Sen. Gregg Faces 'Nightmare' Budget Choices

Sen. Judd Gregg speaks on the Senate floor.

Sen. Judd Gregg speaks on the Senate floor. U.S. Senate hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Senate

They say the stereotypical New Englander is dour, taciturn, dry. As the son of a Connecticut Yankee who went to school with some true characters in Maine and then covered some pretty colorful politicos at the State House there, I've found that like most stereotypes, this one is a gross exaggeration. Still there are exceptions.

Which brings us to Judd Gregg. Tall and lanky, reputed to be somewhat, well, cranky, New Hampshire's senior senator could have come from central casting as the ideal New England citizen-lawmaker who rarely takes center stage.

For the next few weeks, however, Gregg, a 58-year-old Republican former governor, will be in the unaccustomed glare of the national spotlight. That's because the Budget Committee he chairs will be drawing up a spending blueprint for the coming fiscal year.

OK, maybe the spotlight won't be all that bright. There, after all, there are no corporate villains or Hollywood media magnets on the program. Outside the circle of Washington policy wonks and reporters, few pay much attention to the non-binding budget resolution. Much of the nation never knew that Congress failed to pass its budget resolution a year ago.

But in Congress, the budget is still a major big deal, setting the priorities for government spending, and more importantly putting in motion a process that will determine whether there will be further tax cuts, if entitlement programs such as Medicaid will be trimmed, and how big a spending hit government agencies outside of the Pentagon will take.

There is a lot at stake, and understandably Gregg, and his House counterpart, Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican, have been holding their cards close. Gregg declined numerous requests from NPR for an interview in the past few weeks, as he drew up what is known at the Capitol as the "Chairman's mark" — his draft of the budget resolution. Given Gregg's own predilections and loyalty to the president, his mark is not likely to vary too much from the $2.57 trillion spending plan President Bush submitted last month. At the time Gregg praised the president's budget, noting with approval that it assures "everybody's ox gets gored."

Among the gored are farm subsidies (dear to the hearts of Southern rural lawmakers), Medicaid (already being intensely contested by governors of both parties whose states would have to make up the difference) and dozens of domestic programs with their own vocal constituencies.

Needless to say, Gregg faces some difficult decisions. "Very, very, very difficult" in the words of Sen. Pete Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who chaired the Senate Budget Committee for most of two decades. Domenici had the gavel in the early 1980s when President Reagan was radically reordering federal spending priorities.

Domenici says Gregg is facing a "budgetary nightmare" largely because of "out-of-control" health care costs. These costs are eating ever-increasing chunks of the budget and, according to Domenici, "Gregg can hardly do anything about it."

Not that Gregg hasn't been trying. He raised the possibility of curbing Medicare outlays by putting a cap on the cost of the prescription drug benefit Congress enacted last year. That benefit is now estimated to cost up to $1 trillion over the next decade, more than double original estimates. But President Bush moved quickly to quell that idea, vowing to veto any change to the program he championed.

In Domenici's view, Gregg's other big challenge is defense. The White House has proposed a 4.4 percent increase in defense spending, which leaves all other domestic programs facing a 1 percent cut. That doesn't sound like a lot, but Domenici notes "we've never done as much as has been asked this year."

Domenici calls the new chairman a "smart Senator," and wishes him luck. "I'm going to try to help him," Domenici says, while quickly adding that he has his own priorities now as chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Domenici wants an energy bill, which he says "has to have some tax incentives in it." That will also bruise the budget bottom line, but Domenici says: "If we can't do that, I can't be for a budget."

And there will be many more such demands. Conservatives want to extend certain tax cuts at a cost of $100 billion over five years, a price tag that may cause deficit-hawk Republicans to bolt when the resolution comes to the Senate floor.

And Democrats, who lack the votes to block the budget on their own, are sure to complain about the hefty deficit, which the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office now says will be $375 billion in fiscal year 2006, once the costs of the war in Iraq are included.

All of which is enough to make a flinty, thrifty New Englander very cranky.

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