WASHINGTON — GREGARIOUS and impatient, Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio is about as subtle as the Jeep he drives. That may be a good thing, as he will likely have to four-wheel over a number of his colleagues if he is to ever reach his ultimate goal: balancing the federal budget by 2002.
As the youngest person ever to become chairman of the House Budget Committee, Congressman Kasich is the point man of the House Republican budget-cutting agenda. Ask Speaker Newt Gingrich a question about budgeting and he directs you toward Kasich. Run into a crowd of frantic reporters in the corridors of the Capitol and he is usually the cause of the commotion.
Last week the chairman unveiled a first look at how deeply he intends to cut federal spending -- the plan illustrates $190 billion in trims over a broad range of discretionary programs -- and then, patting himself on the back, proclaimed, ''You ain't seen nothing yet.''
When the budget season begins in earnest in May, Kasich plans to take on such entitlement programs as Medicare and Medicaid in the search for roughly $1.7 trillion in savings.
The Budget chairman is driven by a belief that Washington is squandering the future of the youngest Americans through undisciplined spending. He has declared war on the deficit in the name of the people. ''The American people are in sacrifice mode,'' he said Sunday on ''Meet the Press.''
Kasich's plan to shrink the federal purse is already rattling the nerves of his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats. To the agitation of GOP House leaders and fellow chairmen, he has vowed to cut everything from agriculture subsidies to the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Speaker Gingrich promised to spare defense from the budget ax; Kasich vows to cut it.
But Kasich has a record for bipartisanship, often forming coalitions with some of the most liberal members of Congress. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, a veteran of the Budget Committee, calls Kasich ''the antithesis of what some of us dislike about Republicans.''
''Kasich deals straight,'' says Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. ''He is deeply committed to deficit reduction, and is willing to take significant political risks. He is anxious to move forward as fast as possible.''
The son of blue-collar Democrats -- his father was a mailman -- Kasich became a Republican in college. The long lines he had to wait in were to him a symbol of inefficient bureaucracy.
At age 19 he had talked his way into a meeting with President Nixon. By 26 he was a member of the Ohio state legislature and one its most ardent deficit hawks. A 12-year veteran of Congress representing Columbus, Ohio, Kasich is a diehard faithful of Reagonomics. This time, he has said, ''I hope we can finish the job.''
From his early days on the House Armed Services Committee, Kasich has shown a passion for deficit reduction. He has produced an alternative budget every year since 1989 -- his proposal that year earned more support than President Bush's -- and has brought down some of his party's most cherished chestnuts.
In 1991, for example, he united with Rep. Ron Dellums of California, one of the most liberal members of the Democratic caucus, to bring down the B-2 bomber, even though it meant adverse consequences for his own district. A month ago, he voted against his party's effort to resurrect the Strategic Defense Initiative (though he now claims he cast his vote mistakenly).
But Kasich can also be dismissive. Last week, when Democrats charged he was backpedalling from a promise to use cuts from the 1995 budget to pay for deficit reduction rather than tax cuts, Kasich shrugged. It really did not matter where the money went, he said, since more cuts were coming against the deficit.
With red-ink spending now the most contentious issue between the parties in this political season, Democrats are ready to pounce on any inconsistency from the Republicans. They charge he has double-counted some cuts and is relying on deceptive projections to inflate the size of savings under his plan.
But Martin Anderson, a former economic adviser to President Reagan and now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Ca., applauds Kasich's plan. ''It makes common sense,'' he says, to lower the current rate of spending and then use the former projected growth in spending as a measure of savings.
No matter how the cuts are counted, the Republicans' promise to cuts taxes and balance the budget has raised the political stakes of deficit reduction to a historic high-point. The issue is already shaping the early days of the 1996 presidential election. And if any Republican can turn the Republican promise into policy, former Rep. Tim Penny (D) of Minnesota says its up to his former partner.
''John believes in tax cuts, but he wants desperately to eliminate the deficit,'' Penny says. ''He sincerely believes you can balance the budget and cut taxes. There are few Republicans who could do it.''
In 1993, as a minority member of the Budget Committee, Mr. Kasich caught wind that Rep. Tim Penny (D) of Minnesota was devising a scheme to cut spending deeper than the president's budget called for. Mr. Penny courted support from a few prominent Republicans such as Congressman Gingrich. Kasich wanted in.
''John admonished me to let him pick the Republican team,'' remembers Penny, now a fellow at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul. ''It wasn't ego with John. He was trying to say, 'I'll get you a team to deliver the Republicans.' He wanted to win.''