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Governors Charge Bush Favors Rich, Uses Budget Gimmicks

By Ann Devroy
and Richard Morin

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

President Bush got a rude awakening from Democratic governors Monday who interrupted his pitch for his economic program to accuse him of budgetary gimmicks, creating a "sewer of debt," and of favoring the rich.

The confrontation, which clearly annoyed the president, came on a morning in which Bush's spokesman tried to explain away weekend criticism of the Bush program by a member of the Cabinet and acknowledged that reaction to the president's State of the Union address and budget had been "mixed."

A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll found that Bush's job approval rating remained at 46 percent, virtually unchanged since before last week's speech. The survey also found continued signs of deep concern over the economy and strong evidence that this growing anxiety is working to the clear advantage of the Democrats.

For the first time since June 1983, more than half of all Americans -- 57 percent -- named an economic issue as the biggest problem facing the country today, up from 42 percent in October.

Unemployment led the list of the country's specific concerns. One out of four persons surveyed -- 26 percent -- said it was the nation's biggest worry, up from 9 percent in September. The survey of 1,512 randomly selected adults was conducted Thursday through Sunday.

Bush's confrontation with Democratic governors began when Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, demanded that the news media be allowed to stay at the end of Bush's speech to hear his complaints and those of other governors. The state leaders had been invited for the standard presidential meeting at the end of the winter gathering of the National Governors Association, and under traditional procedures, the press is escorted out after Bush gives his remarks.

Bush gave in to Romer's demand and the Democrat launched his assault. He said Bush's $1.52 trillion budget contained $40 billion in "gimmicks," including $12 billion in unspecified domestic cuts in later years and $28 billion in "accural accounting," which counts anticipated revenue before the cash is in hand.

The governors worry, Romer said, that "some of those may end up on our backs." He called for larger military cuts beyond the $50 billion over five years announced by the president.

Bush, demanding specifics, suggested the Democratic position meant the governors wanted a tax increase. He told Romer to list which military bases and weapons programs he would eliminate.

"Do you want it to be $100 billion, and if so, what bases do you want to close?" the president said heatedly. "What areas do you want to shut down? What weapon systems do you want to knock off right now? Or do you want to lay off the people?"

Romer replied that Bush had made some partisan points and on behalf of the Democrats he wanted to make the public case that there is more than the Republican approach to economic and budgetary issues.

In response to Bush's challenge over taxes, North Dakota Gov. George Sinner, a Democrat, told Bush, "I think you could tax the wealthy a lot more."

"If we continue into this sewer of debt, our children and the families that are suffering today, that's nothing compared to what these families of tomorrow will suffer," Sinner said. "I for one will stand and say, `Yes, I think we should raise [taxes].' "

Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont complained that Bush was cutting $500 million from a $1.5 billion program to help the poor buy home-heating oil. Dean said "we would be devastated" if the cut were allowed to stand.

Earlier, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged reaction to the president's proposals, laid out in his State of the Union address and budget, has been "mixed" but said getting the proposals approved and the economy moving would not be an "instant" but a long process.

Perhaps the depth of Bush's current problems was best seen in the dramatic changes in public attitudes toward his conduct of foreign policy, an area where the administration claims its greatest successes.

The new Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 59 percent of those questioned said they approved of the way Bush was handling foreign affairs, down from 69 percent in December and 85 percent in March following the end of the Persian Gulf War.

Overall, the proportion of Americans who believe Bush is able to deal with the big issues facing the country has fallen from 84 percent in March to 50 percent in the new survey.

The survey also found a dramatic shift in public perception of which party Americans believe is able to handle the country's problems.

When asked which party they trusted to "do a better job coping with the main problems the nation faces," 49 percent said the Democrats and 39 percent said the Republicans. That marked the first time in nearly 16 months that the Democrats enjoyed a clear advantage.

The survey also found that, by 49 percent to 38 percent, Democrats were percieved as the party best able to handle the nation's economy. Two years ago, Republicans enjoyed a 52 percent to 33 percent advantage over Democrats.