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White House Still Vague on Cuts


President Bush has committed, in principle, to cutting spending to offset the massive new expenditures his administration is promising in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but the White House has refused to endorse or recommend any specific cuts. 

The day after he gave his nationally televised speech at Jackson Square, vowing to rebuild New Orleans and reimburse state governments for hurricane-related expenses, Bush was asked by liberal reporters how the government could afford the massive undertaking without a tax increase.  “You bet it’s going to cost money,” he replied.  “But I’m confident we can handle it.  It’s going to mean we’re going to have to cut unnecessary spending.”

Yet that same morning, one of the President’s key advisers dismissed a question about spending cuts.  At the morning press briefing at the White House, Press Secretary Scott McClellan was joined by National Economic Adviser Al Hubbard and Domestic Policy Adviser Claude Allen.  When I asked Allen to name any specific programs that would be cut or eliminated to make room in the budget for Katrina relief, he answered:  “No, I cannot name any programs that will be cut.  In fact, we did not focus on that.”

When I pressed the question further, Allen again said, “[W]e have not done an exercise to look at programs to cut.”  Another reporter queried Hubbard as to where the money to rebuild New Orleans would come from.  “Where’s the money coming from?” said Hubbard. “It’s coming from the American taxpayer.” 

Monday, I asked McClellan whether the administration would consider the suggestion of Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) and other conservative House members to delay implementation of the Medicare prescription drug program enacted in 2003.  McClellan told me there were “millions of Americans waiting to receive their Medicare drug benefits” and “that it’s important to move forward.  We are.”  I then asked McClellan if this meant specifically that the White House was ruling out a delay in the Medicare measure.  He said:  “I think I just addressed that.” 

On Wednesday morning, McClellan did not challenge a reporter’s characterization of his previous responses as meaning that “you have ruled out cancellation of the Medicare bill.” 

To my question as to whether the administration had a list of programs that it would like to see cut, McClellan replied:  “Yes, in our budget.  Congress has yet to act on it.  It’s a good starting point.  [Office of Management and Budget head] Josh Bolten has started to work closely with members of Congress on spending.  We’re going to meet the needs of the region.”  McClellan went on to cite the Stafford Act (which requires the federal government to pick up three-fourths of the tab for rebuilding public infrastructure destroyed by the hurricane) and to note there was a special office in the Department of Homeland Security to oversee accountability in Katrina spending. 

Still Waiting

Toward the end of the week, conservatives were still wondering just what spending cuts Bush would be willing to endorse and sign into law. 

Following a speech at the Pentagon Thursday, Bush was asked by a reporter if “you prioritized, what may need to be cut?”

“I’m going to work with Congress to prioritize what may need to be cut,” he replied, “The other day I said that we’re open-minded about offsets.  What’s a priority for me is to win this War on Terror and secure the country, and to help people down there [in the Katrina-devastated areas] to the extent that the law allows.” 

When asked again about possible offsets in spending, the President talked about the responsibility of the federal government to pick up 75% for rebuilding infrastructue, and then ticked off a list of things that the government intended to pay for to relieve the devastated area.  Once the administration has the costs, he said, “We’ll be happy to share those with the United States Congress and then work through how we can pay for all this.”

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