'Budget Hawk' Stands At the Storm Center

April 02, 1995|By JEFF SHEAR

House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, Republican of Ohio, will find himself in the middle of a bruising congressional battle later this week when the debate begins on legislation to slash the federal budget to pay for a massive tax cut.

House Republicans are pushing a five-year, $190 billion package of cuts in business and personal taxes as part of the "Contract with America." Just two weeks ago, Mr. Kasich's committee unveiled a plan to cut discretionary spending by $100 billion to help fund the tax cuts. The Ways and Means Committee found the remaining $90 billion through cuts in welfare, food stamps and other social programs.

As early as Wednesday, the tax and spending measures could find themselves wrapped into one large bill that lands on the floor of the House.

Mr. Kasich is the man chosen by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, to lead the nation across the burning sands of fiscal responsibility. The chairman is intent on hacking government down to size. He envisions himself as a revolutionary with an opportunity to rewrite the history of the 20th century with a Republican ending.

"He's not an ideologue," says his close friend and lobbyist Thomas J. Downey, the former Democratic congressman from New York. "He's a budget hawk with a sense of fairness to people. He won't go after the weak claimants, but he will go after the weak claims to the budget."

Maybe. But the reality may be far harsher and more confrontational than even Mr. Kasich's closest Democratic allies might imagine.

The tax and spending cut measures cannot pass without support from conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans -- groups Mr. Kasich has alienated.

Moderate Republicans want the tax cuts tied to reducing the deficit. And conservative Democrats actually thought they had an agreement with Mr. Kasich to put $35 billion of the $100 billion into a "lockbox" to be used to pay down the deficit.

But whatever agreement the Democrats thought they had evaporated when Mr. Kasich announced that all the money would be used to pay for the tax cuts. He added to the Democrats' anger by reportedly saying: "Everybody knows it's a big game on the lockbox."

Known for being strong-willed and independent, Mr. Kasich is a congressman who will go his own way when necessary. The Jeep he owns reflects his nature: four-wheel drive, built for the road less traveled.

"Republicans have changed," he says. "In the past, we'd get to the edge of the pool, but we wouldn't jump in. Now, we're going to take the plunge."

'I hate this stuff'

Returning from lunch, Mr. Kasich sits back heavily in his blue desk chair. Nearly 6 feet tall, he is trim and vigorous.

"I'm tired," he moans, tipping back in his chair. He flips through a pink tablet-sized stack of phone messages. "I hate this stuff," he says.

This is actually the picture of a man who loves his work, despite a short attention span for the endless and often petty distractions it entails. Nevertheless, the small stuff gets under his skin. He's an idea man who would rather be brainstorming than returning phone calls.

"That's what gives you energy -- ideas," he says. "I like to think of new ways of doing things."

Mr. Kasich says he does not oppose social programs on their face, but because they so easily get out of control. He cites the example of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a cash assistance program for the low-income aged, the blind and those disabled more than a year.

"SSI is a program that sends checks to bartenders," he says, referring to alcoholics who use SSI money to buy booze. "But it also helps people in need. I don't know anybody in either party who thinks it has to be eliminated, but that doesn't mean we need the whole structure."

Mr. Kasich stiffens with determination when he says that Republicans must demonstrate to the public that they will keep to their election-year contract. "People don't see government being responsive to their needs. I think it's important that we give people what they voted for."

Symbolism plays an important role in conveying that message, Mr. Kasich says. His office, for example, will not change now that he is a committee chairman. "It's crummy," he says. "I like it."

The office is not exactly crummy; it is more like a well-kept frat room. There is a 2-foot-tall, gray-blue Republican elephant perched atop a tiny, black color TV. And then there are the usual photos -- Mr. Kasich with Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole; Mr. Kasich with former President George Bush; Mr. Kasich with former President Ronald Reagan.

In Mr. Kasich's own version of his office's symbolism, what matters is its plainness, its "crumminess," its utter lack of ostentation. "Little things are big things," he says. He is here merely to do a job, not to become powerful and self-important. "This is what voters are telling us." The office is an expression of humility. "Big things are also little things."

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