By Eric Pianin and George Hager
House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) has become a familiar face on TV talk shows and on the Republican banquet circuit a peripatetic evangelist for shrinking the size of government, cutting taxes and empowering folks back home.
In his vigorous pursuit of a spot on the GOP presidential ticket in 2000, the boyish-looking Kasich, 46, has tirelessly traversed the country this year, visiting at least 15 states with repeated stops in New Hampshire and Iowa to campaign for Republicans candidates and raise money for his political action committee.
But on Capitol Hill, where he was a star of last year's balanced budget talks and a key player in virtually every high-level negotiation, Kasich has receded into the background. By increasingly focusing on promoting his national political ambitions, his critics say, he has become less of a player while others try to hammer out a tax deal and year-end spending priorities to get Congress out of town.
"It's strange, but he has pretty much fallen off the radar screen," a GOP lobbyist and former leadership aide said last week.
More troubling, some say, is that Kasich this year failed to complete one of Congress's most fundamental jobs producing a compromise House-Senate budget resolution that sets a blueprint for spending and tax decisions throughout the year.
By trying to use the budget to promote tax and spending cuts far bigger than were called for in last year's balanced budget deal, Kasich and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) alienated the Senate and created a situation in which for the first time in 24 years, Congress failed to pass a budget resolution.
Rather than working from a compromise budget blueprint in shaping the annual spending bills and tax legislation, House and Senate Republicans have used last year's budget deal as a rough guide to overall spending while improvising the rest of their business. As a result, there has been endless squabbling over taxes and there was a nearly two-month delay early this year before the appropriators could get to work.
"It reflects poorly on the Republican Party's ability to lay out a rational course for budget policy-making," said Robert Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "It has contributed to the delay and confusion that we have experienced." A senior House Appropriations Committee aide agreed, saying "It was a disastrous thing for us this year. It slowed us down and added confusion."
Moderate Republicans in both chambers complained last spring that Kasich was using the budget to try to energize his party's conservative base and garner attention. "He's running for president and he needs the conservative base to win the nomination," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).
Kasich last week denied any connection between his budget tactics this year and his presidential ambition, and he dismissed as preposterous the suggestion that his role on Capitol Hill has been diminished. "You've got to be kidding," he said.
Kasich and his defenders note that in years past the budget chairman rarely got involved in the nitty gritty of the spending bills late in the session and that this year is no different. But Kasich unquestionably would have been at the center of the last-minute maneuvering over taxes and the rearranging of spending priorities had the House and Senate managed to work out differences over taxes and spending cuts and passed a compromise resolution.
In defending his push for a budget plan that far exceeded last year's deal, Kasich said he has been an aggressive advocate of deep spending cuts since he arrived in Congress in 1983 and has long supported cutting taxes as a way to reduce the size of government and shift government revenues back to average Americans. He said his efforts this year were "consistent with what I've done all my career."
What's more, conservative activists in the House were pressing for far more in tax and spending cuts than the Senate was willing to accept and were threatening to scuttle any budget plan that failed to meet their demands. The gulf between the House and Senate Republicans was simply too great to bridge this year, some budget experts say, and even had a budget plan somehow been hammered out, any accompanying tax legislation would have encountered insurmountable resistance from Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate.
"I'm not blaming anyone [for not getting a budget resolution]," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), "and I don't think it would have changed much of what we're doing up here."
Kasich, the son of a postal worker, rose to prominence as chairman of the House Budget Committee after the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. Kasich and Domenici were among the chief negotiators during the 1995 and 1996 budget wars with the Clinton administration and took a major hand last year in finally forging a balanced budget and tax deal.
Once a protege of Gingrich, Kasich now is a potential rival of the speaker for the GOP presidential nomination. Kasich is on the road practically every weekend, campaigning for other Republicans and raising money, and will begin promoting his new book, "Courage is Contagious," after the election.
Since its inception, Kasich's "Pioneer" presidential exploratory PAC has raised about $1.6 million which puts him slightly ahead of PACs set up by Republicans Lamar Alexander and Sen. John D. Ashcroft (Mo.) and behind those of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), former vice president Dan Quayle and Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council.
Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, said that Kasich is an appealing figure especially to younger voters "because of his energy and youth" in contrast to the older figures of George Bush and Robert J. Dole who led the GOP ticket in the past two elections. "John brings the ability to appeal to a younger audience while appearing to be serious and integral to the Republicans' efforts at change."
Until this year, Kasich and the more moderate Domenici have largely agreed on budget policy and the paramount importance of eliminating the deficit. While long an advocate of tax relief, Kasich was not in the same camp as Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) and other House conservatives who were demanding huge tax cuts.
Even when it became apparent late last year that a booming economy would produce the first federal budget surpluses since 1969, Kasich joined Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan in arguing against using the surplus for tax cuts. However, Kasich's views began to change early this year, when he joined Archer in proposing changes in the budget rules to allow a portion of any budget surplus to be used for a tax cut.
Kasich caused an uproar in the House in early May when he proposed a budget resolution calling for $154 billion of additional spending cuts including elimination of the departments of Energy and Commerce and the space station project to help pay for $100 billion of new tax relief. By contrast, the Senate-passed budget provided for $30 billion of tax cuts, though Lott and Senate conservatives vowed the final cuts would be much larger. But a compromise was never reached.
When it became apparent that the Senate would never agree to huge spending cuts to pay for tax relief, the House passed an $80 billion tax cut plan financed largely by the projected surplus. Kasich went along with that.
If Kasich was trying to stir up the GOP base, he appears to have succeeded. "John Kasich continues to hold out a vision," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), a fiscal conservative who admires what Kasich did. "He put a marker down and said, 'This is what we stand for.'"
Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company