Budget woes threaten Nussle in Iowa

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) faces possibly rough waters in his quest to become Iowa’s next governor in 2006. While conservative Republicans welcome Nussle’s fiscal hawkishness, the eighth-term congressman is vulnerable to attack from Democrats contending he has put ideology ahead of Iowa’s poor and elderly.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) faces possibly rough waters in his quest to become Iowa’s next governor in 2006.

While conservative Republicans welcome Nussle’s fiscal hawkishness, the eighth-term congressman is vulnerable to attack from Democrats contending he has put ideology ahead of Iowa’s poor and elderly.

That should make it easier for Nussle to beat his most likely rivals in a GOP primary — Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross and Sioux City consultant Bob Vander Plaats, who both ran unsuccessfully for governor earlier — but harder to win a general election.
Pedro Sa Da Bandeira
Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is bidding on becoming Iowa’s next governor.


As Democrats are quick to point out, Iowans have repeatedly elected not only Sen. Charles Grassley (R) but also populist, New Deal-style Sen. Tom Harkin (D).

A House aide said Nussle was open to attack for calling for across-the-board budget cuts. “I think it will not be overly popular,” the aide said, referring to the proposed cuts. “Within that there will be a lot of issues that people are going to care about.”

One such issue is Medicaid. Healthcare groups are bracing for major cuts in entitlement spending, and one GOP lobbyist is predicting that Medicaid payments could be cut by $70 billion.

A House Republican staffer noted that curbing Medicaid spending is extremely difficult unless the payments are made through block grants. Congressional Democrats and the nation’s governors strongly oppose block grants.

The difference between this year and previous years is that House Republicans are expected to implement much of the budget resolution that Nussle crafts. The budget resolution is nonbinding, and House Republicans have in years past shied away from following its controversial provisions.

A former House staffer said Nussle had inoculated himself against attack by helping to funnel support to Iowa’s farmers, a critical constituency in the agrarian state.
The former aide noted that the $73.5 billion 2001 farm bill, widely attacked by conservatives for being riddled with pork-barrel items, includes “countercyclical support” to help farmers in down times and money for broadband Internet access in rural areas.

Also, Nussle secured federal support for rural hospitals in the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug bill. “Does he ignore the wishes of his constituents?” the ex-Hill staffer said. “I don’t think you can make that case.”

Conservatives in Iowa, meanwhile, argued that, if anything, the congressman — described by one GOP county chairman as “a Washington Republican” — would have trouble in the primary fending off attacks that he hadn’t done enough to control spending.

Republicans said those concerns had been exacerbated by major spending initiatives pushed by President Bush, including the No Child Left Behind education program and the prescription-drug bill, and ongoing fiscal problems in Iowa.

“The budget deficits are going to be interesting for him to deal with,” a source on Capitol Hill said. “Iowa had difficulty with their budgets, and since he’s budget chairman the size of the federal budget under his watch will certainly be an issue.”

In a sign that Democrats, too, may attack Nussle for the federal government’s red ink, Jeff Link, a Democratic consultant who is likely to back gubernatorial hopeful Chet Culvert, Iowa’s secretary of state, called Nussle “the architect of our federal deficit” who is “out of step” with Iowans’ fiscal conservatism.

Other Republicans said Nussle, whose 1st District hugs Iowa’s eastern border with Illinois, would have to work overtime to introduce himself to voters in the more conservative western and central parts of the state.

“If a Republican doesn’t carry western Iowa big, you can’t win a statewide election,” John Werden, chairman of the Carroll County Republicans said, “and I mean 55-45.”

Another county chair, Barb Vakulskas of the Sioux City area, said voter frustration with Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack — “We call him Governor Viltax” — make it easier for a conservative to win.

Nussle could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Sean Spicer, GOP spokesman for the House Budget Committee, said the chairman had consistently targeted needless spending. He added that Nussle has sought to improve the way the government spends money on entitlement programs.

“In the veterans areas, they’ve worked really hard in the past year to do things with competitive bidding on durable goods, which have achieved considerable savings,” Spicer said, noting that the government had saved a small fortune on buying wheelchairs in bulk as opposed to “piecemealing.”

Chuck Fant, the Democratic spokesman at the Budget Committee, argued that voters may not care that much, for now, about the deficit. Unlike the early 1990s, when voters blamed rising interest rates on the deficit, no such situation exists today.

Once voters make that connection, he said, the deficit would become an issue.
Fant also argued that further cutting the deficit will be difficult given that most of the new spending involves national security.

“Most of the growth in spending over the past few years has been in homeland security, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, New York City relief, airline bailout,” he said. “These accounts are accounts that everyone supports when we’re at war. It’s going to be very difficult to cut the deficit significantly by just going after non-defense discretionary.”

President Bush and conservatives on the Hill indicated that federal spending should come down in 2005. Some Republicans said this year might be the president’s last opportunity to do that before the 2006 mid-term elections — and before he turns into a lame duck.

One Republican suggested that Nussle’s association with the president’s prior budgets might not hurt the lawmaker that much, pointing to former White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels’s gubernatorial win last year in Indiana.

Bob Cusack contributed to this report.