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Berry: President playing 'shell game' with budget

U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., says President Bush is being dishonest by pledging support during the presidential campaign to domestic programs that are targeted for cuts if Bush is re-elected.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., says President Bush is being dishonest by pledging support during the presidential campaign to domestic programs that are targeted for cuts if Bush is re-elected.

White House documents obtained by The Associated Press show the Bush administration has told officials who oversee federal education, domestic security, veterans and other programs to prepare preliminary 2006 budgets that would cut spending after the presidential election.

A spokesman for the White House budget office said the documents contained routine procedural guidelines so officials could start gathering data about their needs for 2006.

Decisions about actual spending levels "won't be made for months," spokesman J.T. Young said. "It doesn't mean we won't adequately fund our priorities."

Berry, himself up for re-election this year, said the information proved that Bush was playing a "shell game" with spending and was willing to sacrifice important domestic programs to further what Berry said was Bush's top priority: cutting taxes for the rich.

"The top priority in this administration is to reduce taxes on the wealthy, whatever the consequences may be to let that happen," the congressman said in a teleconference call arranged by the Democratic National Committee.

A spokeswoman for the Bush-Cheney campaign in Arkansas referred calls to the president's national campaign.

Reed Dickens, the campaign's Southeast regional spokesman, called the criticism "comical," contending the Bush administration had accomplished more on the domestic front than any president in modern history with advances in prescription drug coverage for senior citizens, education reform, unprecedented increases in veterans benefits and tax cuts to spur the economy.

Democrats "don't have the credibility to accuse him of anything. All they've done is talk about these improvements," Dickens said.

A May 19 memorandum from the White House budget office tells agencies to assume 2006 spending levels specified in an internal administration database that accompanied the 2005 budget that Bush proposed in February. The government's 2006 budget year begins Oct. 1, 2005.

The memo and portions of the database were obtained by The AP.

Aside from defense and foreign aid spending, which both are slated for increases due in part to wars and the battle against terrorism, domestic spending would drop from $368.7 billion in 2005 to $366.3 billion in 2006.

Though just a 0.7 percent reduction in a $2.4 trillion budget, it does not take into account inflation or the consequences of curbing spending for popular programs.

"I don't expect him to be around making those decisions," said Ron Oliver, the state Democratic Party chairman.

Particularly egregious, Berry said, was Bush's proposed $910 million cut in veterans benefits.

"There's never been an administration or a president that would put men and women on the battlefield and at the same time propose to cut veterans benefits," he said. It's irresponsible, but it's just unacceptable behavior."

The congressman also criticized cuts targeting education, health care, the Head Start early-childhood education program, the Women Infants and Children nutrition program, as well as medical research and science programs.

Berry will face Republican Vernon Humphrey in the fall congressional race in eastern Arkansas' 1st District.

Humphrey said Thursday that he generally supports the Bush tax cuts and other economic initiatives of the president's. He criticized Berry's focus on "some undefined cuts that might come at some future date."

"I understand the importance of programs like WIC, veterans benefits and all the others. I do not intend to allow essential programs to be cut," Humphrey said. "Our focus should be on pushing for an improved economy in the 1st District."