Rough Road Ahead for Budget Chair Nussle

Posted February 8, 2005 at 6:38pm

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is caught between a rock and a hard place at the moment. Several, actually.

With President Bush’s blueprint for federal spending now officially dropped in Congress’ lap, Nussle is charged with crafting a federal budget that can pass muster within his committee, within the Republican Conference as a whole and ultimately within the House and the Senate.

Yet reconciling the sometimes divergent aims of President Bush and the Republican leadership will be no picnic. And with Nussle angling for the governorship of Iowa in 2006, he also has to worry about how everything he does — especially the fine print of budget cuts, such as proposed reductions in farm subsidies — will play back home.

“I don’t envy his position at all,” said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), a member of the Budget panel.

The difficulty for Nussle, Putnam said, is that a budget that can clear the committee is not the same thing as a budget that can win the approval of Republicans in both chambers.

It’s a lesson GOP lawmakers learned the hard way last year, when the Senate failed to produce a budget, accelerating the unraveling a process that culminated in an expensive and unwieldy omnibus spending package.

Members on the authorizing and appropriating committees have their own parochial interests, but permitting exceptions in the budget process can open a Pandora’s box, budget veterans say.

“No one wants to go home and explain why their … program was cut but the other guy’s wasn’t,” Putnam said, adding, “We’re all going to have to join hands and jump together.”

Fellow House Budget member Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) agreed, saying the real trick for Nussle will be to hold the president’s proposal together as one package, and “not let it get sliced up and pulled apart.”

In an interview, Nussle emphasized that it is his job to provide the committees with basic “instructions.” The authorizing and appropriating committees make their own decisions about what to do within the boundaries that are set.

Acknowledging that budget battles always turn out results that are unpopular somewhere, he said that “if someone wants to take pot-shots at me, they’ll find a target-rich environment. I’ve never seen a perfect budget — other than the one I wrote for myself.”

While critics will carp about misplaced priorities, Nussle said, he hopes to win points for candor and leadership. “I don’t have any problem going through this process — it’s one I relish,” he said.

Garrett predicted that this year’s budget process will amount to an “up or down vote on what the president wants.”

The $2.5 trillion budget proposed by President Bush envisions a 2.1 percent increase in “non-security” discretionary spending for fiscal 2006 — a rate lower than the White House projected for rate of inflation.

To get there, the White House says it has laid out more than 150 cuts, reforms and eliminations that will save $20 billion in the next fiscal year.

The Bush administration contends that the government would recoup another $137 billion over the next 10 years from reforms proposed to mandatory programs, such as Medicaid.

“We’re hoping to get as close to our proposal as possible,” Josh Bolten, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, said in an interview. “But if it’s not 100 percent on target, I don’t think that’s likely to cause any more serious problems this year than it would have last year.”

Democrats have already telegraphed some of the attacks they are preparing for the spring, citing proposed “cuts” — many of which are actually reductions in the rate of growth — to programs in a number of areas with organized grass-roots support, such as veterans and agriculture.

Democrats also argue that the budget does not do what the Bush administration says it does — begin the process of halving the deficit by 2009.

As the point man in the House, Nussle is going to take a large share of the rhetorical firepower from Democrats and outside advocates who are disappointed with the budget outlook.

“He’s clearly got a problem here,” Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), citing several of the proposals made by the White House.

In Nussle’s mind, however, the likelihood of bipartisan consensus is slim indeed.

“We need to recognize that the budget we produce will get no Democratic votes,” Nussle said. “We have to acknowledge that.”

Back home in Iowa, the next few months look at least as rocky, and maybe more so.

Nussle, now in his eighth term in the House, is a leading — though far from prohibitive — candidate for governor, a seat that is expected to come open after being held for two terms by Democrat Tom Vilsack.

To win the governorship, Nussle must first defeat a potential Republican field that could include two previous gubernatorial nominees, Doug Gross and Bob Vander Plaats, as well as Democratic Secretary of State Chet Culver.

To win a general election, Nussle will also have to appeal to a statewide electorate that likely has different priorities than either the White House or the GOP leadership in Congress.

Even before the Bush budget was released, Nussle had been taking flak from potential gubernatorial rivals who zeroed in on his chairmanship of the Budget Committee during a period of sharply rising federal deficits. Several years of state budget problems have given concerns about budget-busting a special resonance in Iowa.

“I think he’s feeling the pressure because a number of Democrats are already going around saying that as budget chair, he’s running a record deficit,” said one political observer in eastern Iowa. “A few Republicans have also looked at that and questioned whether he has the fiscal discipline to be governor.”

Now that the president has released a budget that includes major cuts in farm subsidies, Nussle’s predicament has worsened.

Suddenly, Nussle will have to defend a White House that wants to pursue cuts in a program that is almost an article of faith for Iowa Republicans and Democrats alike — or else take on a president from his own party (and fiscal conservatives who hate all farm subsidies) in order to restore full funding.

Slashing farm subsidies is “not a position most politicians want to find themselves in, especially if they’re in a contested Republican primary,” said University of Iowa political scientist Peverill Squire. “It won’t make you a lot of friends in Iowa.”

Though the dialogue about Nussle is mainly occurring between political insiders rather than the public at large at this point, it could shape the early state of the race, analysts said.

“He’s the frontrunner in terms of money, and he’s well known in the eastern third of the state, but still has ground to make up out out west,” Squire said.