An impassioned plea for Republican unity from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) appeared to pay dividends yesterday, as renegade conservatives backed off their efforts to block annual spending bills in protest of the GOP's budget strategy.
The developments cleared the way for the House to complete work on the agriculture appropriations bill, one of several measures that had tied the chamber up in procedural knots before the Memorial Day recess. House leaders said they expect the other bills, including a major defense spending measure, will move forward shortly.
In breaking the short-term legislative impasse, Hastert achieved an important tactical victory, keeping the GOP caucus united for the moment and buying more time to solve the larger fiscal problems that have vexed him and other Republican leaders.
He did so by dropping his generally laissez-faire leadership approach and delivering a stern 17-minute lecture to Republican House members yesterday morning. In a closed-door meeting, Hastert told his colleagues that they risked losing control of the House if they persisted with their obstructionist tactics.
"Some days you have to give your leadership the benefit of the doubt and just follow," Hastert told his colleagues, according to excerpts provided by his aides. "That is the difference between a majority mentality and a minority mentality."
Along with his rhetorical flourishes, Hastert announced some modest measures aimed at relieving the fiscal squeeze facing some of the larger spending bills, such as the labor and human services appropriations measure. The speaker said he would use money from the sale of portions of the broadcast spectrum and cuts in nondefense bills to shore up such domestic programs, although he also placated conservatives by reaffirming the party's commitment to preserving the tight spending caps dictated by the 1997 budget deal.
Republicans gave Hastert a standing ovation for his speech, and even some of the most strident critics of the leadership appeared at least temporarily mollified.
"It's not exactly what I would do, but [Hastert's] our leader and he's come up with at least a strategy to try to get us where we're not in the same shape we were in last year," said Rep. Tom Coburn (R). The Oklahoma conservative said he would drop his efforts to obstruct the agriculture spending bill. The bill passed yesterday on a 246 to 183 vote.
But even as fiscal conservatives agreed to adopt a "wait-and-see approach," they warned that the GOP leadership has failed to show how it can win support for the most difficult spending bills, while keeping Congress from raiding surpluses in the Social Security trust fund for additional money.
And moderates said that Hastert's approach fails to address the larger concern that the $538 billion that will be available for defense and nonentitlement domestic spending in the coming year simply is not enough to address all the needs and attract majorities to approve all the spending bills.
"I'm very sympathetic to what they're trying to do . . . but you can't help but remain skeptical," said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a conservative. "I want to be a team member, but I don't want to close my eyes to the math."
Democrats were even more critical of Hastert's plan. "It's a Band-Aid on a major head wound, and I don't think it's going to be of much help," said Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Several top Republicans said they hoped an end to the conflict in Kosovo could produce additional savings, and that the Congressional Budget Office might come up with new revenue projections that would ease the fiscal situation. House leaders also vowed to offer amendments slashing money from several of the less controversial bills as they came to the floor: House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) offered a preview of this strategy yesterday, sponsoring a successful amendment to cut $102 million from the $14 billion agricultural spending bill.
Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education, said the additional $2 billion slated for his panel under the Hastert plan would be "helpful." But he said more money is needed to pass his bill and ones funding foreign aid, veterans and space programs.
"They're looking for a way to make this work out," Porter said. "It does not give us an end-game solution to the final three bills."
Still, several lawmakers said they were heartened by Hastert's talk, in which he recalled the party's travails last year during impeachment and told his colleagues, "I need you to stand together."
Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) described it as a marked departure from that of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who lectured GOP dissenters as "stupid" and "shortsighted idiots" after they defied the leadership.
"When someone calls me stupid, I'm even less likely to go along with them," Scarborough said. "The style was just so different from Newt, and really that made all the difference in the world."
Republicans also discussed attacking Democrats if they try to push for greater spending. Hastert told lawmakers he believed abiding by the 1997 budget agreement and protecting 100 percent of the Social Security surplus "is a winning strategy that has helped this party," and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) detailed polling that showed fierce opposition to using the surplus to fund even popular initiatives such as education.
"Rather than running from issues like fiscal restraint, we need to stand up and defend fiscal restraint," Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) said after the meeting. "We win every time we do that."
CAPTION: House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told Republican colleagues: "Some days you have to give your leadership the benefit of the doubt and just follow," transcripts show.