Dueling Budget Cuts: Capital Competition Gains More Players

CALL it budget-cut escalation: In Washington this New Year's season everyone seems to be racing to outdo the other guy when it comes to promising reductions in federal spending and the size of the US government.

First off the mark, of course, were House Republicans and their new Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, who promised last year to quickly slash $70 billion from federal spending while cutting taxes by $220 billion and moving to pass a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

President Clinton weighed in by late December, saying he would reduce the budget by $76 billion over the next five years. This slicing would pay for a $60-billion tax cut, under the Clinton plan, with a little left over for deficit reduction.

Now come Senate Republicans, with the most sweeping plan of all. Not wanting to be left in the publicity dust of their dynamic House brethren, GOP senators say they can slice perhaps $450 billion from the government over the next five years. Whacks of this size would eliminate at least 100 programs, they say, while easily paying for tax cuts.

``Don't worry, we're part of the revolution,'' said Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, a key figure in drawing up Senate GOP budget plans.

At a press conference announcing their plans, Republican senators offered few details of specific cuts they would make or programs that are endangered. Three GOP Senate task forces are going through the federal budget now to draw up final plans, said Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

An outline would be ready for a vote on the Senate floor by March 15, Senator Domenici said.

But Domenici and his fellow GOP leaders have been around Washington long enough to know that finding potential budget-cut targets is easy. Building a political consensus behind each cut is hard, as big reductions will probably require attacking popular programs such Medicare.

Many economists fear that what will finally happen in Washington this year is the passage of tax cuts unmatched by real budget reductions.

They point to President Clinton's plan as an example of how Washington ``budget cutting'' typically goes - only $16 billion of the administration's proposed cuts over the next five years are specific. Some $60 billion are in a category that is basically ``cuts to be named later.''

Neither the House nor Senate GOP budget-slash plans are any more specific. Domenici, however, vows that from the GOP perspective, things will be different this time. Budget cuts, he says, would come before tax cuts.

``We're not going to intentionally raise this deficit,'' Domenici says.

Past GOP budget-cut efforts have delivered less than promised, Domenici admits. President Reagan came into office as the very model of a modern small-government proponent, but he managed to eliminate only about five government programs during his time in office, while total government spending continued to climb.

If a constitutional amendment to balance the budget does pass, Congress's task will become that much harder. None of the plans proposed so far come anywhere near the estimated $1 trillion in reductions that would be necessary to produce a balanced federal budget by the year 2002, when an amendment would likely come into effect.

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