House GOP Leadership Somersaults on Spending Cuts

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert is an old wrestler, and last Thursday night he used a classic move of his sport by quickly reversing positions. On behalf of the Republican leadership, Hastert went before his colleagues to embrace essentially the same package of spending that two weeks earlier he had scourged conservative House members for proposing. The change was a matter of necessity rather than choice.

It was required to quell the first really serious split in House Republican ranks since the GOP took control of the chamber a decade ago. But the rancor was not limited to Capitol Hill. As House Republicans convened their closed-door conference at 7 p.m. Thursday, 1,000 conservatives were in a foul mood eight blocks away at a black-tie dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of National Review magazine. They were outraged by the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, viewing it less as an aberration by President Bush than a last straw.

In that climate, it was a bare minimum for Republican leaders to back away from their scandalous browbeating two weeks ago of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) for proposing Operation Offset. So, Hastert echoed the RSC’s plans to offset massive Hurricane Katrina spending with reduced spending elsewhere. The question will be how serious the leadership is in stuffing these offsets down the throats of free-spending senior Republicans who hold positions of power in the House.

RSC members approached Thursday night’s meeting fearing another mindless performance by party leaders. At a Sept. 21 closed-door conference, Republican leaders made clear they would not tolerate criticism of their spending. Rep. Mike Pence, the RSC chairman, said not a word. He had been battered personally the night before by Hastert and other GOP leaders.

Consequently, what happened Thursday was a most pleasant surprise to rank-and-file members. Hastert’s plan, presented by Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, would increase cuts in mandatory spending from $35 billion to "at least" $50 billion, offset disaster spending on a dollar-for-dollar basis, press recisions of existing spending, and eliminate "duplicative, wasteful and/or unnecessary" programs. It was about what Pence and his colleagues proposed two weeks earlier. What’s more, Hastert is pushing the first mid-session amendment of the budget in 28 years.

The entire Republican leadership endorsed the Hastert plan, but the conference was far from unanimous. One standing committee chairman after another rose to take issue with the speaker’s plan. Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is the reigning King of Pork in the House. It is inconceivable that Young would meekly slim down the pork-filled highway bill (especially earmarks for his state of Alaska) at the speaker’s behest.

On the floor of the House Friday, Pence issued a polite victory statement. "Some of us thought we should pay for the big cost of Hurricane Katrina by cutting big government," he said, adding that "we’re beginning to do just that." However, speaking "on behalf of House conservatives," he said, "we are pleased but not content, we are encouraged but not satisfied" because the actual cutting will be harder than winning the debate. Pence sounded a little like Ronald Reagan’s "trust but verify" reaction to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Pence and the other conservatives have sound reason to want verification. Even if acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt is able to tame the standing committee chairmen, other obstacles loom. Hastert and the other Republican leaders have no intention of abandoning their earmarked pork. Bush has no intention of trimming the elephantine Medicare prescription drug subsidy.

Had House members been able to attend the National Review banquet at the National Building Museum, they would have gotten an earful. While there to honor the magazine’s founder William F. Buckley Jr. and all he has done for the conservative movement, these faithful conservatives were not shy about privately expressing their intense unhappiness. I could find nobody there who was not disappointed by the Miers nomination, but they also were aggrieved by the record of spending and big government by the Republican president and the Republican Congress. Denny Hastert’s somersault is just the beginning of what is needed to satisfy them.

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In a recent column, I incorrectly listed Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona as self-term limited. I was unaware that a year ago he reneged on his promise to serve only three terms in Congress.