WASHINGTON (AP) – The chairman of the House Budget Committee has written a plan for balancing the budget in seven years, but it is unclear whether his own Republican colleagues will support the spending cuts he would make to get there.

The proposal, which budget panel chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), discussed broadly on yesterday, would leave the door open for most of the new tax cuts that President Bush has proposed.

But it would also order lawmakers to produce more than $400 billion worth of savings over the next decade from a wide range of benefit programs, said one Republican familiar with the plan.

It would as well propose about $10 billion less than the $786 billion Bush wants for next year for the part of the budget that Congress must approve annually that covers federal agencies’ budgets, said the Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Nussle provided few details. But he said his plan would exempt from savings only the military, domestic security, Social Security and unemployment insurance, and would seek out waste, fraud and abuse – perennial targets of budget cutters.

Today, Nussle plans for his committee to vote on a $2.2 trillion budget for 2004 containing his budget-balancing proposal. But first, he faces a morning meeting with all House Republicans to make sure he has their support – a session some Republicans privately predicted might result in changes.

Nussle said savings could be extracted from Medicare and Medicaid – the government’s huge health insurance programs for the elderly and poor. Even so, his plan would provide Medicare with the extra $400 billion over the next decade that Bush has proposed to provide prescription drug coverage.

Congress’ budget sets overall revenue and spending targets, with later bills making actual changes in tax law and programs’ expenditures.

Nussle’s blueprint is a departure from Bush’s. The president’s budget says that national security and reviving the weak economy should take precedence over eliminating the red ink. It would produce 10 straight years of annual deficits, according to a forecast by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

“It would be very easy at this moment to hide behind the president’s budget,” Nussle told reporters.

Nussle said his budget’s three goals would be defending the nation, sparking the economy and “ensuring fiscal responsibility.”

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