Democratic Leaders Cool to Bush Budget

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President Bush has sent his nearly $3 trillion budget proposal to Congress, amid criticism from two key Democrats: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renée Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Bush has sent his $2.9 trillion budget proposal to Congress, which means a little bit less than it might have in past years. For the first six years of his administration, the president's budgets were greeted by a Republican majority and they often became the basis for government spending levels for the next year. But this year, the president faces a Congress led by Democrats and with a lot more skeptics of his policies.

Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Delivery of the president's budget to Congress is a familiar Washington set piece. Copies of the massive volume are dropped off with the chairmen of the budget committees, who carefully leaf through them for the benefit of the cameras. And the president makes a little speech about how his spending plan should be closely adhered to, as Mr. Bush obliged yesterday in front of his Cabinet.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: After all, I believe Congress needs to listen to a budget which has no tax increase, and a budget, because of fiscal discipline, that can be balanced in five years.

NAYLOR: But this year there are new players in the familiar roles: Democrats who don't like what they hear from this budget. For instance, Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, now chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): I believe the long-term trajectory of this budget, which is to take us right over the cliff into an absolute chasm of death, this budget is just disconnected from reality.

NAYLOR: Here are some of the headlines from the president's budget. Mr. Bush says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost a total of $170 billion this year. They'll cost $145 billion next year. On top of that, the president wants another $481 billion for the Pentagon, an 11 percent increase. Other domestic spending would be capped at a 1 percent increase, lower than the expected inflation rate.

The president's budget slices some $86 billion from projected increases in Medicare and Medicaid. The president assumes his tax cuts, now set to expire in 2010, will be made permanent by Democrats. And he projects deficits will decline and the budget will be balanced in five years.

Democrats say that's hogwash, possible only because the president doesn't include any funds for the war in Iraq in the latter years of the budget plan and doesn't take into account a likely fix of the alternative minimum tax, which will reduce projected revenues.

South Carolina Democrat John Spratt is chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Representative JOHN SPRATT (Democrat, South Carolina): When you provide for the war costs after '09, and when you assume that the AMT will be fixed, this is where the Bush budget goes down, down, down into deeper and deeper debt.

NAYLOR: Now no Democrat actually uttered the words dead on arrival yesterday, but they certainly didn't hide their disdain. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it more of the same fiscal irresponsibility and misplaced priorities. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it contains the wrong choices and the wrong priorities.

Democrats aren't ready to declare their budget intentions just yet. Conrad said they want a further analysis of the president's budget before they start drafting their own priorities. But Republicans, like Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, are already warming up their rhetoric.

Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): We will see a significant increase in the size of the government under the Democratic budget is my expectation. And we will see a classic, for lack of better word because it's a very appropriate description, tax and spend budget.

NAYLOR: But even Gregg acknowledges the president's spending plan doesn't have a whole lot of legs, as he put it. Now Democrats face the challenge of writing their budget script, hoping to put their stamp on government for the first time in over a decade while demonstrating the fiscal responsibility they campaigned on.

Brain Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: You can read NPR's analysis of the president's proposed budget at npr.org.

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