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BUSH ASKS CONGRESS TO CUT 'OVERCHARGED' NATION'S TAXES
APLOMB, WIT MARK ADDRESS

President Bush mounted the nation's most powerful rostrum Tuesday night to challenge Congress to convert a record federal budget surplus into the biggest tax cut in history.

"The surplus is not the government's money," Bush said. "The surplus is the people's money.

"I hope you'll join me and stand firmly on the side of the people.

"The growing surplus exists because taxes are too high and government is charging more than it needs," he continued.

Addressing his first joint session of Congress crowded into the gilded House chamber, he said, "The people of America have been overcharged, and on their behalf I am here to ask for a refund."

Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and red tie, Bush in his speech evinced a broad self-assurance, and he laced the 49-minute address with easy humor in an attempt to persuade a national TV audience to nudge a balky Congress into passing tax cuts costing $1.6 trillion over 10 years.

The Congress is controlled by Republicans, but narrowly.

Following up on his speech, Bush promised today to tame the "explosive growth" in government, sending Congress a $1.96 trillion budget that would curtail spending in programs ranging from farm aid to transportation to make room for his tax cut.

Bush, embarking on a two-day road trip to sell his program, declared that his 207-page budget plan, called "A Blueprint for New Beginnings," would create a federal government "that is both active to promote opportunity and limited to preserve freedom."

The budget provides "reasonable spending increases to meet needs while slowing the recent explosive growth that could threaten future prosperity," he said.

To provide for the increases in favored programs while restraining the overall figure, Bush proposed outright cuts in 10 agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Justice, Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bush, citing the weakening economy, urged Congress to speed up the tax relief by making the tax cuts retroactive to the first of this year to "give our economy a timely second wind."

Reacting to Tuesday night's address, Democrats signaled that the president's 39-day honeymoon may be nearing an end, even though Bush touched on Democratic issues such as helping education, augmenting national parks and ending racial profiling.

At the same time, Bush offered raw meat to right-wingers by raising the specter of "unrestrained government spending," a situation that Republicans say they ended when they took control of Congress in 1995.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called Bush's tax plan "an amazing demonstration of irresponsibility."

House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said: "President Bush's budget numbers simply don't add up. Ours do. His plan leaves no money for anything except tax cuts. Ours does.

"If what we heard tonight sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Bush was welcomed wildly by Republicans, who control the House by only six seats and are tied 50-50 in the Senate, with the deciding vote held by Vice President Cheney.

As he made his historic way down the center aisle -- a process taking nearly 10 minutes -- Bush took special notice of Democrats in the chamber such as Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and John Lewis of Georgia.

Even so, there was a sprinkling of Democratic boos when members of the U.S. Supreme Court were announced. Actually, only one justice, Stephen Breyer, came. He was in the minority in the 5-4 vote that ended the Florida recounts and affirmed Bush as president in mid-December.

Bush, in his speech and his budget book, highlighted programs where he will seek big increases, led by an 11.5 percent gain, to $44.5 billion, for education. That would include tripling spending over five years for teaching children to read.

In addition, Bush proposed a $2.8 billion gain for the National Institutes of Health, part of a five-year commitment begun by Clinton, to double its budget.

Other popular programs where Bush sought increased spending included land and water conservation, community health centers, energy conservation for the poor and bolstering the security of U.S. embassies.

Defense spending would rise 4.8 percent, or $14.2 billion, to the same $310.5 billion the Clinton administration planned. The Bush proposal included $5.7 billion to increase military pay and benefits, health care and housing. The Pentagon has sought a much larger increase, and Bush is ultimately expected to boost this request after a review of overall military strategy.

The one-volume Bush spending plan replaced the normal multivolume budget documents presidents submit to Congress every February. A more detailed program-by-program breakdown of the spending proposals is expected in April.

The entire fiscal package depends on the government's realizing a $5.6 billion budget surplus over the next decade.

While saluting the principle of bipartisanship, the major themes of his message were comforting to hard-line conservatives such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who applauded when Bush mentioned former New York Yankees manager Yogi Berra.

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it," Bush said, quoting the colorful baseball great.

"We have two choices," Bush said. "Even though we have already met our needs, we could spend the money on more and bigger government. This is the road our nation has traveled in recent years. . . . If you continue on that road, you will spend the surplus and have to dip into Social Security to pay other bills."

Bush playfully roused the Democrats when he said, "Some say my tax plan is too big.

"Others say it is too small," Bush continued, drawing cheers from Republicans.

"I respectfully disagree -- this tax relief is just right," Bush said, drawing good-natured laughter.

He urged quick action to cut taxes, and Republicans were eager to comply. Officials said the House Ways and Means Committee would meet Thursday to approve the centerpiece of Bush's plan, income tax rate reductions. A vote in the full House would follow next week, but the bill is unlikely to come up for a Senate vote before mid to late spring.

Bush proposed increasing spending for Social Security, Medicare and entitlement programs by $81 billion -- much of which is due to the routine growth of the entitlement programs.

He also would increase discretionary spending by $26 billion, a 4 percent increase. That is a bit higher than inflation but lower than the growth of government in each of the past three years.

Bush said his plan will pay off $2 trillion of the $3.2 trillion in publicly held debt over 10 years. It would leave enough money, he said, for a $1 trillion contingency fund "for unexpected needs (and) additional priorities."

News wire services contributed to this report.

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