Can Dems Budge the Bush Budget?

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So exactly how does a Democrat attack the budget of a Republican president whose approval numbers on a bad day dip to 80%, one who wraps himself in the flag and surrounds himself at speaking gigs like the State of the Union address with 9/11 widows, firefighters and Special Forces commandos? The upcoming midterm elections add another complication: Democrats are within six seats of taking back the House of Representatives in November, but in the two dozen hotly contested congressional races that'll determine whether they succeed, the swing voters are suburban or rural conservatives who at the moment would carve George Bush's face on Mount Rushmore.

It's no small chore and the Democrats are still arguing among themselves over how tough to be on Bush. Liberal lions like Sen. Ted Kennedy want to fire away at the president on the economy. Pragmatists like House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt are a little more gun-shy, fearing that voters would interpret an attack on W as an attack on patriotism.

As a result, when you see artillery fire from the Dems it's usually directed at the Bush Administration, not Bush himself. One favorite whipping boy is Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels. Democrat Kent Conrad, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, practically accused him in hearings last week of going to the Enron School of Accounting in drafting the federal budget. The other target is Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. He got into a silly spat last week with the Democrats' senior senator, Robert Byrd, over which one of them came from the humblest beginnings.

Democrats are staying silent for the moment on the domestic programs Bush would cut in next year's budget. Job training, agriculture and highway construction get big slices, for example. But voters so far acknowledge, at least theoretically, that pet projects will have to suffer for war effort. For the moment, Democrats believe they can draw blood by focusing on Bush's raid of the surpluses in the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. The budget he released last week projects that $1.73 trillion will have to be diverted from the two trust funds to pay for tax cuts and other programs from 2002 to 2012. Polls show that voters, particularly baby boomers, are nervous about their retirement savings vanishing and aren't eager for tax rebates if it means pilfering from Social Security or Medicare. So Democrats are pointing out, as loudly as they can, that Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans are breaking the blood oath they all took last year to keep Social Security and Medicare in a lock box. Bush's budget "raids every trust fund in sight," complains Conrad.

Conservative House Republicans are nervous about the $80 billion deficit Bush would run up in the $2.13 trillion budget he proposes for fiscal year 2003. The GOP, after all, is supposed to be the party of fiscal responsibility. Yeah, there's a war and a recession to fight, but Republicans fret that when Bush opens the door slightly to a deficit, the Democrats will open it wider to pour in money for all their spending programs. The budget deficit could balloon and GOP congressmen would catch as much heat for the red ink as the Democrats.

House Republican congressmen privately breathed a sigh of relief last week when Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle shelved the $77 billion stimulus package Bush wanted for next year. By their math, that reduces next year's budget deficit to just $3 billion, a much more palatable figure for GOP conservatives. But their relief might be short-lived. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the Bush White House, like all White Houses before it, used overly rosy revenue and cost projections in its budget proposal and even without the stimulus package Bush could still be $55 billion in the red for next year.

So do the Democrats have the momentum in the budget war? Not quite. Gephardt and House Democrats have the luxury of being able to gripe from the sidelines. They're in the minority; House Speaker Dennis Hastert and his GOP colleagues run that chamber and have to get a budget resolution through it. But the Democrats control the Senate. After the howling over Bush's budget quiets, Daschle has to produce a budget that the Senate will pass if Democrats want to be seen as a credible alternative to Bush and his spending plans.

But that may be difficult for Daschle. He won't alter Bush's big spending increases for the Pentagon and homeland security. Unless he can fashion cuts like the ones Bush proposed in domestic spending programs — which his own party would likely oppose — Daschle could end up dipping into the Social Security and Medicare surpluses or running up a deficit as well. "I'm anxious to see what they can produce and stay consistent with their rhetoric," chortles conservative GOP Congressman John Shadegg. Indeed, the budget war will get interesting for both sides in the coming months.