Congressional Democrats conducted a two-pronged attack on Tuesday on President George W. Bush's plan for broad tax cuts and curbs on spending, saying it would undermine Medicare and slash many federal programs.
Republicans worked to round up their troops behind Bush's plan, which Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said offered ample money to run the government but some other Republicans worried was too tight to clear Congress.
House Democrats circulated a report saying that to make room for his $1.6 trillion of 10-year tax cuts as well as increases in defense, education and medical research, Bush's budget for the next fiscal year would cut purchasing power by an average 6.6 percent in remaining programs.
In the 50-50 split Senate, Democrats pounded away at what they see as a weak spot in the president's plan - its failure to clearly put reserves in the Medicare health care program for seniors off-limits to other uses.
Bush's budget, which congressional Republicans expect to mirror in their own plan, would hold overall spending growth for federal programs at 4 percent, justly slightly ahead of inflation and well below the 6 percent growth average of the past several years.
Since Bush wants increases in defense, education and medical research, the report by House Budget Committee Democrats said some $300 billion worth of remaining agencies would be cut by $6 billion from the level the Congressional Budget Office estimates would keep current purchasing power.
The report listed 13 departments and agencies that in the next fiscal year starting on Oct. 1 would face cuts ranging from 1.1 percent at NASA to 46.4 percent at the Small Business Administration.
House Budget Committee Democrats said in their report that Bush's plan would "diminish our ability to protect the environment, respond to natural disasters, and address our nation's energy and housing challenges."
But Republicans said Democrats were ignoring big buildups that many agencies enjoyed under former Democratic President Bill Clinton.
"It's the same idea that if you don't grow the budget of an agency or a department significantly every year, you're cutting it. We think that's wrong," said Brenna Hapes, spokeswoman for House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican.
LOTT URGES RESTRAINT
"With restraint, in order to do everything we need to do in the budget, I think 4 percent (spending growth) is more than enough," said Lott of Mississippi.
Lott said Congress might vote to boost some programs, "but in the final analysis, hopefully, our budget resolution will be pretty much along the lines of what the president asked for."
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, sought to chip away at one underpinning of Bush's plan - a "contingency" fund that includes about $500 billion in 10-year Medicare surpluses.
Saying Bush's tax cuts would inevitably force the government to drain that contingency fund to run a variety of programs, Democrats pushed to require Congress to put Medicare reserves off-limits to other uses.
But in the divided Senate, that measure and a Republican alternative that would have left more leeway to use Medicare reserves failed to muster the 60 votes needed to pass under a Senate rule.
Some Republicans have expressed uneasiness with Bush's contingency fund and have urged stronger safeguards for the health care program that has big political clout with senior citizens.
Trying to exploit a potential rift between the White House and a number of Republicans, Senate Democrats said they planned to continue to bring up their plan to lock up Medicare reserves.
"I think they need lots of opportunities to vote on this ... and lots of opportunities for people to check on how they voted on this," said Kent Conrad of North Dakota, senior Senate Budget Committee Democrat.