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Washington in brief

Deficit may soar to $400-billion

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The federal deficit is growing much more quickly than expected, even before Congress takes up President Bush's tax-cutting proposals and without factoring in the costs of a possible war in Iraq, congressional analysts have concluded.

Analysts for the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee have raised their estimates of the shortfall by about $30-billion, about 15 percent beyond the forecast that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued only five weeks ago.

The budget office itself has reached similar conclusions, House Republicans said, and they are expected to be included in its reassessment of the budget outlook to be issued Friday.

The deterioration appears to stem from the continued weakness of the economy and the stock market, and those problems could continue: Many economists predict anemic economic growth for at least the first half of 2003.

The new projections mean that the government's shortfall could soar to nearly $400-billion this year if Bush's tax cuts are approved and if war costs this year run into the tens of billions of dollars.

They also mean that Bush may face new pressure to either scale back his proposals cutting taxes by $1.5-trillion over 10 years or to rein in favored programs like a military buildup, domestic security and prescription drugs for the elderly.

The White House has already estimated that the budget deficit this year will hit a record $304-billion, a calculation that includes the effect of the administration's tax-cutting proposals, though not the costs of a possible war with Iraq.

But congressional analysts said the outlook has grown considerably worse in the past few months. From October through January, the first four months of the current fiscal year, tax revenues plunged and the deficit ballooned to $94-billion.

By contrast, the government ran a surplus of $8-billion in the same period last year.

Also . . .

DRILLING DAMAGE: Even though oil companies have greatly improved practices in the Arctic, three decades of drilling along Alaska's North Slope have produced a steady accumulation of harmful environmental and social effects that will probably increase as exploration expands, a panel of experts concluded in a report released Tuesday.

Some of the problems could last for centuries, the experts said in the report, because environmental damage does not heal easily in the harsh climate and because it is uneconomical to restore damaged areas.

The report, produced by the National Research Council, was hailed by opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which lies east of established oil fields and is the only part of America's Arctic coastline now off-limits to drilling.

Administration officials said improved techniques would reduce the effects of future drilling. The council produced the report at the request of Republican lawmakers who support the drilling. (The report is at

JUDGE FILIBUSTER: Senate Republicans on Tuesday set a vote for Thursday on whether to end a Democratic filibuster that has blocked consideration of President Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada to a federal appeals court. The effort likely will not succeed.

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