House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) surveyed his colleagues at the hastily arranged GOP conference meeting last Friday and launched into a blistering speech about why they need to support Republican-drafted spending bills coming to the House floor. To underscore the point, he passed out sheets of paper listing who had broken with the party on key procedural votes.

"I want to tell you all that I'm sick of reading members' quotes about leadership letting them down. It's gotta stop, and it's gotta stop right now," DeLay declared, according to participants. "Take a look around this room. They are the people who are letting this conference down, and they're sitting right next to you. And in case there's any confusion as to who they are, this will help you figure it out."

The in-your-face admonition--a classic DeLay tactic--highlighted the fiery whip's leading role in the congressional budget showdown with President Clinton. Having led the successful drive to impeach Clinton last year, the Texas Republican has lined up his caucus behind a confrontational strategy aimed at finally trumping the president in the year-end budget battles that congressional Republicans have invariably lost.

The strategy is fairly straightforward--and risky. DeLay wants to avoid the kind of open-ended negotiations with the White House that in years past have resulted, he is convinced, in Republicans making too many concessions to the administration. And he wants to use the 13 annual spending bills to take Social Security away from Democrats as a political issue, to convince the public that the Republican Party is the more responsible protector of the giant federal retirement program.

To do this, DeLay and other Republicans are trying to pass austere spending bills that would refrain from tapping surplus funds generated by Social Security taxes. This way, they calculate, they would be well-positioned to blame Clinton for "raiding Social Security" if he insists on more money to fund domestic and foreign aid programs.

"We're at a defining moment in the direction of this country," DeLay said in an interview last week. "It's the classic battle of tax and spend versus a balanced budget and fiscal restraint."

But the Republican strategy faces many obstacles, including GOP credibility on budget matters. To squeeze spending within the necessary limits, the party has resorted to what even some of its own members call "gimmickry" to mask the true cost of government programs.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has concluded that the GOP-drafted spending bills are on target to tap at least $15 billion of Social Security surpluses, undermining the message DeLay wants to send. A DeLay-engineered proposal to save billions by postponing payment of earned income tax credits to the working poor foundered last week when Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) joined Democrats in opposing it. And Clinton appears willing to brandish his veto pen freely, leaving some GOP lawmakers in the dark as to how the party will prevail without giving the president another end-of-year political victory.

"Members kept thinking, 'There must be an endgame; we just don't know what it is,' " said one lawmaker who asked not to be identified. "Once again they found out, 'Well, I guess there isn't one.' "

Still, most House Republicans appear to have signed on to the brinkmanship. "The overall strategy is sound, as long as it's successful," said New York Republican James T. Walsh, who says the tactic has kept Democrats from ballooning spending. "It's all the eggs in one basket."

Though he is only the third-ranking leader in the House, DeLay has assumed the same leadership role on spending as on impeachment, with the full backing of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). He is the only member of the leadership with extensive experience on the Appropriations Committee, and is playing the kind of position once taken by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who ran roughshod over the committee during the early days of Republican control of Congress.

While the leadership meets frequently with the senior appropriators to work out problems, in the end it is DeLay who provides them with their marching orders: how much they can spend, overall, and the offsetting cuts and budget techniques they will use to try to stay within the spending limits.

Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education, argued early on that the leadership should concede the spending limits were no longer realistic. But when Porter tried to press the issue last July by scheduling a markup of the bill, DeLay and the leadership overruled him and canceled the sessions.

Democrats complain that DeLay has politicized and polarized appropriations, harming important programs and resorting to what they see as budgetary flimflam. "When the goal is to just enforce a political message with no consideration of the problems that creates, then you have a destructive process and then it becomes solely political," said Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the Appropriations panel's ranking Democrat.

But to DeLay, Clinton is the ultimate political cynic.

"He's the photo-op president," DeLay said. "He goes out and says he's for all these things, and then he doesn't lift a finger to make them happen."

This slipperiness--what GOP pollster Glen Bolger described as akin to "wrestling Jello"--is what congressional Republicans say has forced them to take such a hard line this year. "Instead of reacting, the Republicans are being proactive," Bolger said. "Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but you have to give them credit for trying."

To help convey their message directly to voters, DeLay and Hastert pushed for the National Republican Congressional Committee to finance a multimillion-dollar ad campaign targeting vulnerable Democrats for allegedly raiding the Social Security surplus. The television offensive was secretly tested with focus groups, but it marks another risk in which congressional leaders are using needed resources long before the election to make a national, much-publicized commitment that could be broken.

To focus the battle with the president on spending, GOP leaders have purposely limited the number of controversial legislative provisions, known as "riders," that crop up during the appropriations season. DeLay kept conservatives from attaching family planning riders to the foreign operations spending bill, because he considers the Senate "basically pro-choice" and didn't want Clinton to have an excuse to veto the bill.

The prospect of cornering Clinton on spending, said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), is what has persuaded him and other conservatives to swallow otherwise objectionable bills. "We've never had a confrontation on whether to spend the Social Security surplus in order to grow the government," Graham said. "This is a winning issue for us."

Some conservatives are not convinced the GOP can make this argument with a straight face: Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) says that when it comes to spending Social Security funds, "really blood is on both parties' hands." But even after a group of like-minded Republicans huddled to fume over the budget last week, Sanford said they had the choice of following their leaders or jeopardizing the House majority.

"You could pour gasoline all over the place and light the match," Sanford observed. "You blow up the place, but you blow up yourself as well."

The whip, for his part, emphasizes that Hastert and other top leaders have helped chart the GOP's political course. "This isn't DeLay driving the House," he said. "This is DeLay working within the leadership and making things happen."

DeLay won't divulge his party's ultimate plan--"I ain't talking about the endgame," he insisted--but said he's comfortable with the choices his party has laid out for the president.

"That's the debate the nation needs to have," he said. "Then I'll go back and check and see where the votes are."


Elected to House: 1984

Born: April 8, 1947, Laredo

Home: Sugar Land

Education: University of Houston, bachelor's degree, 1970

Religion: Baptist

Marital status: married (Christine)


* Texas House of Representatives, 1979-84.

* Owner, Albo Pest Control, 1973-84.

GOP Ad Campaign

DeLay and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert pushed for the National Republican Congressional Committee to pay for an ad campaign targeting vulnerable Democrats for allegedly raiding the Social Security surplus.