WASHINGTON — In a direct challenge to the Democratic-controlled Congress, President Bush plans today to order a 45-day spending halt on more than 100 federal programs--a first step in a blunt budget-cutting plan meant to save $4 billion.
Bush's decision to adopt a more aggressive position on spending cuts is designed to coincide with expected congressional passage today of a Democratic tax-cut measure the President opposes and is expected to veto.
As outlined by knowledgeable sources, the new White House plan would mark a sweeping use by Bush of an authority allowing him to impose spending halts while Congress considers his requests for formal rescission. Sources said the strategy would force Congress to vote on each program separately.
"We're talking pork-barrel here, and Congress is going to have to go on record with each one," a senior Administration official said.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the immediate freeze and proposed permanent budget cuts would involve "everything from obsolete and ludicrous projects like research on far-out programs to traditional public works projects."
Administration sources said the cuts are most likely to affect such programs as community service block grants and public housing construction, two of the 222 federal programs Bush already has said should be terminated.
Fitzwater said it is "not clear cut" whether Bush has the power to order such cuts but added that "we believe we have the legal authority."
The switch in White House strategy comes as the House and Senate were readying another rebuff to Bush's economic-growth proposal. Bush had asked the lawmakers during his State of the Union speech in January to pass economic recovery legislation by today that included a modest tax cut for the middle class. But the Democrats increased the size of the tax cut and imposed more taxes on the wealthy.
Rather than embrace his plan, as the President had urged in his State of the Union address, negotiators from the two houses were putting the finishing touches on their plan.
In response, Bush plans in a speech today to escalate his attacks on a Congress he contends is responsible for neglecting an infirm economy. But officials said his attempt to use the confrontation to slash spending programs that Congress has long kept off limits is a more potent weapon.
Administration sources said the 45-day freeze to be imposed by Bush is the maximum allowed under a 1974 law permitting him to suspend funding while Congress considers his rescission requests. They described his plan to impose further freezes in coming weeks as an effort to ratchet up the pressure on Congress during an election year.
Legal experts in Congress noted that Bush does not have the unilateral authority to prevent permanently the spending of funds appropriated by Congress. But they said there is little doubt that he has the power to take temporary action.
The move would mark a new descent into confrontation between the Bush White House and Congress and presage what is expected to be a bitter spring of claims and counterclaims about who is most responsible for the nation's economic state.
Reaching the March 20 deadline adds an exclamation point to a two-month White House strategy aimed at calling attention to what it contends is a do-nothing Congress. But it also has succeeded in underscoring what White House critics call presidential impotence and has provoked a potentially dangerous partisan fight.
Bush plans to veto Congress' tax plan and to charge once again that Congress has left the economy without the help it needs.
The effect of his actions, however--for now, at least--may be to leave him empty-handed, even though he has steadfastly insisted that an economic package is needed. While his advisers said the deadline gambit had succeeded in highlighting congressional inaction, some now believe it may have done more harm than good.
"You don't rant and rave if you can't follow through," one Republican adviser said of the Bush ultimatum. "Have we backed ourselves into a corner? You bet we have."
Aides to Bush said he remains determined to veto the expected House--Senate compromise, which likely will be submitted to the White House next week because it would increase taxes on the wealthy.
There were signs Thursday night that Bush's hand might be strengthening, with Democratic congressional leaders expressing apprehension about whether the compromise legislation that will emerge from the conference committee can win House and Senate approval.
But Bush's own proposals have been subjected to a series of embarrassing defeats and White House officials acknowledged Thursday that the decision to impose the spending freeze marked an attempt to divert attention from what has become a deep frustration.
"There comes a point at which we have to recognize that they haven't met the needs of the economy," Fitzwater said of Congress' inaction. But, he added, "that's not a substitute for getting legislation through."