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President, Congress expected to disagree on spending cuts

WASHINGTON—This is the time of year when presidents try to put Congress on a spending diet, but for every low-carb regimen that presidents prescribe, Congress still likes bread and pasta with its pork.

This year, aiming to cut the federal budget deficit in half by 2009, President Bush wants Congress to cut spending on most non-security domestic programs by 1 percent.

His budget identifies 150 domestic-spending programs to shave or eliminate for a savings of $20 billion in one year—the biggest swing of a budget ax since the Reagan administration.

But Bush, like other presidents before him, won't get what he wants. Here's why: Presidents and members of Congress seldom agree on what's worthy of a cut.

It's not that Congress is completely unrestrained. It's just that when the president recommends South Beach-style restraint, lawmakers tend to opt for a less-stringent approach.

Last year, Bush recommended that 65 programs be eliminated for a grand savings of $4.9 billion; Congress eliminated four, for a total savings of less than $300 million.

Ultimately, presidential budgets are guidelines. Bush's recommended cuts—which range from Amtrak to farm subsidies, most of them venerated in Congress—will be received with skepticism on Capitol Hill.

"Presidents always include things to make their budget numbers add up that they know Congress isn't going to do," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan budget watchdog group.

"President Clinton used to put in user fees and tobacco taxes that were unlikely Congress would adopt and never did. But if you're looking to achieve savings on paper, there are those proposals."

Congress isn't the only one rejecting spending cuts, though. Last year, Congress eliminated money for a study of whether to build a nuclear weapon that could destroy bunkers buried deep underground. Undeterred, Bush this year includes $8.5 million for the program next year and $17.5 million for the following year.

What's more, trimming relatively small programs such as those targeted by Bush will do little to reduce a deficit projected to hit $427 billion in fiscal 2005. Budget experts say the only solution is major surgery on big, mandatory spending programs such as Medicaid and Medicare—where half the federal budget money is.

Bush's budget would trim government farm supports by $5.7 billion over 10 years. Another politically sensitive program in Bush's sights is the Army Corps of Engineers, which handles popular dam and levee projects across the country. About one-third of the programs that Bush singled out for reductions are in the Education Department.

"Obviously, this is a budget which is going to create some significant angst amongst my colleagues, to be kind, but the fact is that everyone is probably going to be upset by it, because everybody's ox gets gored, including defense," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

(Overall, however, defense spending would grow by 5 percent, and that would push defense-spending growth under Bush more than 40 percent higher than when he took power.)

Still, federal budget deficits are so high that lawmakers and budget experts believe Congress will try to reduce spending. Experts say the only way Bush truly can exact discipline from Congress is by vetoing spending bills that exceed his limits.

Bush hasn't vetoed a single bill since he has been president, the first full-term president since John Quincy Adams to keep his veto pen sheathed.

"When the president says, `Halt, we've gone too far,' Congress is going to listen to him," said former Rep. William Frenzel, R-Minn., now a budget scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank. "In the end, there are going to be reductions. What is yet to be seen is where those reductions are going to take place."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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