- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

The Republican governor of Utah on Monday said his party is blighted by leaders in Congress whose lack of new ideas renders them so “inconsequential” that he doesn’t even bother to talk to them.

“I don’t even know the congressional leadership,” Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, shrugging off questions about top congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “I have not met them. I don’t listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential — completely.”

In a separate interview at The Times, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, one of the party’s chief message makers, said that Republican lawmakers have improved their standing with voters by attacking waste in the economic stimulus package even if rank-and-file Republicans can’t agree to forgo earmarks - the pork-barrel spending projects despised by the electorate. Mr. Pence said such a move would benefit Americans and his party.

The back-and-forth underscored the leadership debate within their party. Mr. Huntsman called on national Republican leaders to show that they have alternatives and solutions, and Mr. Pence argued that congressional Republicans aren’t as incompetent as they might appear.

“Is my party in Congress as far along as I would like to see us be? Probably not. But the contrast between our party that is having a thorough debate over how to change the way we spend the people’s money and the other party, which is going on a spending spree and engaging in earmarking as usual, I think is the stark contrast,” Mr. Pence said.

Unlike some of his Republican counterparts in other states, Mr. Huntsman said he will not turn back any of his state’s share of President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus. But he said much of the spending is misdirected and more likely to bloat the government than boost the economy.

He said congressional Republicans failed to score political points for opposing the bill — only three Republican senators supported it — because the public saw them as objecting to being shut out by Democrats from helping write the bill rather than as taking a principled stand.

The governor said congressional Republicans are being frustrated by a lack of credibility on the party’s No. 1 tenet: fiscal responsibility.

“That’s why no one is paying any attention,” he said. “Our moral soapbox was completely taken away from us because of our behavior in the last few years. For us to now criticize analogous behavior is hypocrisy. We’ve got to come at it a different way. We’ve got to prove the point. It can’t be as the Chinese would say, ‘fei hua,’ [or] empty words.”

Mr. Huntsman, a U.S. ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush, speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.

Mr. Pence said opposing the stimulus bill was the right decision and that Republicans have tried to come up with alternatives, such as their financial rescue alternative package last year and a counter to Democrats’ stimulus plan that relied on tax cuts.

“My hope is that not only governors but everyday Americans will begin to realize in increasing measure that we’re not just the party of ‘no,’ we’re offering substantive alternatives,” said Mr. Pence, who said Republicans have lost credibility on spending, though he pointed out that he had opposed big-government expansions such as President George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program.

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