U.S. House passes Republican budget

Thursday, March 21, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Republicans steered a $2.1 trillion budget for next year through the House on Wednesday that mirrors President Bush's plan of strengthening defense and domestic security while allowing deficits to return.

The Senate's majority Democrats unfurled their own fiscal blueprint of the same amount and planned to shove it through that chamber's budget panel today. It focuses on generating surpluses without using Social Security funds by 2008, while embracing Bush's defense proposals for the next two years and outspending him for schools, health and road building.

House passage, by a mostly party-line 221-209 vote, marked approval of the GOP's fiscal response to a world that has seen domestic terrorism, recession and federal deficits all surface since lawmakers last wrote a budget a year ago.

With red ink back for the first time since 1997, a stalemate on Congress' budget is likely this year because the House and Senate are controlled by different parties. Even so, Wednesday's debates let each party parade their priorities and attack their rivals' goals with messages they are sure to echo until this November's elections for control of Congress.

"We have led on our side," said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., scolding House Democrats who offered no alternative budget. "We have a plan to protect Social Security. We have a plan to prosecute the war. We have a plan to provide tax relief for Americans."

Democrats criticized Republicans for producing a budget that would use $831 billion in Social Security surpluses over the coming five years. That, they said, was thanks to the money soaked up by the $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut Republicans won last year.

"We promised to put Social Security first," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said of both parties' pledges in recent years to use the pension program's gigantic surpluses only for debt reduction. "This budget puts Social Security last."

The House plan envisions deficits for the next three years but surpluses thereafter. To help limit the red ink, Republicans used optimistic budget assumptions by the White House.

The proposal by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., would force lawmakers to chart a five-year plan to produce surpluses that don't rely on Social Security. They would not have to do so until next year, however, when a stronger economy might ease the problem.

Conrad said it was unwise to force budget cuts with a weak economy. Republicans said Conrad's plan was an empty promise that tough choices eventually will be made on spending cuts and tax increases.

"I don't see how we increase our resolve next year by basically trying to deceive people this year," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

Republicans also complained that Conrad's plan would require that if last year's tax cut is to be extended after its scheduled 2010 expiration, budget savings to pay for it -- about $400 billion -- would have to be found. Bush has proposed making those tax cuts permanent, and many lawmakers believe that will eventually happen.

"No more raids on Social Security," Conrad said. "No more dipping into that honey pot to pay for more tax cuts."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer attacked the Democrat's plan to use a $269 billion portion of Bush's planned defense buildup over the coming decade for debt reduction unless the Pentagon needs the money.

"It freezes defense spending, which is very hard to explain given that our nation is at war," Fleischer said.

Congress' budget is a nonbinding guide used to set overall spending and revenue targets. The measure is often ignored by many billions of dollars.

A failure by Congress to approve a compromise budget, which seems likely this year, would mean the House and Senate would share no common spending target when writing the 13 annual spending bills.

It would also make it all but impossible for controversial tax bills to pass because budgets often have language protecting them against Senate filibusters, which need 60 votes to be broken.

The House and Senate budgets accept Bush's plan to double anti-terrorism spending at home to $38 billion. Like him, they would also boost the Pentagon to $379 billion, a $48 billion increase that is the biggest percentage increase in two decades.

Both also propose holding overall spending for many other programs except automatically paid benefits like Social Security to little or no increase over this year's total.

Both provide more than Bush proposed to create prescription drug benefits and revamp Medicare and for highways, schools and some veterans programs.

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