President's Budget Makes Good Campaign Fodder

President Bush's election-year budget lays out priorities for him to run on, billions more for the Pentagon and the war on terror (search) among them.

Yet it also gives Democrats targets to campaign against, record federal deficits (search) and cuts in selected domestic programs, too.

Then come politically ambiguous items likely to produce yearlong clashes between Republicans and Democrats -- Bush's call to make earlier tax cuts permanent and Democrats' efforts to roll back benefits for the wealthy, at a minimum.

"The new Bush budget is more of the same: record deficits, tax cuts for the wealthy and special interests and cuts in areas that matter most to families, such as health care and education," said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), the Democratic presidential front-runner previewing lines of attack for the fall campaign.

Bush, not surprisingly, saw things differently as he sent his $2.4 trillion budget to lawmakers during the day.

The tax and spending plan is geared toward "winning the war on terror, protecting our homeland, making sure our children get educated, making sure that seniors get a modern Medicare system," he said.

As for the deficits, he added, "The reason we are where we are is because we went through a recession, we were attacked and we're fighting a war."

Before the issues are joined for the fall campaign, Bush's budget will get an airing in Congress.

There, the earliest returns aren't encouraging for the White House.

Josh Bolten, Bush's budget chief, said the president wants to eliminate 65 federal programs for a savings of $4.9 billion and reduce 63 others. It's the type of recommendation that Congress routinely ignores.

And even if lawmakers accept them, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee signaled it could mean much political pain for little gain.

The type of discretionary domestic programs that Bush wants to curtail account for less than 20 percent of all federal spending, said Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla. "No one should expect significant deficit reduction as a result of austere non-defense ... spending limits."

Already, Republicans in both houses want to spend more money than the administration favors on a massive highway bill, the type of measure that can translate quickly into construction jobs in every state.

In the Senate, the White House and GOP lawmakers are billions apart. In the House, the chairman of the transportation committee, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, favors a nickel-a-gallon increase in the highway tax, which is unchanged since 1993.

"We're trying to restore purchasing power," says another senior Republican, Rep. Don Petri of Wisconsin.

Others are unimpressed. "You really think this president is going to increase taxes?" asked Rep. Mark Kennedy of Minnesota. "I would suggest that history would be a guide to inform you that he won't."

It's a point of pride among Republicans -- and has been since they won control of the House in 1994 -- that they vote to cut taxes, not to raise them.

While gasoline tax revenues go into a separate fund, the highway debate underscores a broader concern Republicans have about the size of the deficit.

Bush inherited a surplus when he took office, and now says his goal is to reduce this year's record anticipated deficit, $521 billion, by half at the end of a second term. That doesn't count additional spending for post-war Iraq, though, as much as another $50 billion come next January. In any event Bush blames a recession that started before he took office and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks for the rise in red ink.

Democrats accuse him of piling up debt that will be repaid by future generations, the very thing Bush often tells his audiences he won't do.

"Today's budget proposal makes it clear what President Bush's priorities are: tax cuts for the rich and tough luck for everyone else," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, running for the Democratic nomination.

In fact, all of the Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination favor the repeal of at least some of the tax cuts Bush pushed through Congress earlier in his term. Howard Dean wants to wipe out all of them, while Kerry, Clark and other major contenders favor eliminating the cuts that benefited upper-income wage earners.

Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire liked what they heard on that point.

In polling place interviews, 48 percent of them said they favored canceling the tax cuts that went to the wealthy, while 32 percent said they favored canceling all of them.

But it's also a struggle Republicans sound eager to join.

Democrats are "not calling for responsible spending -- they're calling for a tax hike," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

It's a fight that will played out in the House and Senate this year, and that the voters will referee next fall.