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Impeach Bush

Conservatives: Bush on spending spree
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2003; Page A01

budget surplus/deficitsLast month's passage of a Medicare prescription drug benefit that could cost $2 trillion over 20 years, after three years of sharp increases in federal spending, has provoked an unusual barrage of criticism of President Bush from conservative leaders.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page accuses Bush of a "Medicare fiasco" and a "Medicare giveaway." Paul Weyrich, a coordinator of the conservative movement, sees "disappointment in a lot of quarters." Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist with the National Center for Policy Analysis, pronounces himself "apoplectic." An article in the American Spectator calls Bush's stewardship on spending "nonexistent," while Steve Moore of the Club for Growth labels Bush a "champion big-spending president."

"The president isn't showing leadership," laments Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, who calculates that federal spending per household is at a 60-year high. "Conservatives are angry."

Such criticism is rare for Bush, who has assiduously courted the GOP's ideological base and has, in turn, built up enough goodwill that he can afford to stray from conservative orthodoxy, as he did on Medicare. This anger does not represent a political danger for Bush in the short term, conservatives leaders say, because it comes largely from conservative intellectuals, while grass-roots conservatives remain intensely loyal to Bush for his tax cuts, war leadership and antiabortion efforts.

But in the long term, the conservative leaders say, their discontent could spread to a popular backlash if spending continues to swell, pushing up deficits and interest rates. And the free spending is already limiting Bush's policy options. For example, economist Bartlett said, "the budgetary situation is getting so off track that you simply can't propose any more tax cuts without looking like a complete idiot."

The issue came to a boil this week, when White House economic aides summoned conservative economists to allow them to vent their rage. But according to participants, the session did little to dampen their anger. Joel D. Kaplan, the deputy director of the White House budget office, displayed a chart showing that, outside homeland security and defense, spending was falling. But under tough questioning, one participant recounted, Kaplan conceded that his figures did not include the series of "emergency" supplemental measures requested by Bush each year.

The next flare-up is likely to come Monday, when the House is scheduled to vote on a massive spending measure for 2004 that Congress negotiated with the Bush administration. The bill, which contains billions of dollars for lawmakers' pet projects, has aggravated fiscal conservatives, some of whom have threatened to join Democrats in opposition.

The spark has been the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which is expected to cost $400 billion over 10 years and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, could go as high as $2 trillion over another 10 years. Before its passage, former House majority leader Richard K Armey (R-Tex.) wrote to the Wall Street Journal to say that "the conservative, free-market base in America is rightly in revolt over this bill" and that "conservatives would be smart, and right, to reject it." Some conservatives, including Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.), did just that.

But the Medicare legislation comes on top of a federal spending increase of 23.7 percent since Bush took office. "In the last three years we've had the biggest farm bill, the biggest education bill, the biggest foreign aid bill and now the biggest health care bill in 30 years," said Moore of the free-market Club for Growth. "There's now not any pretense that Bush is committed to smaller government."

The White House prefers a different set of statistics. Excluding spending on defense and homeland security, Bush aides say, he cut spending 6 percent in 2002 and 5 percent in 2003, and 2 to 3 percent for 2004 -- this after a comparable increase of nearly 15 percent in these areas in the last year of the Clinton administration.

"The president has provided strong leadership to make sure we are doing what it takes to win the war on terror, our nation's highest priority, while holding the line on spending elsewhere in the budget," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said this week.

But when a White House official presented this analysis to a meeting he attended recently, "I nearly laughed out loud," said Heritage's Riedl. He calculates that 55 percent of all new spending in the past two years, or $164 billion of $296 billion, is from areas unrelated to defense and homeland security. Unemployment benefits are up 85 percent, education spending up 65 percent. "It's really an across-the-board thing," he said. This has led federal spending to top $20,000 per household in today's dollars for the first time since World War II -- a jump of $4,000 in the past four years.

Discretionary spending, which grew 2 percent annually during Clinton's presidency, has grown at 6.5 percent under Bush. And federal spending as a percent of gross domestic product, which decreased under Clinton, has edged back up to 20 percent under Bush.

Congress holds the purse strings. But the president gets a share of the blame, David Hogberg writes in the American Spectator: "He has vetoed no appropriations bill, and has actually encouraged profligacy by his eagerness to sign budget busters like the Medicare Bill, Farm Bill, and Education Bill."

Grover Norquist, an administration ally who leads Americans for Tax Reform, said it is true that "government spending is growing too rapidly." But he said Bush should not get all the blame. "I am disappointed that the movement, starting with me, has not yet figured out how to assign accountability and responsibility for spending," he said. Norquist said Bush "needs to make the case next year that this is what he is working on."

A Republican pollster working on the 2004 campaign said the spending issue is growing but has not yet reached a point of concern for Bush. "I'm seeing it percolating in primary polls in Republican segments, but they're not blaming Bush as much as the whole system," he said. "In the short term, voters are going to say spend what you need to spend on the war."

Nobody can be certain how long the conservative voters' tolerance of the spending growth will last. Weyrich, who heads the Free Congress Foundation, said it could be well into Bush's second term before conservative voters rebel against the growth of government. "I've helped to start revolts against many administrations over the years, and the level of outrage just isn't there where you could oppose the administration," he said. "People are upset about it, but they weigh it against what they consider to be Bush's leadership in Iraq and elsewhere. . . . They say, 'Well, we don't like this, but it's not enough to cause us to bolt.' "

Staff writers Dan Morgan and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

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