WASHINGTON – With the budget books delivered, Congress on Monday began vetting President Bush's proposed $2.9 trillion budget for the federal government for the coming fiscal year.
The budget "is realistic, it's achievable and it's got good reforms in it," Bush told reporters Monday at a Cabinet meeting on the budget blueprint. He also used the opportunity to call on Congress to keep pet projects out of the budget and urged lawmakers to give him a line-item veto to help him keep costs in line.
The proposed budget would hike total spending over the current year by about 4.9 percent. It arrived on Capitol Hill the same day the Senate planned to debate competing Iraq war resolutions that reinforce Congress' commitment to funding U.S. troops in Iraq.
Some Democrats have voiced their preferences for legislation that would prevent additional money being given for any increase in troop levels.
In an effort to try to avoid emergency supplemental requests later in the year, the proposed budget for the first time includes military costs directly related to the War on Terror. The request for $145 billion to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is about two-thirds less than what is being estimated for expenses this year. The White House is projecting $50 billion in costs for both wars in the 2009 budget.
The president's aides say that doesn't mean they expect to be able to bring a lot of the troops home. At the same time, they say it doesn't mean they expect to ask Congress for another emergency spending bill next year. At the Cabinet meeting, Bush said he's not projecting when the tide might turn in Iraq.
"There will be no timetables set, and the reason why is because we don't want to send mixed signals to an enemy or to a struggling democracy or to our troops."
The defense spending request stands at $624 billion for 2008, more than one-fifth of the total budget, and $24 billion increase over current-year spending projections.
Another Year of Deficit Spending
Deficits have exploded during the Bush presidency, although they have tamed in recent years. Bush's plan predicts a $239 billion deficit for the 2008 fiscal year, but proposes a balance over the next five years and a projected $61 billion surplus by 2012.
Hard-fought tax breaks that took hold in 2001 would become permanent under the president's plan, though Democrats say that would cost an additional $2 trillion over the next seven years.
To tame the budget deficits, Bush is calling for cuts in a number of programs and is expecting continued economic prosperity.
The president is seeking to trim the growth in the Medicare and Medicaid budget by $100 billion over the next five years, and hopes to reduce or eliminate 141 other programs to meet the balanced-budget plan, resulting in about $12 billion in savings.
The aggressive plan relies on cuts that go beyond the two years remaining in the president's administration, and expects growth trends to do better than what is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO, however, over the past five years has projected lower growth rates than what has shaken out.
White House Budget Director Rob Portman told reporters Monday that the budget also gives some concessions to the new Congress, saying that it is the most open and transparent budget the administration has produced. In addition to the changes in handling the war costs, the budget adds more detail to defense spending and other areas.
"Why did we decide to do it? Because we heard loud and clear from Congress that they were seeking more transparency and more and better information sooner so they could conduct appropriate oversight. And so we have tried to be responsive to that concern," Portman said.
Portman said the White House also has revamped a Web site — expectmore.gov — that shows how 96 percent of government programs are evaluated and improved.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other Democrats promised a tough look at the budget.
"We'll put it to some scrutiny and see. ... The day of the blank check for the president and the war is over," Pelosi said. "We'll support our troops who are in harm's way, but we want to know how this money is being spent and ... how soon it takes us to ending the war and bringing our troops home."
Pelosi added that she wanted to see the No Child Left Behind education program funding boosted.
House Budget Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., holding a copy of the budget, said, "This is where it (the process) starts, but this is not where it finishes."
Spratt, who appeared with a stack of fresh copies of the budget still in plastic wrap for a photo opportunity, said he did not think the budget would be able to be balanced by 2012 as projected, noting that he did not think Social Security was fully addressed.
Spratt said Bush's budget takes into account money that would be generated by privatization of Social Security, something Democrats have fought against.
Regarding privatization, he said, "I don't think it would find its way into our budget," Spratt said.
The plan shows changes taking effect in 2012, when the private accounts would cost $29.3 billion.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, issued a statement strongly criticizing the plan.
"The president's budget is filled with debt and deception, disconnected from reality and continues to move American forward in the wrong direction," Conrad said. "It clings to the same misguided policies: costly tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthiest, cuts in domestic priorities and more fiscal irresponsibility."
Democrats weren't alone in their criticism. The top-ranked Republican on the budget committee also had sharp words for the plan. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said that although the administration has included its war costs as part of the budget process, it is still a separate portion and is "an attempt to circumvent the natural process of review."
"I certainly hope the Congress won't designate the war costs as an emergency. We all know the war costs are there, and they shouldn't receive that designation. They should go through the proper process," Gregg said on the Senate floor.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, the chamber's second-highest ranked Republican, praised the plan.
"The president's budget makes clear that we can balance the budget in five years without raising taxes or allowing the tax relief that has fueled our economic growth to expire," Blunt said, adding that "tax increases on individuals or businesses would slow the economy, reduce take-home pay and job creation and limit revenues to the federal government."
Democrats also say that the projected surplus is only achievable by ignoring the cost of keeping the alternative minimum tax from encroaching on middle-class taxpayers. The budget does not include an AMT fix after 2008.
The president's budget includes an initiative to expand health care coverage to the uninsured through a complex proposal that would give every family a $15,000 tax deduction for purchasing health coverage but would make current employee-supplied health care coverage taxable for certain taxpayers.
Bush is also proposing to increase the maximum Pell grant, which goes to low-income students, from the current $4,050 to $4,600. Democrats are pushing for even larger increases.
Bush's energy proposals would expand use of ethanol and other renewable fuels with a goal of cutting gasoline use by 20 percent over the next decade.
FOX News' Wendell Goler, Molly Hooper and Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.