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GOP Budget Clears House, Senate Panel Debates Democratic Plan

A Senate panel is expected to vote Thursday on a Democrat-created fiscal blueprint for the next eight years that defers until next year deciding where revenues will come from in lieu of Social Security surpluses.

The proposal for a $2.1 trillion 2003 fiscal year budget matches the sum passed in the Republican-led House on Wednesday, but offers more money for schools, health and road building. It meets President Bush's plan for strengthening defense and domestic security over the next two years.

The House bill, which passed 221-209 on a mostly partly-line vote pushes the budget back into the red for the next three years, but envisions a prompt recovery in the economy, allowing greater revenues thereafter. It calls for using $831 billion in Social Security surpluses over the coming five years to pay for programs where shortages are forecast.

"We have led on our side," said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., scolding House Democrats who offered no alternative budget. "We have a plan to protect Social Security. We have a plan to prosecute the war. We have a plan to provide tax relief for Americans."

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., criticized the plan, however, for using Social Security surpluses.

"We promised to put Social Security first," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said of both parties' pledges in recent years to use the pension program's gigantic surpluses only for debt reduction. "This budget puts Social Security last."

Senate Democrats, however, have not figured out how they will pay for increased spending in the coming five years without Social Security surpluses and have left it to next year's Congress to figure out where to trim the budget or raise taxes to generate $433 billion for government programs. It also ensures that the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut passed by Congress last year is not extended out beyond its expiration date of 2010.

"No more raids on Social Security. No more dipping into that honey pot to pay for more tax cuts," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Under the two plans, homeland security spending would double to $38 billion, the request made by President Bush in his budget proposal submitted in February. The House and Senate plans also boost the Pentagon budget to $379 billion, a $48 billion increase that is the biggest percentage increase in two decades.

Both propose holding overall spending for many other programs except automatically paid benefits like Social Security to little or no increase over this year's total. Both also provide more than Bush proposed to create prescription drug benefits and revamp Medicare and for highways, schools and some veterans programs.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer attacked the Democrat's plan to use a $269 billion portion of Bush's planned defense buildup over the coming decade for debt reduction unless the Pentagon needs the money.

"It freezes defense spending, which is very hard to explain given that our nation is at war," Fleischer said.

Congress' budget is a nonbinding guide used to set overall spending and revenue targets. The measure is often ignored by many billions of dollars.

But the budget blueprints set up the political battle each year that the parties use to stress their priorities and win over voters. Rarely does the Congress approve the 13 annual spending bills in time for the fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and with the House and Senate both within reaching distance of a turnover, both sides are expected to make as much political hay as possible over spending priorities.

However, unlike most measures in the 50-49-1 split Senate, budgets usually have language protecting them from Senate filibusters, which need 60 votes to be broken, and often leave Senate bills dead on the floor.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.