The Bush administration is preparing a budget request that would freeze most spending on agriculture, veterans and science, slash or eliminate dozens of federal programs, and force more costs, from Medicaid to housing, onto state and local governments, according to congressional aides and lawmakers.
The White House also plans to reintroduce measures to stem the growth of federal health care and other entitlement programs that rise automatically each year based on set formulas, they said.
The tough budget for the fiscal year that begins in October is intended to signal President Bush's commitment to reining in the record federal deficit, and to satisfying conservative critics who note spending has soared since Bush took office.
"From a thematic standpoint, the goal is to reduce the deficit in half over four years, and you can't reduce the deficit if you don't reduce the growth of entitlements," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). "If the president sends up an aggressive budget, I'll be certainly receptive to it, and I think the Congress will be, too."
Budget and appropriations committee aides say Bush's budget -- to be presented Feb. 7 -- will be aggressive.
Bush will impose "very, very strong discipline" in his 2006 budget, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday. "That discipline will be there big-time."
Said Gregg: "Clearly, there is not going to be a lot of growth."
Congressional aides have been told to expect virtually the same level of spending in fiscal 2006 as this year in programs unconnected to defense and homeland security. This fiscal year, those domestic programs grew at a slim eight-tenths of a percentage point, and Bush plans to be even tighter, ensuring that spending would not keep up with inflation in most domestic programs.
Many of the programs on the chopping block were there last year. For instance, Bush unsuccessfully tried to cut the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers by $597 million, or 13 percent.
This year may be different.
"We have to find the money somewhere to [restore the president's proposed cuts], and I don't know how you find it if everything is tighter than a drum," said one House Appropriations Committee aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They are on the war path."
Gregg agreed, noting that with the election over, conservatives are eager to attack government growth.
"I think it's going to be very doable because the whole tenor has changed," he said.
Community Development Block Grants, funded this year at nearly $5 billion, could be cut by as much as 50 percent, aides said. The Home Investment Partnerships Program, a housing program that was trimmed by 4 percent this year, is expected to take a larger hit in the president's 2006 budget. Overall, housing programs will be at best frozen, said Barbara Thompson, executive director of the National Council of State Housing Agencies.