Budget reprise reveals how fiscal times have changed

Democrats have talked for a couple of years about unveiling their own version of the “Contract With America” before Election Day, mimicking the strategy Republicans used in 1994 to capture the House.

But Republicans seem largely to have renounced the Contract. Many conservatives believe the party’s evolution of beliefs has led to the GOP’s political troubles today: low poll numbers and growing fear that Democrats may regain power.

No vote is perhaps more emblematic of how the Republican majority has changed than the one former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) cast two weeks ago against a budget resolution offered by House conservatives that was as nearly identical as possible to the 1995 budget resolution.

Like the House GOP budget of ’95, the “Contract with America Renewed” budget proposed by conservatives this month sought to slash federal spending, place caps on Medicare payments, shift Medicaid payments to block grants and significantly restructure the Departments of Energy, Commerce and Education.

But unlike 11 years ago, when only one Republican voted against those proposals, 134 Republicans voted against them this time.

“We built it using the same basic parameters,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the conservative caucus, referring to his group’s budget. “It was designed to be same as the Contract With America.”

“It was absolutely our intention to call the roll on the spirit of ’94,” he said, “We wanted to see who was willing to take the same tough stand the Republican majority had taken when the Republican Congress was newly minted.

“It does suggest that we’ve lost some of our revolutionary fervor.”

The conservatives’ bill made a few nods to the present day, excluding veterans funding from cuts to reflect popular support for the troops fighting in Iraq and excluding Social Security.

Rep. Scott Garrett, a second-term conservative from New Jersey, said he was surprised by DeLay’s vote, especially because DeLay and other Republican leaders last year challenged conservatives to produce a spending plan with greater savings than their own.

“One of the problems of being in leadership and being in power, pragmatism does creep into it,” Garrett said. “We do have to get things done on time, and ‘[having] no budget is worse than having a bad budget’ seems to be the mantra of leadership in the three years I’ve been here.”

House Republicans admit they are a very different majority than the one that controlled the chamber after the 1994 election, but they disagree over whether that spells political disaster in November.

Conservatives say the best way to save the majority is to return to the principles of fiscal discipline that GOP candidates espoused 12 years ago, when they wrested the House from 40 years of Democratic control. But many more liberal colleagues repeat the maxim of late Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) that “all politics is local.” These lawmakers say that catering to their districts, even by swelling the size of government, is the way to win reelection.

DeLay said he voted against the conservatives’ budget because it would have hurt the space program based in his district. He agreed with the conservative principles but couldn’t vote for a budget “that would have crippled NASA while giving China’s military-run space program the go-ahead to make the next giant leaps,” said DeLay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty.

“This budget would have devastated our space program, and no conservative should feel comfortable voluntarily locking our nation out of space and making us dependent on foreign countries to access the international space station.”

Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted that when Republicans passed their budget in 1995 centrists such as Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) were among its defenders.

“I have waited 20 years for this day, working and waiting for the opportunity to vote finally for a budget that will get our financial house in order,” Shays said during floor debate over the 1995 budget. But Shays, who is facing a tough reelection race, voted against the nearly identical budget this month.

Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), now president of the Club for Growth, a group that advocates tax cuts and a smaller federal government, said many elected Republicans have dropped the principles that won them power.

“Rank-and-file Republican voters all around the country are exhibiting extremely high levels of frustration because elected Republicans seem to have abandoned the idea of limited government,” he said.

Toomey said that the conservatives’ budget proposal was substantive and that his group would consider how lawmakers voted on it when rating them.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who voted for the budget in 1995 when he was a freshman but voted against it this month, said times have changed.

“It’s a different day,” he said, explaining that the attacks of Sept. 11 and other events have revealed a national energy crisis. He said that he has been preaching energy independence for years and that the budget policies from 1995 would have gone “backwards on energy independence.”

Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), another member of the class of ’95 who voted against the budget he supported more than a decade ago, said he did so not because he doesn’t want more savings but because he thought the proposals were not realistic and could give ammunition to political opponents.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), also a member of the class of ’95, said he voted no because he felt it would have been unfair to stick “a thumb in the nose” of House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House centrists who spent weeks negotiating the budget resolution that the House eventually adopted. Boehner, however, voted for the conservatives’ ’95-based budget, as did House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

Pence and conservatives say that it is a good sign that leaders such as Boehner, Blunt, Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) voted for the conservative alternative.

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