President Bush plans to renew pressure on congressional Democrats to reach a budget agreement by staging a highly visible return to Washington today for a meeting with his economic advisers and a public statement calling on Democrats to negotiate in good faith.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, briefing reporters at Bush's vacation resort in Kennebunkport, Maine, said the president would return to the White House today and remain in Washington for a Pentagon meeting Wednesday before returning to Kennebunkport.
"We think it's even more important that we reach an agreement now because there needs to be a unity of purpose in this country, not only about the conflict in the Gulf, but also about our spending issues and about where the budget is going," Fitzwater said.
Bush has been itching to come out swinging at the Democrats who manuevered the White House into weeks of pained defensiveness on the budget, but several of his advisers question the effectiveness of a strident attack in the wake of the Gulf crisis. "You can't act like that didn't change everything," one official said. "Our budget plan is no good any more, their budget plan is no good anymore. The world is totally changed."
Wednesday, the day Bush announced the U.S. military deployment to Saudia Arabia, he also threatened a political counterattack over the budget. Saying he felt "liberated" from a prior non-aggression pact between himself and the Democrats, Bush said, "I want to tell you exactly how strongly I feel about it, but I don't want to do it" on that day.
Fitzwater said the White House meeting today is to include Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady. Neither, however, is in Washington and aides to each said their deputies were more likely to attend. The chief administration economist, Michael J. Boskin, is the only one of Bush's top three economic advisers expected at the meeting.
Some administration officials believe the gulf conflict will make it politically difficult for Democrats to press for larger cuts in the defense budget and indicated that the administration is prepared to wage a public fight.
Administration officials are attempting to put a price tag on the Gulf operation, but Fitzwater insisted no good estimate exists. Bush said last week that military personnel will be exempted from across-the-board budget cuts that could be implemented Oct. 15 under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget law if negotiators have not reached a budget agreement.
Fitzwater said Bush was considering altering a Republican plan prepared before the recess as part of a proposed overall agreement to cut $500 billion over five years. But he said so far there has been no official change in administration economic forecasts to account for the impact of Mideast events.
Bush is under pressure from Republicans to lash out at the Democrats for failing to offer their own plan to cut the deficit. Although the White House plan was never formally offered, the details quickly became public, including higher taxes on alcohol and limits on federal deductions for state and local taxes.
Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report. Balz reported from Kennebunkport.