Democrats Pledge to Restrain Spending

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), left, and Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), incoming chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees, say they would like to see better accounting of military spending and want to reduce the federal deficit.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), left, and Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), incoming chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees, say they would like to see better accounting of military spending and want to reduce the federal deficit. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Determined to banish their old tax-and-spend image, Democrats want to shrink the federal deficit, preserve tax cuts for the middle class and challenge the president to raise money for the Iraq war when they take control of Congress next week. But it won't be easy.

The incoming Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees said they plan to honor a campaign promise to devote billions of additional dollars a year to homeland security and education. And they reiterated a commitment not to cut off funding for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But with the costs of those military operations rising and President Bush considering an expansion of forces, the incoming chairmen, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), said they will have little room in their budget blueprints for significant new domestic spending, such as closing a much-criticized gap in the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit that forces millions of seniors to pay 100 percent of drug costs for a few weeks or months each year.

They said they will press Bush to help finance a war that is costing the nation as much as $8 billion a month.

"Raising taxes would certainly be an option," Conrad said in an interview. "The president, this is his policy. He's got an obligation to pay for it."

The two chairmen said they would seek to save money by demanding a better accounting of military spending and an end to "the ever-expanding 'shadow budget' of supplemental and bridge funds," as they put it in a letter to the White House last week that was also signed by outgoing Senate Budget Committee chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Those budget mechanisms have funneled more than $500 billion to terror-related operations since Sept. 11, 2001, with little scrutiny from the Republican lawmakers who are leaving power. Spratt said he would spend most of January in oversight hearings to determine where the money is going.

"When the president talks about staying the course, he never mentions cost as a factor," Spratt said. "But it is a factor, particularly when you get costs over $100 billion a year."

Spratt and Conrad said they would aim to balance the budget by 2012, a goal that could anger liberal Democrats eager for new spending on domestic programs and conservative Republicans determined to preserve the tax cuts passed during Bush's first term. But it also could establish the Democrats as able stewards of the nation's treasury, political analysts said, giving the party's presidential candidates an important accomplishment for the 2008 campaign.

"In terms of practical politics, the reality is this: We have to be on good behavior so we have a chance to win the presidency," said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative House Democrats whose ranks swelled to 44 in the November elections. "We have a chance now of having a new Democratic Party that supports the middle class and has middle-class priorities at heart."

Republicans and budget experts say they doubt Democrats can simultaneously cut the deficit and meet their spending goals, especially given GOP opposition to higher taxes. Bush's top budget advisers said last week that they see no need to increase taxes to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are expected to cost $170 billion this year, up from $120 billion in fiscal 2006.

Despite the rising expense of the war, the annual budget deficit declined to $248 billion in the fiscal year ended in September because of an unexpected surge in tax collections.

"Revenues are up because of a growing economy," said White House budget director Rob Portman. "That has enabled us not just to afford the relatively high [war] supplementals -- higher than we expected -- but actually to decline the deficit."

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