending, will help cut the deficit to 1.6 percent of the GDP by 2009.

“This deficit reduction is the combined effect of economic growth and spending restraint,” Mr. Bolten said, adding that economic growth will “bring us out” of debt.

Mr. Pence says that is not good enough and some members of the Republican Study Committee want to eliminate the deficit over five years, rather than just cut it in half as the administration seeks.

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