WASHINGTON—The country's governing party has spent itself into a political mess.
Since Republicans took control of the government five years ago spending has soared—driven by mounting costs for the Iraq war, homeland security, rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, and a pricey new prescription-drug benefit under Medicare, the biggest expansion of an entitlement program since the 1960s.
It's all ballooning the cost and size of the federal government. At the same time, federal revenues have failed to keep up with the runaway costs, saddling the country with steep deficits and rising debt, alarming fiscal conservatives and Wall Street, and making America dangerously dependent upon loans from abroad, especially from Japan and China.
The result is a government harder pressed to afford things it might want, whether it's more tax cuts or shoring up Social Security or programs for the needy. And the pressures are straining the Republican coalition as it heads into a pivotal mid-term election year.
Conservatives threaten retaliation at the polls in next year's congressional elections if Washington doesn't rein in spending. Moderate Republicans say proposed spending cuts would punish the poor and middle class—and endanger moderates' political survival. And many Republicans of every stripe jealously guard their historic right to bring home federal goodies.
"They're working at cross purposes," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "These factions are colliding in ways they didn't before."
President Bush met Wednesday with congressional leaders and urged them to impose more discipline on the budget. "I would encourage Congress to push the envelope when it comes to cutting spending," Bush said later in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington.
Yet Bush has never vetoed a spending bill, and it was he who sparked the current fight when he decided to open the federal checkbook to rebuild states whacked by Katrina. That was too much for conservatives, who've watched annual federal spending mushroom from $1.8 trillion to $2.5 trillion since Bush led Republicans to power in 2000.
Ironically, Bush decided to write the blank check when he was under fire for the government's slow response to Katrina. His slipping job-approval rating has hurt the party and made some Republicans eager to protect popular spending as they face their own close election contests next year.
In the House of Representatives, conservatives led by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., have reached their limit on spending. Their main target: a one-year delay in next year's scheduled start of the new Medicare drug benefit—a `60s-style entitlement expansion they never liked.
Outside Congress, activists such as David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Pat Toomey of the Club for Growth insist on at least $50 billion in cuts over five years.
"That's nothing," Keene said.
Yet Congress is stumbling over the cuts.
One reason why is that House Republicans lost their disciplinarian when Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, stepped down as majority leader while facing criminal charges in a campaign-finance case. DeLay at first ridiculed calls for spending cuts, saying none were needed. Facing backbench rebellion, he changed course. With his tough management style, DeLay might have been more effective at lining up House Republicans behind one budget plan.
Now, House leaders are struggling to muster support to boost proposed spending cuts from $35 billion over five years to $50 billion. Among their targets: trimming Medicaid, food stamps and funds for state child-support enforcement.
In the Senate, Republicans are straining less as they pursue some $39 billion in spending cuts, nicking many of the same programs.
Until now, Republicans have avoided both the tough choices needed to curb spending and any political consequences for letting budget deficits erupt on their watch. Voters have yawned at deficits and re-elected Bush while boosting the Republican majority in Congress in both 2002 and 2004.
Keene and others hope the public mood is shifting, however.
It's not that conservatives will vote for Democrats, Keene said. They'll just lose passion and refuse to work—or even vote—in the mid-term election, when turnout is typically lower than in presidential elections and each party relies more on its own base.
"The electorate on which they depend is getting more and more frustrated," Keene said. "If turnout drops 1.5 percent, that's a big deal."
Toomey said his group already is polling in some Republican House districts and finding "extraordinary dissatisfaction" with federal spending.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., thinks that's exactly what's happening. "The Republican base is upset and angry," he said. "The spending necessary for Hurricane Katrina has highlighted this dissatisfaction and anger that our Republican base feels."
Other conservatives say the hope that Congress will rein in spending is just wishful thinking because Washington remains addicted to easy money.
"It's a free-for-all atmosphere," said Michael Franc, a congressional expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
And they warn that the refusal to rein in spending could eventually force exactly what Republicans hate: tax increases.
"In the short run, you have to have higher taxes to pay for it. Or in the long run, you run up a larger debt and at some point, the debt becomes large enough that it requires tax increases to pay off the debt," Franc said. "No matter how you look at the trend lines, you can't grow your way out of it," Franc said.
Yet the pressures against cutting appear formidable.
One leading GOP centrist, Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., said the proposed GOP spending cuts would disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class. Politically, that would hurt moderates like Castle.
Proving Castle's point, a Democratic group called the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities is lobbying GOP moderates to oppose spending cuts. A group spokesman said it would pressure 60 House members and 15 senators with public rallies or events in 35 states.
As the intra-Republican fight rages, it provides grist for a favorite Democratic line of attack that's certain to be amplified in coming months—that the Republican budget favors the rich over the poor.
"It gives tax cuts of $70 billion largely to the wealthiest people in America, it increases the deficit by $20 billion and really doesn't help the victims of Katrina," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
But Democrats haven't offered a coherent alternative. Democrats so far are criticizing Republicans both for creating huge budget deficits and for proposing spending cuts.
(Knight Ridder correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
For more on the American Conservative Union, www.conservative.org
For more on Republican moderates in Congress, www.republicanmainstreet.org
For more on Republican conservatives in Congress, http://johnshadegg.house.gov/rsc/index.htm
For more on the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities, www.actnow.org
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007