WASHINGTON President Bush is grabbing headlines with ambitious proposals to send Americans to the moon and Mars and to revamp immigration policy. But his election-year agenda is costly and controversial, alarming some of his conservative supporters who wonder how a nation with record budget deficits and an expensive war on terrorism will find the money.
The disclosure that Bush will call for establishing a permanent moon outpost and for later sending astronauts to Mars drew skeptical responses Friday from Democratic presidential candidates and from budget hawks of both parties.
Few in Washington expect the White House to expend much political capital in pushing for the new measures.
''The one real blemish on the president's record with fiscal conservatives has been the out-of-control budget,'' said Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth. ''At a time of gigantic government deficit spending, we ought to think about whether this is the highest priority right now.''
Said presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn: ''George Bush must be from another planet if he thinks that, with his fiscal priorities, we can get there and at the same time make America stronger.''
For the skeptics, there may be solace in the knowledge that Bush's lofty new space goals are not likely to receive congressional blessings anytime soon.
Nor is it likely that his immigration plan, which would let millions of foreign guest workers enter the United States if jobs await them, will make much headway this year in the GOP-led Congress. Bush's advisers saw the proposal as a way to capture Hispanic votes, but conservatives say it amounts to granting amnesty to lawbreakers.
Both initiatives came as Bush sought ways to dress up his re-election bid with grand themes and to present a contrast to disorganized Democrats battling among themselves.
But even Bush supporters in Congress questioned the potential costs.
''Any decisions on the future of manned space must be made in the context of budget realities,'' said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, the Republican chair of the House Science Committee.
Thomas Mann, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution, sees Bush's proposals as election-year window dressing.
''It's all about setting the agenda, being seen as the activist president and doing it in a way that he figures he can get political advantage simply from proposing items,'' said Mann.
''It's almost a caricature of the 'vision thing,''' said Mann, referring to the first President Bush's admission that he never had ''the vision thing.''
The younger Bush, who has tried hard to show that he does have such vision, actually updated space goals set by his father, who in 1989 proposed a moon base and human exploration of Mars by 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.
Other presidents have set grand goals for exploration and scientific breakthroughs.
John F. Kennedy's vow in the early '60s to put a man on the moon and return him safely was accomplished by the end of the decade.
The international space station proposed by Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union address is about 60 percent complete. It is currently inhabited by an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut, although the program has been on hold since last year's Columbia space shuttle tragedy.
Thomas Jefferson famously sent Lewis and Clark to chart the nation's western frontiers in the early 1800s. And Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly launched the Manhattan project that produced the atomic bomb that effectively ended World War II.
Richard Nixon had less success in his ''war'' to find a cure for cancer.
The cost of a Mars mission has been informally put at nearly $1 trillion.
''They want to send the red ink to the red planet,'' said Thomas Kahn, Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee, suggesting the proposal shows Bush is not serious about curbing deficits.
The space initiative follows enactment last month of Bush's $400 billion, 10-year proposal for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
''Where is the tax increase to pay for it?'' Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean asked at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. ''We already have a half trillion dollar deficit. It is not worth bankrupting the country if that's what's going to happen.''
Presidential spokesperson Scott McClellan said the president's budget office was ''obviously looking at resources you have and how to allocate those resources'' and that Bush still intended to put forth ''a responsible budget that meets our highest priorities. ''
Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University, said Bush doesn't need to propose one sweeping new initiative after another with his substantial approval ratings and an improving economy. ''He needs to articulate what he has done and what he will continue to do for the American people,'' Wayne said.
Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973
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