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Patterns in Bush's Approach to the Federal Budget

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Education, of course, is not the only part of the budget that's being scrutinized. All four volumes are now being picked apart by lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And with Democrats now in charge, the response has been very different than in previous years.

As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, the budget itself is different, too, and President Bush has started to sell his proposals to Congress and the country.

DON GONYEA: The president says his budget is good for businesses because it encourages investment. To make that point, he toured a thriving computer technology company in Manassas, Virginia, today.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I want to spend a little time with you talking about the state of our economy and the budget I submitted to the United States Congress. It should interest you. After all, it's your money.

GONYEA: That line, it's your money, could be from the Bush Budget Greatest Hits CD. So could the familiar lines that followed about tax cuts being good news for the taxpayer and the economy and the budget. In fact, much of what's in this year's White House budget pitch sounds very familiar. James Capretta is a former Bush administration budget official.

Mr. JAMES CAPRETTA: I think that this president established priorities, particularly after 9/11, that have been pretty consistent. You know, winning the global war on terror, engaging in and winning the global war on terror, promoting economic growth and improving homeland security. I think those are themes that are still in this budget.

GONYEA: So what's different? Isabelle Sawhill of the Brookings Institution is a veteran of the Clinton administration's budget office. She says it's significant that the president has actually made a priority of a fully balanced budget.

Ms. ISABELLE SAWHILL (Brookings Institution): What we have to remember is that earlier in the administration, there were a number of members of the administration, including the vice president, who were saying that deficits really didn't matter.

GONYEA: Sawhill calls it a real change in tone, at least. But she also cautions that the administration projection of a balanced budget in five years relies on optimistic assumptions about the economy and that it relies on there being no costs included for ongoing military operations in Iraq or Afghanistan beyond 2009.

Sawhill and Capretta each point to something else new and notable in this budget. They say the White House is taking beginning steps to address the rising costs of entitlements, like Medicare, programs that will become a huge problem as the Baby Boom Generation retires. The president has, for example, proposed increasing Medicare premiums for higher income Americans.

Here's James Capretta.

Mr. CAPRETTA: These proposals, I think, are going to, you know, be difficult to pass immediately in the Congress, but they at least put forward and start a debate and discussion around some of these very serious long term issues.

GONYEA: But Isabelle Sawhill says the White House is still just nibbling around the edges.

Ms. SAWHILL: No one wants to say we have to cut your Medicare benefits, we have to cut you social security benefits. So it's going to take a bipartisan effort to get to where we need to be. And right now the environment in Washington is just not permitting those kinds of bipartisan talks to occur.

GONYEA: Two years ago that partisan environment was too much for the president to overcome with his idea for personal accounts within Social Security, and that was when Republicans ran Congress. Now, of course, the Democrats are in charge and have budget priorities of their own.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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