House ready to debate budget after GOP lowers spending |

House ready to debate budget after GOP lowers spending


WASHINGTON (AP) – Republicans dropped plans to exceed President Bush’s spending proposals and prepared to push a final 2002 budget through the House late Thursday that would let Bush assert victory in his first protracted legislation battle.

Final congressional passage – which GOP leaders hoped would come with a Senate vote next Tuesday – would dramatically enhance the chances that the measure’s 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut would become law in the coming weeks. Though less than Bush wanted, it would be one of the biggest tax reductions in history.

After barely 100 days in office, passage could also give Bush needed political momentum for tax and spending battles to come. And it could chart Bush’s course for winning those future fights by cutting deals with Senate moderates.

”It’s an accomplishment because we have a president who has the principles and values of a George Bush to stay in there and hang tight,” House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters.

The $1.96 trillion budget for 2002 was finalized after a long day of back room clashes among Republicans. In the end, GOP leaders scaled back their spending plans in a major portion of the budget by $6 billion to the levels Bush had originally proposed.

The $6 billion was cut after an internal GOP dispute over how the money – which was supposed to be used for natural disasters – would be spent.

As a result, overall spending for federal programs approved annually by Congress would drop to $661 billion next year – the same 4 percent boost over 2001 that Bush proposed and the House had endorsed. The spending covers everything the government does except the checks it sends recipients of Social Security and other automatically paid benefits.

Until the $6 billion was dropped, the increase would have been 5 percent. The Senate had approved an 8 percent boost last month.

Republicans also bowed to concerns by centrist Democratic senators and reworked language that could have delayed a $100 billion portion of the tax cut that is supposed to stimulate the economy this year and next.

”My tax concerns have been solved,” said Sen. John Breaux, D-La., a leader of the centrists.

The fiscal map carries compromises Bush had to broker in recent days with moderate senators of both parties, who wield clout because the Senate is divided equally between Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats questioned whether Bush could lay claim to a triumph, since its tax cut was less than the $1.6 trillion, 10-year reduction the president had campaigned on.

”It falls short of their expectations” on tax cuts, said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Even so, vote-counters on both sides were expecting as many as 10 of the 15 moderate Democratic senators who voted for an earlier version of the budget to support the final measure. That would be a minority of the chamber’s 50 Democrats, but enough for Bush to argue that he has bipartisan appeal.

Daschle said that for Democrats supporting the budget, the tax cut was ”the overriding issue.”

The budget fight was also giving Republicans another chance to cast opposition Democrats as preferring big government to tax reduction.

”The government isn’t ever big enough,” DeLay said of Democrats’ attitudes. ”Let’s spend some more.”

Democrats sought to turn that argument on its head, saying the budget’s huge tax reduction would drain needed money from schools, prescription drug benefits and other initiatives.

”People aren’t saying, ‘Give me my money back,”’ Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., told reporters, criticizing the tax cut. ”They’re saying, ‘Give me my money’s worth”’ in federal programs.

The budget sets tax and spending goals that guide lawmakers when they produce separate bills that change tax law and finance federal programs.

The budget does not need the president’s signature, and its targets are not binding. Many Republicans are vowing to seek tax cuts even deeper than those called for in the budget. And the document’s spending targets exclude expected big increases later this year for the Pentagon, plus other efforts to provide extra money for farmers, the elderly and others.

Under Congress’ rules, though, tax cuts set by the budget cannot be killed by filibusters, or endless delays in the Senate that can only be shut off with 60 votes. Without that protection, the GOP’s tax bill would be in jeopardy because the party holds only 50 Senate seats.

The GOP budget would also:

-Set aside projected Social Security surpluses for debt reduction and expected Medicare surpluses to revamp the program, but do nothing specific to shore up either program’s solvency.

-Reduce the publicly held national debt through 2011 by an enormous $2.3 trillion, leaving about $1 trillion in such debt. That debt reduction, the tax cut, and much else in the budget depends on surplus projections of $5.6 trillion over the next decade coming true.

-Set aside up to $300 billion over the decade to overhaul Medicare and start prescription drug coverage.

-Plan increases for education, biomedical research, defense and other programs that must be provided in later bills.

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