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G.O.P. Split Over Big Plans for Storm Spending
NY Times
Published: September 16, 2005

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 - The drive to pour tens of billions of federal dollars into rebuilding the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast is widening a fissure among Republicans over fiscal policy, with more of them expressing worry about unbridled spending.

On Thursday, even before President Bush promised that "federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs of repairing public infrastructure in the disaster zone," fiscal conservatives from the House and Senate joined budget watchdog groups in demanding that the administration be judicious in asking for taxpayer dollars.

One fiscal conservative, Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said Thursday, "I don't believe that everything that should happen in Louisiana should be paid for by the rest of the country. I believe there are certain responsibilities that are due the people of Louisiana."

Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, called for restoring "sanity" to the federal recovery effort. Congress has approved $62 billion, mostly to cover costs already incurred, and the price tag is rising. The House and Senate approved tax relief Thursday at an estimated cost of more than $5 billion on top of $3.5 billion in housing vouchers approved by the Senate on Wednesday.

"We know we need to help, but throwing more and more money without accountability at this is not going to solve the problem," Mr. DeMint said.

Their comments were in marked contrast to the sweeping administration approach outlined by Mr. Bush in his speech from New Orleans and a call by Senate Republican leaders for a rebuilding effort similar to the Marshall Plan after World War II. Congressional Democrats advocated their own comprehensive recovery program Thursday, promoting a combination of rebuilding programs coupled with housing, health care, agriculture and education initiatives. The president also emphasized the importance of private entrepreneurship to create jobs "and help break the cycle of poverty."

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said he believed that providing rapid and extensive help overrode the need to cut spending elsewhere. "I think we have to understand that we have a devastation that has to be taken care of," Mr. Reid said. "And I'm not into finding where we can cut yet."

That mindset is troubling to other lawmakers who fear that in addition to a reborn Gulf Coast, something else will rise from the storm: record federal deficits.

"We know this is a huge bill," said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. "We don't want to lay it on future generations." Given the fierce political backlash to the stumbling relief effort in the days after the hurricane struck, House Republican leaders have been reluctant to stand in the way of any emergency legislation. After the speech, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert acknowledged that the price tag means that "for every dollar we spend on this, it is going to take a little bit longer to balance the budget." He said he was willing to listen to ideas to pay for the aid, but, "Quite frankly, we have to get this job done."

Despite those comments, many Republicans are increasingly edgy about the White House's push for a potentially open-ended recovery budget, worried that the president - in trying to regroup politically - was making expensive promises they would have to keep.

"We are not sure he knows what he is getting into," said one senior House Republican official who requested anonymity because of the potential consequences of publicly criticizing the administration.

The fears about the costs of the storm are building on widespread dissatisfaction among conservatives about spending in recent years by the Republican-controlled Congress. That unrest was already high after Congressional approval of a transportation measure that critics denounced as bloated with marginal home-state projects.

That sore spot was rubbed raw earlier this week when Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, suggested that the Republican Congress had already trimmed much of the fat from the federal budget, making it difficult to find ways to offset hurricane spending.

Mr. Coburn called such a claim ludicrous and other Republicans took exception as well.

"There has never been a time where there is more total spending and more wasteful spending in Washington than we have today," said Pat Toomey, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and the head of the conservative Club for Growth. "There is ample opportunity to find the offsets we need so that this does not have to be a fiscal disaster as well as a natural disaster."

On another front, Republicans and Democrats continued their dispute over how to investigate government failures in the storm response. The House approved a select committee to oversee the inquiry despite Democratic objections that only a special commission outside of Congress could do a credible job.

The House voted 224 to 188 to establish a 20-member panel to work in concert with a similar Senate panel in studying the adequacy of local, state and federal preparations for the storm and why the relief effort was so troubled, stranding thousands in chaotic conditions without sufficient food, water or medical care.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said the special committee was an effort to "whitewash" the inquiry though she later said she would not stand in the way if Democrats want to sit on the panel. In another effort to reduce Democratic opposition, Mr. Hastert on Thursday named Representative Thomas M. Davis III, a sometimes Republican maverick from Virginia, to lead the panel.

As for paying for the recovery, Ms. Pelosi raised the possibility of 50-year bonds tied to the reconstruction.

The conservative Republicans worried about the outlays said the president and Congressional leaders need to ask the public to share in the sacrifice and suggested savings could be easily wrung from federal agencies or in Congress in ways like eliminating pet projects.

"Katrina breaks my heart," said Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana and chairman of a caucus of more than 100 House Republicans who advocate conservative spending policy. "Congress must do everything the American people expect us to do to meet the needs of families and communities affected by Katrina. But we must not let Katrina break the bank for our children and grandchildren."

We shouldn't lose tough with reality. Since Bush became president he's already spent $2.2 trillion we don't have. The GOP helped him. While it's nice for them to get a conscience now, it would have been nice if they'd gotten one before the cut taxes and created record deficits again. Better late than never I suppose.

If the GOP is serious about reigning in the size of government spending and deficits they should abandon their tax cuts, raise taxes to pay for their war and then if there's still not enough money raise taxes again to pay for Katrina. In other words, they have to do what no republican has done in my lifetime-they have to grow up and be responsible.

Once again, Bush and the GOP have created over $2.2 trillion of debt in less than five years. About 25% of all debt created in our nations history. Anyone want to argue they're not irresponsible, email me and I'll give you the numbers.

Another passing thought: perhaps big government is necessary from time to time--for example during war and depressions. If that's the case the republican revolution is over. War and disaster mean we have to fix what needs to be fixed. The GOP must embrace big government much like democrats when they had power.

Finally, both Reagan and Bush 2 presided over massive increases in government and record deficits--everything from Medicare Rx plans and military spending to tax cuts that aren't paid for. The only thing that's changed is the perception that the GOP wants less government.