Washington Democrats are honing an election-year strategy of using record federal deficits to try to undermine the credibility of President Bush and Congress's majority Republicans.
The GOP will write Congress' budget this year, a process that starts next week when legislators return from their Presidents Day recess. But Democrats plan to introduce their own fiscal blueprints exceeding Bush's goal of halving deficits in five years.
Democrats say this will help them underscore the budget's screaming freefall under Bush, which they say is emblematic of his mishandling of the economy.
"The deficit is going to be a symbol of their credibility problem, and the budget is going to be the document we use" to make that argument, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a member of the House Budget Committee.
"It's kind of like Bonnie and Clyde complaining about banking laws," countered Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., evoking the 1930s bank robbers.
A record $237 billion federal surplus in 2000 under President Clinton lurched to a $375 billion deficit last year, the largest ever in dollar terms. The administration expects a $521 billion shortfall this year.
Bush sent lawmakers a budget on Feb. 2 that proposes halving the gap to $237 billion by 2009.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted last month showed 36 percent of respondents trust Bush to do a better job of handling budget deficits, while 52 percent prefer congressional Democrats.
Republicans blame the deficits largely on the recession. Bush has addressed the more important challenges of reviving the economy, waging war and thwarting terrorists, they say.