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Deficit cracking GOP's solidarity
San Francisco Chronicle


November 28, 2005

WASHINGTON - More than a decade after the Republican Revolution, when Newt Gingrich became House speaker on the promise to downsize government, Republicans are facing another revolution.

This one is from within.

When Congress returns next month from its Thanksgiving recess, Republican leaders who have never failed to marshal their forces on big party-line votes face the prospect of defeat on tax cuts and spending restraint - the core issues that have united the party since President Ronald Reagan and gave them their House majority in 1994.

They have lost some tax and spending votes already, and postponed others because of the specter of losing. After a five-year spending spree on everything from the Iraq war to Medicare, deficits are now jeopardizing the tax cuts that were the centerpiece of President Bush's first term.

A move to preserve tax cuts on capital gains and dividends - the gemstone of the Bush tax cuts for conservatives - is in trouble in both the House and the Senate. For the first time since Bush took office, House Democrats are united against tax cuts, and Republican moderates are bucking their party leadership.




GOP leaders are pushing a measure to control entitlement spending by shaving Medicaid and food stamps for the poor. But the combination of investor tax cuts and reductions in poverty programs has already led to a series of embarrassing defeats in committee and on the House floor. Republicans are headed for a pre-Christmas showdown that could turn into a political disaster.

Hurricane Katrina last summer was a tipping point. The storm forced Republicans to ditch the estate-tax repeal because it was deemed unseemly to end a wealth tax after poor people had lost their homes. Sensing a public-relations disaster, Republican leaders also postponed extending the investor tax cuts until the end of the year.

Congress quickly passed $62 billion in emergency disaster relief. But Bush's promise to "do whatever it takes" to rebuild the Gulf Coast set off a rebellion among conservatives, who demanded spending cuts to pay the bill.

"I think they blinked after Hurricane Katrina," said Brad Woodhouse, a liberal activist who helped defeat Bush's Social Security overhaul and has turned his fire on the Republican budget, heading a liberal alliance called the Emergency Campaign for American Priorities.

"It was such an acknowledgment of how inappropriate these spending cuts to finance tax cuts are," Woodhouse said. "It was like blood dripping in the water for us."

The budget outlook - and the problems facing the GOP - promise to get much worse. Medicare's costly new prescription-drug benefit, an $18 trillion unfunded liability sponsored by the White House and Republican leadership, starts in January. Just two years from now, in 2008, the enormous baby-boom generation will begin retiring, ceasing income tax payments and starting to collect benefits, leading to a budget squeeze unprecedented in U.S. history.

"We're seeing the future," said Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury official in the George H.W. Bush administration and tax-cut advocate. "The decisions that have been made over the last five years have resulted in the chickens coming home to roost."

Total spending increases under the current President Bush closely rival those of President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat famous for conducting the Vietnam War while simultaneously increasing domestic spending.

Discretionary spending rose 48.5 percent in Bush's first term, according to an analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute, twice as much as in two terms under President Bill Clinton, when spending rose 21.6 percent. Adjusted for inflation, Bush has increased total spending at an annualized rate of 5.6 percent, compared with 1.5 percent under Clinton.

"It's only a matter of time before we stop talking about cutting taxes for a very long period of time and talk basically about increasing taxes," Bartlett predicted. "The end of the era of tax cutting is going to put tremendous strain on the Republican coalition, just as the end of the era of big spending put tremendous strain on the Democratic coalition" in the 1980s. "You're hearing more and more people on the Republican side talking about major losses in the congressional elections next year and about 2008 being a really, really bad year for Republicans."

In the two months since Republicans pulled their tax-cut bills, the atmosphere has only gotten worse. Republicans lost two important off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Bush's popularity has hit new lows, with the public now decidedly opposing the Iraq war. Leading GOP candidates, including Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative member of the Senate leadership who faces a tough re-election fight in Pennsylvania, have refused to appear with Bush at campaign events.

"Republican members of Congress recognize that the president can't help them very much any more," said Cato Institute Chairman Bill Niskanen, a former Reagan administration economist. In addition, the indictment of former House GOP leader Tom DeLay of Texas seriously weakened party discipline in the House and exposed deep divisions between fiscal conservatives and moderates.

"There is a substantial ideological split, particularly among House Republicans, on fiscal responsibility," Niskanen said. "A lot of them have gone along with a high rate of growth of spending but have done so without any enthusiasm."

As the post-Katrina conservative revolt gelled, the Republican leadership turned to Medicaid, food stamps and student loans for spending restraint. The Senate is proposing $35 billion in reductions and the House $50 billion; both chambers are also seeking between $56 billion and $59 billion in tax cuts.


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