GOP Leaders Try to Soothe Conservatives

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Squeezed between a conservative clamor for spending cuts and the rising cost of hurricane relief, Republican congressional leaders will respond this week with a public relations offensive to win over angry conservatives -- but no substantive changes in budget policy.

Republican lawmakers and leadership aides conceded that the wholesale budget cuts envisioned by House conservatives are not being contemplated; the Senate is moving toward approving a temporary expansion of Medicaid for hurricane survivors, estimated to cost $9 billion. Nor are GOP leaders considering tax increases.

And Hurricane Rita's blow to a politically sensitive region of Texas could add more pressure to spend.

"Many communities, faith-based entities and the state of Texas have drained assets to save lives and help with the enormous multi-state national emergency, and they will need reimbursement to avoid massive financial failures," warned Rep. Louie Gohmert, a freshman Republican whose hard-hit East Texas district was drawn with the help of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to take it from Democratic control.

Since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, Congress has approved spending bills and tax cuts worth nearly $71 billion. An additional $5 billion in housing, education and small-business assistance cleared the Senate, even before the Medicaid bill was considered. A united Louisiana congressional delegation is seeking $250 billion more.

Republican leaders say the overall cost could be $100 billion to $200 billion. Although mindful of criticism, the leaders contend that such one-time expenditures -- albeit huge -- should not harm deficit-reduction efforts.

Prodded by conservatives, President Bush and GOP leaders have said they are willing to offset those costs with spending cuts. But realistically, the political will does not exist to vote through the cuts that have been proposed, said House leadership aides and sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Nor have Republican leaders given serious thought to reversing course on tax cuts, lawmakers said yesterday.

"I don't see any change in fiscal policy," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a former vice chairman of the Budget Committee.

The leadership has, however, felt the political sting of the recent deficit spending, which began with huge new transportation and energy bills this summer and cascaded into debt-financed hurricane relief this month. Republican leaders plan appearances this week on the syndicated radio talk shows of conservatives Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Mike Gallagher and Lars Larson, as well as local radio and television shows, leadership aides said. DeLay set the tone in a Washington Times opinion piece yesterday.

"It is clear that the recent political discussion focusing on the government's spending priorities and overall economic platform in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita has introduced a valuable forum to promote the triumph of our ideas and solutions for government over the crumbling and outdated policies of the Democrat-controlled Congresses of past decades," he wrote.

In private meetings last week, GOP leaders sharply criticized rank-and-file Republicans for taking issue with the surge in spending, pleading instead for unity. But neither the public relations offensive nor the private upbraiding has quieted conservatives.

"This leadership group is so out of touch, it's unbelievable," said one House lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming leaders further.


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