Article

Breakfast at the White House

When congressional leaders meet with Bush on the budget, they'll have a stronger hand than White House strategists probably imagined.

Congressional leaders will start the month of August with a breakfast meeting with President Bush and his top advisors. The meeting is a response to a joint request by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid to see if some common ground between Congress and the Bush administration can be found on the budget for the coming year.

Congress wants to redeploy the U.S. Treasury’s 10 billion dollar a month commitment in Iraq toward lowering the deficit and meeting some urgent domestic needs that have languished over the past half a dozen years. The White House on the other hand is steadfast in its commitment to do whatever is necessary to create a secure and stable government in Iraq. Yet even as the cost of providing government services increases and the population continues to expand, the Bush administration insists on keeping the domestic side of the government frozen.

It will be a tough meeting and it is unlikely to produce near term results. The two sides will eventually have to reach some agreement, but the White House seems to relish the prospect of having a fight with the opposition party over spending, even though they themselves have been the biggest spenders in U.S. history. Based on the Bush administration’s own projections, they will leave office with a public debt of more than $10 trillion. Forty-two percent of this—$4.4 trillion—was added during their tenure, while the other $5.7 trillion came from the previous 42 presidents combined.

The administration therefore seems unwilling to pass up this opportunity to demonstrate their fiscal discipline to their anti-spending, anti-government conservative base. This is particularly true now, when the daily press coverage is directed at the growing violence and chaos in Iraq, the struggles of Alberto Gonzales, and Karl Rove’s latest efforts to manipulate various components of the federal government for the benefit of his party and its candidates for public office.

Yet as tempting as this fight appeared to White House strategists in March and April, the emerging reality about how the battle may turn out is quite different from what was anticipated. First of all, the American people seem stubbornly wed to the notion that spending on the Iraq war is part of the overall budget and is a less important spending priority than many programs that the president is now opposing. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, two-thirds of all Americans said the United States “should reduce its forces in Iraq, or remove them altogether.”

Furthermore, while truly hard-core conservatives may oppose much or all of the spending that Congress is advocating, most voters and even many conservatives do not. As a result, many conservatives in Congress that would usually side with the Bush administration on these issues are being placed in the precarious position of further endangering themselves with the voting public or abandoning the White House in a way that will be embarrassing for the entire party.

The clearest example of this is the nearly $4 billion that Democrats added to the Department of Veterans Affairs to clean up substandard facilities, improve treatment for returning wounded soldiers, and facilitate a more orderly and rapid transition for wounded veterans from military to veterans health care. White House budget chief Robert Portman demanded that congressional Republicans hold the line on denying additional spending, but in the end every member of the president’s party on the House Appropriations Committee abandoned the White House and supported the increase.

Now the White House is asking their allies in Congress to oppose funding that would, among other things: improve the capacity of first responders to react to terrorist attacks, maintain our national parks, sustain health care services to the needy, prevent a decline cancer research, and restore some of the recent cuts in education for disadvantaged children.

In each instance, a substantial number of conservatives have abandoned the White House and voted for the increased funding. Many who remained faithful to the president are facing a long August recess of talking to constituents about why we have to spend money “over there” rather than here at home. But even more troubling for the White House is the fact that the public sentiment is not likely to improve in the months ahead as Congress tries to complete work and send legislation to the White House. The September deadline for showing the success of the surge and some type of progress in Iraq is not likely to make the public more sympathetic to the president’s spending priorities.

Congress’ additions to the 2008 budget will ultimately increase the deficit by about $10 billion. That is equal to what we are now spending in Iraq each month. Ending the war in Iraq would not only finance all of these popular and needed initiatives, but it would leave an excess of $100 billion to pay down the deficit. The congressional leadership will be going to breakfast with a much stronger hand than White House strategists probably imagined a few months ago.

 

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Authors

Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow

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