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GOP fears backlash on Bush budget

Concerns focus on programs vs. taxes

WASHINGTON -- With crucial midterm elections less than nine months away, Republicans are expressing deep skepticism about President Bush's plans to cut social programs while promoting the extension of his tax cuts, saying the juxtaposition of the two GOP priorities could spur an election-year backlash.

The budget proposal Bush unveiled last week is increasingly being met with criticism from both ideological poles of his party. Moderates are expressing concern about slashing popular programs that benefit the poor at the same time they're being asked to cut taxes on the rich, and conservatives are saying the proposal does not go far enough in controlling the record budget deficit.

Those cross-pressures present an election-year conundrum for Republicans. Some fear that the tough choices Bush is forcing on the Republican-controlled House and Senate could feed into Democrats' attempts to make gains in this fall's elections, when all House members and a third of senators are up for reelection.

Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, said that if the president's budget proposals become law, dozens of Republicans who represent closely divided districts could be more vulnerable in this year's elections.

''He's not running for reelection -- we are," she said. ''We live in swing districts, where the president is not polling well."

Senator Lincoln D. Chafee, a moderate Republican from Rhode Island who is up for reelection in a heavily Democratic state this fall, said he can't support further tax cuts in the current environment of gaping deficits. He said the federal government has taken on vast new costs in recent years, including the war in Iraq and a new Medicare prescription drug program.

''To try to reconcile that with expensive tax cuts just doesn't make sense to me," Chafee said. ''Every politician wants to cut taxes, but I've articulated to my voters back home that there comes some responsibility with budgeting. We've lost our discipline, and once you lose that, the dam is breached."

As Bush seeks to fulfill a pledge to halve the deficit by 2009, he is calling for major cuts to the nation's two largest healthcare programs: $35.9 billion over five years from Medicaid and $17.2 billion over five years from Medicare.

A range of other popular programs would face the budget ax as well, with education spending slated for a $2.1 billion reduction next year, $304 million slashed from the Environmental Protection Agency, and $10.1 billion trimmed from veterans' services over five years.

''We've got to do what we can do to make sure that we keep spending under control," Bush said Wednesday in Manchester, N.H., as he sought to rally support for his proposals.

At the same time, the president is calling on Congress to make permanent the tax cuts he signed in 2001 and 2003. The calls for further tax cuts have enraged some Republicans, who point out that the White House is predicting that the budget deficit will reach a record level -- $423 billion -- this year.

Senator George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, said he recognizes the need to rein in fast-growing areas of the budget such as Medicare and Medicaid, but doesn't see the wisdom of wiping out any savings with tax cuts.

''It doesn't make sense to make tax cuts permanent while we're trying to cut spending," Voinovich said. ''If we do further tax cuts, we need to pay for them."

The president's budget, announced with ritual fanfare last Monday, is always changed substantially by members of Congress, who reflect their own priorities and politics. But the reaction to Bush's proposal this year was notably cool from members of his own party.

Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, labeled the proposed cuts to healthcare and education ''scandalous."

Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican who is up for reelection this fall, said she was ''disappointed and even surprised" that Bush is proposing cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, and blasted his proposal for higher fees for veterans' healthcare.

''I have long fought to protect access to Medicare and Medicaid, and as the budget process moves forward, I will continue to fight against any cuts that would impact our beneficiaries," Snowe said.

Even conservative Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the GOP's third-ranking senator, issued a statement saying that while he applauds Bush's goal of restraining spending, he will fight to preserve money for housing programs, social services, and heating assistance for the poor.

''I will continue to be a strong advocate for these programs, among many others," said Santorum, who is facing a tough reelection fight in a state carried by John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

Despite the concerns of Republicans being punished for cutting budgets, Bush and others in the party say Republicans are best served by returning to the ideals that helped usher them into power in Congress in 1994: low taxes and lower spending.

''I hope we don't have to get back in the minority to discover our roots," said Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who said the president's budget should have called for more cuts. ''We do best as Republicans when we outline the clear differences with Democrats. When we blur the lines, we don't do well."

But last year's push for budget cuts proved so politically difficult that final action spilled into this year; Bush finally signed the Deficit Reduction Act -- cutting nearly $40 billion over five years -- on Wednesday. The measure passed by just two votes in the House, and Vice President Dick Cheney had to cast the tie-breaking vote to pass the bill in the Senate.

With Bush insisting on further cuts in next year's budget, some of the party's conservative elder statesmen are warning that Congress may lack the political will for another round of politically unpopular cuts.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said that, given how tough the last round of cuts were, ''Any more reductions of a significant scope could be difficult this year."

GOP moderates see the potential for political peril in the Bush budget plan, and say they'll do what they can to lessen the impact of cuts. Republicans will be nearly unanimous in support of spending discipline, but many moderates will be vigilant to make sure that essential services aren't unduly harmed, said Representative Charles Bass, a moderate Republican from New Hampshire.

''As he did last year, the president has laid out a series of opportunities that are designed to irritate almost everybody," said Bass, who noted that the package that is ultimately passed by Congress will look substantially different than the one proposed by the president. ''It is rare that somebody suffers fatal political consequences for voting in good faith to curb the growth of government. All votes are, hopefully, defensible."

Chamberlain Resnick, of the Main Street Partnership, said she sees at least one bright spot in the budget proposal: It will give moderates from districts that are heavily Democratic a chance to demonstrate their independence from Bush.

''It may let us show we're not just like Bush, and help us get reelected," Resnick said.

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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