Why this budget battle has an epic tone

Democrats see a broken system, with major items out of sight. The GOP sees ideals of conservatism advancing.

Budget battles are standard in the nation's capital, but this year's fight feels different: Both parties are calling the president's $2.57 trillion budget a defining moment in American politics.

For Republicans, the proposed spending cuts mark a step toward the conservative ideal of shrinking the size of the federal government and deficits, however modest. For Democrats, what defines the budget for the 2006 fiscal year is what's left out: services for needy Americans and trillions in expected spending not included in budget projections. These include $1.6 trillion to pay for the Bush tax cuts over the next 10 years, $774 billion to shield the middle class from the alternative minimum tax, $754 billion to speed Social Security reform, and war costs.

Nor will this fight be along strict party lines. While most Republicans hailed the president's budget, others have warned that elements of the plan, especially cuts to agricultural subsidies, won't fly.

At the same time, many Democrats are caught between making the case for saving social programs from cuts and arguing for more fiscal restraint - a mantle they have increasingly taken on during the presidency of a committed tax cutter.

While budgets typically have an element of smoke and mirrors, the relegating of billions in ongoing war costs "off budget" is a major wild card. Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, says "It wouldn't be responsible for us to take a guess at what those costs are."

Fiscal watchdog groups counter that war costs, along with the expected fix of the alternative minimum tax, will produce persistent annual deficits of about $400 billion. This is way above Bush forecasts - or what Republicans hope to run on in 2006.

Still, expected revenues from programs not yet passed by Congress are counted on the revenue side. These include $1.2 billion in revenue in 2007 from leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a highly controversial proposal in the pending energy bill.

While the new initiatives and program increases are featured in the opening pages of the proposed 2006 budget, there's no list of programs taking a hit, perhaps for a reason: Many target the Republican heartland in rural America. "We expected to fight cuts to rural programs under the Clinton administration. But those who are currently advocating these draconian cuts would not be in office today if it weren't for rural America," says Rep. John Peterson (R) of Pennsylvania, co-chair of the Congressional Rural Caucus.

The toughest fight, indeed, could be over the president's proposed $8.2 billion in cuts to farm subsidies over the next 10 years. The Bush administration says the cuts are needed, not just to rein in deficits, but also to open foreign markets to US farm exports in global trade talks.

But rural lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the cuts are a nonstarter. Early in 2002, they rushed through Congress a $274 billion, six-year agriculture bill, including $51.6 billion in new spending, to restore a "safety net" for farmers. Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, Senate appropriations chair, says the hard-fought deal should not be set aside.

If the president is to defend the main lines of his 2006 budget, he may have to exercise the veto - a step he has yet to take.

"None of these programs got in by accident," says Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition. "Congress is likely to fight much harder to keep them in the budget than the White House is to keep them out."

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