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Fall election threatens Bush’s budget

Lawmakers of both aisles must listen to weary constituents

SHARE Fall election threatens Bush’s budget

WASHINGTON — President Bush's budget is barely a day old, but it already faces dire prospects in Congress. It's a blueprint better suited for an odd-numbered year.

Odd-numbered years are when Congress typically takes on difficult budget issues. During even-numbered years, when lawmakers have to face the voters, they don't like to vote for things like cuts to Medicare, food stamps, farm subsidies and education.

"I can't believe that there's a will to cut $36 billion out of Medicare," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "I can't imagine the Republican Party . . . is going to allow this to come through this year in an election year."

"We all know who votes in election years," Harkin added, referring to the high voting rate for senior citizens who rely on the health care program for the aged.

Bush's budget is the most austere since the Reagan era as the president seeks to build upon his spending cut success of last year, when Congress advanced a budget bill squeezing $39 billion through the end of the decade from the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled, the Medicare and myriad other programs.

Even though Bush's five-year, $36 billion plan to reap Medicare savings has little impact on beneficiaries and instead comes mostly by shaving inflation increases in Medicare payments to health care providers like hospitals and nursing homes, it landed with a thud on Capitol Hill.

"It's going to be more difficult (to address Medicare) than last year because of the fact that it's an election year — and it was very difficult to do in a non-election year," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. "The question is: Does it have to be 2006 or can it be 2007? And I haven't made up my mind."

The first step under Congress' arcane procedures for implementing the federal budget is to pass a budget resolution. That's a nonbinding blueprint that sets the limits of subsequent bills to implement the plan, including the appropriations bills that Congress passes each year.

Far less frequently, a budget resolution spins off a bill to cut benefit programs like Medicare. Last year's budget-cut bill — cleared by the House for Bush's desk a week ago — was the first in eight years and went through a legislative slog that showed rifts within the GOP and exposed many lawmakers to uncomfortable votes.

Most of the easier-to-pass budget cuts were claimed in last year's bill.

"All of the low-hanging fruit is taken," said Tom Kahn, Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee. "And it wasn't hanging very low."

Now, there's little appetite, other than among a few true spending hawks such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., for an election-year round. Congress hasn't passed an election-year benefit cut bill since 1990. And that one only occurred because Congress had to act to avoid massive across-the-board spending cuts imposed under the old Gramm-Rudman budget law.

Even if GOP leaders did want to take on another round of budget cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and other entitlement programs whose budgets increase each year, Bush's budget is filled with proposals that didn't make the grade in last year's round. One example is the $16.7 billion in unspecified reforms to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Congress managed just $3.6 billion in PBGC-related savings last year.

Other already-rejected proposals that returned on Monday include cuts to crop payments and restricting eligibility for about 300,000 food stamp recipients. One controversial new proposal would end the $255 Social Security death benefit paid to the surviving spouse or children of a beneficiary.

Meanwhile, Bush proposed reducing the operating budgets of nine of 15 Cabinet departments, including Agriculture, Education, Interior and Health and Human Services. Moderate Republicans such as Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Mike DeWine of Ohio are chaffing at the cuts.

Specter, who has voted for every GOP congressional budget since Bush became president and reluctantly accepted a major squeeze to his cherished Labor, Health and Human Service bill last year, now vows to stand up to the White House.

"I will not support any budget resolution that does not provide adequate funding for domestic discretionary programs," said Specter, chairman of a subcommittee funding health and education programs. Factoring in inflation, programs under his jurisdiction face a $7 billion cut.

Congress hasn't wrapped up its appropriations work before Election Day in an even-numbered year since 1998, raising the likelihood of a postelection lame duck session to deal with the 11 appropriations bills.

"The odds are strong that whatever they do will be pushed until after the election," said Tom Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.