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.
GOP leadership officials say the conservatives are the ones out of touch. The hurricanes may have raised anxieties about the federal deficit, but they have pricked the conscience of a nation confronted by its own undercurrent of poverty.
Of the $509 billion in cuts proposed by the House Republican Study Committee, nearly half would come from health care for the poor. Yet Katrina knocked out eight charity hospitals in Louisiana that were helping to keep people off the Medicaid rolls, one House GOP leadership aide said.
Other targets would rekindle political battles that have already been fought and lost, such as eliminating federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
"While I like their idea of offsetting things, I wonder how productive it is," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), a Republican moderate.
Further complicating such cuts is the unabated spending on defense. A House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday completed a $440 billion military spending bill for 2006 that includes $50 billion for the war in Iraq.
If anything, the pressure could be for more spending. Congress has appropriated $62.3 billion for hurricane relief operations, by far the largest sum for a natural disaster. As of yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had allocated about $18.3 billion, said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield -- $2.5 billion in the past four days, as funds were sent to prepare for Hurricane Rita.
But $44 billion remains in FEMA's disaster fund, which can be tapped for relief from either hurricane. That should be enough to push back the next hurricane relief bill until late October, and it could keep total hurricane costs to about $100 billion -- about half of early estimates, G. William Hoagland, a senior Senate budget aide, said yesterday.
But politics could intervene, lawmakers warned. Two of the House districts hardest hit by Rita are represented by freshmen Gohmert and Ted Poe, both of whom owe their seats in part to DeLay's redistricting. Leaders have encouraged the spending of federal largess in freshman districts to solidify House gains, said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an outspoken fiscal conservative.
"We hear the rhetoric, that nobody wants earmarks, but the truth is, the leadership likes them," he said. "They like to get you hooked. They make freshmen believe they are the ticket to reelection."