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House approves Republican budget blueprint

President Bush
"Today's a big day," President Bush declared as he met with GOP House and Senate leaders Wednesday morning before debate began in the House on the budget.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives Wednesday approved a resolution setting fiscal 2002 spending priorities for the federal government and laying a foundation for President Bush's proposed 10-year cut.

The Republican-crafted budget resolution passed the chamber 222-205 after a full day of debate that saw four alternative resolutions swatted down in rapid succession. Three Democrats crossed party lines to vote with the majority and two Republicans voted, "No."

The resolution serves as a blueprint for the Congress; the president does not sign it. Rather, it provides a framework for the subcommittees that will later determine the budgets of every federal department, agency and program.

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It also gives the go-ahead to the House's tax-writing body, the Ways and Means Committee, to set the Republicans' planned levels of tax relief for the coming fiscal year, and to lay out a trajectory for some $1.62 trillion in tax cuts through 2011.

"This budget is right for America. It sends us in a new direction .... one that we can call 'fiscal responsibility,'" said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

Bush, speaking at the White House on Wednesday, seemed pleased that the day of debate had arrived.

"Today's a big day," he said.

Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, leading the debate for the Republicans, said the document sets out six principles -- all of which were promoted frequently by candidate Bush on last year's campaign trail.

The budget calls for $1.94 trillion in total federal spending in fiscal 2002, dropping the growth rate of federal spending to 4 percent. That is -- as Bush has argued in recent days -- more than the rate of inflation but far less than the 6 percent and 8 percent growth rates seen in recent years.

The budget, Nussle said, calls for "maximum debt elimination" by 2011 by setting in place a program to pay off $2.3 trillion in government held-debt.

In other words, it does not erase the government's full debt load, only the debt that will have matured in the course of the next 10 years. Republicans argue that a full paydown would result in early payment penalties.

The tax breaks set in motion by the resolution, Nussle said, could yield some $1,600 per year to the average American family. At the same time, he said, education spending would be increased by 11 percent, with a $44.5 billion allocation, and defense spending would be raised by some $14 billion.

About $5.7 billion of that, Nussle said, would go toward military pay raises and quality of life improvements.

The budget also would "modernize" Medicare, he said, and would provide the impetus for prescription drug benefits for seniors, leaving all the money in the Social Security trust fund to be used only for seniors. The GOP has estimated the prescription program could cost some $153 billion.

"President Bush is at the helm and he is making a great deal of history," said California Republican Rep. David Drier, noting that this is the first time in nearly 50 years that a Republican Congress has been able to work with a Republican administration on a federal budget.

"This could mean families will be able to decide between buying name-brand cereal or generic," Nussle said. "It could be the difference between Nikes and Keds."

Democrats see shortfalls

Democrats assailed the Republican agenda, saying line-by-line details of the resolution revealed sharp cuts in child-care and other social aid programs, including Medicare. And, they continued expressing their distaste for the size of the Bush tax cut.

"I suggest to members that we're making a mistake with this budget," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri. "It's a $2 trillion-plus tax cut that mostly goes to the richest Americans."

"I plead with members, turn down this budget, and let's do a budget that doesn't send this country back into deficits," Gephardt said, referring to the economic conditions of the 1980s, which resulted, he said, from the tax cut implemented when former President Ronald Reagan took office.

"This is a watershed budget," said John Spratt of South Carolina, ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. "It will set a course for us for years to come."

"The children of this country under this Bush budget who rely on childcare will be Bush-whacked," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.

"The president said he wants to leave no child behind," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-Rhode Island. "In this budget he'll end up leaving millions of children behind. Those children don't even know that this vote we have today is going to seal up their future."

Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Connecticut, accused Democrats of engaging in "purposeful politics" as the budget debate unfolded.

The House debated a handful of alternatives to the Republican resolution, all of which were destined for failure, although one -- the budget produced by the so-called Blue Dog group of conservative Democrats -- put up a valiant fight.

The Blue Dog budget would have devoted half of the projected 10-year, $5.6 trillion federal surplus for debt reduction and for shoring up the Medicare and Social Security programs, while setting aside one quarter of that surplus for tax cuts retroactive to 2001.

"Our budget maximizes the tax cuts we can afford while remaining fiscally conservative," said Blue Dog member Charles Stenholm of Texas. "It is an honest, balanced plan that we can live with both practically and politically."

The Blue Dog budget fell by the close margin of 204 voting in favor to 211 against.

Other alternatives did not fare as well.

A budget proposal drafted by the House Progressive Caucus, whose membership is composed of self-described liberal Democrats, failed by a vote of 343-79. Another, presented by a group of conservative Republicans who called for more tax cuts and less discretionary spending, was defeated 81-341.

An alternative budget created by Budget Committee Democrats fell 183-243 late in the afternoon. That measure called for $910 billion in tax cuts over the same 10-year period.

The Senate should take up a budget resolution next week, and Senate leaders fanned out across the upper chamber Wednesday in search of votes.

The Senate is divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and early indications are that budget writers there do not have enough votes to guarantee passage.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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