President Bush defended his new budget blueprint on Wednesday amid criticism from both parties over plans to trim popular health benefit programs. He then signed an earlier installment of scaled-back spending.

Bush made similar pitches for spending restraint at a business forum in New Hampshire, and later at the bill-signing ceremony at the White House, where he praised steps that he said would both check federal spending and "leave more money in the pockets of those who know how to use it best, the American people."

At the White House, he signed a measure — left over from his 2005 agenda — that restrains spending in Medicare, Medicaid and some other federal programs by $39 billion over five years.

The signing came two days after Bush sent Congress a $2.77 trillion plan for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The budget blueprint calls for trimming spending in Medicare by $35.9 billion over five years.

"It is the difference between slowing your car down to the speed limit or putting your car into reverse," Bush said in both appearances.

Bush's budget plan for fiscal 2007, the most austere since the Reagan era, proposes that spending on Medicare, the government health program for the elderly and disabled, would grow at a rate of 7.7 percent — instead of 8.1 percent, as currently projected.

"That doesn't seem too unreasonable to me," Bush told the Business and Industry Association in Manchester, an audience of representatives from a collection of large and small companies.

"People call it a cut in Medicare. It's not a cut. It's slowing down the rate of growth."

Bush told his New Hampshire audience that rising spending on such entitlement programs was the greatest danger to the nation's future fiscal health.

He sent his budget to Capitol Hill on Monday. Critics said it was going nowhere.

In the president's own party, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called proposed cuts in education and health "scandalous," while Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she was "disappointed and even surprised" at the extent of the administration's proposals for Medicaid and Medicare.

The president chose to promote his budget in politically key New Hampshire, the famously iconoclastic state that loves low taxes and fiscal conservatives.

He was hardly greeted warmly.

Though the state's two GOP senators have spoken positively of Bush's budget proposal, New Hampshire's two congressmen, also both Republicans, have been noncommittal. The president's business audience in downtown Manchester applauded only a couple of times during his remarks.

And several state newspapers expressed serious doubts, including the influential New Hampshire Union Leader, a consistently conservative voice, which wants deeper budget cuts.

The newspaper's lead editorial derided the 141 programs Bush put on the chopping block as a smaller list than last year. It called the president's deficit reduction targets "largely a fiction" because he left out long-term spending on Iraq and Afghanistan.

White House deputy budget director Joel Kaplan responded that the president is working to address the growth of guaranteed benefit programs — called entitlements — in part by proposing a bipartisan commission.

Among other things, the commission will look at the impact on federal finances as the nation's baby boomers begin to retire.

"We think this is a very restrained budget," Kaplan said on Air Force One on the way to New Hampshire.

From the other end of the political spectrum, the liberal Americans United was airing a television ad during Bush's visit saying it's "time for a change" after a season of political corruption under Republican leadership of Congress.

And a couple of dozen protesters with gripes ranging from the war in Iraq to more costly student loans gathered across from the hotel where Bush spoke, though out of sight of the president's motorcade.