Fiscal rhetoric meets electoral reality

At a St. Louis fundraiser last June, President Bush lauded Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who was then unopposed and building an impressive campaign war chest, for working to tighten Washington’s belt.

“I want to thank Jim Talent for his understanding that you can’t be all things to all people when it comes time to spending the taxpayers’ money,” Bush said. “You have to set priorities, you have to have goals and you must show fiscal discipline.”

Talent, now locked in a tight reelection race against Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill, voted last week to circumvent Bush’s austere $873 billion discretionary-spending cap, breaking from the party’s tough recent rhetoric on fiscal restraint and demonstrating the value of popular programs on the campaign trail.

Talent was not alone.

An overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans facing reelection in November voted for Sen. Arlen Specter’s $7 billion increase in domestic spending.

“Lawmakers still believe that the road to reelection is paved with government spending,” said Brian Riedl, a federal budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Of the 14 Republicans seeking reelection this year, 10 helped Specter (R-Pa.) pull off the budgetary gimmick by adding money to an advance appropriations account for use in funding health, education and labor programs.

The most stalwart conservatives are furious, not only because the money was added but also because they viewed Specter’s victory celebration as excessive.

“The Republican Party is now principally moderate, if not liberal,” Specter told reporters after the 73-27 roll call, which included a one-vote majority of the 55-member Republican Conference and every Democrat in the chamber.

Republican spending hawks warn their colleagues that conservative activists may stay away from the polls if government spending is not limited, and they are threatening to bring down any House-Senate budget agreement if Specter’s $7 billion amendment is not dropped later in the process.

The prospects for a budget conference report remain uncertain — the House has yet to mark up its budget blueprint — but the threat is not likely to be taken lightly. Even with Specter’s money, and several other cap-busting amendments, the budget passed narrowly, 51-49. Just two defections could sink a conference report.

Nine other Republicans who are up for reelection, ranging across their party’s ideological spectrum, joined Talent in voting for the Specter amendment: Conrad Burns (Mont.), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Trent Lott (Miss.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Talent’s Senate website made no mention of his vote for increased domestic spending, but other conservative Republicans were quick to highlight their work. Burns “strongly supported” the Specter amendment, according to a press release.

The amendment does not specify which programs will get a slice of the cash infusion, but that did not stop lawmakers from telling their constituents where it could end up.

Santorum said, “I was proud to support this amendment because it increases funding for various programs, which I strongly support, such as the Community Services Block Grant program and the Social Services Block Grant program.”

Meanwhile, Talent said, “I wanted additional money in the budget for the National Institutes of Health.”

Four senators who are seeking reelection this year — George Allen (R-Va.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) — voted against the Specter amendment.

Allen has been touting his credentials as a fiscal conservative in preparation for a 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who angered conservatives by inserting billions of dollars of domestic spending into conference reports last year, voted for the amendment. Less than a week earlier, Frist, who is also readying a presidential run, told a crowd of Republican activists that “a balanced budget is the cornerstone of governing effectively.”

In an e-mail to political supporters yesterday, he blasted Democrats for offering budget amendments to increase spending.

“The Democrat alternative to Republican efforts to restrain spending is clear: Continue to spend beyond our means, mortgaging our children’s future by saddling them with a debt of $8 trillion … and continue to ratchet up taxes to pay for their fiscal irresponsibility, stifling the American economy,” Frist wrote.

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