'Budget Hawk' Stands At the Storm Center


House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, Republican of Ohio, will find himself in the middle of a bruising congressional battle later this week when the debate begins on legislation to slash the federal budget to pay for a massive tax cut.

House Republicans are pushing a five-year, $190 billion package of cuts in business and personal taxes as part of the "Contract with America." Just two weeks ago, Mr. Kasich's committee unveiled a plan to cut discretionary spending by $100 billion to help fund the tax cuts. The Ways and Means Committee found the remaining $90 billion through cuts in welfare, food stamps and other social programs.

As early as Wednesday, the tax and spending measures could find themselves wrapped into one large bill that lands on the floor of the House.

Mr. Kasich is the man chosen by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, to lead the nation across the burning sands of fiscal responsibility. The chairman is intent on hacking government down to size. He envisions himself as a revolutionary with an opportunity to rewrite the history of the 20th century with a Republican ending.

"He's not an ideologue," says his close friend and lobbyist Thomas J. Downey, the former Democratic congressman from New York. "He's a budget hawk with a sense of fairness to people. He won't go after the weak claimants, but he will go after the weak claims to the budget."

Maybe. But the reality may be far harsher and more confrontational than even Mr. Kasich's closest Democratic allies might imagine.

The tax and spending cut measures cannot pass without support from conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans -- groups Mr. Kasich has alienated.

Moderate Republicans want the tax cuts tied to reducing the deficit. And conservative Democrats actually thought they had an agreement with Mr. Kasich to put $35 billion of the $100 billion into a "lockbox" to be used to pay down the deficit.

But whatever agreement the Democrats thought they had evaporated when Mr. Kasich announced that all the money would be used to pay for the tax cuts. He added to the Democrats' anger by reportedly saying: "Everybody knows it's a big game on the lockbox."

Known for being strong-willed and independent, Mr. Kasich is a congressman who will go his own way when necessary. The Jeep he owns reflects his nature: four-wheel drive, built for the road less traveled.

"Republicans have changed," he says. "In the past, we'd get to the edge of the pool, but we wouldn't jump in. Now, we're going to take the plunge."

'I hate this stuff'

Returning from lunch, Mr. Kasich sits back heavily in his blue desk chair. Nearly 6 feet tall, he is trim and vigorous.

"I'm tired," he moans, tipping back in his chair. He flips through a pink tablet-sized stack of phone messages. "I hate this stuff," he says.

This is actually the picture of a man who loves his work, despite a short attention span for the endless and often petty distractions it entails. Nevertheless, the small stuff gets under his skin. He's an idea man who would rather be brainstorming than returning phone calls.

"That's what gives you energy -- ideas," he says. "I like to think of new ways of doing things."

Mr. Kasich says he does not oppose social programs on their face, but because they so easily get out of control. He cites the example of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a cash assistance program for the low-income aged, the blind and those disabled more than a year.

"SSI is a program that sends checks to bartenders," he says, referring to alcoholics who use SSI money to buy booze. "But it also helps people in need. I don't know anybody in either party who thinks it has to be eliminated, but that doesn't mean we need the whole structure."

Mr. Kasich stiffens with determination when he says that Republicans must demonstrate to the public that they will keep to their election-year contract. "People don't see government being responsive to their needs. I think it's important that we give people what they voted for."

Symbolism plays an important role in conveying that message, Mr. Kasich says. His office, for example, will not change now that he is a committee chairman. "It's crummy," he says. "I like it."

The office is not exactly crummy; it is more like a well-kept frat room. There is a 2-foot-tall, gray-blue Republican elephant perched atop a tiny, black color TV. And then there are the usual photos -- Mr. Kasich with Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole; Mr. Kasich with former President George Bush; Mr. Kasich with former President Ronald Reagan.

In Mr. Kasich's own version of his office's symbolism, what matters is its plainness, its "crumminess," its utter lack of ostentation. "Little things are big things," he says. He is here merely to do a job, not to become powerful and self-important. "This is what voters are telling us." The office is an expression of humility. "Big things are also little things."

At least three of his friends and associates used the same phrase in their descriptions of Mr. Kasich: What you see is what you get. House Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who says that it was Christ who brought him and Mr. Kasich together, explains that Mr. Kasich "is straight with people. What you see is what John is. That is refreshing in this town."

The son of Democratic parents, Mr. Kasich became a Republican in college when he got sick of waiting in line to matriculate for classes. "I don't like being hassled. I don't like rules and regulations, and people telling me what to do." Somehow, he associated his college experience with the Democrats. "It was clear to me that this was the difference between the two parties," he says.

Of the working class

Mr. Kasich's place in Washington was hard won. "I grew up in a community where if the wind blew the wrong way people lost their jobs," Mr. Kasich says. "I don't think I met a Republican until I went to college." His neighbors worked in the steel mills and chemical plants in the Pittsburgh area.

Mr. Kasich's father was the local mailman. He has a brother and sister, but is very private about them. Divorced, with no children, he is one of the more eligible Republicans in the capital.

In the summer of 1987, his parents died when their car was struck by a drunken driver. Mr. Kasich was in Washington at the time. "The phone rang at 11:45 p.m. and they told me one of my parents had died and the other was going to to die," Mr. Kasich recalls. "The whole world goes black. You get into a situation that can destroy you or you learn from it and grow. Blessings can come from it. They didn't die in vain. I've become a lot better person."

Mr. Kasich's mother was a supporter of the Rev. Pat Robertson, TTC the TV evangelist, and became a Republican toward the end of her life, although she was never able to convert Mr. Kasich's father. "My father grew up when Roosevelt and the Democrats meant something to people," he says.

Mr. Kasich has written budgets before but nothing on the magnitude of a full-blown, detailed $1.5 trillion operating budget of the United States. However, before the Republicans were in the majority, his small staff inked in budgets that were considered respectable, honest estimates. His first one won more votes than George Bush's, who was then president, and his second budget cut deeper than President Clinton's, without raising taxes.

In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, will be the chief game warden among the deficit hawks. As he put it: "Kasich is the coffee, and I am the cup." In Mr. Kasich's mind, that means he's "the hot and passionate one" and Mr. Domenici is "the cool one," the container.

In fact, the Senate could well drive the entire budget process. On Friday, Senate Democrats mounted an effort to shield some $1.3 billion in education and children's programs from the GOP budget ax. When the dust settles, it is quite possible that the package of tax and spending cuts that the House takes up this week will disappear in the Senate's budget resolution.

Mr. Downey says, "Kasich won't preside over a budget that's paid for with smoke and mirrors." The combination of Mr. Kasich's restless character and the overwhelming inertia that is the budget process will surely strain the youthful chairman.

"Where Kasich will have the biggest problem is convincing the Republicans to make the tough cuts," said one budget panel aide. "To pay for a balanced budget and the tax cuts, Kasich is going to have to deal with entitlements," popular programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. "And if he doesn't do that, he blows his integrity."

Mr. Kasich says he's not worried. As he put it: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

Jeff Shear writes for the National Journal, from which this article

was adapted.

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