GOP conservatives oppose deficit rise

Group of House members plans strategy to fight Bush spending increases

January 22, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A day after President Bush vowed to submit an austere budget and halve the deficit in five years, conservatives in his own party said they were not satisfied and stepped up their campaign to force the White House and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to do more to hold down the growth of government spending.

A group of 40 Republican House members gathered to hash out how to press Bush and the congressional leadership to deal with spending increases that they say are running out of control and a deficit that is reaching alarming proportions.

Their discomfort has been echoed and encouraged over the past few days and weeks by reports and statements from conservative researchers and commentators who support Bush on most issues, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Club for Growth, a political action committee and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

"The president used the State of the Union to defend past spending increases and he made eight specific calls for new spending increases," said Brian M. Riedl, a budget analyst at Heritage. "But he made zero calls for spending cuts.

"He merely said focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending and be wise with the people's money. That's not specific enough."

After long blaming the recession and the war on terror for the sharp swing from budget surpluses to deficits, Bush is now facing political pressure not just from small-government conservatives in Congress and Democrats who say his tax cuts have plunged the government into a sea of red ink, but also from voters.

Polls show that the widening deficit is of increasing concern to the electorate and that Republicans are losing their traditional advantage over Democrats on the issue.

A poll this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 51 percent of respondents called the budget deficit one of the top priorities for Bush and Congress. That was up from 40 percent a year earlier and 35 percent two years ago.

Concern about the deficit was particularly evident among Democrats, 57 percent of whom identified it in the Pew poll as a priority issue, vs. 44 percent of Republicans.

Democrats said Bush has mortgaged the nation's future to pay for repeated rounds of tax cuts whose benefits have gone largely to the wealthy but have failed to deliver the promised rebound in job creation.

The party's presidential candidates regularly use the deficit as a proxy for Bush's overall economic management and make a case that the budget shortfalls are leading the government to underfund programs in areas such as health and education.

In recent years, Republicans have focused less on the deficit than on the desirability of holding down spending and enacting tax cuts to help the economy and restrict government growth.

Politically, Republicans have always been able to rely on their image as the party to trust with the purse strings and to assert that Democrats would raise taxes, not to cut the deficit but to pay for even more spending.

But an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this month found that Democrats have nearly caught up to Republicans on the question of which does a better job of controlling government spending. The poll found that 33 percent of respondents said Republicans do a better job, with Democrats at 31 percent.

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