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GOP urged to return to tenets

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Conservatives in Congress want President Bush to set a tight-fisted tone in tonight's State of the Union speech, according to House Republicans who began a two-day retreat in Baltimore yesterday.

"We have to get back to acting like conservatives, and actually governing like conservatives," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of 66 Republican lawmakers attending the meeting.

"The president must make conservative fiscal policy and values a key part of the State of the Union," McHenry said. "We need that. We need his leadership to pass a conservative agenda."

The key to courting voters in the fall election, they said, is getting Republicans back to the themes they promoted when they won control of the House of Representatives in 1994, especially cutting spending and reducing the size of the federal government, which conservatives see as core principles.

The Baltimore conference, for members of the Republican Study Committee, a group of the most conservative members of the House, featured appearances by the three Republicans competing for the job of majority leader, which Rep. Tom DeLay vacated after being indicted on charges of money laundering related to alleged campaign violations.

The event, at the Harbor Court hotel, was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. It was scheduled to wrap up early this afternoon, after speeches from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

After a year marred by ethics scandals, splits within the party over spending and social issues, and declining poll ratings for Bush and the Congress, lawmakers said the president's address is key to getting back on track.

"I think the president needs to refocus on the notion that a limited government is the Republican way of governing," said Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida. "I think, to some extent, the administration has been forgetful about those fundamental principles."

Lawmakers said much of the talk at their closed-door sessions involved reforming the budget process, especially curtailing so-called "earmarks" for pet projects inserted into spending bills. While many of the projects are old-fashioned, hometown pork, such as police grants or money for highways, others benefit one company or industry and are inserted at the behest of lobbyists.

Several Republicans said earmarks should be addressed at the same time Congress considers changes to rules governing ethics and lobbying. They contend that stopping a lobbyist from buying a congressman a meal would be pointless without an accompanying restriction on how members direct taxpayers' money.

"I don't know how you have any kind of lobbying reform without earmark reform," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who made a presentation to his colleagues about cutting the budget. "If you take the honey away, a lot of the flies tend to buzz somewhere else."

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, the chairman of the RSC, said reining in spending must accompany the effort to reduce the influence of lobbyists.

"House conservatives should seek to marry fiscal and ethics reform," he said. "It is not enough for us to change the way lobbyists spend their money. We have got to change how we spend the money of the American people."

Pence said some of the most expensive measures passed by Congress in recent years, such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit with a long-term price tag of $800 billion and a $286 billion highway bill, should be reopened. He said some of the money could be redirected to areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Hensarling and others said they want to go further - to consider requiring government programs to compete for federal dollars or eliminating some agencies.

Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who wants to dismantle the Department of Education, said: "Somebody has to articulate to the American people the risk that our country runs in the future if we don't make the budget cuts."

The RSC says its membership is composed of more than 100 of the 231 Republicans in the House, and members often refer to the group as "the majority of the majority." They said they hope to get House leaders to push for spending cuts and a conservative social agenda, including opposition to same-sex marriage.

The candidates for Republican floor leader - Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the acting leader; Reps. John A. Boehner of Ohio and John Shadegg of Arizona - were among those addressing the conservatives.

Blunt has more public commitments from Republican lawmakers heading into Thursday's vote. In interviews with reporters, all three said they support budget cuts and other changes.

"We've got to have a real plan to get ourselves back on offense," Boehner said.

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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