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Soaring Bush Budget Angers GOP

President Bush defended the recently enacted Medicare overhaul on Friday despite a dramatic increase in its projected costs, as his budget director received an earful from angry Republican lawmakers.

"The Medicare reform we did is a good reform. It fulfills a long-standing promise to our seniors," Mr. Bush told reporters after a meeting with economists who support his agenda. The president sidestepped questions, however, about whether the suddenly ballooning cost estimates for the bill had upset lawmakers.

The budget for Fiscal 2005, which he will release Monday, will project the price tag of the Medicare measure at $534 billion over the decade ending 2013. That is up substantially from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's $395 billion estimate that Mr. Bush and congressional leaders cited when winning votes to push the bill through Congress last November.

CBS' Mark Knoller reports it was only within the last two weeks that Mr. Bush says he found out the Medicare bill he signed last month with considerable fanfare - would cost a third more than originally estimated: $400-billion dollars over ten years.

White House budget chief Joshua Bolten told GOP lawmakers gathered in Philadelphia about Mr. Bush's forthcoming fiscal blueprint for the budget year beginning next Oct. 1. He said it will project a deficit of about $521 billion, said one person familiar with his remarks, well above this year's $375 billion, the highest ever in dollar terms.

Conservatives said they wanted to freeze spending levels next year, rather than letting non-defense, non-domestic security programs grow by less than 1 percent, as Mr. Bush will propose, said participants speaking on condition of anonymity.

They also expressed disbelief over why the administration did not reveal the new, higher Medicare estimates earlier. Some of them said they believed the bill would not have passed had the higher cost projections been known, the participants said.

Mr. Bush said he received the new figures two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon accidentally posted hundreds of pages worth of details from its forthcoming 2005 budget on its web site. The Defense Department had previously said that Mr. Bush would request $401.7 billion, 7 percent over this year.

Among the proposals it revealed — and quickly removed from its site — was data on weapons procurement, research and development, military construction, and operations and maintenance.

The figures showed that the request for procurement will be $74.9 billion, $6.2 billion less than this year. Research and development would grow to $68.9 billion from $64.7 billion, including $2.7 billion — a near doubling — to modernize the Army's armored weapons.

Mr. Bush signed the Medicare bill Dec. 8, giving him a legislative victory that he intends to promote during his re-election campaign.

"It points again to the No. 1 agenda item that needs to be addressed by Congress," Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said of the new figures. "We've got to protect the family budget from the federal budget."

Hensarling was among several conservatives who voted for the measure after being told by Mr. Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., that the costs should follow the CBO projections.

Other conservatives said privately they were owed an explanation as to why the White House did not provide them with the figures before they voted.

Administration officials said the new cost estimate was not ready until now. And they said the different figure shouldn't be surprising given the millions of beneficiaries, hundreds of billions of dollars and time period involved.

"Slight differences can change those estimates," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday. Asked whether the administration misled lawmakers, McClellan said, "Of course not."

"Very messy," said Joe Antos, a health policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, describing the reaction among conservative lawmakers.

He said many of them felt "brow beaten" into backing the legislation, which passed the House in November by five votes after leaders held the roll call open nearly three hours while nailing down support.

The new figures, the first time the White House has released projections of the Medicare bill's costs, could deepen a rift between the White House and conservatives already upset over spending and budget deficits on Mr. Bush's watch.

"The president is committed to making sure cost controls continue in Medicare," said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

Mr. Bush included a 10-year, $400 billion estimate for his broadly written plan for overhauling Medicare in his budget last February.

Democrats said the new estimate meant a bonus for drug companies and managed health care organizations, which have joined the ranks of their favorite election-year targets.

"Another $140 billion squandered on fly-by-night HMOs and astronomical drug industry profits. It's a proud day for the Bush administration," said Rep. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce's health subcommittee.

Nearly everyone expects the Medicare bill to get increasingly costly in coming years as the huge baby boom generation retires and medical expenses grow. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the Congressional Budget Office, has said the measure's costs in its second decade could exceed $1.5 trillion.

Administration officials said they could not initially explain precisely why the projections differed. But Antos said it was probably due to estimating differences over the number of people expected to use federally subsidized health plans and health care tax breaks the bill creates.

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