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US spending surges to historic level

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But long-time GOP conservatives are also beginning to say publicly that big government may also be the price for any party that aspires to hold onto its majority. Stung by electoral losses in 1996 and 1998, Republican leaders dropped talk of abolishing the Department of Education and cutting government. "It turned out the American people did not want a major reduction of government," writes Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio in a position paper released last week titled: "Are Republicans the Party of Big Government?"

While Republicans would like to see government shrink, "new political realities," including 9/11 and "the multitude of stakeholders in government after years of liberal control" mean that Republicans often have to settle for simply slowing its growth, writes Mr. Boehner, an architect of the GOP takeover of the House in 1994. "Republicans have accepted such realities as the burdens of majority governance."

Much of the $2.2 trillion that Washington is expected to spend in fiscal year 2004 is for mandatory spending on Social Security and Medicare. But so-called discretionary spending has also increased some 22 percent during the Bush presidency, from $734 billion in 2002 to $873 billion in 2004.

The Concord Coalition, a bipartisan watchdog, calls this the "most irresponsible year ever."

The House may approve the spending bill Monday. In the Senate passage is also expected but the vote could be delayed, perhaps into the new year, by Democratic maneuvering.

While critics decry billions of dollars of small "pork" projects, the bulk of domestic spending is for major programs. Exhibit A is the expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs, which President Bush is expected to sign into law Monday. Sold as a $400 billion reform, the real costs could soar past $2 trillion in the second decade, as 76 million baby boomers begin to retire into the system. Conservatives say it's a formula for massive deficits and tax increases in the years to come.

Then, there's the $180 billion farm bill, passed just in time for 2002 elections, when farm states determined control of the Senate. It buried out of sight any thought of rolling back the federal system of farm support, which conservatives once pledged to abolish.

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