Bush Budget Favors Defense Spending

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President Bush sent his $2.77 trillion budget blueprint to Congress Monday. The plan increases spending for the Pentagon and national security, while proposing cuts to social programs including Medicare. Lawmakers will push their own changes to the plan.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News; I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's a simple way to describe President Bush's latest budget plan: It increases spending for the Pentagon. It squeezes almost all domestic spending other than national security; and it arrives in Congress just as lawmakers face a tough election. Lawmakers will push their own changes to the plan, which totals $2.77 trillion; and their decisions will affect everything from military special forces training to senior citizens healthcare.

We'll start our coverage this morning with NPR Congressional Correspondent David Welna.

David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, what is the president saying to Congress with this budget plan?

WELNA: Well, I think the biggest message is that we're at war and this is a budget whose top priority is defense spending. The Pentagon gets a seven-percent increase in the president's budget, which would push its funding to $440 billion next year; and that's not even counting the $50 billion that are anticipated for spending in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

But the other marquee message in this budget is that spending's out of control, and this is from a president who has yet to veto a single spending bill. Like he did last year, President Bush proposes eliminating, or cutting back, more than 140 domestic programs. Education spending drops nearly four percent and even federal funds to fight methamphetamines are cut by more than a third.

And yesterday White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan emphasized the budget's tax cut message.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): It's also important to continue to make the tax cuts or keep taxes low; and that means making the tax cuts permanent. That'll keep our revenues up; and while we reduce spending elsewhere, that'll help us keep, to stay on track to cut the deficit in half.

INSKEEP: So, that's the White House line; and. David Welna, what's the Congressional response?

WELNA: well, I think it was pretty telling that not a single congressional Republican called a news conference yesterday to endorse the president's budget. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist did refer to the budget briefly in a floor speech; but it was only to note that it has some funds for rebuilding a lock on the Mississippi River; and I think Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who chairs the panel that funds education and health programs, was probably the most expressive Republican. He called the budget scandalous and he said it's going to require, as he put it, substantial modification by Congress.

Democrats were even more outspoken. Here's North Dakota Senator Ken Conrad.

Senator KEN CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): This budget is utterly detached from any financial reality. This is not sustainable. It took 42 presidents 224 years to run up a trillion dollars of our debt held by foreigners. This president has doubled that amount in five years.

INSKEEP: So, that's the general response, at least from one Democrat. And, David, what are some of the specifics here? What are some things that lawmakers are unlikely to approve?

WELNA: Well, like other budgets that the president submitted in the past, this one, once again, assumes Congress will approve oil drilling in the Arctic National Wild Refuge, and that's proved a non-starter year after year. Congress is also highly unlikely to double airport security fees that passengers pay. And last year, lawmakers cut back, or eliminated, only two out of every five federal programs the president has proposed for the chopping block then and I'd expect even more resistance this year.

INSKEEP: How big a deficit are we talking about?

WELNA: Well, it's supposed to be $423 billion this year, which, in nominal terms, is the biggest deficit ever, and White House officials say that the deficit should drop to around 208 billion by the end of the Bush presidency; but that's making the probably unrealistic assumption that no more money will be spent on the war in Iraq after next year.

INSKEEP: And also assuming that these spending cuts, or spending restraints in some cases, will actually be approved.

WELNA: Indeed. It's a very tough sell to get these tax cuts approved during a year when lawmakers are also going to have to tell constituents that they're cutting spending. They don't want to be seen as simply favoring those who benefit the most from tax cuts, who are the wealthy.

INSKEEP: So, we often hear, David, the president's budgets are dead on arrival in Congress. Is that the case this year?

WELNA: Well, this is a budget that asks lawmakers to take a lot of bullets for the president; and I'm not sure they're ready to do that with so many of them having their jobs on the line in the mid-term elections. At the same time, Republicans know there's a lot of public pressure to reign in spending and to get rid of pork projects; but if last year's budget caused a lot of fights in a non-election year, I'd expect much more trouble this year. And to get the budget approved by congress this year would mean protecting items such as tax cuts and ANWR drilling from Senate filibusters but even with that protection, I doubt such measures are feasible this election year.

INSKEEP: David, thanks.

WELNA reporting: Sure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Congressional Correspondent David Welna this morning.

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