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Congressional Leaders Offer Different Views of Bush Budget Proposal - 2004-02-02

Congressional Republicans are defending President Bush's $2.4 trillion budget for the 2005 fiscal year, saying it will help the economy and improve homeland security. But Democrats are criticizing the budget, saying it will lead to massive federal deficits.

Republican and Democratic leaders used separate news conferences to give their assessments.

Senator Don Nickles, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, predicts the legislative battle over the budget will be "tough."

However, he said Republicans expect to pass most of what the president wants, saying recent economic growth figures prove the tax cuts Congress approved during Mr. Bush's first term in office are working: "You have seen the stock markets [have] risen dramatically. Dow Jones is up over 25 percent, NASDAQ over 50 percent just since we started doing this last February so the budget worked, it did stimulate the economy," he said.

House budget committee chairman, Republican] Jim Nussle, said the budget will continue what the administration sees as its success in reinvigorating the economy while improving homeland security.

He called for bipartisan cooperation, but says he expects Democrats, particularly Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination, to do everything they can to make things difficult for the majority party. "My guess is that the Democrats will continue to beat their chests about the deficit, but will not put forth a plan, will not put forth bills to eliminate the tax cuts that the president has proposed, and for that matter will continue on their spending spree, which we prevented last year with votes on the floor of the House," he said.

Democrats have complained about what they call the Bush administration's failure to adequately fund homeland security, as well as education and other key programs.

But the bulk of recent criticism has focused on the deficit, which the administration has just estimated will reach $521 billion this year.

Kent Conrad, top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, called the budget fundamentally damaging to the economy. This elephant won't fly," he said. "You can put wings on the elephant, you can do anything you'd like. But it won't get off the ground. This president's plan won't lift off the ground. It is so burdened by deficit and debt that it fundamentally threatens our economic security."

Republicans are very sensitive to recent criticism from conservatives in their own party, about sharply rising deficits and what many see as unjustified over-spending by the administration.

President Bush, speaking at the White House Monday, said his budget will lead to a reduction in the deficit figure by more than half by 2009. "We're calling upon Congress to be wise with the taxpayer's money. We look forward to working with them to bring fiscal discipline to the appropriations process so we can cut the deficit in half over a five year period of time," he said.

Senator Nickles made a point of responding to some of the criticism on the deficit. "Five hundred billion dollar deficits are not acceptable. We do want to cut it in half, and we want to cut it in half in as short a period of time as possible. That's our objective. It won't be easy. It will be heavy lifting," he said.

Democrats note that the president's budget does not request an increase in money over 2003 levels for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the fiscal year beginning in October.

President Bush has decided not to send Congress another potentially controversial "supplemental" or special request for these items before the November presidential and congressional elections.

Among other issues expected to cause partisan disagreement in coming months is the plan to reform the medicare system, which the Bush administration recently said will cost about $100 billion more than the bill Congress passed late last year.