Farm subsidies have been cut by half since 1985, and now you want to cut agriculture $13 billion more, the editor from rural Illinois sternly told President Bush: "How can that be fair?"
Our region is already in a recession, said the editor from Connecticut, asking Bush to explain how more taxes on home heating oil and gasoline, along with defense cuts, won't make his region the hardest hit.
"You say that this package is balanced and fair," the editor from Florida lectured the president, "yet half the entitlement cuts come from Medicare. How can you say that is fair to the elderly?"
For Bush, yesterday was a rocky tour through America's regional and local interests, from the farm belt, where gasoline taxes and agricultural subsidies loom large, to the New England states, where a hike in home heating oil taxes is serious trouble, to Florida, Arizona and other states that draw retirees worried about higher Medicare costs.
According to White House officials, what Bush heard in his public question-and-answer session with editors from around the country he also heard in private from the more than 40 members of Congress he spoke with yesterday. "Almost every single session is: 'Mr. President, I support you on the overall package, but I got problems in my district with this one provision,' " was how one official described the gist of many of the in-person sessions and telephone conversations Bush has had since Sunday, when he began trying to sell mostly Republican members of Congress on the five-year, $500 billion deficit-reduction package of budget cuts and tax increases.
"For the most part, these are not debates over Republican philosophy or tax progressivity. These are debates over local problems and local politics," said the official of Bush's encounters. Bush's speech to the nation Tuesday night, he said yesterday, was an attempt to give the members of Congress, who face the voters in a month, "cover" from the local anger generated by the local pain that ripples through the budget documents.
"I tried to give cover to members of Congress," Bush told the editors, "and say you don't have to support every 't' and dotting every 'i' but say the president encouraged you to do it. Blame me. Because I know it's best for our country, but I don't expect it's politically popular."
The political costs of voting for the package were evident in the deal the White House struck with Republicans who are challenging incumbent Democrats for election and vulnerable Republican incumbents: those two groups may vote against the package without the usual White House retribution as long as their opposition is silent. "Political absolution" was what one official called it.
"I have to understand the passions of people out there standing for election," Bush said, adding he was urging all members to vote for the package, but "I can't bring myself to be recriminatory."
The president's answer to each of the fairness questions posed to him yesterday was essentially the same: The deal will be good for the economy overall, so it will be good for the nation overall. "I'm not sure there won't be any adverse effects by one provision or another," Bush told the group, "I am totally sure that failure to get a deficit deal will adversely affect every region of the country."
To those worried about the plight of farmers, Bush noted that agriculture income has gone up and that he is trying to significantly increase international trade. To those concerned about the Medicare cuts, Bush noted that the government has to control health-care costs and that budget-cutters have to hunt where the ducks are, in big programs that are growing rapidly. To the other complaints, Bush added his lament: "From my standpoint, the things I believe in, I could craft a better deal, but . . . I'm convinced at this junction I can't craft a better deal that can have the approval of both sides of the aisle in Congress."
Groups that look at state-by-state impact are studying whether any region will be adversely affected more than another and how each state is affected. Kevin Loughlin, director of one of those groups, the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition, said, "There is a lot of pain to go around, but I don't think the evidence will show the pain is disproportionately focused in any one region."
It was an attempt to geographically spread the pain that brought Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) to insist that the heating oil tax, which strongly affects New England, should increase to compensate for that region's lower pain from a gasoline tax increase. The wide open spaces of the West, his theory was said to be, mean much more driving than the close-in spaces of New England and much of the Northeast.
Displaying the fierce reaction that characterizes much of the regional disputes, Loughlin said Bentsen is wrong. His group, gearing up for its regional lobbying effort, is preparing statistics that indicate at least three New England states have per capita gasoline consumption nearly as high or higher than in Texas.