House leaders hope to restore balanced budget in 10 years

The House and Senate Budget committees are proceeding with plans to mark up their respective fiscal 2004 budget resolutions beginning Wednesday, but budget writers have yet to make decisions about some of the key elements of their plans, as they feverishly work and rework numbers to confront the realities of a worsening budget situation.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., exiting a meeting Monday with Republican members of his committee, was tightlipped about the contents of his resolution, saying it "remains to be seen" whether it indeed will bring the budget back into balance within the expected 10-year time frame of the resolution.

But a spokesman for House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, was more optimistic, saying that despite new Congressional Budget Office estimates Friday showing the president's budget and tax proposals would produce a 10-year deficit of $1.8 trillion-or $4.4 trillion not counting extra Social Security revenues-Nussle was planning on submitting a budget "that will show balance" within 10 years.

Details remained scant Monday on how budget writers plan to do that. But it would take some type of reduction in spending assumptions, perhaps in 2004 but definitely in future years, to accomplish that if Republicans, as expected, also make room for the president's $1.5 trillion tax cut within the 10-year timeframe.

"At this point we're looking at the whole budget, with the exception of Social Security and a few other key areas," such as unemployment benefits, to control spending over the length of the budget resolution, said the committee spokesman. "The numbers are in flux."

However, the aide said Nussle's resolution would emphasize "fairness" to all parties, meaning that if appropriators are forced to accept a cut in discretionary spending, so will those who control mandatory spending.

That would be a tall order, given cries for increased defense, education, health and homeland security spending on the discretionary side of the budget equation.

Meanwhile, on the mandatory side, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and his allies have been lobbying for huge increases in highway funds, and any proposal designed to decrease the long-term costs of Medicare and Medicaid would be greeted with skepticism on Capitol Hill.

Also, the president last year signed a major farm bill that greatly increased agriculture spending, and any effort to reduce those assumptions would also be a hard pill to swallow.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Monday that the Senate likely would take up the resolution approved by Nickles committee beginning next week.

Asked whether he thought the Senate would approve a budget resolution that called for the entirety of the Bush tax plan, Frist said he was "hopeful" but that his "real objective [would be] to make sure this budget process works" after the breakdown of last year.