WASHINGTON – With members of his Cabinet behind him, President Bush on Monday said he wants to work with the new Democratic-controlled Congress, but immediately made suggestions for changes that will likely divide rather than unite lawmakers.
Among the priorities, the president said he wants to balance the federal budget by 2012, change the earmark process, reform entitlement programs and make tax cuts permanent.
"It's time to set aside politics and focus on the future," Bush said in the White House Rose Garden. "I am hopeful that Republicans and Democrats can find common ground to serve our folks, to do our jobs, to be constructive for our country."
In a guest column for The Wall Street Journal that appeared on the newspaper's Web site Thursday night, Bush said "political statements" in the form of legislation would result in a stalemate.
"Together, we have a chance to serve the American people by solving the complex problems that many don't expect us to tackle, let alone solve, in the partisan environment of today's Washington," Bush wrote.
"To do that, however, we can't play politics as usual," he said. "Democrats will control the House and Senate, and therefore we share the responsibility for what we achieve."
Bush called for a balanced federal budget that will restrain spending and focus on "the need to protect ourselves from radicals and terrorists, the need to win the War on Terror, the need to maintain a strong national defense and the need to keep the economy strong by making tax cuts permanent."
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said Bush would discuss spending on the war in Iraq during his Jan. 23 State of the Union address.
"I think that you'll find in the State of the Union that we will move toward making expenditures in Iraq, and in the war on terror generally, including Afghanistan as transparent as possible," Snow said.
Lawmakers and the independent, bipartisan Iraq Study Group have criticized the Bush administration for funding the war through emergency supplemental bills, instead of including the costs in the administration's yearly formal budget request for running the government. That means war costs are not included in the administration's deficit calculations, and are not subject to overall spending caps. Snow said Bush wants to make spending on the Iraq war "as transparent as possible."
Bush fulfilled his 2004 campaign pledge to cut the deficit in half by the time he leaves office, actually reaching his goal three years early. That was made easier because the administration's original forecast of a $521 billion deficit in 2004 turned out to be $100 billion less. The deficit in fiscal year 2006 was $247.7 billion.
The president, who delivers his budget blueprint to Congress in February, may have trouble keeping his new pledge based on current projections from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO is predicting the deficit this fiscal year, which ends next Sept. 30, will rise to $286 billion, and over 10 years will total $1.76 trillion.
Congress is expected to another emergency request for Iraq war soon. The Pentagon says it needs $100 billion more to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of September, adding to the $350 billion the Iraq war alone has cost so far.
But the biggest chunk of government spending comes from entitlement programs. So far, Congress has refused to get on board any proposed changes.
Bush said Congress needs to "reform Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid so future generations of Americans can benefit from these vital programs without bankrupting our country."
One area of agreement is on the slippery and expensive pork barrel spending. According to a Congressional Research Service study, the number of earmarks in spending, or appropriations, bills went from 4,126 in 1994 to 15,877 in 2005. The value of those earmarks doubled to $47.4 billion in the same period. Earmarked projects often include roads, bridges and economic development efforts.
The 110th Congress is sworn in on Thursday and Democrats say they plan to take up ethics reform as the first order of business. Along with gift bans, travel limits and an outside panel to review ethics breaches by members of Congress, the legislation calls for full disclosure of earmarks and certification that earmarks provided would not financially benefit themselves or their spouses.
Bush said he wants to see the number and cost of earmarks cut in half this year.
"People want to end the secretive process by which Washington insiders are able to get billions of dollars directed to projects" in their districts without ever being put through the vote process, Bush said. "Congress needs to adopt real reform that has full disclosure" of sponsors, costs, beneficiaries and justification for the projects.
For his part, incoming House Minority Leader Roy Blunt said he was willing to work with Democrats on balanced budget proposals.
“The president made clear that we can balance the budget without raising taxes on hardworking families or allowing the tax relief already enacted for America's families to expire. This is a great opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together to eliminate the deficit and bolster economic growth," Blunt, R-Mo., said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats ran in the midterm election on a message of compromise, and they want to work with Bush.
"We hope that when the president says compromise, it means more than 'do it my way,' which is what he's meant in the past," Schumer said.
The president also said he'd like line-item veto authority to "help rein in wasteful spending and restore fiscal discipline." Bush noted that 43 governors have that power.
Bush has invited leaders of both parties and both chambers to a reception at the White House Wednesday evening. Aides say its a chance to go over his agenda informally with them and to start the New Year on a congenial note.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.