WASHINGTON (AP) – How much it will cost to clear the debris, detoxify the water, house the homeless and rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after the Katrina catastrophe is still anyone’s guess, but it’s clear who’s going to pay for most of it: Future generations.

The bill to the government for Katrina – $62 billion so far with untold billions to come – will be added directly to the $7.9 trillion national debt. President Bush said Friday, “We’re going to have to make sure we cut unnecessary spending” and that his administration will “work with Congress” to find cuts elsewhere in the budget, but such offsets are likely to be mostly symbolic.

With tax cuts, terrorist attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past four and a half years, the national debt already is more than $2 trillion higher than when Bush took office.

Every federal dollar going to hurricane victims is another dollar of debt that today’s decision makers are passing on to their children and grandchildren.

There are the requisite calls for sacrifice: Just cut wasteful spending elsewhere in the government’s $2.5 trillion budget. But even some of Congress’ staunchest conservatives say offsetting spending cuts simply won’t happen.

“My answer to those that want to offset the spending is sure, bring me the offsets, I’ll be glad to do it,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “But nobody has been able to come up with any yet.”

In February, President Bush proposed killing or paring back 154 government programs to save $15.3 billion. Most of the proposals got crumpled up and tossed in the trash. The House Appropriations Committee managed to kill off programs totaling $4.3 billion, but all of the money was redirected to other programs.

That experience underscores how difficult it would be to finance Katrina reconstruction with savings from the budget that Congress passes each year in the form of appropriations bills.

“Every dollar we spend on this means a dollar that’s going to take a little bit longer to balance the budget,” House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., admitted after Bush’s call Thursday night for a massive government-led recovery effort.

In addition to the government’s share, Katrina may cost the insurance industry up to $60 billion in claims.

Congress hasn’t even tried to take on the growth of benefit programs like Medicare for eight years, though a modest effort to rein in such costs is slated to advance next month.

Nonetheless, the White House says the costs of Katrina reconstruction are a one-time expense that will be largely absorbed over the next few years. Delaying an upcoming round of tax cuts to help pay for Katrina is off the table.

“A strong economy is what will provide the resources for the rebuilding,” National Economic Adviser Al Hubbard told reporters. “The last thing in the world we need to do is raise taxes and retard economic growth.”

Republicans in Congress have announced they intend to pass new tax cuts aimed at stimulating the economy to help it withstand the jolt of Katrina. That’s in addition to a $5 billion tax cut passed Thursday by the House and Senate that, among other provisions, would let Katrina victims take penalty-free withdrawals from their retirement accounts.

In the wake of Katrina, the Senate has shelved for the time-being a bill to permanently eliminate inheritance taxes paid by the heirs of multimillionaires.

Some lawmakers say Congress should rescind “pork barrel” projects like the $223 million “bridge to nowhere” connecting Alaska’s Gravina Island – population 50 – to the mainland, or even consider delaying the rollout of the $400 billion-plus Medicare prescription drug benefit passed two years ago.

“With a disaster this size, no program is sacrosanct, no cost-cutting is off the table,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. “Republicans weren’t put in office to be satisfied with the size of our government.”

While some deficit hawks like Tancredo are energized, it’s doubtful they’ll meet with success. There’s little political stomach for the types of cuts they’re advocating. Neither their leaders nor the White House is backing them up.

“I’m not sure the will is here to sacrifice,” admitted Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan budget watchdog group, said one of Katrina’s byproducts is that Congress now seems less likely to follow through with a planned $35 billion cut over the next five years from federal benefit programs like Medicaid.

“There’s no talk of trade-offs and cutting back on some of the low-priority spending, giving up some of the tax cuts that have been planned, even thinking about raising revenues,” said Bixby. “So we’re just adding everything onto the deficit.”


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