Bush warns Democrats on stalemate, bills that he’d veto
President Bush on Jan. 3 reasserted his role in domestic policy as the spender in chief and ultimate legislative backstop, urging Democrats to cut pork-barrel spending in half and telling them they will take the blame for stalemate if they send him bills he has to veto.
His warning came the day before Democrats take control of Congress, where they already have taken the first steps to consolidate their power and push through their own lobbying and ethics changes, new budget rules and an increase in the minimum wage.
In both a published column and in a statement he made after his first Cabinet meeting of the year, the president tried to get out ahead of Democrats by setting spending goals and promising cooperation — to a point.
“If the Congress chooses to pass bills that are simply political statements, they will have chosen stalemate. If a different approach is taken, the next two years can be fruitful ones for our nation,” Mr. Bush said in the Wall Street Journal column.
And in his Rose Garden remarks he vowed to introduce a budget next month that will eliminate the deficit by 2012, and challenged Congress to follow “one important message” voters sent in last year’s elections by ending secret earmarks, or pork-barrel spending.
But he already has run afoul of Democratic leaders in the House, who said the president is making an executive branch power play and argued he doesn’t have credibility on spending issues.
“Given the track record of this administration, the last person in the universe who should lecture the Congress on fiscal responsibility is George Bush,” said Rep. David R. Obey, the Wisconsin De- mocrat who will become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Bush has increased the annual federal budget by $800 billion, from $1.86 trillion in 2001 to $2.65 trillion in 2006, and has rung up deficits every year from 2002 to 2006.
Incoming House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Mr. Bush actually wants to eliminate earmarks altogether, and said that and the president’s desire for a line-item veto are part of Mr. Bush’s push to control the power of Congress.
“This administration has taken unto itself increasing executive authority, and we believe that the Congress has failed in its responsibility to exercise its duties under the Constitution,” the Maryland Democrat said.
But Mr. Hoyer also said Mr. Bush is “right in concept” when he warned against trying to pass bills Democrats know won’t be signed by the president.
Although both the House and Senate will be under Democrats’ control, House Democrats have pushed their agenda the furthest, aided by rules that give the majority party in that chamber nearly unfettered power.
Two of the measures they have vowed to pass in the first 100 hours of legislative business run counter to Mr. Bush’s stated positions, and one — to expand federal funding for stem-cell research — drew the first veto of Mr. Bush’s administration when it passed last year.
The other measure, to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, has Mr. Bush’s support but only if it is coupled with tax or regulatory breaks for businesses to offset the costs. House Democrats are insisting on passing a “clean” bill that doesn’t include those offsets.
And Mr. Bush is running into problems even among some Republicans.
On Jan. 3 Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, who is a leading voice among more liberal Republican lawmakers, said Mr. Bush must present a “realistic” budget that provides enough for education and health care spending as well as for defense.
He also said future tax cuts must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
“A one-sided equation does not get us back into the black,” Mr. Castle said.
As Mr. Bush was asking to work with Democrats, the White House sent its strongest message since the election that the president stands by his push for private savings accounts as part of Social Security — anathema to most Democrats — and that he opposes tax increases to help finance the system.
“The president has made it clear he doesn’t want tax increases and he wants savings accounts,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said, though he said Mr. Bush will listen to any proposal for reforming entitlement spending.
Mr. Snow’s statement came after reports in December that administration officials had signaled the president would consider some form of tax increases to pay for a Social Security overhaul.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush laid out a set of requirements he wants to see for future earmark spending. He called for Democrats to adopt rules requiring disclosure of every earmark’s sponsor, its cost, who the recipients are, and why the spending is justified.
He also told Democrats to “cut the number and cost of earmarks next year by at least half.”
Mr. Bush did not say what those target numbers should be, and earmarks are often in the eye of the beholder.
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, citing a Congressional Research Service report, said fiscal 2006 spending bills contained 12,852 earmarks with a value of more than $67 billion. But Citizens Against Government Waste put the 2006 figures at 9,963 projects and $29 billion.
President Bush walks out of the Oval Office to the Rose Garden of the White House on Jan. 3 following a meeting with members of his Cabinet.