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Archive for Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Bush offers budget gamble

February 6, 2007

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— One major unmentioned entry in President Bush's new budget is luck.

Luck that the economy keeps growing, that corporate profits remain robust, that inflation stays tame and that foreigners keep lending the U.S. money. Otherwise, the numbers don't add up.

Bush's spending outline also assumes an exit strategy from Iraq that even the president's supporters see as wishful thinking - a sharp drop in war spending in time for the 2008 presidential election. It's a peace dividend without peace.

Not surprisingly, Democrats were quick to criticize.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., cited a "deception to hide a massive increase in debt." Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said, "The president's eyes are shut tight to this country's fiscal reality."

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., doubted Republicans - let alone any Democrats - could embrace the president's $2.9 trillion budget for the accounting year that begins Oct. 1.

Like Bush, newly empowered Democrats are talking about increased defense and homeland security spending and a balanced budget in five years. And while Bush's budget calls for making expiring tax cuts permanent, Democrats have a wish list of increased domestic spending. Both make balancing the budget even harder.

Thus, Democrats who now control both chambers of Congress need the same run of good economic news that Bush does to make their numbers work.

A business slowdown or recession, an increase in inflation and interest rates, or a reversal in the willingness of foreign investors to keep buying U.S. Treasury bonds could put the skids on what has been a strong economy.

Meanwhile, spiraling payouts in guaranteed federal benefits for Social Security and Medicare as baby boomers retire "is going to be the single largest economic problem that we face," said Mark Zandi, chief economist for at Moody's Economy.com.

People line up to pick up copies of the fiscal 2008 federal budget at the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. President Bush released his $2.9 trillion budget for fiscal 2008 on Monday.

People line up to pick up copies of the fiscal 2008 federal budget at the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. President Bush released his $2.9 trillion budget for fiscal 2008 on Monday.

"Deficits look OK today," Zandi said. "But what happens at a time when the economy isn't operating at full tilt?"

When Bush took office in 2001, the national debt was about $5.6 trillion. Now it stands near $8.6 trillion.

Democrats won control of Congress in November, largely by riding a wave of public discontent over Bush's handling of Iraq.

"We heard loud and clear from Congress" that it wanted "more transparency" in defense spending, White House Budget Director Rob Portman said Monday.

That's why, Portman said, the Pentagon included details for the upcoming budget year on how much the war would cost - an estimated $141.7 billion for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the cost of repairing and replacing equipment lost in combat.

In the past, such war costs were not included in the president's annual budget. Instead, emergency "supplemental" spending bills were submitted.

In the new budget, with a bookkeeping wave of the hand, the war-cost entry drops to $50 billion for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, 2008 - just a little more than a month before Election Day - and drops to zero for subsequent years.

Portman said the $50 billion, followed by zeros for the next three years, was just an "allowance" or a "placeholder" because of the difficulty of estimating longer-term war costs.

The amount spent on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other anti-terror activities already tops $500 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. In another year it will rival the inflation-adjusted $660 billion spent on the Vietnam conflict.

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