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Bush seeks jump in war spending

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush, seeking $245 billion more for the nation's two wars at a time when Congress is challenging an escalation of U.S. military force in Iraq, proposed a $2.9 trillion federal budget yesterday that would significantly increase defense spending while restraining other areas of the government.

The president's plan for 2008 is much like the budgets he has presented for the past six years, averting new taxes and limiting spending in many "discretionary" areas while boosting defense spending. The $481.4 billion requested for the Department of Defense would mark a 62 percent boost since the start of the Bush administration and an 11 percent annual increase over the current budget.

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What is different is the political environment in which the president is delivering his spending plan. Leaders of the new Democratic-controlled Congress are challenging the president's escalation of force in Iraq and his conduct of the war in general. The White House, while insisting that its commitment to military force in Iraq is not open-ended, added a $50 billion "placeholder" proposal for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2009 budget year, an acknowledgement that the conflicts will carry on beyond Bush's tenure.

"Our priority is to protect the American people," Bush said yesterday. "And our priority is to make sure our troops have what it takes to do their jobs."

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Congressional leaders - insisting that they support the military, especially the troops in Iraq - promised closer scrutiny of the president's war spending than the Republican-run Congress has given defense expenditures since 2002.

The White House insisted that it has attempted to make the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as "transparent" as possible by spelling them out in its new budget. This comes after four years in which the White House has sent the Congress "emergency" supplemental funding plans for the wars, separate from the main budget.

The newest increase of $100 billion in war spending for the current year would push to $170 billion the wars' costs during the 2007 budget year that ends Sept. 30. The president's budget director said military planners have taken their best guess in estimating a $145 billion war budget for 2008.

Overall, the requests push the projected costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to nearly $700 billion through 2008, just before Bush will finish his term.

Bush's budget proposal includes a 3 percent pay increase for federal employees, welcome news in Maryland, home to thousands of government workers. The president's budget also calls for keeping on track the military base realignment process, which involves the transfer of tens of thousands of jobs to Maryland.

Federal grants for education, health care and transportation in Maryland would increase from $5.6 billion to $5.8 billion under the plan, though education and health care leaders said the proposal falls short in several areas.

Area health officials said that freezing funding levels of the State Children's Health Insurance Program would mean that Maryland is harmed, because children are enrolled at higher rates than in other places. Not enough money is included to help Maryland meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, a state Education Department spokesman said.

Maryland's Democratic congressional leaders said the president's efforts to reduce future growth in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are bad for middle-class families.

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"The president is continuing his assault on Medicare and Social Security and wants to slash funds for programs that help children obtain health care, middle-class Americans save for their retirements, and veterans recover from the traumas of war," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin in a statement.

After the federal budget deficit jumped to record highs during the Bush administration, the White House promises to halve that deficit by the end of Bush's presidency. The administration contends that the proposed budget would put the government on a path toward a balanced budget, indeed a slight surplus, by 2012.

The budget deficit exceeded $400 billion at its peak during Bush's first term, and the White House budget office now projects a deficit of $239 billion in 2008 and $187 billion in 2009. That could put the government on track for a $61 billion surplus by 2012, the budget office said.

Bush, who won a series of tax cuts during his first term, contends that balancing the budget is possible without raising taxes.

"I strongly believe Congress needs to listen to a budget which has no tax increase and a budget, because of fiscal discipline, that can be balanced in five years," Bush said at a Cabinet meeting yesterday.

At the same time, the White House insisted that the spiraling growth of spending in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid must be curtailed, and proposed $96 billion in spending cuts over the next five years to contain the growth of those programs.

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Such mandatory spending now accounts for 53 percent of the overall federal budget, said Rob Portman, Bush's budget director, noting that the share of entitlement programs in the budget has grown from 26 percent in the early 1960s. At the pace those programs have been growing, Portman said, they will "crowd out all other spending ... unless we are ready to make the necessary reforms."

The president's 2008 plan includes close to 7 percent in added spending for those mandatory programs, a 6 percent increase overall for "security" - including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security - and a 1 percent increase for all "discretionary" spending outside of the mandatory entitlements or security spending.

In some areas, such as education, the president is proposing a continuation of cutbacks. The 2008 plan proposes $58.6 billion for education, a 14 percent cut from $68 billion this year. In 2006, $93 billion was spent on education.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, sharply criticized the proposal. Kennedy helped Bush win passage of his No Child Left Behind educational reforms during his first year as president, but has criticized the administration for failing to finance those reforms.

"I am particularly disappointed that the president has once again proposed inadequate funding for the law's important reforms and that he pays for his modest increases through cuts to other education programs," Kennedy said.

The president is calling on Congress, as he has before, to cut or eliminate 141 government programs, which the White House says could save $12 billion.

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But Portman, a former Ohio congressman, said the White House has adjusted its budget proposals to more closely conform with what Congress actually has done in recent years, which has meant increasing the discretionary areas of spending in the federal budget by about 1 percent this year.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune. Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.

PROPOSED BUDGET

WINNERS

Defense: $624.6 billion, increase of 4.1 percent

NASA: $17.3 billion, increase of 6.9 percent

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Veterans: $84.4 billion, increase of 13.3 percent

LOSERS

Homeland Security: $34.6 billion, decrease of 8 percent

Education $62.6 billion, decrease of 5 percent

Environmental Protection Agency: $7.1 billion, decrease of 4.9 percent

MARYLAND

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More funding to repair the Hubble Space Telescope

A 3 percent raise for federal employees

No funding added for port, rail or transit security [Sources: Sun staff, Associated Press]


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