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GOP split on role of government--bankrupt us with tax cuts or . . .
Oxford Press/Cox News
Republicans split on role government should play
By BOB KEMPER in Washington, TOM BAXTER in Atlanta
Cox News Service
Monday, September 19, 2005

Apparently the era of big government isn't quite as dead as Presidents Reagan and Clinton declared it to be.

President Bush, facing what he called "one of the largest reconstruction projects the world has ever seen" in three Gulf Coast states devastated by Hurricane Katrina, has proposed a massive New Deal-style federal spending program to help thousands of evacuees rebuild homes, businesses and lives.

Bush's plan, estimated to cost $200 billion or more, has a decidedly Republican twist, incorporating tax breaks, school vouchers and other private sector-friendly initiatives. Still, it has aroused passionate discontent among conservative congressional Republicans, who have spent decades dismantling Democrats' New Deal and Great Society social programs.

"Government programs are not the answer to every situation we have," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.).

Westmoreland was among 11 House Republicans to vote against Bush's request last week for $52 billion in hurricane aid because it included no budget cuts to offset its cost or safeguards on how the money would be spent.

Even before Bush laid out the details of his program in a speech Thursday night in New Orleans, it had congressional Republicans and some of the most influential conservative groups in Washington waving red flags.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that conservatives want to "do whatever is necessary to address this national disaster. But we also have to be concerned about future generations of Americans."

"We're going to end up with the highest deficit, probably, in the history of this country," he said.

With Bush's proposals headed to Capitol Hill for approval, Westmoreland will join other House Republicans next week in proposing a list of budget cuts to offset some of the reconstruction costs, even though House leaders said further cuts don't seem possible.

At least one of their proposed cuts is guaranteed to get the president's attention: Delaying for a year a proposed Medicare prescription drug benefit set to take effect in January, which Westmoreland said would save $40 billion. The benefit was one of Bush's top legislative priorities after his re-election last fall, and on Friday the administration cited it to lessen the blow of an announced 13.2 percent increase in premiums next year for Medicare Part B.

Lawmakers also are likely to target billions of dollars in widely disparaged "pork barrel" transportation projects recently approved by Congress and Bush.

"You can be awfully compassionate with someone else's money, but we're spending our kids' and our grandchildren's money now," Westmoreland said.

Bush on Friday defended his ambitious plan, which he had called "an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis."

"You bet this is going to cost money, but I'm confident we can handle it," Bush said during a White House appearance.

The president ruled out raising taxes to pay for the effort, but said he was open to deeper budget cuts – though the White House had not identified any. Aides suggested Bush was prepared to borrow whatever money the government needed, despite the ballooning deficit.

"I cannot name any programs that will be cut," Claude Allen, Bush's assistant for domestic policy, told reporters at the White House. "In fact, we did not focus on that," he said, in putting together the recovery plan.

Not since Reagan asserted government was "the problem" rather than the solution in the 1980s and Clinton declared "the era of big government" over in the 1990s has the White House or Congress dared propose the kind of massive federal spending on direct aid programs Bush now envisions.

The president has already requested, and gotten, about $62 billion from Congress to pay for the cleanup and to begin reconstruction.

But he also wants about $2.6 billion for school vouchers, $2 billion for business tax breaks, and billions more to rebuild infrastructure and housing in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

He has already given evacuees $2,000 each for food, shelter and clothing, and proposes giving poor families as much as $26,000 each to build a home. Evacuees who can't find work would get $5,000 to pay for job retraining and their job search.

"Some of the things he was proposing are not a lot different from the CCC camps," said Georgia Public Policy Foundation President T. Rogers Wade. The Civilian Conservative Corps, which put hundreds of thousands of jobless people on the federal payroll for public works projects, was one of the New Deal programs launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to lift the country out of the Depression.

The New Deal programs "weren't all bad," and some new programs might be needed to deal with the current emergency, Wade said. But government has not been good at eliminating older programs that have outlived their usefulness, he added.

Sadie Fields, the executive director of the Georgia Christian Coalition, worried that Bush's emphasis on government programs "to some degree minimizes what the outpouring from the American people has been."

"It would be good if the focus could be kept on people responding to people, instead of the government responding to people," Fields said.

But other Georgia Republicans said they would support the president even if that meant backing a bigger, more activist government and adding to the national debt.

"I don't remember ever hearing of someone running for office and getting elected by saying that if the worst natural disaster in the history of the country hit, the government wasn't going to spend a dime to help the innocent citizens," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Marietta.

"I'm concerned about the cost, just like everybody else," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Moultrie. But "there's no question that we have an obligation to help the people of Louisiana and Mississippi to rebuild."

Concerns about the president's reconstruction plan are not limited to financial matters. Bush's Southern base has expressed reservations about his proposal to give the U.S. military a prominent role in future disasters.

"There was a part in there that people could have taken the impression that we in Mississippi need the federal government to come in and take over what we're doing, that we need some kind of czar to tell us how to run Mississippi. We don't need that," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Thursday night on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"We do need the federal government's help. We need them to be a good partner, but we don't need a takeover," Barbour said.

Bob Kemper can be contacted at bkemper@ajc.com, Tom Baxter at tbaxter@ajc.com. Staff writers Marilyn Geewax and Ken Herman and The Associated Press contributed to this article.