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Bush confident about deficit

President Bush said Friday that the sharp increase in the projected cost of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit would not prevent him from meeting his goal of cutting the federal budget deficit in half during the next five years.

A day after the administration disclosed that its estimate of the bill's cost was 33 percent higher than the cost estimate used by Congress and Bush in drafting and enacting the legislation, the White House said it had no second thoughts even though the new price tag has enraged many conservatives on Capitol Hill.

Bush said he had been informed two weeks ago that his administration's estimate of the bill's cost over the next 10 years would be $134-billion higher than the $400-billion projection that was developed by the Congressional Budget Office and used by Congress when it passed the bill last year. Bush signed the bill at a campaign-style rally in December, calling it "the greatest advance in health care coverage for America's seniors since the founding of Medicare." At the time, his political advisers said it would help the president and his party blunt long-standing Democratic attacks on them over health care.

But some fiscally conservative Republicans voted against the bill, citing their concerns about creating an expensive new entitlement program, and news of the new estimate spawned frustration among congressional Republicans as they attended a retreat in Philadelphia on Friday.

The administration often comes up with different cost estimates for legislation than the Congressional Budget Office, which in this case is standing by its $400-billion projection for the bill.

But coming at a time when Bush was already under pressure from members of his party's right wing over what they regard as excessive spending and a willingness by the White House to allow rapid growth in the size of government, the new Medicare figures exacerbated a rare breach between the president and his conservative base.

Bush is expected to try to mollify congressional Republicans by stressing his commitment to fiscal responsibility when he addresses them today in Philadelphia. The White House will release its budget proposal for next year on Monday, and Bush has said he will seek to keep spending on general government programs outside of the military and domestic security to an annual growth of less than 1 percent, a rate that amounts to a cut when inflation is taken into account. Medicare, as an entitlement program whose benefits are built into law, would not be subject to that proposal.