WASHINGTON -- Having failed to halt the Republican tax-cutting juggernaut, congressional Democrats are trying a new tactic: linking tax reductions to what they say are shortfalls for protecting ports, educating handicapped students and paying for other programs.
Even many Republicans concede that the 2004 budget they pushed through Congress in April, which made room for the tax cuts President Bush wanted, is clamping an uncomfortably tight squeeze on expenditures. With the GOP-led House and Senate beginning to write spending bills for next year, top Republicans on the appropriations committees -- which write the measures -- have apologized for the bills' skimpiness.
"There will be pain," said House Appropriations Committee chairman Bill Young, R-Fla. "You should all pray for some creativity," he told colleagues -- referring to efforts to find more money.
For months, Democrats have told voters the tax cuts have fed the rapidly rising federal deficit, which is expected to set a record this year by soaring past $400 billion. But polls show the public cares little about that, distracted by the threat of terrorism and buffered by historically low interest and inflation rates.
Writing next year's bills
So as lawmakers begin writing next year's 13 spending bills, Democrats are arguing that the measures are riddled with under-financed programs. That, they say, is thanks to the tax cuts Bush has pushed through Congress.
The bills show the GOP places "tax cuts ahead of all other values and considerations," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., a leader of the effort to tie taxes and spending.
The spending bills would grow by 2.5 percent next year to $785 billion, with the rest of the $2.2 trillion budget going for automatically paid benefits like Social Security and Medicare.
Defense, domestic security, and legislation covering labor, health and education would get the biggest spending increases.
But one House measure would cut military construction 14 percent below this year's level. Another would trim park land acquisition by two-thirds, and a still-unwritten foreign aid measure seems too small for all Bush has proposed for fighting AIDS overseas and helping developing countries.
In May, Congress approved $330 billion in tax cuts through 2013, plus $20 billion more in grants for states, and both chambers have given initial approval to a second, smaller tax cut. That is on top of other tax reductions enacted in 2001 and 2002.
To call attention to their argument, Democrats in the House and Senate appropriations panels have proposed beefing up domestic security, education and other programs by rolling back small fractions of this year's tax cuts on people earning $1 million annually.
"I cannot support shortchanging so many of our country's needs in order to make room for huge tax cuts," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
The Democratic amendments have been defeated. With an eye to next year's presidential and congressional elections, their larger goal was eroding public support for the tax reductions by tying them to something tangible -- declining levels of some government services, and smaller than advertised increases for others.
-- Bills written so far would cut programs that include employment and training, mine safety, public television and training for health professionals, and virtually freeze spending for Ryan White AIDS treatment and migrant education.
-- The GOP-written budget -- a nonbinding blueprint -- included a $2.2 billion increase for grants to states for handicapped education. A House spending bill provides $1.2 billion less.
-- Lawmakers say they can't provide the $3 billion promised for next year by a law enacted last month -- supported by Bush -- that sets up a $15 billion, five-year program to combat AIDS and other diseases in African and Caribbean countries.
-- The House domestic security bill has $100 million for port security. Democrats say more is needed, and quickly, to protect the country's 361 ports.
While conceding they face tight limits, Republicans predicted victory in the political battle.
"People recognize Democrats always want to spend money," said Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who heads the Senate GOP's election efforts. He said "most people's eyes will glaze over" if Democrats compare spending to higher amounts promised in earlier, nonbinding bills.
Part of the spending squeeze would be eased by a midyear spending request Bush is expected to seek in coming months.
Congressional aides say an initial request from the administration may seek an extra $1.6 billion for natural disasters and forest fires.
Included would be $56 million for costs of mailing out rebate checks later this year for families who qualify for the $1,000 per child tax credit, which Congress enlarged in the May tax bill.