WASHINGTON — President Bush pressed his resolve Saturday to spend billions of federal dollars to rebuild the Gulf Coast, but there were few indications that the necessary funds would materialize without a comparable increase in the federal deficit.
The president made no mention of where the estimated $200 billion for aid, reconstruction and other costs would come from. Instead, in his weekly radio address, he promised that the government would provide an "unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis."
On Friday, the president ruled out raising taxes and suggested that Congress would have to cut other programs. But until now, Congress has shown scant inclination to cut spending even though large numbers of lawmakers, especially Bush's fellow Republicans, are worried about the impact of the hurricanerelated costs on the deficit, estimated at $331 billion this year before Katrina hit.
In coming weeks, the administration is expected to step up its efforts to get Congress to cut spending. Such efforts are likely to include more aggressively promoting the $15 billion in cuts that the administration included in its budget proposal this year.
Many of those proposed cuts have been resisted in Congress, even by Republicans.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, for example, wants to help low-income families pay an expected increase in winter heating bills. And a number of Democrats and Republicans dismissed any notion of trimming highway projects included in a recently approved six-year, $286.5-billion bill.
A spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said Saturday that the congressman looked forward to working with the White House to reduce unnecessary spending.
"The budget bills that have passed the House already eliminate 98 programs for a savings of $4.3 billion," said spokesman John Scofield. But many of these programs have been restored by Senate appropriators.
Separately, Congress is working on legislation to cut $35 billion from Medicaid, food stamps and other benefit programs over the next five years. Since Katrina, some lawmakers who initially favored this approach have called it inappropriate.
Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicted that Congress would let the deficit keep growing, to nearly $900 billion by 2015. "The political path of least resistance is to avoid priority-setting and trade-offs, and instead dump the costs onto the next generation," he said.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said domestic programs whose spending levels are set in annual appropriations bills had been "cut to the bone."
He suggested that Republicans consider dropping efforts to pass another $70 billion in tax cuts. "Three weeks after this national tragedy," he said, "where some of the poorest amongst us suffered the most, do we really need to debate Republican proposals to cut taxes for the rich at the expense of Medicaid and food stamps?"
Bush said the nation faced "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen." He said the goal was "to get people out of shelters" by mid-October and into rental apartments and mobile homes.
As of Saturday, Bush said, about 500,000 evacuee families had received emergency help to pay for food, clothing and other essentials.
The president said the entire nation was responsible for assisting those along the gulf. "One day Americans will look back at the response to Hurricane Katrina and say that our country grew not only in prosperity, but also in character and justice," he said.
His attitude drew praise in the Democratic radio response delivered by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. "Only the resources of the federal government are adequate to the challenge ahead," she said.
Many Louisiana Democrats have criticized the federal government's initial response to the hurricane. But Blanco said: "Some issues reach beyond party. In the face of the human tragedy which lies behind us and the task that lies ahead of us, there is no room for partisan politics. We must all work together."
Even as Bush encouraged Congress to cut unnecessary spending to help cover rebuilding costs, one of his administration's policies -- allowing federal workers to make relief- and recovery-related purchases up to $250,000 per transaction on a government charge card -- drew bipartisan scrutiny on Capitol Hill as an invitation to abuse.
The provision, which raised the limit from $15,000 for a single purchase, was included in the administration's request for $51.8 billion in emergency spending that Congress passed 10 days after Katrina struck.
"Abuse of government purchase cards is well-documented, and Katrina victims won't be helped by new opportunities for hurricane relief dollars to be squandered or spent fraudulently," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Critics of the higher limit said investigations had uncovered misuse of government-issued credit cards in the past for purchases including jewelry, clothing and breast enlargement.
Grassley is seeking to scale back the limit to $50,000 -- about three times more than was approved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In the House, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, top Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, warned that the provision could lead to "extensive waste, fraud and abuse."
"The vast majority of federal employees are honest, upstanding people, but the ability to buy up to $250,000 in any single purchase is a great temptation," Waxman said in a recent letter to Appropriations Committee Chairman Lewis.
The White House budget office last week issued guidelines, such as follow-up reviews of credit card transactions, designed "to ensure that taxpayers' dollars are spent efficiently and responsibly in support of disaster victims."