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Competitiveness Initiative Wins Praise From Congress

President Bush's plan to boost the competitiveness of U.S. industry through innovation won support from members of Congress Thursday, although Democrats criticized the initiative for slashing some education programs to pay for more spending on math and science.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez won widespread support from members of the House Government Reform Committee for Bush's "American Competitiveness Initiative," one of the biggest new programs in the budget Bush sent to Congress on Monday.

The initiative, which the president highlighted in his State of the Union address, would double government funding for basic research in the physical sciences, train thousands of new science and math teachers and extend a popular tax credit businesses can receive for investing in research and development. The total pricetag over 10 years would be $136 billion.

Gutierrez said country had a choice on how it would respond to increased global competition from countries such as China and India.

"Some want to respond by retreating into isolationism," Gutierrez said. He said the alternative offered by the president through the competitiveness initiative was "maintaining our leadership by competing with confidence."

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said he believed there was a need to boost math and science teaching in high schools to reverse a slide in which the country's colleges are graduating fewer engineers today than 20 years ago.

But Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he was concerned because while Bush's budget called for increasing areas of the Education Department budget to train 70,000 new math and science teachers and to attract 30,000 math and science professionals to tutor in the schools, the money was taken from other education programs.

For the second straight year, Bush's new budget would cut overall discretionary spending for education programs. He also asked Congress to eliminate 42 education programs he deemed unnecessary or inefficient, covering such areas as providing money for the arts, parent-resource centers and drug-free schools.

Van Hollen said he was also concerned that Bush was scrimping on the necessary support for the National Institutes of Health, including his proposal to trim spending for 18 of the 19 medical research institutes, calling cutbacks in these areas a mistake given the need to maintain the country's lead in medical research.

Gutierrez, however, said that the president's budget was seeking to find the right priorities for spending while at the same time pursuing Bush's goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009.

Gutierrez urged individual members of Congress to refrain from inserting money into budget bills for pet projects, a process known as "earmarking."

"The most successful research is based on careful planning and merit-based peer review," Gutierrez said. "So to maximize the impact of (American Competitiveness Initiative) research, we encourage Congress to resist earmarking scientific research funding."