Bush addresses Congress on budget, his first major test as president
WASHINGTON – President Bush beckoned a divided Congress Tuesday night to support a large and retroactive tax cut, declaring in a nationally televised address, ”The people of America have been overcharged and on their behalf, I am here to ask for a refund.”
On the 39th day of his presidency, Bush vowed to set the nation on ”a different path” by slashing federal debt while increasing spending for popular programs.
”Government should be active but limited, engaged but not overbearing,” he said.
Republicans cheered with enthusiasm, Democrats without it, as Bush made his way down the center aisle of the House chamber to begin his speech.
Not even the pageantry of the moment – both houses of Congress, diplomats and Cabinet officials assembled – could extinguish all echoes of last fall’s recount.
There were audible boos on the Democratic side of the aisle as justices of the Supreme Court were announced. Justice Stephen Breyer was the only one of nine in attendance – and he was one of four who dissented from the historic high court ruling that sealed Bush’s victory 10 weeks ago.
With the government awash in budget surpluses, the nation’s 43rd president offered something for everybody over the next decade: $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, including reductions in every income bracket; $2 trillion in debt reduction; increased spending for education, conservation and other programs; and protections for Social Security and Medicare.
”If it sounds too good to be true, maybe it is,” House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said. ”We think we should be more skeptical, more cautious, in approaching this tax cut.”
Bush announced the outlines of a budget approaching $2 trillion. It favors education, law enforcement and other popular programs, while curbing growth in NASA, freezing the federal contributions to the arts and humanities and jeopardizing assistance to the homeless.
”I hope you’ll join me and stand firmly on the side of the people,” Bush said.
In the first test of his leadership, Bush was trying to convince the American people and their legislators that cutting taxes would boost the sluggish economy and ensure that Congress doesn’t squander the surplus on pork-barrel spending. Polls suggest voters are lukewarm to Bush’s tax-cut package, which he presented on the campaign trail 14 months ago.
”Unrestrained government spending is a dangerous road to deficits, so we must take a different path,” Bush said. ”The choice is to let the American people spend their own money to meet their own needs, to fund their own priorities and pay down their own debts.”
Bush said he would appoint a presidential commission this spring to overhaul Social Security and instruct the panel to report its findings by next fall. ”It must preserve the benefits of all current retirees and those nearing retirement,” Bush said. ”It must return Social Security to sound financial footing, and it must offer personal savings accounts to younger workers who want them.”
The president also said he instructed Attorney General John Ashcroft to develop ”specific recommendations to end racial profiling” – the practice of police officers targeting suspects based on their race or other traits.
”It is wrong and we must end it,” said Bush, reaching out to black voters after winning only one out of 10 of their votes in the contentious presidential election.
Bush proposed increasing spending for Social Security, Medicare and entitlement programs by $81 billion – much of which is due to the routine growth of the entitlement programs.
He also would increase discretionary spending by an additional $26 billion, a 4 percent increase. That is a bit higher than inflation but lower than the growth of government in each of the last three years.
”We should chart a different course. Government has a role and an important one,” Bush said. ”Yet, too much government crowds out initiative and hard work, private charity and the private economy. Our new governing vision says government should be active, but limited, engaged, but not overbearing.”
Bush was careful to cultivate Democrats, mentioning cancer-stricken Rep. Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, praising Philadelphia Mayor John Street and quoting John F. Kennedy, a Democratic icon.
He cloaked his debt-reduction plan in bipartisanship. ”Many of you have talked about the need to pay down our national debt. I have listened, and I agree.”
Bush discussed the same set of priorities he carried into his successful presidential campaign two years ago: education, defense, tax cuts and reforming Social Security and Medicare.
Bush said his education budget dedicates $5 billion over five years to help children learn to read. The school budget, which received the biggest increase in his blueprint, also spends money to train and recruit teachers ”because we know a good education starts with a good teacher,” he said.
He used the education theme to salute his wife, Laura, a one-time school teacher and librarian and said she will travel the country to promote education.
Bush said his plan will pay off $2 trillion of the $3.2 trillion in publicly held debt over 10 years. It would leave enough money, he said, for a $1 trillion contingency fund ”for unexpected needs (and) additional priorities.”
Bush advisers said that possible uses for the reserve could include extra debt reduction if actual federal surpluses shrink below current projections and added spending for defense, agriculture or other programs; or instituting personal saving accounts that workers could use to build up retirement nest eggs.
The address was Bush’s first chance to showcase his agenda on a broad stage. After a brief inaugural address Jan. 20, the president has struggled to make his arguments heard above the din generated by former President Clinton’s pardons, a spy scandal, a shooting at the White House and an airstrike against Iraq.
”A budget’s impact is counted in dollars, but measured in lives,” Bush said, promising enough money for ”excellent schools, quality health care, a secure retirement, a cleaner environment and a stronger defense.”
The speech was set in the House’s ornate chamber, where history and recent controversies mingled in memories. Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his State of the Union speeches to a Republican Congress in the mid-1950s, the last GOP president to do so until Bush. Two years ago, Bush’s predecessor was impeached in the same chamber and sent to trial in the Senate, where he was acquitted.
Even before Bush stepped to the podium, Republicans sought to show momentum for tax cuts by announcing support from a GOP senator who has consistently voted against tax cuts, George Voinovich of Ohio. They also scheduled a committee vote this week on the cornerstone of Bush’s package, an across-the-board income tax cut.
The president is buffeted on all sides by his 14-month quest to cut taxes across the board – from Democratic partisans who say the package is too large, GOP activists who say it’s too small and a majority of voters who tell pollsters they prefer smaller tax cuts aimed at the middle class.
The president’s budget tightening would force spending cuts in several areas, including homeless assistance, the Energy Department, high-tech initiatives and farm programs.
Bush has tried to focus attention on his bigger-spending plans for popular programs, such an 11 percent increase at the Education Department, a Medicare prescription drug plan and a modest increase for U.S. military salaries and housing.
In other areas, Bush wants to form a commission to study Social Security reform, increase the child care credit, reduce taxes on newly married couples, gradually repeal taxes on estates and allow taxpayers who don’t itemize to deduct charitable contributions.
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