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House GOP Leaders Set to Cut Spending
Since Bush came to office, federal spending had grown by a third, from $1.86 trillion to $2.47 trillion, while record budget surpluses turned to record deficits. Conservative activists, led by talk show hosts and opinion columnists, had begun pressing Republicans hard on what they saw as Big Government Conservatism.
"Congress had found itself very much on the defensive," said Ronald D. Utt, a federal budget expert at the Heritage Foundation. Then came Katrina in late August.
Lawmakers rushed back to Washington, eager to demonstrate their sympathy for the victims of the storm after Bush was widely criticized for his tardy response.
A planned conservative agenda of tax cutting, a permanent end to the estate tax, and the first cuts in Medicaid and other entitlement programs in nearly a decade appeared lost. Some Republicans were even suggesting it might be time to raise taxes, joining a chorus of Democrats pressing to roll back some of Bush's tax cuts.
"There was an element of the last straw in this," Pence said.
By Sept. 7, Congress had already enacted a $10.5 billion hurricane-relief measure, with a $52 billion bill pending. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) went to the House Rules Committee with an amendment to pay for the next installment with a one-time, 3 percent cut to all federal programs subject to Congress's annual spending bills, outside of defense, homeland security and veterans affairs.
The move was crushed. Instead, House leaders put the Katrina funding up for a vote under the rules reserved for non-controversial bills -- such as the renaming of a courthouse -- with no amendments allowed.
Conservatives were furious, Flake said, but not nearly as furious as they would become Sept. 13. The RSC was created in the early 1970s by conservative gadfly Paul Weyrich and other outside activists to watch over the House GOP leadership, but its power has waxed and waned, largely according to the dictates of the leadership it was supposed to be watching over.
Now, under Pence, the group was flexing its muscles. He had announced a news conference for Sept. 14 to unveil "Operation Offset," a menu of spending cuts that would more than pay for hurricane relief. On Sept. 13, DeLay suggested that "after 11 years of Republican majority, we've pared [the government] down pretty good." Then he issued what conservatives took as a challenge.
"My answer to those that want to offset the spending is, 'Sure, bring me the offsets,' " he said. "I will be glad to do it, but no one has been able to come up with any yet."
That afternoon, Pence attended a leadership meeting in Hastert's conference room, where he would get an earful, according to several leadership aides. It was one thing to suggest that Republicans consider budget cuts to pay for Katrina relief, but it was quite another to call a news conference, the leaders told Pence. And to suggest that the RSC was reining in a free-spending party was out of bounds. The deficit for 2005 was coming in nearly $100 billion below initial forecasts, they said, and GOP leaders that spring had muscled through Congress a budget blueprint that ordered up $35 billion in entitlement cuts over five years, the first such effort since 1997.
The appeals appeared only to harden the conservatives' resolve. And DeLay, for so long a symbol of conservative power, found himself an object of ridicule. One member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Republicans joked that one of the cuts could not be the president's proposed mission to Mars, because DeLay was already up there.