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Bush Wants to See Education, Defense Proposals Get Priority

By James Gerstenzang and Janet Hook

President Bush jumped into the Washington political fray from afar on Wednesday, pressing Congress to put his education proposals and defense budget at the top of its autumn agenda.

One day before ending his nearly monthlong summer visit to Texas, the president set an agenda for Congress that also urges speedy action on a patients’ rights measure and a provision providing prescription drugs to Medicare patients.

While the proposals are not new, they come amid a rapidly souring budget picture. Since the president and Congress left Washington, their budget offices each reported that the once-soaring surplus is nearing the disappearing point.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the surplus, projected last May at $275 billion, was closer to $153 billion. When the Social Security surplus is not counted, the overall federal budget surplus becomes a $9 billion deficit, the CBO said. In comparison, the White House Office of Management and Budget projected a $1 billion surplus.

Either way, the president and Congress face a period of unaccustomed belt-tightening. Bush, who pushed through a massive $1.35 trillion tax cut, will now have to win support for his $18.4 billion increase in the defense budget and education plans. Making that case Wednesday, Bush said, “I know this nation still has enemies and we cannot expect them to be idle. Security is my first responsibility and I will not permit any course that leaves America undefended.”

Back in Washington, Democratic leaders continued to blame Bush for the dwindling budget surplus. In a letter to Bush, the Democrats asked him how he intends to finance his defense budget and other initiatives without tapping Social Security funds.

“It is imperative that you provide specific guidance on how you intend to pay for the additional initiatives that you are calling for,” said the letter.