Democrats criticize Bush budget for reviving deficits, plan to produce own version

Tuesday, February 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congressional Democrats accused President Bush Tuesday of proposing a budget that renews deficits and ignores Social Security's long-range solvency problems.

Soon, they must propose their own spending plan that avoids the problems for which they are criticizing Bush. And they must do it in an election year when few lawmakers want to back tax hikes or spending cuts in programs popular back home.

A day after Bush sent lawmakers his $2.13 trillion budget for 2003, he dispatched top administration officials to Capitol Hill to defend it. The proposal would pour billions into defense and domestic security initiatives while cutting many domestic programs and producing a deficit of $106 billion this year and $80 billion next.

``The reason we have a deficit in this budget is to protect the lives of Americans,'' White House budget director Mitchell Daniels told the Senate Budget Committee.

Democrats said the $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut that Bush won last spring was the real culprit for the end of four straight years of annual surpluses.

As a result, they said, Bush was proposing to use more than $2 trillion in projected Social Security and Medicare surpluses over the decade to finance other programs. In healthier fiscal times _ like last year _ many lawmakers of both parties wanted to use that money to reduce the national debt.

``Where I believe the president will be judged harshly ... will be taking us back down the road to deficits and debt,'' budget panel Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told Mitchell.

At the House Ways and Means Committee, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill argued that tax cuts will prompt economic growth and improve the budget picture.

``Restoring growth is the key to ensuring we have the resources in Washington to fight the war on terrorism, provide for homeland defense and provide the services the American people demand,'' O'Neill said.

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, top Democrat on the committee, said Bush's plans squandered the chance to strengthen Social Security, which faces a fiscal crunch when baby boomers begin retiring later this decade.

``I hope that those in the administration would put Social Security back on the priority list,'' Rangel said.

Conrad will soon have to lead his committee in writing its own federal budget. The panel's top Republican, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, challenged Conrad to produce a better blueprint than Bush's.

``I don't know if it is possible, but we are all ears,'' he told Conrad.

Writing a budget that resumes using Social Security surpluses for debt reduction next year would be hard because many tens of billions in savings would be needed to just begin the job. Democrats seem ready to concede red ink next year, as Bush did.

``We are prepared to accept deficits in time of war and recession as an unavoidable necessity,'' said Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the House Budget Committee's top Democrat.

Some projected red ink could be erased on Wednesday if the Senate, as expected, finally kills both parties' rival economic stimulus bills. Each package's tax cuts and jobless benefits would cost tens of billions of dollars, and projected deficits would be that much smaller should those bills die.

Even so, lawmakers would need many billions in savings _ with nowhere attractive to turn.

Few Democrats want to trim Bush's defense and domestic security proposals, and other domestic programs are hardly more tempting, especially in an election year. Bush's budget was filled with proposed cuts in highways, job training and other programs likely to win little support, even from many Republicans.

No Democrats are endorsing fresh tax increases, aware that Republicans would use such proposals in campaign television ads against them.

Only the party's more liberal members, like Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., openly endorse rolling back parts of last year's tax cut that have not yet taken effect.

Conrad has not ruled out a budget mechanism that might trigger spending cuts and higher revenues unless specified surplus goals are met. If he designs such a plan for the later years of this decade, he might claim it is the best way to provide money to keep Social Security and Medicare fiscally secure for baby boomers.