It's a new year, but Republicans in Washington are using the same screwy logic as ever.

President Bush's fiscal year 2005 budget will once again be in the red, this time to the tune of at least $450 billion, according to Sunday's New York Times. While defense and homeland-security spending will rise, Bush plans to curb the growth in outlays on many domestic programs, such as housing vouchers for the poor, job training and research at the National Institutes of Health. The move is aimed at pleasing fiscal conservatives, who are irate over the new $400 billion Medicare program.

But while the Republicans of old might have shaken their heads at the growing deficit -- remember, less than a decade ago they pushed to balance the budget -- today's GOP doesn't think it's a problem. The Congressional Budget Office has warned that, with baby boomers retiring, the nation could face an economic crisis. Only if somebody decides to cut spending dramatically (which won't happen because of defense and homeland-security earmarks) or raise taxes (which won't happen because Republicans believe that's why they lost the 1992 presidential election) is it likely to prevent this from becoming a reality.

But asked on a Dec. 21 Meet the Press appearance last month, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) dismissed the idea. "Well, they're not always right," he said. "In fact, if you look at the Congressional Budget Office, it has never been right in any of its predictions. They're always off."

And, DeLay added, it's by cutting taxes that Republicans will balance the budget. "History has proven that when you cut taxes, the economy grows, and it's growing," he told host Tim Russert. "We cut taxes, and the economy is not only growing but it looks like it's got a potential to be booming." Indeed, as the Times reported, Bush is expected to push several more tax-cut plans.

Now, math was never my favorite subject in school, but I do know that two plus two equals four. In the GOP's playbook, however, it comes closer to 10. In other words, the Republicans' math just doesn't add up in terms of helping the economy to improve.

There are some signs that the economy is starting to rebound, albeit slowly, but not any that it's "got a potential to be booming." Congress has approved two major tax cuts in three years. If passing a tax cut had an immediate positive effect on the economy, one should have been sufficient to do the job (and another is surely not needed). In case Republicans have forgotten, we tried the trickle-down theory in the 1980s; it also led to skyrocketing budget deficits.

Almost 3 million Americans have lost their jobs during the Bush Junior years, yet the GOP is planning to cut spending on programs that could help those who are out of work (which would actually help the economy rebound). In case that isn't bad enough, the GOP-controlled Congress failed last month to extend benefits to the unemployed for an additional 13 weeks. And, for a president who claims to be a fan of the armed forces, Bush's budget proposes raising prescription-drug costs for veterans.

For Republicans, these reductions in spending hold little peril at the voting booth. Voters who need housing vouchers were never likely to end up in the GOP column anyway.
Instead, the budget and tax cuts benefit those who are not only likely to vote for Bush but to donate money to his re-election campaign. (Don't forget, passing an energy bill tops the Republicans' priority list for 2004.)

But the cuts should make everyone who's not a wealthy GOP donor mad enough to see red. The best option, of course, is for Democrats to stop them from ever taking effect. If that doesn't happen, though, Democrats have to highlight these issues come November. While the rising deficit may not be a sexy campaign issue, everyone can understand what it means not to be able to find a job, or to have the best and latest options available to treat diseases. Unless Democrats point out these differences, though, a lot of voters won't know about them.

It's incumbent upon Democrats -- both the eventual presidential nominee and congressional candidates -- to also make the case that their party can fix the damage done by Bush. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted at the end of the last session of Congress, "With every vote, the American people saw clearly the different priorities between Democrats and Republicans and our very different visions of the future."

If Democrats are to take back Congress and the White House, they have to convince voters that their option is the better one. It's time not only for a new year in Washington but a new plan.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.