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Fears of a Bush budget

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (JTA) — With President Bush about to unveil a budget proposal focused heavily on anti-terrorism efforts, some Jewish groups are concerned about the budget´s impact on local social services and other domestic priorities. "We are approaching this budget with some anxiety," said Diana Aviv, vice president of public policy for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the Jewish community´s federation system. Aviv and others say the organized Jewish community stands behind Bush´s anti-terrorism efforts, but they still worry about the effect on social services such as housing for the elderly and food programs for the disadvantaged. The president is scheduled to present his budget to Congress on Monday. With months to go before a final budget is approved — the House and Senate will have to pass their own plans, which will then need to be reconciled with Bush´s proposal — the final budget numbers are far from certain. And this year´s budget battle might be messier than usual given that it is a congressional election year and politics could exacerbate the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Still, the White House already has indicated its intent to spare no expense on the war against terrorism. The homeland security budget could cost as much as $38 billion per year, a $10 billion "war reserve" might be used to help fund active military operations, and Bush also proposed a 15 percent increase to the Defense Department´s budget. The administration´s determination to fight terrorism abroad could mean an increase in the overall budget related to international affairs, which has the support of groups such as the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Pro-Israel activists expect the president´s budget to include full funding to the Jewish state — $600 million in economic assistance and $2.1 billion in military aid. They also anticipate that increased funding in counter-terrorism measures could bring about more joint U.S.-Israel anti-terrorism projects and cooperative defense programs. At the same time, money spent on domestic programs is expected to drop, perhaps 5 percent to 7 percent. "There will be a need to limit the growth, to increase spending more slowly, if you will, on many of the issues on the domestic home front — recognizing that for the last several years there have been major increases in many of these domestic accounts," Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said last week. Still, the administration has made clear that it wants to be recognized for some efforts on the domestic front. Among the domestic areas the administration is expected to include in the budget: • Details of a White House plan that calls for restoring food stamps to poor legal immigrants, a move that was applauded by many Jewish activists; • Prescription drug coverage for low-income seniors; economic stimulus proposals, including some that promote job growth; and • a plan for education tax credits for private schools that could raise concerns among those Jewish groups who are fearful of government support for religious schools and might only agree to credits for school supplies and not tuition. The question, of course, is how do you pay for all of this in light of the wartime needs? And what could sizeable cuts in domestic spending mean? The cuts could be very troubling and have big ramifications, said Aviv, who heads the UJC´s Washington Action Office. Cuts in the $1.7 billion Social Services Block Grant, for example, could have far-reaching and varying effects in different communities. Since states decide how to allocate the money from the grant, it could mean cuts in anything from food programs to senior programming in Jewish community centers, she said. The federal government is projecting a $100 billion deficit, but it is not restrained by balanced budget requirements, as is the case with states. Most states, too, are facing deficits and would have difficulty picking up spending where the federal funds left off. Last year, Jewish groups involved in social services were pleased that key programs did not suffer the potentially severe cutbacks they had feared under Bush´s budget plan. Nevertheless, they thought the proposed funding fell short of what they needed.

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