President Bush today ruled out raising taxes to pay for a vast relief and reconstruction effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but he said other programs would have to be cut and that economic growth must be maintained.
In a joint press briefing with the visiting Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Bush declined to put a price tag on what he called the "enormous task" of rebuilding a zone of destruction the size of Britain.
"It's going to cost whatever it costs," he said.
"But I'm confident we can handle it, and I'm confident we can handle our other priorities," Bush said. "It's going to mean that we're going to have to make sure we cut unnecessary spending. It's going to mean we've got to maintain economic growth, and therefore we should not raise taxes."
He said his administration would "work with Congress to make sure that we are able to manage our budget in a wise way. And that is going to mean cutting other programs."
Earlier, White House officials indicated that the relief funding -- about $62 billion has been approved by Congress so far -- would have to be borrowed, adding to the federal deficit. They would not identify any specific program cuts.
Allan Hubbard, assistant to the president for economic policy, told reporters that Bush remains committed to slashing the deficit. "This in no way will adversely impact his commitment to cut the deficit in half by 2009," Hubbard said. He said the economy "is very, very strong now" and "the last thing in the world we need to do is raise taxes and retard economic growth."
Hubbard declined to provide an overall cost figure for hurricane relief. Pressed on where the money would come from, he said, "Well, there's no question that . . . the recovery will be paid for by the federal taxpayer and it will add to the deficit."
Also asked to name programs that could be cut or eliminated to help pay for relief efforts, Claude Allen, assistant to the president for domestic policy, said, "No, I cannot name any programs that will be cut." He said Bush is focused on "the immediate need of the evacuees."
Speaking to reporters at the White House after his meeting with Putin, Bush thanked the Russian leader for his government's offers of assistance in the aftermath of the storm's devastation.
"It meant a lot to know that you cared enough to send critical supplies, and our country really appreciates it," he said.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia was among the first countries to offer aid and sent two cargo planes loaded with provisions.
Putin expressed his "most sincere compassion and support" and said the disaster has provided "a serious lesson" not only to the United States, but to his country and the rest of the world. He called the hurricane a "global catastrophe" that has been discussed extensively in meetings among foreign leaders in New York.
"We, too, will draw our conclusions regarding organization of activities of services related to averting such catastrophes with efficient response," Putin said.
Bush also said he and the Russian leader share a common goal regarding Iran and its nuclear power program.
"We agree that the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon," Bush said. "That's important for people to understand. When you share the same goal, it means as you work diplomatically you're working toward that goal."
Bush said he is "confident that the world will see to it that Iran goes to the U.N. Security Council if it does not live up to its agreements. And when that referral will happen is a matter of diplomacy. And that's what we talked about; we talked about how to deal with this situation diplomatically."
Iran recently reopened a uranium conversion facility in defiance of the United States and three European nations -- Britain, France and Germany -- that have been negotiating with the Islamic republic. Washington suspects that Iran's theocratic government intends to build nuclear weapons and is using what Tehran says is a peaceful nuclear power-generating program as cover. So far, however, Russia, which is completing a nuclear power plant for Iran near the southern port city of Bushehr, has resisted U.S. suggestions that Iran should be reported to the U.N. Security Council for nuclear nonproliferation violations.
Putin said at the news briefing, "We support all of the agreements on nonproliferation, which includes Iran, among others, fully. . . . And yesterday, in the meeting with the president of Iran, we directly told him so." He referred to a meeting in New York with the newly elected Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is attending a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
"Of course, we are against the fact that Iran would become nuclear power, and will continue to do so in the future under any circumstances," Putin said. He said Russia wants to avoid the kind of impasse that has developed with North Korea in talks to persuade that country to give up its nuclear weapons program.
"Once again, yesterday, I heard from the Iranian leader a statement that Iran does not seek to acquire nuclear weapons," Putin said. "Now, that's the first thing I wanted to share with you."
Regarding "the North Korean problem and the Iranian nuclear dossier," Putin said, "our positions are very close with the American partners here." He said the "potential of diplomatic solutions to all these questions is far from being exhausted."