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Even GOP Has Some Qualms About Specifics

From Medicare reform to oil drilling in Alaska, Bush faces an uphill fight in Congress with Democrats and those in his own party.

February 04, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Monday sent his ambitious new budget to a Congress controlled by his own party, but many of the plan's major components are already in trouble on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers will likely ratify the broad outlines of Bush's $2.2-trillion budget, but they are already giving a lukewarm-to-skeptical reception to his specific proposals to reform Medicare and Medicaid, cut taxes, expand oil drilling in Alaska and slap the strictest limits on domestic spending growth in years.

Republican leaders are "trying to walk a tightrope," said Richard May, a former GOP staff director of the House Budget Committee. "They are trying to be supportive of the president, but they don't want to look like they are a rubber stamp."

Also potentially problematic among Bush's fellow Republicans is his decision to accept huge deficits for the foreseeable future -- $1.1 trillion over the next five years. Bush is, in effect, proposing a watershed change in GOP fiscal policy, abandoning the party's 1990s preoccupation with balancing the budget and reducing the size of government.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 548 words Type of Material: Correction
Rep. Sue Myrick -- An article in Section A on Tuesday on congressional reaction to the president's budget misidentified Rep. Sue Myrick as a Republican from South Carolina. She is from North Carolina.

Republicans from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum are queasy about the flood of red ink: Rep. Sue Wilkins Myrick (R-S.C.), a conservative, wants to further squeeze domestic spending to reduce the deficit, while moderate Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) wants to roll back the size of Bush's proposed tax cut.

"Deficits must be a temporary phenomenon, not a perpetual cycle," Snowe said in expressing concerns about Bush's budget.

Attacks by Democrats on Bush's budget centered on complaints about the large deficits it would create.

"This budget is breathtaking in its lack of fiscal responsibility," said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.

Democrats also charged the Bush plan would inadequately finance education and other programs, while providing benefits mostly to the wealthy through such proposals as ending the tax on corporate dividend income for individuals.

On top of the 10-year, $1.35-trillion tax cut the administration pushed through Congress in 2001, the new budget seeks an additional $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade.

"By demanding large tax cuts again even though there are no longer surpluses, the administration will starve the government of funds," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Bush's budget will get an early boost when Congress drafts its annual budget resolution setting broad spending and revenue targets -- a general blueprint for specific tax and appropriation bills to be passed later in the year.

Both the House and Senate budget committees are headed by strong Bush allies likely to draft measures in keeping with his request. The problems will come later in legislation to implement the particulars.

A majority in the Senate seems to oppose the elimination of taxes on dividend income, a key element of Bush's plan to stimulate the economy. Strong opposition, including from some Republicans, also exists to an important part of Bush's energy policy to open more Alaska land to oil drilling.

Bush has said he will push for a fundamental overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid, the health-care programs for the elderly and the poor. The administration has yet to flesh out plans, but initial reaction in Congress has been wary.

It adds up to a far-reaching domestic battle plan for an administration that may soon be prosecuting a shooting war in Iraq.

"He's bitten off a lot," said one senior Senate GOP aide.

Said a senior House Democratic aide, "This whole thing may fall of its own weight, given how preoccupied by war" the White House may become.

Outside of the government's entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, Bush has proposed an overall spending increase of 4% -- with bigger increases going to defense and homeland security programs, and other domestic programs frozen or squeezed.

Overall, the budget calls for the smallest discretionary spending increase since 2000, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.), one of the most fiscally conservative members of the Senate, wants to fight to hold that line.

"The president was very generous," said Nickles. "I expect we will meet that target."

Others -- even some Republicans -- say it is politically unrealistic to expect Congress to give big increases to defense and homeland security while cutting or holding the line on politically popular programs. As evidence of that policy's difficulty, they cite the unresolved bitter battle over the budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

"There has been an assumption on the part of [administration budget officials] that the non-homeland-security spending part of the budget can absorb flat funding or reduced" money, said James Dyer, GOP staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. "It may be wise public policy, but it is not politically doable."

Even powerful Republicans winced at budget recommendations for pet concerns. Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, objected to the administration's proposal to cut in half funding for nuclear energy research. He also said he wanted more money to restore the nearly 7 million acres of forest devastated by wildfires last year.

Some analysts argue that Bush's budget deliberately shortchanged programs it knows Congress will finance generously, such as road projects and funding for water facilities.

"When you talk about homeland and defense spending increases, then look at what the congressional priorities are; that really is a recipe for doubling" the 4% increase in discretionary spending proposed by Bush, said Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group.

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