Bush deficit stance fuels concerns

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2003

WASHINGTON The increasingly complex and expensive U.S. role in Iraq is drawing predictable fire from Democrats. But it also is unnerving fiscal conservatives uneasy about the mounting costs and a looming half-trillion-dollar deficit.

Bush is expected to get from Congress most of the $87 billion in new funds he requested for Iraq and Afghanistan, though not without a political price. He is coming under increasing pressure from even members of his own party to suggest ways to offset the rising war costs.

Some conservatives want Bush to forgo a $400 billion-plus Medicare prescription drug plan, even though the president last week reaffirmed his strong support for it. Democrats want him to scale back tax cuts.

Bush's perceived complacency toward the soaring deficit is setting off a mini-rebellion among otherwise loyal members of the political right who advocate smaller government.

''It's very clear that the one source of contention between Bush and conservatives now is the inability by the White House to show any fiscal discipline,'' said Stephen Moore, president of the anti-tax, supply-side Club for Growth.

''And he can't blame Congress for the spending orgy when he has signed every spending bill,'' said Moore, otherwise a staunch Bush supporter.

For sure, the president remains extremely popular among conservatives. They applaud his handling of the fight against terrorism. They appreciate his strong positions against abortion and same-sex marriages. They are grateful for his three consecutive big tax cuts.

Still, new strains are becoming evident.

''If he doesn't come out with a bold plan to cut spending, to at least put the deficit on a downward glide path, then he will be handing the Democrats a golden opportunity to call him fiscally irresponsible,'' said Chris Edwards, director of fiscal policy for the libertarian Cato Institute.

Bush has been telling audiences, ''We need to have spending discipline in Washington, D.C.'' But as he preaches belt-tightening, he is pushing for large increases in defense spending, permanent tax cuts, the prescription drug plan and billions more for education, AIDS prevention and farm aid.

Seen as tough and resolute on foreign policy, Bush has trouble saying no on domestic spending, some fiscal conservatives suggest.

''I think he needs to find something to veto and soon,'' said Bruce Bartlett, an economist with the conservative-leaning Center for Policy Analysis and an adviser to the first President Bush. Spending passed by the GOP-led Congress and condoned by Bush ''is very dismaying to conservatives,'' Bartlett said.

Bush has not vetoed a single bill.

Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform and a close Bush ally, said that given the bare one-vote GOP majority in the Senate, ''the veto becomes a very weak weapon.''

Norquist said both the tax cut movement and the Bush White House ''realize that there is a spending problem and that we have to get our arms around it.''

With presidential politics heating up, neither party seems eager to make tough spending choices.

Just last week, in fact, the House voted to give both the military and civilian federal workers a 4.1 percent pay raise, rejecting an administration proposal for smaller increases for civilians. The House also voted to boost lawmakers' own salaries by 2.2 percent, to $158,000 a year

Bush wants to hold the line on nonmilitary spending at a 2 percent increase.

But the sheer size of spending on Iraq, the terrorism fight and homeland security without major offsetting cuts suggests the deficit will keep rising any way.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecast a deficit of $480 billion next year and a river of red ink through most of the next decade. And that was before Bush outlined his new $87 billion request.

Predictably, Democratic presidential candidates have accused Bush of mishandling both the economy and the war. But last week, Republican lawmakers were among those doing the squawking.

Sen. Charles Hagel, R-Neb., said the administration did ''a miserable job'' of planning for post-Saddam Iraq. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Bush and his advisers ''clearly underestimated the size of the challenge.'' And Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the administration must ''be more forthcoming and more specific.''

The White House defends the president's high-spending ways. ''Look, the president's two highest priorities are winning the war on terrorism and strengthening our economy,'' said presidential spokesperson Scott McClellan.

For now, many Republicans seem willing to trust Bush, despite misgivings about record deficits.

''There's been a recession and we're at war, and Bush has a lot of running room on the deficit,'' said conservative analyst Bill Kristol, who served in the first Bush administration.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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