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President Bush warns Congress on deficit

President Bush said Friday that he still planned to cut the federal budget deficit in half over the next five years despite new White House estimates.   NBC's David Gregory reports.

President Bush warned Congress on Friday that if it wants to cut the ballooning deficit — now projected to exceed half a trillion dollars this year — it’s going to have to make tough choices. “It’s going to require Congress to be wise with the taxpayers’ money,” said President Bush.

But is the president following his own advice?  White House officials were grilled Friday about why Bush sold Congress a $400 billion drug benefit for Medicare that, it now turns out, will cost at least $540 billion.

According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, “I mean, you have to keep in mind that these are estimates of something that is very difficult to estimate, I guess is the best way to put it.”

But the deficit and the Bush record of annual spending increases — larger than any since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House — has created a potent election year issue for Democrats.

“Not one Republican president has balanced the budget in 34 years in this country. You cannot trust the right wing with your money,” former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said in Thursday night’s Democratic candidates’ debate.

The real political trouble for President Bush is that it’s not just Democrats piling on.  There are also conservatives.

Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh delivered a stinging blow to his radio audience Thursday: “Bush has outspent Clinton.… Good point, (listener). I have to say this, I’m sorry folks.”

That spending includes things like Bush’s plan to send a man to Mars, and his projected 17 percent budget increase for the National Endowment for the Arts has the president’s political base agitated. Both are seen as outreach efforts to swing voters.  But allies warn it could backfire on Election Day.

“If it discourages his base and they decide to throw up their hands and say, ‘Hey, there’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats, I’m just going to sit this election out,’” said former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas.

With all this, many are beginning to wonder how President Bush can make good on his major election year push: making those big tax cuts permanent.