With its military spending increases, reductions in popular domestic programs and calls to extend tax cuts, President Bush’s $2.9 trillion budget for 2008 drew fire from Democrats the minute it landed on Monday.
But while Democratic critics may wish to challenge the administration’s blueprint, political and fiscal constraints will make it hard for them to assert their own priorities.
In theory, the budget presents the Democrats their first real opportunity to rewrite the administration’s policies, especially on tax cuts, that they have been attacking for six years.
But in practice, Democrats know that the only way they can find the revenue to restore the administration’s proposed spending cuts would be to cut back on military spending, delay their stated intentions to balance the budget or rescind the Bush tax cuts in future years. They are not especially eager to do any of these.
The most likely result, even some Democrats acknowledge, will be a limited reshaping of the budget by restoring some proposed cuts in a range of domestic programs, including children’s health care, Head Start and home heating assistance for the poor and elderly.
But few Democrats are expected to look for new revenues by calling for an end to Bush’s tax cuts, instead of extending them as the president proposed Monday, or to deal with the looming costs of Social Security and Medicare as the postwar generation retires, all of which pose huge budget problems in future years.
“The long-term budget crisis appears so distant that it’s going to be very hard to get politicians excited about it this year,” said Robert D. Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute. “The economy is strong, and the deficit seems to be at manageable levels right now. No one wants to risk popular support by doing something courageous.”
Since 2001, Democratic leaders have made a point of saying that the Bush tax cuts are unfairly weighted toward the wealthy and dangerous to American solvency. But the tax cuts expire in 2010 and Democrats acknowledge that they are not ready to move on them now.
One development could reopen the tax cuts to revision this year, Democrats say: a signal from the administration that it would be willing to consider a repeal of some cuts for the wealthiest as part of a deal to pay for other priorities.