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Bush discusses budget priorities

MILWAUKEE (AP) – President Bush said Monday that the Pentagon and America’s schools must be at the head of the line when Congress starts dividing up a shrinking pool of federal funds next month.

”Let us keep our priorities straight and start with the things that matter most to our country’s security and our country’s future,” the president said two days before the White House releases new estimates of a dwindling federal budget surplus.

Bush, on a political detour from his monthlong Texas vacation, spoke to the Veterans’ of Foreign Wars convention one day shy of a year since he addressed them here as a presidential candidate.



As commander in chief, he said he can now fulfill one of his campaign pledges – clearing the backlog in processing veterans’ health benefit claims.

”When the draft board got your file, it worked efficiently. But now, when you need health care, forms get lost and answers come late. That is no way to treat America’s veterans and that is going to change,” Bush said to applause from thousands of combat vets and their families.



Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, who accompanied Bush at the annual convention, said he now has in place the additional manpower and computer systems to clear the current backlog – some 600,000 veterans waiting as long as a year for benefits – to 200,000 waiting no longer than 100 days. Principi said the Veterans Administration aims to clear the backlog by 2003.

Some in the audience came with broader concerns for the federal budget.

”I wished he had talked more about Social Security,” said Robert Wilkinson of Gulfport, Miss., a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. ”He makes promises to the veterans and they’re the same promises we’ve heard for the last 10 years.

The broader budget debate – How much of the surplus is left after Bush’s tax cut? Will the government tap the Social Security or Medicare funds? – overshadowed Bush’s travels Monday, as he left his central Texas ranch for Wisconsin and Missouri.

The Office of Management and Budget announces on Wednesday revised surplus projections that, due to the tax cut and slowing economy, are expected to show that the current-year surplus has plummeted to roughly $160 billion from the $284 billion that was projected in April.

Bush said the nation’s priorities could be met as long as Congress exercised some discipline.

Looking ahead to the 13 spending bills that Congress must tackle when it returns from its August recess, Bush told veterans that lawmakers have a habit of putting the Department of Defense appropriations bill last on their to-do list.

Congress must pass, and Bush must sign, the 13 bills before the next fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 or else risk a government shutdown.

”Often, and sadly, the final bill has been the defense appropriations bill and, therefore, defense appropriations has gone without adequate funding,” Bush said.

This 1-day trip is the latest in a series of vacation detours taking Bush to states that he lost (Wisconsin on Monday; Pennsylvania on Sunday) or only won narrowly (Missouri on Tuesday; New Mexico last week) in last year’s squeaker against Democrat Al Gore.

”It’s a two-birds-with-one-stone situation,” said Patrick Delraj, a political science professor at the University of California. ”He’s laying groundwork to be in a stronger position next time around.”

Touring a Milwaukee Harley-Davidson plant later Monday, Bush’s motorcade was greeted by seven Harley-Davidson 18-wheelers that were circled by dozens of gleaming motorcycles in front of the plant.

The cavernous plant was alive with the clanging and whirring of dozens of assembly lines and Bush signed just about anything workers brought before him – hats, shirts, bandanas, jeans, arms and even one forehead.

The images of the legendary piece of Americana were everywhere. A huge silver eagle flanked by two classic motorcycles was the centerpiece of a room where he spoke with workers, some wearing black and orange jumpsuits and others in ripped Harley t-shirts with the signature American flag wrapped around an eagle.

Some workers perched on machinery to get a better view of the president.

Bush’s visit to the plant comes at a time when most auto manufacturers are struggling. Harley-Davidson has proven invulnerable to the downturn. Its stock rose 23 percent this year and has improved steadily for the last 15 years.

Don Poznanski, who has worked for Harley-Davidson for 37 years, said workers were proud to show off their plant for the president. ”We do good work here,” he said. ”Our motorcycle is the best on American roads today. So I think everyone here is glad to have this opportunity.”


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