Democrats disagree with Bush, demand bigger defense cuts


WASHINGTON -- President Bush's proposal for $50.4 billion in defense spending cuts encountered its first sign of trouble on Capitol Hill yesterday, as some Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee branded it inadequate and demanded larger reductions to finance domestic programs.

At an initial hearing on the proposal, committee chairman Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., dismissed the Bush plan as "hesitant when it should be bold" and "indecisive when it should seize the historic opportunity to convert peace to domestic gain."

"If it indeed is as low as we can go, we are putting a very low ceiling on the kind of investment we can make in America," he said.

Mr. Sasser's views were echoed by many of the committee's Democrats, but Republicans -- and some Democrats as well -- agreed with the Bush administration's argument that cutting defense spending beyond what Mr. Bush wants would hurt U.S. military preparedness and aggravate unemployment.

Nevertheless, the budget committee's decidedly mixed reaction appeared to confirm that the defense issue will continue to be controversial this year, even if the administration is able to hold the cuts close to what Mr. Bush has proposed.

Although members of the Senate Armed Services Committee informally agreed with Mr. Bush's defense spending levels in a hearing Friday, the budget panel usually is more reflective of Congress' views and has broader say in any trade-offs between military and domestic spending.

As it did in the Armed Services Committee hearing, the administration emphasized both the preparedness question and the jobs issue yesterday. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney warned that too rapid a cut would leave the United States ill-prepared to deal with Third World threats.

Mr. Sasser's opinion did not receive unanimous support from his colleagues.

The hearing demonstrated again how reluctant many lawmakers -- even some liberal Democrats -- are to risk exacerbating the unemployment problem by cutting defense spending too far, a move that Mr. Cheney warned would throw soldiers and defense workers alike out of work.

Taking issue with Mr. Sasser's call for deeper cuts, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., told the committee that lawmakers ought to determine what threats the armed forces should be prepared to deal with before they begin cutting the defense budget very sharply.

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