So what exactly constitutes "unnecessary spending," in President Bush's spectacularly vague phrase?

Finally, we're easing our way into a real debate on the subject.

You want to spend a couple hundred billion dollars on Katrina and Rita and the damage done by any other killer storms this season? Great. What would you cut?

If you assume there's no way Congress is going to raise taxes -- though I suppose some of the Bush tax cuts might not be made permanent -- then this is the choice. Reduce spending on other programs -- and remember, every program in Washington has a constituency or it wouldn't be in the budget -- or borrow zillions from foreign note-buyers and stick our kids and grandkids with the bill.

The argument is fiercest in the Republican Party, which is supposed to preach the gospel of fiscal discipline but has really opened the cash registers under Bush.

Ever since Reagan vowed to eliminate "waste, fraud and abuse" in 1980, politicians have pretended that they could balance the budget by simply running a tighter ship. The deficit, that abstract concept, hasn't been a national issue since Ross Perot made his eccentric run in '92, but even congressmen who spend like drunken sailors are coming to realize that we're heading for a precarious fiscal situation. The Gingrich revolutionaries of '94 promised to blow up whole departments, like Education, but didn't. The Clinton surplus was wiped out by 9/11, tax cuts, pork-barrel spending and now Katrina.

Now the bill is coming due, and some House Republicans, to their credit, are proposing specific cuts, such as cutting out the Alaskan "bridge to nowhere" and other piggy provisions in that bloated highway bill. But Dennis Hastert says no way because "it is exactly the highway bill we need." Nor will the speaker consider delaying the Medicare prescription drug law because "something seniors across the county look forward to" -- leaving aside the fact that they've gotten by without it all these years.

The highway bill, with 6,000 member-designated projects worth $24 billion -- including, The Post reports, $500 million in Hastert earmarks for such vital projects as a bike path and a sidewalk -- is exactly what we need? So much for fiscal restraint.

How should the aid money be divvied up? Here's a radical proposal from Slate's Steven Landsburg | http://slate.msn.com/id/2126715/:

"Before we spend $200 billion on New Orleans disaster relief, can we just pause for about three seconds, please? That should be long enough to divide one number by another. The numbers I have in mind are, on the one hand, $200 billion, and, on the other hand, 1 million people -- the prestorm population of the New Orleans area, broadly defined.

"Two-hundred billion divided by 1 million is 200,000. For the cost of reconstructing New Orleans, the government could simply give $200,000 to every resident of the region -- that's $800,000 for a family of four. Given a choice, which do you think the people down there would prefer?

"I'm guessing most of them would take the cash. I can't prove that, but I think I can make it plausible: If your city were demolished, would you prefer to have it rebuilt -- with someone else making all the decisions about how it gets rebuilt -- or would you prefer to collect $800,000 in cash and move your family elsewhere? I've asked a lot of people this question during the last week, and, according to my informal unscientific survey, pretty much everyone would take the money and run . . .

"There would still be some tidying up to do, like rebuilding the interstates -- but that accounts for a small fraction of the projected $200 billion."

Noting that a group of House Republicans has put out a budgetary hit list (Amtrak, PBS, etc.), Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com makes a few additions:

"I note that farm subsidies somehow didn't make the short list from our hardy band of conservative Republicans. That could save about $20 billion per year or so. Of course, some of these brave fiscal warriors come from farm states . . .

"Delay the Medicare prescription drug bill for one year? Pish and tosh. The current bill is projected to cost about $100 billion per year, and as near as I can tell about half of that has nothing at all to do with providing prescription drugs to seniors. It's just a steaming pile of corporate welfare and handouts to pharmaceutical companies. So I tell you what: hand over the bill to some serious healthcare policy analysts -- they'll have to be Democrats, I'm afraid, since Republicans don't have any left -- and I'm pretty sure they can cut the cost of this legislation by a third and actually improve its coverage at the same time.

"Kill the F/A-22 Raptor. I think even President Bush agrees that the Raptor doesn't make much sense anymore. I don't have numbers off the top of my head, but this would probably save about $20 billion or so.

"Raise taxes? Whoa, Nelly! But we could at least repeal a tax cut aimed exclusively at wealthy families that's scheduled to take effect in January. That would save about $200 billion over ten years.

"Yes, the Moon-Mars mission could be scrubbed, and the highway bill earmarks could be repealed en masse. And while we're at it we might as well repeal the horrendous energy bill enacted a couple of months ago. That should add up to $100 billion or so.

"Let's see . . . that totals up to roughly $800 billion or so over ten years. See how easy this is?"

Blogging up a list: easy. Getting Congress to act: not so much.

Many conservatives have abandoned the argument that Bush is in favor of smaller government, a la Peggy Noonan | http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110007291:

"George W. Bush, after five years in the presidency, does not intend to get sucker-punched by the Democrats over race and poverty. That was the driving force behind his Katrina speech last week. He is not going to play the part of the cranky accountant -- 'But where's the money going to come from?' -- while the Democrats, in the middle of a national tragedy, swan around saying 'Republicans don't care about black people,' and 'They're always tightwads with the poor.' . . .

"George W. Bush is a big spender. He has never vetoed a spending bill. When Congress serves up a big slab of fat, crackling pork, Mr. Bush responds with one big question: Got any barbecue sauce?"

Noonan tells Republicans that "if we are going to spend like the romantics and operators of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society;

"If we are going to thereby change the very meaning and nature of conservatism;

"If we are going to increase spending and the debt every year;

"If we are going to become a movement that supports big government and a party whose unspoken motto is 'Whatever it takes';

"If all these things, shouldn't we perhaps at least discuss it? Shouldn't we be talking about it? Shouldn't our senators, congressmen and governors who wish to lead in the future come forward to take a stand?

"And shouldn't the Bush administration seriously address these questions, share more of their thinking, assumptions and philosophy?"

David Brooks, now hidden behind the NYT's columnist firewall, contrasts this week's criticism by John Kerry and John Edward:

"Kerry began his speech by making the point that Bush and his crew are rotten. He then went on to make the point that Bush and his crew are loathsome. In the third section of the speech, Kerry left the impression that Bush and his crew are evil.

"Now we all know people so consumed by hatred for George Bush that they haven't had an unpredictable thought in five years, but in Kerry's speech one sees this anger in almost clinical form.

"In the first place, not even Karl Rove's worldview is so obsessively Bush-centric as John Kerry's. There are many interesting issues raised by Katrina, but for Senator Ahab it all goes back to the great white monster, Bush. Bush and his crew should have known the levees were weak. Bush and his crew should have known thousands in New Orleans would be trapped. (Did I miss Kerry's own warnings on these subjects?)"

Brooks was much more upbeat about Edwards: "While the old welfare policies allowed people to evade the world of work and enabled people to drop out of school and have children, Edwards proposed a series of policies designed to encourage work, to encourage responsibility, to help the poor build assets."

Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg | http://slate.msn.com/id/2126738/ tells his fellow libs to chill:

"The reaction from liberals to Bush's proposed War on Bayou Poverty has been outrage that Republicans would take advantage of the tragedy to advance their ideological agenda. Democratic leaders are upset about the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, sacred to unions, which requires the federal government to pay prevailing wages to workers. They've also denounced Bush's proposal to provide school vouchers to students displaced by the storm and the suggestion that Karl Rove might run the rebuilding show.

"This is precisely the wrong response. Liberals, who have failed to muster any kind of social consensus for a major federal assault on poverty since LBJ's day, should welcome conservatives as converts to the cause. They should hold back on their specific objections -- some of which are valid, some of which are not -- and let Bush have his way with the reconstruction. Making New Orleans a test site for conservative social policy ideas could shake out any number of ways politically. But all of us have a stake in an experiment that tells us whether conservative anti-poverty ideas, uh, work. If the conservative war on poverty succeeds, even in partial fashion, we will all be better for its success. And if it fails, we will have learned something important about how not to fight poverty."

Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com keeps blogging about his deep disappointment with Bush:

"We all have to make judgments and I know few people who wouldn't have preferred a better choice last November. But I think we had also learned by last November that Bush never listens to criticism (except, perhaps, from his wife); that his re-election would confirm him in all the worst judgment calls of his presidency; that his administration was slowly killing off conservatism as we had known it; it was manifestly incompetent and immune to correction; and that the only responsible thing was therefore to back Kerry as the lesser of two evils. I think Kerry would have made a pretty poor president. But Bush was already clearly on course for disaster (and had already made a basket case of Iraq). I wish I was being proven wrong. At least now I feel a little less lonely."

Air America host Randi Rhodes is comparing Katrina's victims to those killed in the Holocaust, says the site Newsbusters | http://newsbusters.org/node/1360. Ack.

CBS correspondent John Roberts | http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/09/20/politics/wh/main866851.shtml responds to a viewer who complained that the network should have used its resources to deliver food and water to the needy:

"We were dispatched to the hurricane in such a rush that I brought with me only a few changes of clothing and a handful of breakfast bars. Our camera crews -- some of whom drove in -- brought little more than that, as no one thought this was going to be much more than a three day assignment. By Thursday, we were out of food and down to our last bottle of water. Our situation was becoming quite dire.

"Even so, when we came across people on the Interstate, and in the neighborhoods, we gave them what we could to help out. And when we finally got re-supplied (Friday morning), we freely shared water and snacks with people who were left high and dry with nothing. On more than one occasion, we gave away everything we had in our crew vehicle -- even though we still had hours of work in the hot sun ahead of us.

"Perhaps what you are complaining about is that we didn't make a point of telling our viewers that. It's not appropriate for us to blow our own horns. We helped people out of concern for their well-being, not to showboat. By Friday, the National Guard had set up a food distribution site near the convention center and was delivering food and water to people on the interstate, so the need for us to help folks out became quite diminished. But whenever we went out in our boat, we made sure that we took along enough supplies to do what we could for people who were still out in their flooded homes.

"I'm sorry if I'm on a bit of a tirade here, but questions like yours are posited by people who have absolutely no understanding of the situation in New Orleans during those days . . . And, yes, we did rescue several people -- and a lot of pets. Again, we just didn't make a point of it. We were there to report the news, not grandstand.

"And to those reporters (all on cable, of course) who did grandstand, well, you know who you are."

As for the Other John Roberts, he sails in committee:

"Three Democrats joined with Republicans as the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13 to 5 today to send the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice of the United States to the full Senate, where his confirmation is a virtual certainty," says the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-092205roberts_lat,0,3332392.story?coll=la-home-headlines.

"The split among the committee's eight Democrats reflected division among Senate Democrats as a whole. Several Democratic senators predicted that Roberts could get the support of a majority of Democrats when the full Senate takes up his confirmation next week."

The Dem yes votes: Leahy, Kohl and Feingold.

The Nation's David Corn | http://www.thenation.com/blogs/capitalgames?bid=3&pid=23499 analyzes the Dem division:

"Once again, the Democrats are splitting on an issue that its most ardent supporters care much about. Just like Iraq. Ted Kennedy (no surprise) is voting against Roberts. So is John Kerry. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, is voting for Bush's pick. Some progressive bloggers have tried to target Baucus, depicting him as a Democratic turncoat. Are they now going to do the same with Leahy, an otherwise reliable liberal? And can any Democrat who wants to run in 2008 vote to confirm Roberts?"

Perhaps not. Hillary said yesterday she'll vote against Roberts.

"Imagine the debate during the Democratic presidential primaries of 2008 if Roberts reaches the court and then weakens abortion rights. Candidates who voted for Roberts could expect to face harsh questions from candidates who opposed Roberts as well as from potential supporters and voters."

Ladies and gentlemen, the Useless Speculation about the next high court nominee is officially under way. And the same GOP "sources" who said Bush would pick Edith Clement last time are playing the game again. So here is the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/22/politics/politicsspecial1/22nominee.html?pagewanted=all quoting Republican strategists in reporting that "President Bush is focused on Hispanics, African-Americans and women to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor." And here is The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/21/AR2005092100476.html quoting "three Republicans close to the president" as saying his short list "includes men and women, whites and minorities."

Well, that really narrows it down.

Finally, Jay Rosen is troubled by the NYT's $49.95 online fee for columnists and archives:

"My own questions start with this sentence in the corporate side's press release, describing TimesSelect as 'a new product offering subscribers exclusive online access to the distinctive voices of the Op-Ed, Business, Metro and Sports columnists of The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune (IHT).'

"The phrase 'exclusive online access' advertises two different goods. The first good is the work of the Times columnists themselves. The proposition that some will pay for that is hard to prove until you try, but it's simple to understand. The second good being advertised is exclusivity. You, the lucky TimesSelect subscriber, have access to these voices. Others do not. The value proposition there is muddled. If we prize up-to-date information about petroleum markets, we might value it more -- and pay a premium -- if the news is exclusively available to paying customers; but do we value Nicholas D. Kristof's column more if he's an 'exclusive?'

"We don't. In fact, it's probably the reverse. If everyone is reading a columnist, that makes the columnist more of a must have. If 'everyone' isn't, less of a must. 'Exclusive online access' attacks the perception of ubiquity that is part and parcel of a great columnist's power. In his prime Walter Lippmann was called 'the name that opened every door.' Nick Kristof's brand of human rights journalism, which depends on the mobilization of outrage, is simply less potent if it can't reach widely around the world, and pass by every door."