Deficit debate begins in Congress

The cuts President Bush has proposed will cause pain for millions of Americans, from farmers to veterans to students. And no one knows that better than frustrated budget hard-liners in Congress, who say there's no job more difficult than eliminating a federal program.

"He's proposed the elimination or great reduction of 150 programs," says Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. "The history of that is about four or five usually get reduced or eliminated to a substantial nature."

Even in the unlikely event that Congress agreed to all of the president's proposed cuts, they would total only about $15 billion or 20 billion a year — hardly a dent in a deficit of more than $400 billion.

Part of the problem is that more than 80 percent of the budget is all but immune to budget cuts, including entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, and spending for defense and homeland security. The rest of the budget — domestic programs that can be targeted for cuts — is a much smaller pile of money.

"To do really serious deficit reduction, you either have to put entitlement programs on the table, and those involve some painful cuts, or you have to put revenues on the table, which means tax increases," says Robert Bixby, an economist with the non-partisan Concord Coalition. "And politicians don't like to touch that either."

Democrats say there's another reason the president can't possibly achieve his goal of cutting the deficit in half in five years.

They claim his budget doesn't include trillions of dollars in future spending, including transition costs for his Social Security plan, proposed future tax cuts and future costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There's not a dime of that money included, which is totally unrealistic," says Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C.

But the White House insists the deficit can be brought under control by a combination of increased revenues from a growing economy and a Congress willing to make painful choices.