WASHINGTON – If the states' governors came to Washington hoping to get some help covering their budget deficits, they are leaving with few promises.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist repeated comments made a day earlier by President Bush, saying everyone is facing hard fiscal times, and the federal government is unlikely to be able to do much to offset billions in shortfalls.
"The only way out is to grow the economy," said Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
First told the governors that Congress could lift restrictions on homeland security money that would normally be given to local governments to control, but that might happen only if the United States leads an attack on Iraq.
He did offer some hope by saying the federal government has a duty to fulfill its promises on education, Medicare and Medicaid, but gave no specifics and emphasized the financial problems the feds are also enduring.
The government expects a $304 billion shortfall this fiscal year. The states are facing a collective $80 billion deficit for fiscal year 2004.
On Monday, Bush told governors that tax cuts and health care reform would boost their ailing economies, not federal dollars.
"Our budget is in a deficit. It's because we went through a recession. And we're at war," he told them at the White House.
"We face common challenges. I look forward to working with you all to meet those challenges," he said. Later, the president took more than a dozen questions in private and discussed health care, homeland security, tax cuts and foreign policy, governors said.
The president has proposed giving governors more control over Medicaid programs, but some governors left the meeting saying they are concerned the reforms will leave states underfunded in the future.
Governors split the difference after a partisan debate Monday about funding homeland security, special education and the president's "Leave No Child Behind" education program.
Democrats agreed to the language demanding more money for the programs, but Republicans got the document to exclude any specific dollar amount.
Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell said the states are likely to ask for $10 billion to $12 billion for the three priorities, but did not sound very hopeful.
"Beyond flexibility and some money for homeland security, [Bush] is not going to be very helpful," he said.
Republicans were more forgiving.
"I don't think any of us came away with any false expectation that the federal government can or will bail us out," said Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. "They're looking at structural change. That's what I'm encouraged by."
Of the funding sought, governors want flexibility on spending $3.5 billion in homeland security that Bush has requested for next year's budget. Bush has said he is amenable to that.
Governors also want more money to pay for educational reforms required by the federal education reforms, and more than twice what they are getting now to implement the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
Bush has also suggested that states be given extra money in the first seven years for Medicaid reforms, but that money would lighten up in the last three years of the president's proposed plan.
"That's a little bit like stick it to your successor," Rendell said. It might work out if the economy is stronger by the time the funding falls, he said, "but it's a dangerous game."
Governors are expected to set up a task force to look over the plan and elicit more information from the administration.
On health care, governors were enthusiastic about a federal effort to cover prescription drugs through Medicare.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.