WASHINGTON—The new Democratic chairmen of the congressional budget committees assailed President Bush's spending plan Monday as a fiscal ruse that's based on inflated government revenue projections and understated future war costs.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., gave caustic reviews to Bush's 2008 fiscal year budget, the first of the annual fiscal proposals he has submitted to a Democratic-controlled Congress.
"I would characterize this proposal as filled with debt and deception," Conrad said. "It's disconnected from reality. And it continues to move America in the wrong direction."
Spratt accused Bush of using budgetary sleight of hand to buttress his claim that the federal deficit—projected at $172 billion this year by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)—would disappear by 2012 under his plan.
Among the most costly false assumptions alleged by Spratt:
_U.S. annual costs in Iraq and Afghanistan will fall to $50 billion, less than a third of current outlays, by 2009, with no subsequent expenses.
_The optimistic revenue forecasts clash with CBO projections and conceal $155 billion in future costs.
"If you look at the economic criteria on which their forecasts are based, what you'll see is in every case at the margins they're pushing for a little bit better, more favorable underlying circumstances," Spratt said.
Rob Portman, Bush's budget director, denied that the spending plan is built on overly optimistic projections of future government revenues or other unrealistic assumptions.
"It's a credible and more transparent budget," Portman said. "Instead of painting a rosy scenario on revenues to get to balance, we take a cautious approach."
White House press secretary Tony Fratto said, "We have a pretty high degree of confidence that we'll be able to get to balance by 2012."
Spratt, though, said Bush's budget understates future costs by easing the burden of the alternative minimum tax for only the 6 million Americans who now pay it. Providing relief for the 39 million people or families projected to be paying it by 2012, the final year of the president's five-year plan, would cost far more, Spratt said.
Congress created the alternative minimum tax to capture revenue mainly from high-income filers, but more and more people slide into the tax each year because it isn't indexed for inflation, unlike the standard IRS tax tables. Lawmakers from both parties say the alternative minimum tax must target fewer people.
Conrad and Spratt gave Bush credit for providing more detail of current and future costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they said that the White House figures still come up short.
Spratt said the $145 billion that Bush allocated for the wars next year will likely grow with a supplemental spending request. Even if the number of U.S. troops falls, Spratt said the 2009 cost will likely exceed $50 billion.
Portman admitted that the $50 billion figure in 2009 fiscal year war costs was little more than a guess.
"We have no idea what those costs will be," he said.
Spratt and Conrad said Bush raided important programs in education, health care and the environment in order to pay for almost $2 trillion in tax cuts.
Bush has joined congressional leaders from both parties in calling for a balanced budget by 2012, but there's little agreement on how to achieve it. Analysts say the Democrats now in charge of Congress will face tough choices if they try to balance the budget in their own spending plans.
Conrad and Spratt deflected questions from reporters asking whether Democrats would consider raising taxes in order to help balance the budget. They said Congress will develop its spending proposal in the coming weeks.
"We're here today to discuss the president's budget submission," Conrad said.
In many ways, the emerging budget debate echoes the debate over spending priorities of the 1990s, only then Democratic President Bill Clinton tussled with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the GOP-led Congress.
Conrad repeated some of Clinton's main themes, accusing Bush of providing tax cuts for millionaires while trying to trim programs ranging from community cops to heating funds for low-income people.
Like Clinton a decade earlier, Conrad and Spratt said Bush wants to cut Medicare; his budget contains continued increases, but it slows Medicare's rate of growth—from the current rate of 7.4 percent to 6.7 percent over the next 10 years, according to Portman.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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