updated 10/20/2003 11:52:16 AM ET 2003-10-20T15:52:16

The federal deficit soared to $374.2 billion in 2003, the White House said Monday, a record total that more than doubled last year’s red ink and looked like a prelude to even gloomier numbers.

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Because the shortfall marked an improvement from a $455 billion projection the White House made in July, Bush administration officials cited it as evidence that their attempts to fortify the weak economy were working.

“Today’s budget numbers reinforce the indications we have seen for some months now: that the economy is well on the path to recovery,” Treasury Secretary John Snow said.

White House budget director Joshua Bolten said much the same but also conceded that worse fiscal numbers were on the horizon, estimating the gap for the new year “will likely exceed $500 billion even with the strengthening economy.” Bolten said spending restraint and policies aimed at bolstering the economy can wrench the budget onto a course to halve deficits by 2009.

Even so, next year’s figure could become a political concern for President Bush and Republicans in Congress. With federal budget years running through Sept. 30, next year’s figure will be ready less than a month before elections that will see the GOP fighting to retain control of the White House and Capitol Hill.

Democrats mocked the administration’s sunny interpretation and tried to focus attention on the numbers for the budget year just ended. They noted that last year’s red ink was more than twice 2002’s $158 billion, and surpassed the $290 billion record set in 1992.

“I’m somewhat amused to see them say they thought that was good news,” said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.

As they have done since four years of annual surpluses under President Clinton abruptly degenerated into deficits under Bush, Democrats blamed the Republican president for the reversal.

“The administration’s tax cuts and budget policies have not created the promised new jobs over the last three years, but they have created huge deficits that will stifle future growth and burden our children and grandchildren with debt,” said Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the House Budget Committee’s No. 1 Democrat.

Some Democrats have accused the White House of purposely padding its deficit forecast last July to lay the groundwork for casting the final budget as good news. Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., raised that question anew on Monday, when it became clear the actual 2003 deficit was $81 billion less than the administration projected three months ago.

“We need to find out what kind of shenanigans caused the estimate to be so off, whether OMB deliberately estimated high numbers so everybody could jump for joy this week,” Hollings wrote in a letter to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., requesting hearings on the inaccuracy of the administration’s July projection.

About one third of the improvement since the July estimate was because actual revenue collections totaled $26 billion more in 2003 than the White House projected, for a total of $1.782 trillion.

Part of that improvement was because in July, the White House assumed a $15 billion drop in tax collections because of “revenue uncertainty” — a drop that never occurred.

Most of the rest was due to better than expected collections of individual and corporate income taxes — improvements that could mean that a stronger economy is raising peoples’ and companies’ incomes, which translates to higher tax liability.

Spending for 2003 ended up at $2.157 trillion, which was $55 billion lower than the White House’s July projection.

Though defense spending rose over 2002, its increase was $20 billion less than the White House estimated in July. Much of this was because the government was spending its Iraq aid more slowly than anticipated, Monday’s report said.

Though that slower spending made 2003 look better, many of the expenditures will actually occur in 2004, making that year’s shortfall worse.

Spending was also below White House expectations for a wide range of other programs, including interest on the federal debt, farm payments and homeland security.

Even Osama bin Laden jumped into the discussion, based on last July’s White House estimate.

In an audiotape broadcast Saturday by the al-Jazeera television network, the al-Qaida leader lauded reversals he said the United States had suffered since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“They also witnessed a budget deficit for the third consecutive year,” bin Laden said, erroneously referring to the two straight shortfalls now recorded. “This year’s deficit reached a record number estimated at $450 billion. Therefore, we thank God.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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