Saturday, February 18, 2006

The more liberal Republican members of the House say they have many of the same budget concerns as they did last year, when they fought proposed reductions to health care and education spending, but they are pleased so far with new leadership that they say allows more participation.

“Each year, you have cuts involving health care, research, education,” Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican, said of President Bush’s budget proposal.

Mr. Castle said he and other centrists would like to see the savings spread out among issues other than social programs, such as homeland security and defense, which continue to benefit from spending increases. He said tax cuts also should be negotiated.

“Moderates have said all along that we’d like to [put] everything on the table,” Mr. Castle said.

Despite the budget concerns, some centrist House Republicans say the changes in leadership style have been welcome.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican, said newly elected House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and the rest of the leaders have made a “conscious effort” to make policy “from the bottom up instead of the top down.”

Mr. Castle agreed that there is a “noticeable change” to allow “more member input” in policy direction and decisions. Mr. Boehlert said it’s a “refreshing” change from the tone under Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, when it was less discussion and more mandate. Mr. DeLay stepped down from the leadership post after he was indicted in Texas on campaign-finance related charges.

Mr. Castle, Mr. Boehlert and other centrist House Republicans caused trouble last year for a Republican budget bill that cut almost $40 billion from entitlement programs. The bill was approved only after weeks of negotiations between House Republican leaders and the group, which finally managed to soften or remove some proposed savings and strip from the bill a provision to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

This year, Mr. Bush’s budget again endorsed ANWR drilling and proposed billions more in savings, including reducing the rate of growth of Medicare spending by about $36 billion over five years.

Rep. Charles Bass, New Hampshire Republican and co-chairman of a group of centrist House Republicans known as the Tuesday Group, told the House Budget Committee last week that education should receive more funding and that “using the budget process to open up ANWR is a gimmick and must be resisted.”

Many of the centrist Republicans face tough contests in swing districts this midterm election year. And with that challenge looming large, Mr. Castle said those who negotiated and finally went along with the austere budget-trimming bill last year will be less willing to compromise this year.

“It’s going to be a lot tougher than last year,” he said. “You’re probably going to get a harder approach to it from moderates.”

Sarah Chamberlain, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership (RMSP), a group of centrist House and Senate Republicans, agreed.

“There are some serious cuts in there … that our members cannot get re-elected on,” she said.

At the top of the RMSP’s agenda this year is lobbying reform — which the Republican Party is pushing to combat Democrats’ accusations of a “culture of corruption” after the scandal involving indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“Ethics reform is going to be a huge issue for us,” Mrs. Chamberlain said. “Our members are really getting … questioned about that in their districts.”

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