Saturday, October 22, 2005

Fiscal conservatives say the Hurricane Katrina relief effort gives them a great opportunity to cut government spending elsewhere, but they’ve seen these opportunities disappear in the past.

“I’ve sat through these cheerleading sessions before,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican. “I’m hoping that won’t be the case. … I’m optimistic that we can get something done, but I’m cautious because we’ve been down this road before.”

Conservatives think Republicans appear to be motivated to rein in spending. They say increased federal spending in the past few years — culminating this year with the highway and energy bills, the Hurricane Katrina relief effort and the continuing Iraq war — has caused enough outrage in the party’s base for the issue to move to the forefront of the House Republican agenda.

The House is expected to vote this week on a package of rescissions and spending cuts to this year’s budget, which is being pushed by the chamber’s Republican leaders.

“You see that kind of cycle every year when we adopt the budget resolution,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has taken a leading role in demanding spending cuts. “There’s all this talk of how we’re going to stick to it, and then we’re above it every year.”

Mr. Kingston said there has been fervor to rein in spending in the past that waned when the public lost interest, the Senate balked at it or Republicans started fighting among themselves about which programs to cut.

Already, the party is involved in infighting over programs, leaders aren’t sure they have the votes to pass their package and the Senate is not following the House lead.

Mr. Flake said it “was not a good sign” when the Senate last week soundly rejected a proposal to get rid of $230 million for a bridge in a remote area of Alaska. And he said there has been “complete unwillingness” from House Republican leaders to give back any of the special projects included in the $286 billion highway bill.

He is pleased with House Republican leaders’ push for the spending-cut package, but says to accomplish it, they must be willing to “crack heads … just like they cracked heads on encouraging us to spend more on Medicare prescription drugs.”

Other Republicans have taken stands as well.

For several years, Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado has introduced a proposal to cut 1 percent from the annual spending bills. Mr. Flake, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and other members of the Republican Study Committee have been very vocal in demanding spending cuts and budget process reform, gaining limited victories. And Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma fought to reduce transportation spending when he led the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee.

“There are absolutely members in Congress who have been working on this for a number of years,” said Allison Fraser, director of economic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. “But now there’s a much broader and stronger grass-roots response.”

Still, Larry Hunter, chief economist at the Free Enterprise Institute, said the heart of the matter is that entitlement programs must be reformed and cut, and for that to happen, “you need strong leadership from both chambers … and a president moving in lockstep to get it done.”

“We don’t have that,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the Republican call for reduced spending is worthless, since any savings would be eaten up by the massive tax cuts pushed by Republicans.

“The American people know a flimflam when they see one,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “And it is obvious the Republican Party has no intention of abandoning the reckless policies that are driving our nation into the fiscal ditch.”

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