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GOP Floats Cuts

Hoping to return to their theme of fiscal restraint after a month of political setbacks, House Republicans on Wednesday unveiled a series of proposed spending cuts that were not immediately embraced by their Senate counterparts.

The effort to cut spending is seen by Republicans in both chambers as a way to change the subject of debate back to one that is soothing to the party’s base after the indictments of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers all served to make many conservatives nervous about the GOP’s direction.

“While there’s some speculation about leadership changes, our Members and staff have been focused on our priorities,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Senate Republican aides acknowledged that much of the push to display more fiscal restraint was an attempt to shift the focus off of the ethics questions surrounding party leaders and the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, while at the same time pacifying the base.

“We are keenly aware of the perspective that under Republican control spending issues have not been appropriately addressed,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “This is a way to address the concerns that Members are hearing from the conservative base.”

Though a rollout of the proposed budget cuts has been in the works for weeks, the Senate aide acknowledged that President Bush’s selection of Miers on Monday to replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor makes appeasing conservatives even more imperative, given that Miers lacks the socially conservative credentials many in the GOP base had clamored for in the nominee.

“Miers does change the context” under which Republican leaders are working, the aide said.

After President Bush made a strong call Tuesday for Congress to find offsets for the costs of Hurricane Katrina, House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) outlined to reporters on Wednesday a series of ideas to reduce spending in every corner of the federal government.

Those ideas included an amendment to the fiscal 2006 budget that would cut discretionary spending by 2 percent across the board; a call for committee chairmen to find an additional 10 percent — or $3.5 billion — in mandatory spending cuts through reconciliation; and a plea for the White House to submit its fiscal 2007 budget proposal this year rather than waiting until February.

“This is a way to start the discussion and debate,” Nussle said, though he acknowledged that “this is a down payment. This is not making that much of a dent in the total amount” that will eventually be spent on Katrina.

House Republicans have not always been on the same page about spending cuts in recent weeks, so GOP leaders hope to forge a consensus within their own ranks as well as with the Senate and the White House.

“It’s encouraging to see growing interest in spending restraint,” said Office of Management and Budget spokesman Scott Milburn. “We are committed to working with Congress to find ways to offset additional Katrina spending and that process is ongoing.”

Milburn declined to comment specifically on Nussle’s call for an early submission of the president’s budget.

Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) publicly expressed his irritation when the Republican Study Committee unveiled their list of proposed offsets at a press conference last month. Hoping to avoid a similar reaction, GOP leaders began reaching out to Lewis on the subject Wednesday.

“The chairman is willing to work with the leadership and interested Members to reduce spending,” said Appropriations spokesman John Scofield.

Even if Lewis ends up endorsing Nussle’s ideas, appropriators are likely to complain that they are still being asked to shoulder more of the cost-cutting burden than other committees. Nussle’s plan calls for a reduction of roughly $16 billion in discretionary spending in just one year, while his outline for mandatory reconciliation cuts would total approximately $38 billion over five years.

Nussle’s proposals were praised by the conservative RSC, which has loudly agitated for spending cuts since Katrina’s impact became clear.

“It’s certainly welcome, but in and of itself it’s not going to be enough,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a vocal RSC member who expressed hope that the Senate would develop a similar appetite for spending cuts.

“It sounds as if Members of the Senate, just like the House, have been pummeled for the last few weeks from people at home who want to stop the spending,” said Flake. “When the new bill comes for Katrina there’s going to be even more pressure. So I would hope they would head in our direction.”

While the Senate may eventually move in that direction, it did not appear to be doing so on Wednesday.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), indicated that he hadn’t heard of Nussle’s plan to cut this year’s discretionary spending by 2 percent, and he quickly shot down the notion.

“It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me,” he said.

Similarly, Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he envisioned finding more cuts in mandatory spending programs, which make up about two-thirds of the federal budget, rather than trying to tinker with the discretionary spending amounts contained in appropriations bills.

Gregg added that amending the fiscal 2006 budget resolution may not be the best way to offset the spending from Katrina relief efforts. His preference is to use the budget reconciliation process, expected to take place later this month, to achieve additional savings for the federal government.

Under reconciliation, House and Senate committees were instructed to find a combined $35 billion — including $10 billion from Medicaid — in cuts to mandatory spending programs and submit those proposals to their respective Budget panels by Oct. 19. Unlike Nussle, Gregg has not given his committee chairmen a specific percentage by which they need to further cut mandatory programs. He simply asked them in a letter co-authored by Frist last week to look for additional cost savings and cuts from programs under their jurisdiction.

Gregg was quick to point out that Republicans “haven’t reached a consensus” on how to proceed with further budget cuts, noting that a working group of Senators has been tasked with trying to find offsets for the costs of Katrina in addition to the cuts to mandatory spending required by budget reconciliation.

“Can we pull it off? When you get into specifics, things get more difficult,” Gregg acknowledged. He also noted that some of the Katrina offsets could move separately from reconciliation, a process protected by Senate rules from filibuster.

Senate Democrats also reacted coolly to the notion of more spending cuts, saying the majority squandered earlier opportunities to deal with budget overruns and that aid to Katrina victims along the Gulf Coast took precedence over cuts to entitlement programs for the poor and elderly, including Medicaid, Medicare and food stamp programs.

“All the programs they want to cut hurt the American taxpayers,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

House Democrats were similarly critical.

On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Budget ranking member John Spratt (D-S.C.) wrote to Hastert and Nussle urging them to cancel the reconciliation process, which is scheduled to include extensions of several tax cuts, in the wake of Katrina.

“In light of the large deficits already projected, and the enormous obligations imposed by these disasters, we should not add to the deficit or reduce the resources needed to fund the federal response to the worst natural disaster in our history,” Pelosi and Spratt wrote.

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