Thursday, June 14, 2007

Capitol Hill Republicans and conservative activists say President Bush must follow through on veto threats to keep spending of the Democrat-controlled Congress in check and re-establish Republicans as the voice of fiscal responsibility heading into the next election.

“Republicans need for the president to pick a fight with Democrats over spending so they can begin the process of rebuilding the brand that they have squandered — that they’re the party of smart spending and small government,” said Pat Toomey, president of the tax-cutting Club for Growth.

House Republicans started that fight this week, using the House version of a filibuster to stall a vote on the $36 billion Homeland Security Department appropriations bill, which is about $2 billion more than the president’s budget request, by offering dozens of amendments to reduce spending. The legislation is the first of the 12 annual appropriations bills that make up the federal budget.

The Republican Study Committee sent a letter to Mr. Bush last month urging him to veto any spending bill that exceeds the president’s budget request. The fiscally conservative House caucus also has circulated a petition among the chamber’s Republicans to vote against Democratic spending increases.

“Conservatives are united in our effort to protect American taxpayers,” said caucus Chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican. “We will continue to use every opportunity to remind hardworking Americans of the Democrats’ hollow promises of fiscal responsibility.”

With a Republican-controlled Congress offering little resistance, Mr. Bush increased military and domestic spending to record levels during his first six years in office, including a measure to add prescription drug care to Medicare and a bloated farm bill that quickly drew the ire of fiscal conservatives.

The president also never vetoed a previous spending bill despite billions of dollars worth of pork-barrel spending, including the infamous $233 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, which died after a public backlash.

Now facing a Democrat-led Congress, Republicans and conservative watchdog groups say Mr. Bush has the perfect chance to reassert his party’s fiscal principles.

“These veto threats are very very real and will force Democrats into a difficult corner,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “But Republicans have to start now, not two months before the 2008 election.”

And with Democrats adopting pay-as-you-go budget rules, which require new expenditures to be accompanied by equivalent spending reductions or tax increases, Republicans say that at some point Democrats will be forced to raise taxes, thus further undermining their public support.

Only four of the 12 appropriations bills scheduled for debate over the next several weeks offer spending caps less than what Mr. Bush has proposed in his budget for fiscal 2008, which begins Oct. 1.

The Bush administration has promised to veto any appropriations bills that exceeds the president’s budget request.

Democratic leaders say their spending increases are modest and necessary, accusing Republicans of neglecting several pressing domestic needs, including energy, environmental and national security concerns.

“After six years of inattention and inaction on these crucial objectives, Democrats will provide the American public with the lasting results they demand,” said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “And we will do it in a fiscally responsible manner.”

But the administration says the Democrats’ spending proposals exceed the president’s discretionary spending limit by $22 billion and will undermine the president’s goal of balancing the budget by 2012.

“The administration does not believe that the first step on the path to a balanced budget should be a substantial increase in federal spending, yet that is precisely what is called for in the budget resolutions adopted by the House and Senate,” said Rob Portman, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

It’s likely that several — if not all — of the spending bills will have enough support in Congress to override a presidential veto. Yet even a failed veto can do wonders to restore public confidence in Republicans’ ability to manage taxpayer money, many say.

“Republicans have little chance of regaining control of Congress if they don’t seize on this opportunity,” said Mr. Toomey, a former Republican House member from Pennsylvania. “Otherwise they’ll remain the minority party for a long time.”

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