WASHINGTON -- In a year when surging revenues should have made Congress' budgeting job a cinch, Republicans are embroiled in a high-stakes battle between those eager to further shrink spending to cut taxes and those convinced that another round of cuts would be suicidal.
Depending how it ends, the budget conflict could determine the direction the Republican Party will take for years to come in this new era of budget surpluses.
"It's definitional," said Rep. David M. McIntosh, a conservative Republican from Indiana. "Will Republicans run on a budget that really cuts taxes, holds back government and makes strong policy statements, or will we say we have done enough already?"
The federal government is boasting its first budget surplus since 1969. After balancing the budget and cutting taxes last year, most House members believe they should coast to re-election this fall. But the GOP's conservatives refuse to rest, insisting that a good budget brawl is what the party needs to define itself in a campaign year.
"I think they're dysfunctional," said Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland. "Here they had a proud record they could take credit for, and they've repudiated it."
The House Budget Committee will try to design a budget this week that reduces federal spending by $100 billion beyond cuts secured in last year's five-year budget agreement. Although the House spending blueprint is nonbinding and almost certain to die in the Senate, the debate over its contents has underscored rifts in the GOP that some moderates fear will jeopardize the party's tenuous control of the House.
"For a good number of [districts], particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, this bill will put members at risk," predicted moderate Republican Fred Upton of Michigan.
Proponents of the proposal say the additional savings are needed for significant new tax reductions, most likely in the "marriage penalty," which forces some married couples to pay more in taxes than they would if filing separately. Religious conservative activists, such as Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, have demanded the marriage penalty repeal as a price for their continued support of the GOP.
But moderates are panicked because the specific cuts identified could expose them again to Democratic charges that their party is the enemy of popular social programs.
Rep. John R. Kasich, the Budget Committee chairman and presidential hopeful, has crafted a plan that would eliminate the departments of Commerce and Energy while slashing spending on legal, medical and housing programs for the poor, on food stamps, Medicare, Amtrak, job training and public broadcasting. The Ohio Republican would also try, again, to eliminate funds for one of President Clinton's pet causes: the Americorps volunteer program.
The Kasich blueprint would increase spending on defense and medical research; convert federal education aid for the poor to vouchers; privatize federal power agencies; pay down the national debt and reserve half the budget surplus -- estimated between $43 billion and $63 billion -- for individual retirement accounts that would supplement Social Security.
"La-la land" is the label Rep. Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican, puts on Kasich's proposal. As House Appropriations Committee chairman, Livingston would have to turn Kasich's recommendations into reality in 13 spending bills. But he considers Kasich's blueprint more of a presidential document than a serious policy proposal.
For many fiscal conservatives, however, Kasich's plan has become a rallying call to revive the crusade that brought them to Washington in the GOP sweep of 1995. They considered the 1997 budget deal -- made possible more by the booming economy rather than real belt-tightening -- a sell-out to Clinton that did little to rein in government.
"People are looking for leadership from Washington," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Maryland Republican and Kasich ally on the Budget Committee. "This budget is a policy statement that is part of what people are looking for."
For moderate Republicans and gleeful Democrats, it is deja vu all over again. Each of the Kasich proposals surfaced during the budget battles of 1995 that led to extended government shutdowns and ended in GOP defeat.
Particularly galling to GOP moderates is the idea that Republicans may be taking a dream economic situation and turning it into a political nightmare in an election year. A booming economy means House Republicans could tell the electorate they not only pushed through a balanced budget resolution but they secured the first budget surplus in a generation.
"We have the best fiscal opportunity is decades facing this country right now," said Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican. "We have the first balanced budget in decades. We can pay for all these highway projects, retire some of the [national] debt, address the fundamental issues of Social Security. That is a tremendously positive message to the American people if you do just that. To stretch it beyond that and create a political battle would only obscure all the positives."
Kasich made a significant concession recently, promising to draft a budget that only stipulates bottom-line numbers for spending and tax cuts. He would leave it to other committees to decide what spending programs to squeeze and which taxes to cut.
But Democrats made clear that they would not let Republicans run away from Kasich's 43-page draft budget resolution. "We're glad the Republicans have defined themselves," Cardin said. "This budget will not be forgotten."
And conservatives delivered their own ultimatum. In a letter Wednesday to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, the 40-member House Conservative Action Team asked for $150 billion in tax cuts, $280 billion in spending cuts, and $56 billion in added defense spending.
The next day, a coalition of five social conservative groups, including the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council, shot off a letter to Kasich threatening to oppose any budget that did not cut taxes by at least $100 billion and end the marriage penalty.
Kasich "is in a terrible position," said Robert Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office now at the Brookings Institution.
In many ways, Kasich and the House GOP leadership have no choice but to push forward, said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. Republican moderates can always vote against the budget and distance themselves from the GOP majority in November.
As a practical matter, the Kasich budget proposal is as good as ZTC dead. The Senate has passed its own version that cleaves to last year's budget deal.
Livingston and the other critics can also proceed with spending bills on their own without direction from the budget committees, if need be.
But Kasich's budget is a useful political document that GOP leaders can use to placate their right flank, Pitney said.
"In the end, they have to try, for the sake of pleasing conservative activists and for their own morale," Pitney said. "The whole idea of the Republican revolution is that Republicans stand for something."
Pub Date: 5/18/98