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Wednesday, September 21, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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GOP revolt brews over bill for Katrina

The Washington Post

A look at the pork


A list of top earmarks in this year's $286 billion highway-spending bill compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, can be found on the group's Web site (www.taxpayer.net/Transportation/
safetealu/states.htm
).

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans yesterday rejected the White House's open-wallet approach to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, a sign that the lockstep GOP discipline President Bush has enjoyed for most of his two terms is eroding on Capitol Hill.

Trying to allay mounting concerns, White House budget director Joshua Bolten met with Republican senators for an hour after their regular Tuesday lunch yesterday. Senators said they were annoyed by the lack of concrete ideas for paying the Hurricane Katrina bill.

"Very entertaining," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said sarcastically as he left the session. "I haven't heard any specifics from the administration."

"At least give us some idea" of how to cover the cost, said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who faces re-election in 2006. "We owe that to the American taxpayer."

The pushback on Katrina aid, which the White House also is confronting among House Republicans, represents the loudest and most widespread dissent Bush has faced from his party since it took full control of Congress in 2002. As polls show the president's approval numbers falling, concern is growing among lawmakers that GOP margins in Congress could shrink next year. Rank-and-file Republicans are complaining that Bush is shirking the difficult budget decisions that must accompany the rebuilding.

Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., said he and other fiscal conservatives are feeling "genuine concern [that] could easily turn into frustration and anger." Congressional Republicans are not arguing with Bush's pledge that the federal government will lead the Louisiana and Mississippi recovery. But they are insisting the bill — up to $200 billion — be paid. Conservatives are calling for massive cuts to existing programs, a few GOP moderates are entertaining the possibility of a tax increase and many in the middle want to freeze Bush tax cuts that have yet to take effect.

One indicator many Republicans are watching to gauge whether Bush is becoming a liability is in Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, is trailing state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. by double digits in polls.

"My caucus would do anything for Senator Santorum," Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., said of his colleague. Chafee, who faces a tough re-election battle next year, predicted Republicans increasingly will be faced with the choice of propping up Bush or protecting their own. "I think they're going to collide," Chafee said.

Asked whether Bush's problems were a factor in his slump, Santorum responded, "That may be."

The White House has moved on several fronts to pacify Republicans, with uneven results. Treasury Secretary John Snow said in a speech that the White House will be forced to put several plans on the "back burner," including estate-tax changes and permanently extending first-term tax cuts. "It's taken over the national agenda, and I think it will for a while," he said.

This prompted protests from one of the White House's closest allies, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who said waiting on taxes was unacceptable. But White House officials said Snow was reflecting Bush's intentions accurately.

Amid this friction, top White House officials told Republicans the relief-and-recovery package could come in much lower than widely quoted projections of $200 billion. Some House GOP leaders also are urging colleagues to cool off, reminding them the true cost is not known. "There are tough choices that are going to have to be made," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We're going to have to cut unnecessary spending elsewhere in the budget to offset some of the cost with Katrina."

House conservatives are particularly riled. Unhappy about spending growth during Bush's first term, they thought they had slowed the pace when Congress passed a relatively austere fiscal 2006 budget.

A group of these conservatives, including Feeney, plans today to present to the White House a proposal to cover the cost of the entire Katrina relief-and-reconstruction package. Dubbed "Operation Offset," it will include repealing many of the pork-barrel projects stuffed into the $286 billion highway bill Bush signed into law weeks before Katrina struck.

But some House leaders are unenthusiastic.

"Kiss my ear!" Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, told a Fairbanks reporter when asked whether he'd return the $223 million he had "earmarked" for a bridge near Ketchikan. Young is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

McCain called on Bush to undo the Medicare prescription-drug law, while several lawmakers said the costly benefit at least should be postponed from its January starting date. Republicans are pressing ahead with Medicare changes, even as the White House spreads the word it is opposed.

In one of the most-unexpected proposals, Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., raised the possibility of raising taxes. Other Republicans say that, while a tax increase is unlikely, Bush tax cuts scheduled to take effect may be in jeopardy.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said he will comb through the Pentagon budget for savings. "Many of us think that we need to step back and look at what we're doing and re-evaluate it," Voinovich said. But he added, "someone has to look at the big picture" — and that someone should be the president. "The vision is missing," Voinovich said.

Young's comment was reported by Knight Ridder Newspapers.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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