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Tuesday, June 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:51 PM

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Letter from Washington

Budget's released: Everybody dance!

Seattle Times Washington bureau

Listening to Washington insiders, you might think the nation's capital is full of fans of ancient Japanese drama involving kimonos and white face paint.

"Kabuki Dance" is the hottest catchphrase inside the Beltway today. Senators, talking heads and lobbyists use it to describe all manner of governmental process, from congressional hearings on Supreme Court nominees to raucous White House briefings.

Kabuki Dance is code for something highly stylized, highly symbolic and, ultimately, a performance. Nothing describes the annual federal budget process better.

The formal budget announcement is a show, a soapbox for all sides and a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek.

Each year, on the first Monday in February, the White House releases its dense, green budget book in several volumes. This year's appendix, the real meat, is 1,283 pages long, with a 346-page summary. The green books are delivered with great formality to members of Congress.

The carefully scripted madness then begins, as Hill staffers and reporters scan each page, looking for cuts to beloved programs, some silly, some vital.

For the rest of the year, about one-third of all the stuff you see on C-SPAN will be Congress trying to change, debate or defend the budget via appropriations hearings, bills, amendments, advocacy-group photo-ops and general bluster.

According to custom, by the end of budget-delivery day, regional reporters and your state delegation must find at least one program at home that has been attacked. That's the official "starter" story.

This year's starter was the administration's annual attempt to increase energy rates at the Bonneville Power Administration. The BPA change was tucked into page 94 of the Energy Department section of the budget. By deadline, reporters had collected the appropriate outraged or supportive comments from local politicians on energy costs.

The real search for budget bombshells then began. The first unpleasant surprise for Seattle was hinted at in the president's official budget note that came with the green books. He vowed to reduce America's $423 billion deficit by cutting 141 programs worth nearly $15 billion.

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Two days later, someone in Congress asked the White House to detail which 141 programs. A four-page note came back to Congress, innocuously titled "Discretionary Program Terminations in the FY 2007 Budget." There, on line 11, in teeny letters, was the Urban Indian Health Program.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a longtime defender of the program, was stunned.

In Seattle, the Urban Indian Health Program provides $3.5 million to care for 7,000 people. To regain the money, Dicks and others must enlist the Republican who heads the Interior Department's appropriations committee on which, conveniently, Dicks serves.

Tribal leaders and health experts must mobilize, and experts will point out that the program's $33 million national budget represents pennies against the $423 billion deficit.

After hearings, perhaps in summer, Congress may restore the money, and the president will lament the costs of parochial interests.

And next February, the Kabuki Dance will begin again.

Alicia Mundy is The Seattle Times Washington, D.C., correspondent. She can be reached at 202-622-7457 or at amundy@

seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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