Bush to propose spending freeze

President Bush will propose an increase of less than 1 percent for federal programs not related to defense or homeland security, effectively freezing discretionary spending in the next budget, after coming under fire from conservatives to control runaway spending.

But the president will propose increasing governmentwide homeland security funding by 9.7 percent in the fiscal 2005 budget, and the military budget is expected to increase by a small amount.

“This is going to be an austere budget,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy said of the budget that Mr. Bush will send to Congress on Feb. 2.

The less-than-1 percent growth will be the smallest since Mr. Bush took office in 2001 — and the lowest since his father, President Bush, proposed his fiscal 1993 budget.

“But we must spend what is necessary to win the war on terror, protect the American people at home and to restore economic growth. And because of these life-and-death priorities, the rest of government spending must be restrained,” Mr. Duffy said.

Some fiscal conservatives, who sharply criticized the president and congressional Republicans this week for spending like “drunken sailors,” said the proposal leaked yesterday is a step in the right direction so long as Mr. Bush follows through.

Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the proposal is “definitely a good start.”

“The key question is whether the White House will back up this proposal with a veto threat, because last year the president proposed a 4 percent increase and, with the passage of the omnibus spending bill, he’s about to sign a 9 percent increase,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors yesterday that the 1 percent limit “is tight. Why? Because we have to reduce this deficit.”

Some programs, including education initiatives, will rise by more than 1 percent, and others will be cut by an offsetting amount, Mr. Duffy said.

“It’s safe to assume that there will be some proposals for streamlining some programs and to refocus spending on programs that actually work,” he said.

For example, the president’s budget blueprint will boost counterterrorism funding through the Justice Department to $2.6 billion, a 19 percent increase over 2004. The money will increase the number of FBI agents investigating terrorism and will bring overall FBI funding to $5.1 billion in fiscal 2005, a 60 percent increase over 2001 levels, the White House said.

Some other programs therefore will have to be trimmed substantially to make up for the high expenditure on counterterrorism.

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Mr. Bush vowed to restrain spending in the next fiscal year.

“In two weeks, I will send you a budget that funds the war, protects the homeland and meets important domestic needs, while limiting the growth in discretionary spending to less than 4 percent,” he said.

He said such an austere budget would “require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending and be wise with the people’s money. By doing so, we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years.”

The deficit is expected to top $500 billion this year.

Spending under Mr. Bush has been coming down drastically, Mr. Duffy said.

“In Bill Clinton’s last year, fiscal year 2001, the growth rate in this category was 15 percent.”

Mr. Bush trimmed spending growth in the non-homeland security, nondefense category, to 6 percent, then to 5 percent, and then, in the omnibus bill passed yesterday, to 4 percent.

Critics, however, say the bill just passed by Congress would increase discretionary spending — federal outlays on programs not including automatic payments such as Social Security and Medicare — by about 9 percent. In the two previous years, they say growth was 13 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

Although Mr. Bush proposed far less spending, critics say, Congress upped the amount, and Mr. Bush, who has not yet wielded his veto pen once, did nothing to stop it.

The president actually began making decisions for the budget in early December, long before the recent grumbling by Republicans, Mr. Duffy said, and thus is not responding to GOP complaints.

Conservative critics say Mr. Bush, in fact, has overseen a nearly 25 percent surge in spending over the past three years — the fastest pace since the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson passed his “Great Society” programs while fighting the Vietnam War.

National leaders of six conservative organizations this week broke with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate and criticized Mr. Bush as well for overspending.

“The Republican Congress is spending at twice the rate as under Bill Clinton, and President Bush has yet to issue a single veto,” said Paul M. Weyrich, national chairman of Coalitions for America. “I complained about profligate spending during the Clinton years but never thought I’d have to do so with a Republican in the White House and Republicans controlling the Congress.”

Paul Beckner, president of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said excessive spending could come back to haunt Mr. Bush this election year.

“If the president doesn’t take a stand on this, there’s a real chance the Republicans’ voter base will not be enthusiastic about turning out in November, no matter who the Democrats nominate,” he said.

Democrats blamed Mr. Bush’s tax cuts for undercutting spending on domestic programs.

“His proposals lack fiscal discipline. There are consequences for his reckless tax cuts,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee: “That won’t have much of an impact on the deficit. Nondefense discretionary spending is almost frozen already.”

• Don Lambro contributed to this report.