WASHINGTON – President Bush has heard the cry from the nation's governors, who told him Monday that they have serious problems with his plans to cut National Guard troop levels and redirect funding as he proposed in his 2007 fiscal year budget.
The president "extended to us a genuine olive branch" on the Guard, offering to "let us sit down and work out the details," Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, chairman of the National Governors Association, said after a meeting with the president.
But, Huckabee added: "There's no sense of hugs, handshakes and cut the cake. ... At least now, we're talking."
Democrat Janet Napolitano of Arizona also said Bush assured them he heard their concerns. The Arizona House recently passed legislation for state money to be used to pay for National Guard units to repel border jumpers along the Mexican border.
Many Guard units are now in Iraq and Afghanistan, which already limits the authority of governors to direct units to respond to homegrown emergencies.
"We're getting ready for tsunamis. We're getting ready for earthquakes. We're getting ready for forest fires," said Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington. "Cut all that back and I think you're left with a really troublesome situation."
Before a private meeting, Bush thanked the state executives for their support of the operations.
"I can't thank you enough for not only supporting the troops in harm's way, but providing great comfort to the families as well," the president said.
Bush's 2007 budget submission proposed a cut in the number of state-controlled National Guard units to 333,000 soldiers, the number in service now, from 350,000 authorized by Congress. It also proposed 188,000 Army Reserve troops rather than the 205,000 authorized by Congress.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that the 2007 budget increases for the Defense Department include "critical funds" to help men and women of the National Guard meet their responsibilities while the United States is at war. The budget doubles funding for equipment over the next five years and adds funds for soldiers who step up to serve in the wars.
But Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho said the Pentagon's budget proposal cuts $789 million next year and $5.3 billion over five years. He questioned whether additional spending assignments would force more reductions in Guard strength.
"We're going to say, 'don't do this,"' Kempthorne said, adding that the administration signaled it would lighten up its push for strength reductions after all 50 governors signed a letter to Bush earlier this month that opposed any cuts to the Guard.
After a private lunch with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, several governors said the Pentagon officials promised them that the administration would find the money to cover the higher number of troops if that many are recruited.
"I trust Peter Pace and I trust the president of the United States. They said they'd find the money and I think you can take that to the bank," said Republican Jeb Bush of Florida.
"It was a very strong commitment to all the nation's governors that they made," Republican Bob Taft of Ohio said.
Governors have been quick to point out how important the Guard was in serving in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They added that additional equipment is needed because much of the tools available to Guard units in state crises go with them when they are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Oftentimes that equipment never comes back.
Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa said he'll believe the administration is living up to its commitment when he sees it. "No disrespect to these people, but you can have 50,000 excuses come up" for why the money isn't there.
Aside from Guard requests, many governors are also aligned on their concerns about illegal immigration.
"This is a national issue," said Napolitano, adding that 500,000 illegal border crossings were prevented last year and an unknown number were not. Nationally, an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.
"We're absorbing through taxpayer dollars the incarceration costs, health care costs, education costs," Napolitano said.
Border state governors are not the only ones with a gripe. Governors from Utah, Missouri, Tennessee and Vermont all say that immigrants are costing states dollars and spurring state legislation. They say the answer lies in Washington and hope to provide a push as Congress weighs several competing bills.
"It's important to come together as governors with a single voice to give some direction," said Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah. "We deal with these issues day in and day out."
Western governors have put together a multipoint plan that calls for tougher border enforcement that makes better use of technology; improved and speed the visa system; a guest worker program; and cooperation with Mexico and other Latin America countries to tackle the economic problems that send millions of immigrants north looking for work.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.