WASHINGTON – President Bush's $2.4 trillion election-year budget is taking broadsides from Republicans for spending too much, from Democrats for embracing the wrong priorities and from anti-deficit groups for masking red ink.
Treasury Secretary John Snow (search) and White House budget chief Joshua Bolten (search) were to have kicked off the administration's explanation of the Fiscal 2005 budget before Senate committees Tuesday. But those hearings were postponed because of an investigation into the discovery of a suspicious, white powdery substance in a Senate office building.
Bush told his Cabinet Monday, "We're calling upon Congress to be wise with the taxpayers' money."
The package calls for bolstering domestic security by 10 percent and defense by 7 percent — not counting a new request Bolten said could hit $50 billion for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that the administration is expected to seek next year. That proposal would come next year, Bolten said — after this November's presidential and congressional elections.
Bush's budget would provide the first funds for an eventual trip to Mars and increase funds for disabled students, the Securities and Exchange Commission (search) and federal volunteer programs.
Pressured by war and federal deficits, the plan also proposes to cut or eliminate 128 programs from school dropout prevention to aid for state and local law enforcement agencies, and from water projects to Amtrak subsidies.
Besides defense and domestic security, Bush would hold all other programs controlled by Congress — covering everything but automatic payments like Social Security — to 0.5 percent growth.
To achieve that, he proposed cuts in the budgets of seven of the 16 Cabinet-level agencies, including Agriculture, Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although Bush proposed an overall 3 percent education increase — a figure Democrats say is too skimpy — 38 programs slated for extinction were in the Education Department. They included an exchange program for historic whaling partners — an initiative championed by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Even before administration officials arrived, their package was under fire from all sides — including their own Republican colleagues in control of the House and Senate, which must now write spending legislation.
Bush said his plan focused on winning wars abroad and against terrorists at home and bolstering the economy — all while restraining expenditures and steering a course toward halving this year's projected record $521 billion deficit in five years.
Last year's deficit hit $375 billion, the highest ever in dollar terms. Bush projects next year's red ink at $364 billion — and heading south.
As if choreographed, though, conservative Republicans described the proposal with variations of the phrase "a good first step" — congressional code for something lawmakers intend to change. The critics chiefly wanted more aggressive election-year efforts to control spending and erase red ink.
"The president's budget is a good start to funding our priorities and a good answer for the Democrats who are proposing increased spending and an increased deficit," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Underscoring problems ahead, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said even Bush's proposal would force tough spending choices.
Warning that all should be "prepared to make sacrifices," Young said he would examine Bush's proposals "to see if we can afford them in a lean budget year."
Democrats ridiculed Bush for a plan they said shortchanged education, veterans and other priorities, squandered more money on tax breaks mainly helping the wealthy and sustained his legacy of massive federal deficits.
On the presidential campaign trail, former Gen. Wesley Clark said Bush's goals were "tax cuts for the rich and tough luck for everyone else."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, called it "fiscal insanity" for Bush to again press his goal of making already enacted tax cuts permanent. And Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., another presidential candidate, called the plan "the same failed Republican prescription that has caused Bush to lose 2.5 million jobs in the last three years."
While Bush projected shortfalls would drop to $237 billion by 2009, budget watchdog groups said those estimates ignored spending for likely U.S. troop deployments and for helping middle-income families escape paying the alternative minimum tax.
By only projecting its budget for five years, the administration also avoided displaying a fiscal crunch that gets far worse as baby boomers start retiring in growing numbers, the groups said.
Bush's spending plan "strains the credibility of the administration's claim" of cutting the deficit in half, said a statement by the bipartisan Concord Coalition, which advocates careful spending.
The budget is "long on promises, short on reality, and incapable of taking our nation's fiscal health off of life support," said Steve Ellis, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which favors lower spending.
If Bush's deficit and spending projections come true, the government will borrow 22 percent of what it spends this year and 15 percent next year. His plan sets aside $178 billion next year just for paying interest on its debt.
Bush provided few details on how he would halve deficits, other than broad references to economic growth and spending restraint.
His budget assumes the one-third of the budget Congress writes every year — the rest is automatically paid benefits like Social Security — will grow by a total of 3.7 percent over the next five years. That figure is so low lawmakers will likely ignore it.
Bush also proposed $1.1 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade, mostly to renew expiring reductions for individuals and businesses but also reworked plans to encourage saving.