House GOP Leaders Set to Cut Spending

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 17, 2005

House Republican leaders have moved from balking at big cuts in Medicaid and other programs to embracing them, driven by pent-up anger from fiscal conservatives concerned about runaway spending and the leadership's own weakening hold on power.

Beginning this week, the House GOP lawmakers will take steps to cut as much as $50 billion from the fiscal 2006 budget for health care for the poor, food stamps and farm supports, as well as considering across-the-board cuts in other programs. Only last month, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) and other GOP leaders quashed demands within their party for budget cuts to pay for the soaring cost of hurricane relief.

DeLay told a packed room of reporters on Sept. 13 that 11 years of Republican rule had already pared down the federal budget "pretty good." If lawmakers had suggestions for cuts, DeLay said he would listen, but he was not offering anything up.

But faced with a revolt among many conservatives sharply critical of him for resisting spending cuts, DeLay three weeks later told a closed meeting of the House Republican Conference, "I failed you," according to a number of House members and GOP aides. Then, in a nod to the most hard-core conservatives, DeLay volunteered, "You guys filled a void in the leadership."

The abrupt shift reflects a changed political dynamic in the House in which a faction of fiscal conservatives -- known as the Republican Study Committee, or RSC -- has gained the upper hand because of DeLay's criminal indictment in Texas, widespread criticism of the Republicans' handling of Hurricane Katrina, and uncertainty over the future of the leadership, according to lawmakers and aides.

Now, cutting the budget -- which only months ago seemed far from possible -- is at the center of the agenda in the House. "No one wants to have an argument with friends, but that argument facilitated the debate that led to the package [of cuts] that [House Speaker J. Dennis] Hastert has now put out there," said Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), chairman of the RSC and a leading proponent of cuts to offset new government spending.

But Republicans could be taking a big risk by cutting Medicaid programs while their standing in the polls has plummeted and Democrats gear up for a fight. "We have seen a sea change in the budget policies of House Republicans," said Thomas S. Kahn, the Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee. "Clearly, the RSC's influence over their budget policies is in the ascendancy."

The RSC launched a public crusade for spending cuts last month, with its leaders using news conferences, television appearances and media interviews to all but accuse the GOP leadership of profligacy. House leaders at first tried to crush the RSC, or at least push its efforts back behind closed doors.

But a Texas grand jury's Sept. 28 indictment of DeLay changed the balance of power, forcing the leadership to shore up its conservative base and raising the prospect of a new leadership election that would further undermine GOP unity entering an uncertain election season.

DeLay may continue to exercise power informally, as he did Oct. 7 in working the floor to help narrowly pass an energy bill. But DeLay and his leadership allies are mindful that the rank and file could demand new elections to permanently fill the majority leader's post -- temporarily being held by Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.) -- if members grow impatient with GOP policies.

"Our real leverage has come from the fear that DeLay will not have a post to come back to," said Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz), another RSC leader. "They are deathly afraid of a leadership election in January."

A revolt has been stirring within the House GOP ranks for months. Fiscal conservatives had accepted an expanded federal role in education enshrined in President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, had lost a fight to block the Medicare prescription drug benefit -- the largest entitlement expansion since Lyndon Johnson was president -- and had even embraced the mammoth transportation law that passed this summer with a record-shattering number of pork-barrel projects.

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