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Bush renews pledge to increase Pell Grant

Promise scaled back from '00

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Recycling a promise from his 2000 presidential campaign, President Bush pledged yesterday to increase federal grants to financially strapped college students.

Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd at Florida Community College in Jacksonville, Bush said he intended to increase the maximum Pell Grant from $4,150 this year to $4,550 over five years. The promise is a retreat from his pledge in 2000 to raise the maximum Pell Grant to $5,100.

''We've been down this road before," Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement, adding that families with college-age children should not ''count their chickens before they hatch."

The scaled-back promise reflected budget realities in Washington, where Bush is seeking ways to reduce the record $413 billion federal deficit. When he was campaigning in 2000, the federal government was running a surplus.

The turnabout came from a variety of factors, including an economic recession, the stock-market downturn, the war in Iraq, and the Bush-sponsored tax cuts.

Bush, who has promised to cut the budget deficit in half by the time he leaves office, will call for tightened spending in a proposed 2006 budget that he plans to unveil Feb. 7. He said he would fund more generous Pell Grants with savings from better administration of federal student-loan programs.

He did not offer details on how he planned to achieve the savings, but a White House aide said the list of cost-saving proposals included cutting government subsidies to lenders who provide student loans.

''We're confident that we can gradually reduce the subsidies, the excessive subsidies, in that program," said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman. ''It is a very profitable industry."

Democrats expressed concern that Bush also would take money from other education programs.

''My first instinct is to say, 'Show me the money,' " said Representative George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee. ''The fact is that so often the administration proposes to increase spending in one account by reducing spending for critical education services in another account. If the president's plan would rob Peter to pay Pell, it would be unacceptable."

Bush's focus on the politically popular Pell Grant program in the run-up to his budget submission was consistent with previous practice. In the past, he and his aides have touted small spending increases before releasing a budget that will reduce other government spending.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to provide details on the 2006 budget, but said Bush was determined to meet his deficit-reduction targets. ''I think the American people recognize we can do much more with a little less," he said aboard Air Force One.

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