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Congress Returns to Budget Battle

Congress returns to work this week after the summer recess to contend with remaining budget issues, amidst bleaker economic projections and statistics. Education and defense are shaping up to be the most difficult issues.

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that nearly $9 billion of the Social Security surplus would be spent, given President Bush’s tax cut and the economic slowdown.

Democrats say President Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax cut and defense spending proposals will eat into the Social Security surplus that previous administrations worked so hard to attain.

Many Senate Democrats have threatened a budget standoff and suggested suspending the tax cuts.

“Unless the President of the United States steps up and puts on the table the notion that they have made a miscalculation… we’re going to have a great deal of difficulty avoiding a train wreck,” said Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) on NBC’s “Meet the Press”.

While President Bush and other Republicans acknowledge a slowing economy, they also maintain that increased government spending and tax cuts are necessary to stimulate the U.S. economy.

Republicans supported the administration’s approach and said it is up to Congress to control spending. “We can accommodate our fiscal needs…” Senator Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said. “We’re still spending like $1.9 trillion…We may have to reduce some areas and grow in other areas.”

However Republicans do plan to increase spending on military programs, the missile defense plan, and tax cuts for businesses.

Democratic priorities include increased spending on public education and a boost in the minimum wage.

Collectively, lawmakers are concerned that several important issues, such as campaign finance reform, prescription drug benefits, and farm bills, could be scrapped in order to meet the new budget projections. While the budget proposal from last spring includes such spending, they may be tabled under the new economic forecasts.

By the end of the fiscal year, September 30, Congress must pass 13 appropriations bills to fund government operations, or pass a special resolution to operate government agencies until bills are approved.

To date, the Senate has approved five bills, and the House has approved nine. Both are behind schedule.