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Surprised Democrats Scramble for Credit, Seek Spending Cuts : Reaction: Bush’s proposals are overdue, they say. Aspin urges targeting Stealth bomber and Star Wars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Democratic leaders, caught off guard by President Bush’s new arms-control proposals, scrambled Friday to wrest back some of the political initiative by calling for significant reductions in the defense budget and increased spending for domestic programs.

The essence of the Democratic response to the President’s prime-time address was that Bush’s proposals were good but overdue--and that Democrats ought to get some of the credit because they thought of them first.

“President Bush is playing catch-up, scrambling to keep pace not only with world events but also with his own constituents,” Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) said in a statement released shortly before Bush’s speech. “Our policies need some real innovations to reflect an international landscape forever altered by the coup in the former Soviet Union and changing still.”

Afterward, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) set the tone by praising Bush’s proposals as “very, very good” while noting that they will have little impact on next year’s defense budget or the congressional debate over shifting defense dollars into domestic programs.

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“The initiatives announced tonight serve a political purpose” by showing the public on the eve of an election year that “the Administration recognized it was a different world,” Aspin said.

But while he characterized Bush’s proposals as “far-reaching,” Aspin said they are likely to shave no more than $500 million from next year’s $291-billion defense budget because they deal largely with dismantling systems that already are built and paid for.

To have “real budget impact,” Aspin said, it would be necessary to reduce conventional forces and take a harder look at “the President’s most prized weapons systems"--the B-2 Stealth bomber and the “Star Wars” missile defense system, formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. In his televised remarks, Bush called for full funding of both programs.

Funding for the B-2 and SDI narrowly survived efforts to cut them from a defense spending bill passed by the Senate on Thursday. It appears that the final version of the defense bill that will come out of Congress this year will trim B-2 spending by deleting funds for four of the bombers sought by Bush, without scrapping the program altogether.

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Criticizing Bush’s continued support for the B-2 and Star Wars, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said the President “conceded the obvious while defending the dubious. . . . (He) went out of his way to promote a defense budget aimed at a vanishing threat.”

Underscoring the degree to which the Democrats were caught off guard by the President’s arms control initiative, none of the declared candidates for next year’s Democratic presidential nomination was immediately available for comment.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), who delivered the formal Democratic response in a hastily arranged address, welcomed what he suggested was Bush’s belated acceptance of proposals long advocated by Democrats. Turning quickly to the Democrats’ main election theme, he declared that Bush now needs to focus on what he called badly neglected domestic needs.

“The greatest threat to our security today is not from a Soviet nuclear attack. . . . The greatest threat is here, in America, from the slow but steady erosion of our economy,” Mitchell said.

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“For three consecutive quarters the economy has declined. Family income is going down. The number of Americans in poverty is going up. We will cooperate with the President to reduce nuclear weapons. We ask him to turn some of his attention homeward, to cooperate with us in acting on our proposals to create jobs, to reduce poverty, ignorance and poor health,” Mitchell added.

The Democratic criticisms drew an immediate rebuttal from Republicans, who sought to emphasize that, once again, the President had shown himself to be a bold world leader.

“The bottom line,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), “is that President Bush has again put America right where we should be--out in front, with the initiative, providing strong, sensible leadership for the world.”

Rep. William S. Broomfield of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, added that Congress should “enthusiastically support” Bush’s proposals to reduce and ultimately eliminate all American and Soviet multiple-warhead missiles.

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