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Bush Cuts Draw Heat From GOP Members

Times Staff Writers

As President Bush began promoting a 2006 budget plan that calls for reductions in an array of popular domestic programs, Republicans in Congress on Tuesday started searching for ways to achieve his overall deficit-reduction targets without slaying such political sacred cows as farm subsidies, Amtrak and aid to states.

Many of the proposals in Bush’s $2.57-trillion spending plan drew fire not only from Democrats but also from members of the president’s own party who are reluctant to cut programs because they -- unlike Bush -- face reelection in 2006 and beyond.

Concern about a persistent budget deficit combined with resistance to deep spending cuts could make it harder for Bush to achieve other domestic priorities, such as making his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent.

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Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who provided a key vote for Bush’s tax cuts, said he now opposed making them permanent because of the deficit.

Other Republicans argued that Congress should limit the extension of Bush’s tax cuts to the handful of provisions that expire this year. Other decisions could be put off because most of the major tax cuts do not expire until 2007 or later.

Fractures among Republicans emerged on Capitol Hill as Bush traveled to Detroit to defend the budget he delivered to Congress on Monday. That plan, for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, calls for substantial reductions in some domestic programs to offset bigger outlays for national security and another round of tax cuts.

“We will insist on a budget that limits and tames the spending appetite of the federal government,” Bush told members of the Detroit Economic Club, a business group. “A taxpayer dollar ought to be spent wisely, or not spent at all.”

For all their dissent over the particulars of Bush’s plan, however, Republican leaders generally endorsed the broadest outlines of his budget: the amount of money he intends to spend overall.

“It’s not going to come out exactly what the president has suggested,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), “although I think the bottom line -- the total amount of spending -- will come out very close to where he is.”

For most of his first term in the White House, Bush weighed in on Congress’ budget debates with a high level of generality. He tended to insist on overall funding figures but gave Congress a lot of room to set priorities within that ceiling. Rarely did Bush threaten to veto a spending bill -- and never did he exercise one.

This year, however, some Republicans say that Bush will have to weigh in more heavily if he wants Congress to scale back popular programs -- including entitlements, or programs in which money can be saved only if Congress changes the laws setting eligibility criteria, benefit levels and other program fundamentals.

At a hearing Tuesday, House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) told Bush budget director Joshua Bolten that Congress already was besieged by complaints and needed the White House to exercise more assertive leadership.

“I think we’re going to need some help up here,” Nussle said. “There’s a number of us that are willing to make some tough decisions, but I think we’re going to need a little help from the administration.” Nussle urged the White House to be bolder in wielding veto threats to help enforce spending limits.

Bolten responded that the president “won’t hesitate to do that.”

It was clear, however, that there would be pressure from all quarters to reorganize Bush’s priorities. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) suggested that even Bush’s proposed increases in defense and domestic security would not be sacrosanct.

“I’m not disagreeing with the president,” DeLay said, “but from my perspective, everything has to be on the table.... Nothing should be avoided and nothing should be left out from our scrutiny.”

One of the most controversial proposals among Republicans was Bush’s plan to curb farm subsidies and other aid to rural areas -- measures that hit hardest in farm belt states that voted heavily for Bush.

“Those who are currently advocating these draconian cuts would not be in office today if it weren’t for rural America,” said Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.), co-chairman of the Congressional Rural Caucus.

Bush’s farm proposals met a potentially fatal blow by drawing opposition from two key Senate panel chairmen: Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) of the Appropriations Committee and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) of the Agriculture Committee.

In another area of the budget, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and other border-state senators protested the administration’s proposal to eliminate aid covering state costs of jailing illegal immigrants with criminal records.

Other Republicans complained about Bush’s plans to restructure and scale back Medicaid -- the federal-state health program for the poor -- and other programs aiding state and local governments. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a former mayor, assailed Bush’s proposal to cut Community Development Block Grants to cities, calling it a nonstarter.

“At the end of the day, the president’s budget proposal is only that: a proposal that starts a much longer conversation in which Congress has the final say,” Coleman said. “I hope to take the good ideas the president has offered, drop the bad ones and come up with a budget that cuts the deficit in half.”

Most Republicans still support the idea of making Bush’s tax cuts permanent. But with deficit pressure growing and popular programs on the chopping block, they are in no hurry to do so. Already there is talk of extending tax cuts for a year or two rather than making them permanent this year.

“I think at this stage of the game, because of all the uncertainties we have, it would be fiscally irresponsible for us to make these tax reductions permanent,” Voinovich told the Columbus Dispatch.

Bush, in his speech to business leaders in Detroit, said it would be bad for the economy if Congress let the tax cuts expire.

“Allowing taxes to go back up would only discourage growth and cost this country jobs and reduce paychecks,” Bush said.

Bush said he was serious about proposed budget cuts that would reduce spending on nonsecurity domestic programs by 1% overall and abolish or consolidate some 150 federal programs that the White House says are not producing results.

“Spending discipline requires difficult choices,” Bush said. “Every government program was created with good intentions. But not all are matching good intentions with good results.”

He singled out for criticism a Department of Education program called Even Start, which was designed to increase literacy among low-income families. It is one of more than 40 education programs targeted for elimination in Bush’s budget.

“The problem is that after three separate evaluations, it has become abundantly clear that the program is not succeeding,” Bush said. “People are not becoming more literate.... Even Start is not working.”

Bush’s characterization was challenged by defenders of the program, which received $226 million in federal funding this year.

Scott Himelstein, chairman of the National Even Start Assn. in San Diego, said the studies cited by Bush failed to take into account the special needs of the families served by the program. He said 90% of participants were below the poverty line.

“No other federal education program serves as complex or disadvantaged a population as Even Start. There is no comparable group,” Himelstein said.

Hook reported from Washington and Vieth from Detroit. Times staff writers Joel Havemann, Mary Curtius and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.


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