WASHINGTON – President Bush's conservative allies in Congress hope his vow to use some of his political capital pushing for more budget cuts will help persuade lawmakers to pay for hurricane relief (search) without raising the deficit.
But they are hungry for more than just promises.
Bush told reporters Tuesday that Congress should pay for as much of the relief as possible by cutting federal spending somewhere else.
"I'll work with members of Congress to identify offsets and to free up money for the reconstruction" following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he said.
Tough-on-spending lawmakers such as House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, and a band of mostly junior conservatives welcomed a renewed presidential campaign for fiscal discipline, recognizing that it is the only way to make balky members of Congress go along.
"The president's call to reduce spending is of incalculable value to those of us fighting to respond to the needs of this disaster without raising taxes or adding to the national debt," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
Nussle suggested increasing the amount of savings in an upcoming budget implementation bill and imposing an across-the-board "haircut" to domestic agencies whose budgets Congress passes each year through appropriations bills (search).
Congress is on track to consider later this month legislation to impose curbs on the Medicaid (search) program for the poor and disabled, student loan subsidies for banks, farm subsidies and food stamps. Separately, the annual appropriations process — which determines the budgets for programs Congress funds each year — is nearing its endgame.
It will take more than just speeches by Bush and press releases from conservatives to boost the amount of savings Congress can wring from the budget. "The real issue here for those of us who have to do the trench warfare here and actually pass these bills is — we need the details," Nussle said.
Despite the polls and recent grumbling about his performance from some Republicans, Bush insisted Tuesday during a White House Rose Garden news conference that he still had "plenty" of political capital that he would spend getting lawmakers to go along with his proposed budget cuts, plus his Iraq strategy and other issues.
Bush didn't present new ideas. Instead, he urged Congress to take a fresh look at a barrel of budget cuts that it has so far been reluctant to implement. He also renewed his vow to essentially freeze the budgets of most domestic Cabinet agencies.
To help defray the cost of hurricane aid, Bush said lawmakers must look beyond modest plans to trim "mandatory" spending by $35 billion over the next five years. About 55 percent of the federal budget is for mandatory programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security (search) and farm subsidies that grow each year as if on autopilot.
But many of those ideas — such as trimming farm subsidies, raising rates for federally subsidized electricity and increasing the airline ticket tax — have little support on Capitol Hill. Others, like making veterans pay a bigger share of their health care costs and cutting grants to state and local governments, get rejected year after year.
There's little evidence that Bush has spent cherished political capital on many of these ideas, though they have appeared in his budget.
"We need to have presidential leadership and it can't be the usual suspects," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H. "They can't just send up another list of the requests that they made at the beginning of the budget process and claim that they've done their job."
But Gregg said there's real momentum in the often-balky Senate for spending discipline.
In the wake of the hurricanes, many Republicans are pressing their leaders to get religion on budget deficits. After initially dismissing calls for spending cuts to pay for relief, the White House and GOP leaders now promise renewed budget discipline.
"We proposed $187 billion in (entitlement spending) cuts over a 10-year period of time," Bush said Tuesday. "The Congress has looked at some of that. I would ask them to look at all of that $187 billion."
The $187 billion figure is inflated since it adds up all of Bush's proposals for new or higher fees for government-provided services and proposed spending cuts. But the figure doesn't include new initiatives advocated by Bush, like boosting Pell Grants (search) for college students, extending federal subsidies for dairy farmers and expanding a federal-state children's health insurance program.
Congress' $35 billion spending cut plan spans five years; when measured in that timeframe, Bush's plan generates $84 billion, though congressional scorekeepers estimate the savings at $69 billion.
In fact, Congress may approve more spending on Medicaid before it goes ahead with plans to trim the program by $10 billion over five years. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, says he can't get the cuts past the moderates on his panel without first passing a bill to speed Medicaid benefits to hurricane victims.