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Democrats Attempt to Shift Budget Focus

Congressional Democrats polished proposals Tuesday that they hope will shift the focus of the election year budget fight from President Bush's defense and anti-terrorism plans to protecting Social Security.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., readied what will probably be the only Democratic budget in Congress this year. He aims to push it through his committee this week.

The $2.1 trillion blueprint would match Bush's proposals for military and homeland security increases next year while squeezing his long-term defense buildup; exceed his plans for prescription drugs, schools and debt reduction; and ignore his request for new tax cuts, Conrad said.

Its highlight would require the president and lawmakers to concoct a plan for balancing the budget by 2008 without tapping Social Security surpluses. But it would leave that task, including decisions about the estimated $433 billion in spending cuts and possible tax increases that would be needed over five years, for next year.

"We don't think this is something that is out of reach," Conrad told reporters. "It is certainly going to require choices."

The House's minority Democrats support a similar five-year mechanism for addressing the government's fiscal woes, but have opted against proposing their own overall budget. They argue that last year's GOP-written $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut abruptly worsened the long-term budget picture, so Democrats should not lead the way in proposing a politically painful cure.

Instead, when Republicans muscle a budget resembling Bush's through the House this week, Democrats will criticize the GOP plan's spending of $831 billion in Social Security surpluses over the next five years for other programs. They say that would violate years of bipartisan promises to not do that, even as money needed for schools, prescription drugs and other programs is being squeezed by resurgent deficits.

"We don't think continuing to spend the Social Security trust fund is sound policy. That is the message," said Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, a Democratic leader in the budget fight.

Republicans reject the Democrats' budget-balancing mechanisms as empty promises that leave tough decisions for later while ignoring that the best way to strengthen Social Security is to make the economy stronger. They blame the sudden melting of huge projected surpluses into deficits on the recession and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We will pass a budget," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, told reporters. "It will be as close to balanced as humanly possible given we have a war."

The Democrats' decision to support Bush's domestic security and defense proposals comes with congressional elections less than eight months away and with the popularity of the president and the war against terror running sky high. Bush's proposed $48 billion boost for the Pentagon to $379 billion would be the biggest in two decades, and he would double spending on security at home to $38 billion.

Focusing on Social Security plays to an issue Democrats have used for years to rally senior citizens and other voters.

Social Security surpluses were spent for other programs for decades until the late 1990s, when annual federal surpluses appeared. Both parties used those flush times to promise to use Social Security surpluses for debt reduction.

Spending Social Security surpluses does not affect the benefits or solvency of the huge pension program for the elderly and disabled, because its trust funds are bulging with trillions in Treasury bonds. But using those surpluses for debt reduction would make it easier for the government to afford the baby boomers' retirement, which begins later this decade.

Congress' budget is a nonbinding blueprint that sets overall spending and revenue targets while letting lawmakers highlight their priorities.

Most years, legislators ignore the budget's strictures when writing subsequent spending and tax bills. This year's budget is likely to have even less legislative significance, because many consider it unlikely the GOP House and Democratic Senate will ever approve a compromise spending plan.