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War Looms Over Budget

A major message war is poised to peak on the House floor this week, as Republicans and Democrats battle for the mantle of fiscal responsibility and face off over who has the right priorities for the country.

Round one is expected to begin Thursday, when House Republicans hope to be ready to push an amendment to the 2006 budget bill that calls for a mandatory spending cut of at least $50 billion. That cut, designed to help offset the mounting costs of providing relief to areas hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina, would affect funding of key education, health care and food stamp programs.

Democrats are crying foul over the effort, believing that it is a push by Republicans to appease their conservative base, and in response are preparing a political offensive this week both on and off Capitol Hill. Democrats hope not only to defeat the proposal, but also to convince the American public that the Republican Party is not managing the nation’s fiscal house appropriately.

The House Democrats’ message will consist of three major themes: that the GOP is a party of fiscal irresponsibility, hypocrisy in spending and misplaced priorities.

Specifically, the minority will argue that the GOP, while continuing to push tax cuts for wealthy Americans, is advocating reductions in spending to programs that help the neediest Americans, including Katrina victims. They also will make the case that the GOP budget proposal increases deficit spending and does not steer the country toward a fiscally sound path.

“What they are proposing is bad for America, bad for poor people, bad for the long-term health of the country and bad for the long-term outlook of our economy,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

As Democrats coordinate the party’s message with their Caucus, Republicans are focusing on a two-pronged challenge: attempting to shore up wavering support on the right while also girding for attacks from the left.

Much of the GOP’s renewed focus on fiscal discipline stems from the conservative outcry last month that followed Congress’ disbursement of more than $60 billion to pay for the aftermath of Katrina and Republican leaders’ alleged unwillingness to find enough spending offsets.

While the fiscal 2006 budget already called for $35 billion in mandatory spending cuts to be achieved through the reconciliation process, complaints from Republican Study Committee members on the Hill and conservative activists off the Hill prompted the leadership to boost that target to $50 billion, necessitating the budget amendment that is currently being crafted.

As part of its effort to assuage their conservative base, the Republican Conference will host its first-ever “bloggers row” on Thursday, inviting several influential Web loggers to set up shop in the Capitol and talk to prominent GOP lawmakers about budget issues and the party’s commitment to spending cuts.

At the same time, Republicans are preparing to fend off charges from Democrats that they are slashing benefits for the poor and vulnerable.

“This week, we’re going to be out front talking about the need to restrain spending, but doing so [with] common-sense reforms that save the government money without affecting benefits per se,” said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the House Republican Conference.

But Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), ranking member on the Budget Committee, contended that those arguments will fall flat, saying the budget reconciliation process is just a fig leaf for the Republicans’ continuing efforts to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Spratt said that Democrats will make that point, as well as noting the irony that Republicans are now pushing to offset the costs of Katrina even though they didn’t act similarly to reconcile the costs of rebuilding Iraq.

“I think by the time this package goes through, there will be something that everyone will take some significant exception to,” said Spratt, assistant to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Democrats will stick together, and hopefully there is an opportunity for reaching across the aisle and get the Republicans” to join us.

Led by Spratt and others, Democrats this week will hold several leadership press events, conference calls with local media outlets and special orders on the House floor, all part of a plan to ramp up pressure on the GOP and point out what they call devastating spending cuts.

And as House Democrats internally turn up the heat to defeat the Republicans in the Capitol, the liberal organization Americans United to Protect Social Security has created a spinoff group to fight the proposed spending cuts. Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities kicked off last week with the goal of stopping cuts to major government programs to pay for Katrina relief.

The group has held a series of events and will continue to hold more across the country in the coming weeks. The organization is targeting 70 to 80 Republican Members in more than 30 states to try to mount enough pressure to defeat the proposed budget cuts.

“What we’re hoping to demonstrate at the grass-roots level is hell, fire and fury against these misplaced priorities,” said Brad Woodhouse, the group’s spokesman. “We want these moderate Republicans to go begging to the leadership not to go forward with these cuts because, quite frankly, they are making them politically vulnerable because they are wrong.”

Republicans, however, promise they won’t take those hits lying down.

Republicans on the Appropriations Committee have assembled a full list of amendments offered by Democrats throughout the Appropriations process this year that would have increased spending by roughly $17 billion.

“They want it both ways,” Spicer said of House Democrats. “They complain about spending and then when we talk about common-sense reforms they go after us on those. They’ve got nothing but rhetoric and lack of agenda. … They’ve got zero alternatives.”

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