House chair targets mandatory spending in fiscal 2004 budget

Plotting a tricky political course for his fellow Republicans-and turning his back on parts of the Bush administration's budget-House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, Tuesday said he intends to press forward with a fiscal 2004 budget resolution that cuts discretionary and mandatory spending below the president's assumptions in order to achieve balance by the end of a 10-year window.

The resolution would not, however, deviate from the $1.6 trillion Bush tax cut plan, said Nussle, acknowledging that it would include a reconciliation instruction to pass a $726 billion economic growth package and still allow for making the 2001 tax cut permanent, although that would not be ordered under reconciliation.

But in a bold statement, Nussle said the president's budget proposal, which the Congressional Budget Office last week said would create a $1.8 trillion deficit over 10 years, contained too much spending and that something has to give if people are serious about balancing the budget.

"I can coast along with the president's plan that doesn't balance over 10 years, or I can do something about it," said Nussle, noting that many in the Republican Conference, including himself, feel the "tax cut would only be good if we show more spending restraint." Nussle remained mum on the specifics of the size and nature of such restraint, although presumably the resolution would call for spending cuts in fiscal 2004 and beyond.

Nussle said the only programs "off-limits" from the budget axe were Social Security, unemployment benefits, defense and homeland security spending-assumptions laid out by the president's budget. That means the budget will likely call for significantly less spending on highways, farm programs, aviation programs and nondefense programs, such as education and health, than many legislators would like.

It also means that the resolution may contain calls for Medicare and Medicaid reform-a Herculean task. On Medicare, Nussle griped that the White House is still pushing for its $400 billion prescription drug proposal even though Congress enacted a $54 billion Medicare fix in the recent fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations legislation. That's a $54 billion spending increase in just a couple of months, noted Nussle, who said he has yet to hear from the administration about whether it will support something less than the $400 billion now that the added costs have to be built into the Medicare spending baseline.

"If you don't start making these small decisions now, the pain of making them later gets exponentially worse," said Nussle, who acknowledged that the "structure of Medicare is more important than a $400 billion add-on."