WASHINGTON — Rep. Hal Rogers is undergoing a makeover of sorts.
Widely known for steering federal dollars to pet projects in his district, the Somerset Republican and House Appropriations Committee chairman is now helping lead GOP efforts to trim fat from the federal budget.
He's joined by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, himself no stranger to earmarks, and together the two Kentucky lawmakers are wielding enormous sway in the debate over cutting billions in federal spending.
As recently as this week, Rogers was pivotal in helping craft and get passed a two-week federal funding stopgap to stave off a looming government shutdown. The measure slashes $4 billion from the federal budget by nixing funding for several education, highway and agricultural programs, among others.
Many of the programs targeted for cuts were either terminated or didn't receive additional funding in the president's budget.
"America has reached a crossroads," Rogers said. "We are borrowing 42 cents for every dollar we spend. We have no choice but to rein in out of control spending, and get our nation's fiscal house in order."
Rogers was catapulted to arguably the House's most powerful committee chairmanship after winning a competitive, weeks-long, behind-the-scenes battle late last year that pitted him against Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., and Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. In waging his campaign to head the committee, Rogers publicly shifted his tone on earmarks in the wake of the tea party-fueled Republican takeover of the House amid concerns of unchecked spending.
Rogers and fellow Republicans have a moratorium on earmarks for fiscal 2011 and have pledged to reduce spending and knock down the deficit. As a result, Rogers' pet programs may end up relying more heavily on state aid or merit-based federal grants.
"My district will be among the hardest hit by these cuts, but my people understand that everyone must tighten their belts during this time of crisis," Rogers said.
Without swearing off earmarks, Rogers couldn't have secured his powerful post, said Larry Sabato, director for the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia.
"Necessity has apparently turned the sinner into the preacher, or the veteran moonshiner into the prohibition crusader," Sabato said. "But the House GOP leadership and the tea party are keeping a close watch to make sure Rogers doesn't fall off the wagon."
And Rogers will still have to work to convince fiscally conservative colleagues to support efforts at compromise.
"The Democrats don't seem to want to take any real action in balancing the budget, so I applaud the Republicans for moving a step further toward the needed cuts," said Sen. Rand Paul, who voted against the stopgap measure earlier this week. "However, the proposals are simply not enough."
Still, Rogers has earned praise so far from Republican leaders and some Democrats for his commitment to helping create a new climate of fiscal restraint.
"I think he's doing a very good job, he's moving things in the right direction," Kingston said. "What you have to do in that job is listen to a lot of competing interests. Hal has got to balance government with politics, emotion, rhetoric and 435 egos. So he's doing a good job cutting spending but not overplaying his hand."
This doesn't surprise fellow members of the Kentucky delegation. Rogers always handles complex, difficult situations in a considerate and level-headed way, said Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles.
"He has worked very hard, and I am confident he will continue to prioritize the needs of his home state in the appropriations process," Chandler said.