President Bush’s proposed spending cuts drew worried criticism Tuesday from the Republican heads of congressional budget committees, and key party members said his priorities were not binding.
But the lawmakers expressed a shared goal of austerity as Bush said they must make “difficult choices” to rein in the budget deficit, which has surged to record levels during a presidency that inherited a surplus.
A top White House official said Bush was prepared to veto spending bills for the first time if necessary.
Bush plan called only a guideline
Bush sent Congress a $2.57 trillion budget plan for fiscal 2006 Monday that proposes sweeping cuts across the budget and would eliminate or reduce 150 programs. The Republican-controlled Congress is supposed to pass its own version by April 15, which will set spending limits for the year.
“The Congress doesn’t have to stick to these [White House] priorities,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Budget Committee. “There are some programs in there I have heartburn about.”
House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, warned his panel not to refuse spending cuts unless they could come up with alternative savings.
“Put up or shut up,” he said. “You’ve got to come forward with a proposal. It’s not good enough to just complain.”
But Nussle admitted that he was worried about proposed cuts in farm aid that could affect Iowa, a farming state where he may run for governor. “I don’t like some of the cuts I’ve seen in the agricultural budget,” he said.
Both chairmen, who are responsible for setting the spending limits for Congress, said the key was to tackle automatic programs that did not require lawmakers’ approval each year, such as Medicaid health care for the poor. Bush’s budget already seeks $45 billion in Medicaid savings over 10 years.
Those mandatory programs account for about 55 percent of the budget. They require legislation to change, and Nussle said he could use the budget procedure to instruct committees in charge of those programs to make changes.
In real-dollar terms unadjusted for inflation, Bush’s budget forecasts a record deficit of $427 billion for 2005, including war costs. For 2006, he expects a deficit of $390 billion, but that does not include spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. The figures compare to a $236 billion surplus in 2000.
Democrats say Bush’s tax cuts caused the deficit. Republicans blame the wars and the recession.
Long list of complaints
Other important Republicans also lined up to complain about the budget proposal.
Asked whether she had problems with Bush’s budget, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said, “How long do you have?” She was one of four Republicans who refused to agree to a budget last year over deficit concerns.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said farm aid cuts were “wrong.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., urged lawmakers to take time to digest the budget and not to “lock down” their positions.
But he also distinguished Congress’ budget priorities from Bush’s. “The president’s priorities are reflected in that budget. You will see the reflection of the Senate’s priorities and the House over the next several weeks,” he said.
Bush dispatched Treasury Secretary John Snow and White House budget director Josh Bolten to Capitol Hill to defend the spending cuts. Bolten said Bush would veto spending bills if needed.
Despite similar rhetoric from some Republicans last year, Congress stuck to Bush’s requested $822 billion limit for the spending that needs congressional approval. Bush wants a limit of $840 billion this year.
Democrats are also furious with Bush’s budget plans. They say that it stints on funding for crucial programs that help the poor and that it shows a misleading reduction in the deficit because it leaves out war spending and the cost of Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security and extend tax cuts.
“It will put us on a path of endless deficits and a Mount Everest of mountainous debt,” said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C.