House conservatives offer cuts to offset storm aid

Hurricane Rita

September 22, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - With Republican unity fracturing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a group of more than 100 conservative House Republicans proposed yesterday what they said was nearly $500 billion in spending cuts to offset the cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

Most of the savings, however, were either budget cuts that Congress has rejected repeatedly in the past or new proposals that lack broad support and are given little chance of being enacted.

"Our analysis suggests that there is more than enough room for cuts in the federal budget to pay for Katrina," said Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana at a news conference on Capitol Hill. "These do represent the kind of tough choices for tough times that the American people expect Republican majorities in Congress to consider in days like these."

Last week, President Bush promised to lead "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen" to revive parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana devastated by the storm. Though he has yet to offer a price tag - estimated at up to $200 billion by some in Congress - Bush has ruled out raising taxes to pay for it.

Some Republicans said Bush needs to give Congress a blueprint for where to cut.

"I would think it would be hard to reach a consensus ... without a pretty definitive game plan being put down by the White House," said New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Among the suggestions offered yesterday by the Republican conservatives were delaying the Medicare prescription drug benefit scheduled to begin in January and eliminating programs that have long been in the sights of conservatives, such as federal subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Amtrak.

Some conservatives are also suggesting reviewing the billions in local highway projects that were in a huge transportation bill that Congress passed and Bush signed into law this summer.

Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who attended the news conference, said he fully supports Bush's plan to do "what it takes" to rebuild the lives Katrina's victims, but that it would be irresponsible not to make a serious effort to balance the ledger.

"Every time I look at one of these spending bills, I think ... `Is this worth piling more debt on my kids and grandkids?"' he said. "If we can't cut these programs, the American people have real reason to believe that we can't control government spending."

He said he regrets some of his "yes" votes for past spending programs but did not identify them.

Bartlett said the government should cut federal spending on anti-drug advertising aimed at young people, which he said could save $1.3 billion over 10 years. Those programs would be more effective if done at the local and state level, he said.

Bartlett voted for the Medicare drug benefit but said he is dissatisfied with the way it is being implemented. He said he would support trimming it so that it was focused on helping the poorest seniors get medicine they need.

But unlike some members of Congress, including Pence and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the Maryland Republican said he would not be willing to give up projects for his district in the transportation bill in order to help prevent Katrina spending from pushing the federal budget further into the red.

Bartlett, whose district stretches across Western Maryland, said the roughly $35 million in spending came straight from the state's transportation priority list and includes much-needed work on roads such as Interstate 70.

"I don't think we abuse that," Bartlett said. "There are some places that have embarrassing earmarks, but not in my district."

He said he was supportive of another money-saving suggestion: reconfiguring the way the Department of Homeland Security distributes federal funds, to send the money to areas more likely to be targeted by terrorists.

That would probably send more money to Maryland, Bartlett said, because of the state's proximity to Washington: "We may not be the target, but, boy, the people are going to pour out of Washington and into Maryland."

Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Congress, said it's unlikely that any of the spending targeted by House Republicans would be removed:

"If [items] haven't come out by now, they're not coming out ... because they're popular, and they're popular with enough people, including enough people in Republican districts."

The bigger problem, for Bush and Republican congressional leaders, is that the party is beginning to split, he said. Many Republicans - who came to Congress touting the virtues of shrinking government and cutting federal spending to the bone - are startled by the idea that they are now being asked to support huge amounts of spending and new programs, Ornstein said.

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