White House says Senate budget proposal shortchanges military

The White House Wednesday unleashed its opening gambit as this year's budget battle got underway, suggesting the budget proposal put forward by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., amounted to an effort by Democrats to shortchange the military during wartime.

Although Conrad's budget funds some of President Bush's defense requests, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said it was not enough.

"It freezes defense spending, which is very hard to explain given the fact our nation is at war," Fleischer said.

Conrad's plan would fully fund Bush's defense requests in fiscal 2003 and 2004, and then peg further increases to inflation. The $269 billion difference between Conrad's and Bush's plans is Conrad's strategy to have a reserve fund that would be used for debt reduction if not tapped for defense.

Asked if his defense reserve fund proposal amounts to a cut in what Bush requested, Conrad responded: "No, it's not. It clearly is not."

Fleischer added that the Democratic budget "uses Social Security and Medicare trust funds until at least 2008 and probably longer, despite all the criticism the president's budget received from Democrats."

Democrats have repeatedly charged the White House with squandering the Social Security surplus by pushing through last year's tax cut. Conrad's proposal reportedly balances the budget without recourse to Social Security funds by 2008.

Fleischer pointedly referred to the proposal as "the Daschle budget," a sign of the White House's increasing willingness to heap criticism directly on the majority leader by name.

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