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OMB Chief Plans to Fight for Bush Budget

On the eve of the first budget submission of President Bush’s second term, White House Office of Management and Budget chief Josh Bolten predicted that appropriators will need to dig deep to hit the president’s spending targets, and hinted that the Bush administration is prepared to take a tough line in negotiations to preserve the item-by-item blueprint it will lay out today.

In an interview on Friday, the OMB director stressed more than once that the White House has evaluated the full array of federal programs methodically before deciding which should stay and which should go — an implied challenge to lawmakers who may have their own pet priorities.

“In all the accounts, I think people can expect to see some spending restraint [in the White House request] — I repeat, based very heavily on performance evaluations of the programs we’re funding,” Bolten said.

“There will be areas of disagreement with the individual committees and subcommittees on [priorities] — we don’t expect to get 100 percent of what we’re asking for — but we’ll be arguing strenuously for it,” he added.

The White House has previewed the fiscal 2006 budget as a first lunge toward the goal of halving the deficit, which currently stands at $368 billion, by the time Bush leaves office in 2009.

While last year’s proposal sought to hold the rate of growth in discretionary spending below 4 percent, Bolten said the Bush administration this time wants to keep that figure below 2.3 percent — OMB’s projected rate of inflation for fiscal 2006.

Bolten refused to cite areas of the budget the administration has targeted for cuts. He did, however, indicate that the White House expects Congress to increase spending for the Bush administration’s “top priorities” — defense and homeland security.

Bush will ask Congress to increase defense spending to $419.3 billion — a 4.8 percent rise over last year.

The White House’s proposed low ceiling on spending presents a significant challenge to appropriators. Although GOP lawmakers have shown a willingness to meet the president halfway — Bush has yet to veto a single piece of legislation — the spending panels struggled mightily to hit the White House’s spending targets in the last session of Congress.

The appropriators eventually folded most of the bills into a massive omnibus spending measure that cleared Congress after the election.

“It was tough to do last year — to hit those marks — but the senior members on the Republican side helped make sure we did it,” Bolten said. “I’m expecting that this year will be more difficult, but I’m expecting to have a good working relationship again with the leadership and with the relevant committee chairs.”

This budget cycle will also personally test Bolten, who has so far won raves for his willingness to listen to appropriators and reach compromises on priorities.

An example of this flexibility came during debate over emergency spending on hurricane relief last September, after large areas of Florida and other states were decimated.

House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield said the panel’s “sources” at the various federal agencies and in the field indicated that the funding requested by the Bush administration was not sufficient to deal with the disaster.

“To Bolten’s credit, he went back on two separate occasions and adjusted the numbers upward,” Scofield said. “It was a nice model of give-and-take.”

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