WASHINGTON -- President Bush's budget blueprint for next year is nearing its first tests on Capitol Hill, and it's clear the plan has many hurdles to overcome.
Nervous lawmakers are flinching at proposed spending cuts, and as Bush's GOP allies draft plans to implement the budget, election-year politics are driving their decisions.
The first item to be tossed overboard is likely to be Bush's proposal for $36 billion in savings from the Medicare program for the elderly and the disabled.
''On our side of the aisle, in an election year, the message is: 'Can't we put this off?' " the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, said yesterday.
One item that can't be put off much longer is a bill to raise the $8.2 trillion limit on the national debt. Congress must act before lawmakers leave Washington on March 18 for a weeklong recess, or the first-ever default on US obligations could occur.
Gregg and his House Budget Committee counterpart, Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican, have tentatively scheduled committee votes on the budget next week, though they have yet to detail their plans.
Both men are torn between the demands of conservatives for spending cuts and the reluctance of politically vulnerable Republicans from swing districts and states to cast risky votes to cut popular programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and education. The need to raise the debt limit at about the same time complicates their efforts.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have yet to act on Bush's $92 billion request for emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for additional hurricane relief.
The first step under Congress' arcane procedures for implementing the federal budget is to pass a budget resolution, a nonbinding blueprint that sets the limits of subsequent bills to implement the plan, including the appropriations bills that Congress passes each year.
Nussle and Gregg both would like to try another round of cuts to entitlement programs whose budgets rise automatically with inflation and population growth. But they acknowledge it will be difficult.
Bush called for $65 billion in benefit cuts over five years when submitting his budget a month ago.
But many of his proposals, such as curbs to food stamps and crop subsidies, were rejected by lawmakers last year.
A major complication in passing the budget is taxes. A key pillar of Bush's budget is extending his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, most of which are set to expire in 2010. But to add the cuts to the budget would cost $120 billion in 2011 alone.