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GOP bitterly divided over federal spending
San Francisco Chronicle


October 25, 2005

WASHINGTON - Republican efforts to cut billions of dollars of federal spending to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief are dividing the party and sparking feuds between fiscal hawks and members trying to protect programs that benefit their home states.

House GOP leaders had to postpone a vote last week on a plan to increase the proposed cuts from $35 billion to $50 billion after Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., admitted he lacked the votes to pass it.

But it's not clear that House leaders will have the votes when the measure is brought to the floor again this week. Some Republicans are threatening to defect, saying the plan cuts too deeply into programs such as food stamps, student loans, and health care for the elderly and the poor.

"It's not in the interests of people in my district," Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican from Albuquerque, N.M., said last week. "I have told the leadership I am opposed."

But many conservatives continue to push for deeper cuts in government spending. The Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 100 House conservatives, has been pressuring party leaders to eliminate 100 federal programs and make across-the-board cuts in the federal budget.

"We've got programs out there that do nothing but waste money," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., a member of the committee. "Any time we even try to restrain spending, look at the rhetoric we hear."

The battle over spending cuts will be complicated by the fact that GOP leaders are trying to attach other controversial measures - including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and boosting offshore oil and gas production - to the budget reconciliation bill.

The margin for House leaders will be extraordinarily tight. Republicans have 231 seats in the House, and if all Democrats oppose the measure calling for greater cuts, the GOP can afford only 13 defections and still pass it.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is pledging to keep Democrats unified in opposition to deeper budget cuts, which she has called a Trojan horse strategy of slashing spending to pay for tax cuts.

"Under the guise of helping the people affected by Katrina, 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," Pelosi said. "If you are a student, it increases the cost of student loans. If you are a senior or low-income person, especially in rural America, it decreases the assistance for low income home heating oil."

The split over spending cuts may be even sharper in the more closely divided Senate.

Senate Republican leaders are pledging to find at least $35 billion in cuts over five years to help pay for Katrina relief, but the task has proven difficult.

Fiscal hawks in the Senate staged a showdown over pork barrel spending last week when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., offered an amendment to strip $453 million for two bridges in Alaska and devote the money to repairing hurricane-damaged bridges along Interstate 10 in Louisiana.

One of the Alaskan projects, a $223 million bridge in Ketchikan, has been dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere" by critics because it would connect to an island with only 50 residents. Proponents say the bridge is vital to the growth of Ketchikan.

The measure provoked angry responses from Alaska's two senators, who had fought for years for the projects. Alaska's senior senator, Ted Stevens, who has served in the Senate for 37 years, threatened to resign if the proposal was passed.

"I don't kid people," Stevens warned on Senate floor. "If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and takes money only from our state, I'll resign from this body."

The amendment was ultimately defeated 82-15 - but not before Stevens temporarily shut down all floor activity in protest.

Coburn, who has emerged as one of the most vocal foes of what he views as frivolous spending in the Senate, angered many in his own party with remarks he made in a recent speech to college Republicans.

"Republican politicians are the same as Democratic politicians in that they like to spend money," Coburn told students at George Washington University. "Democrats want to raise taxes to pay for it, and Republicans allow the next generation to pay for it."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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