Bush Budget; Boehner's Role as Majority Leader

What are the spending priorities in President Bush's $2.7 trillion proposed budget? More money for defense, homeland security and Katrina recovery. And what will new House Majority Leader John Boehner tackle first.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The defense budget is just one part of an overall spending plan that totals $2.7 trillion. We're going to get some analysis on that proposed spending from NPR's Cokie Roberts.

Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP HOST: So, which program win and which lose in this budget?

ROBERTS: Well as you just heard from Jackie, defense wins. Security, homeland security, wins, and there's some more money in there for Katrina. And the president has been out over the last week touting his American Competitiveness Initiative, which calls for more money for math and science teaching. But pretty much everybody else is a loser here. The rest of the federal budget is under, in this budget, is under the axe. But of course, the truth is there's not very much money in most programs so that you have to really look to the great big entitlements if you really want to cut some money, and Medicare is the program that appears to be taking the biggest hit.

INSKEEP: And this is a proposal, Congress now considers it, which makes you wonder if Congress is really going to cut Medicare spending in an election year.

ROBERTS: Or as the White House would say, reduce the growth in Medicare spending. Look, the only way that that will happen is if the administration convinces Congress that seniors won't actually feel these reductions that they've imposed on the providers. But, look Steve, if you even say the words Medicare and budget cuts in the same sentence, it's politically dangerous and it comes on the top of just passed real Medicaid cuts which affect middleclass seniors. And this is all at a time when Americans are telling pollsters that they are terribly worried about the cost of health care and the prescription drug program under Medicare has started in a very rocky fashion.

Now the White House says the drug program's going to be fine, that there are good signs in terms of it's cost because of competitiveness and that competitiveness will also help people join health savings accounts to help cover healthcare costs and that'll be a big push from the administration. The real question is whether voters buy it and that's the question Republicans will be asking as they consider these proposals, not to mention some really dicey proposals in this budget for an election year like eliminating the supplemental food program for low income mothers and young children and the elderly poor or real cuts in money for cancer research. You can just see the campaign ads right now portraying Republicans as heartless ogres.

INSKEEP: Well, how does all this fit in, Cokie, with Democratic demands to cut the budget deficit, the president's promise to cut the deficit in half by 2009 and many Republicans desire to cut spending?

ROBERTS: Well, there is a huge problem here and we're talking about a deficit projected to be $400 billion this year and we haven't even talked about the money that's essentially off the books called supplemental money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Katrina relief at the end of last year. Plus, the White House has made it very clear that it wants to make the tax cuts permanent and that's something that Republican operatives tell us matters more to their voters than anything else. That's what they can raise more money around than anything else, is tax cuts.

So, it's going to be almost impossible to deal with this budget and the Republicans are going to get absolutely no help from the Democrats who fundamentally disagree on the tax cutting side, but who also have the luxury of being in the minority and being able to just say no to all of this. The Republicans will say it's tough to be in the majority, the only thing worse is to lose the majority and that's a whole lot worse and that's what they're really worried about given the recent polls showing Democrats way up in what we call the generic congressional ballot. When people pit unnamed Democrats versus unnamed Republicans, Democrats are winning in double digits.

INSKEEP: Which must be one thing that was on Republicans minds as they chose a new majority leader.

ROBERTS: And John Boehner's role in all of this is going to be very interesting. He said yesterday on the question of spending, the government is too big and it spends too much and the voters know that and they expect Congress to do something about it; a broad statement. He is against those provisions and bills called earmarks that members can stick in for spending for their own districts but that doesn't really get you anywhere. He's got a big challenge because Republicans are expecting him to bring about some change in the House of Representatives and that's not going to be easy to do.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much. That's NPR News Analyst, Cokie Roberts.

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