Budget Compromise Leans Bush's Way — For Now

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President Bush makes the case for his budget

In hindsight, it all makes perfect sense. George W. Bush has a campaign wish list, a solid House majority and a split-down-the-middle Senate. So he uses the bully pulpit and the House's Republican leadership to set the high bid — $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, 4-percent growth in discretionary spending — and in the Senate, let the centrist Democrats make the counteroffer. Bush takes his 55 votes and calls it a compromise.

Result: Thursday, the House and Senate pass a budget resolution codifying — in a non-binding, general-principles kind of way — a $1.35 trillion tax cut and a discretionary-spending growth cap at 4.9 percent. Head Senate Democrat Tom Daschle claimed Wednesday that Bush "was dragged kicking and screaming" into the negotiated deal, but the White House's man on the scene, OMB chief Mitch Daniels, may have been closer to the truth.

"The president wasn't dragged anywhere," Daniels said. "In reality, I think, it was his opposition which was dragged upstairs one step at a time from zero to this number that was very close to what the president proposed."

Of course Daschle and the left side of the Democratic caucus weren't dragged anywhere — they just got outvoted. In this legislative season, it's centrists and other mavericks like John Breaux, Robert Torricelli, Ben Nelson and Zell Miller — all of whom were at the White House on Wednesday when Bush did his crowing about the tax-cut compromise — who get to prune Bush's agenda items as they see fit, and who will have an endless string of opportunities to be on the winning side of every major congressional stand-off.

So the budget resolution is on paper, and now legislators go back to their committees and start making the hard choices about where those dollars (or lack thereof) are going to come from. The Senate Finance Committee will craft the details of the proposed $1.35 trillion income tax cut (including $100 billion in new "economic stimulus" in the next two years), shooting for a May 18 deadline and a full Senate vote by Memorial Day.

The overall 2002 budget — which now clocks in at just under $2 trillion, including $667 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2002, a $300 billion set-aside for Medicare reform and a prescription drug benefit, $80 billion in agriculture funding, $28 billion in health insurance for the uninsured, $44.5 billion in education funding, and a call for $2.3 trillion in debt reduction by 2011 — could take a lot longer.

And when it's all over some time this summer — or fall, if the last few Clinton budgets are any guide — it could look a lot different. Because the fight that Democrats lost this week will be waged again in miniature in all the committees along the way, and for a Congress that boosted its non-entitlement spending by 8 percent last year, 4.9 percent may be higher than the 4 percent Bush wanted, but it's still a long way down.

And not just for Democrats, or even the centrist ones that got Bush so close to his wish-list numbers so far. Sure, the Bush White House is brandishing his veto pen at anything that tops that 4.9 percent number, but it's not a magic wand, and at this stage, even the Republicans in charge don't sound convinced.

"There will be much more pressure this year to stay within the numbers," allowed Pete Domenici, (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "There's a chance that will happen."