The Nickles and Nussle show: hard numbers

Budget proposals unveiled Wednesday show how GOP finance hawks struggle to control deficits.

Sen. Don Nickles and Rep. Jim Nussle are taking on the toughest job in Congress: passing a budget that does not anticipate red ink for the next 10 years.

The negotiations leading up to the unveiling of Wednesday's budget resolutions in the Senate and House Budget committees have been intense and tough - and that's before Democrats get involved in the process. But both the Senate and House budget panel chairs say they are determined to enforce fiscal discipline, even if the White House's plan projects big deficits.

"I have two choices: I can coast with the president's plan or I can choose to do something about it," says Rep. Nussle, who chairs the House Budget Committee.

Nickles and Nussle represent the last of the GOP budget hawks, a near-extinct breed. Republicans fought their way back to control of the House in the early 1990s on a mantra of fiscal discipline. But they have presided over a spending binge ever since budgets settled into surpluses mid-decade.

"It was too much fun to be able to say 'yes' for a change," says Iowa Rep. Nussle, at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.

When Bill Clinton was president, there was someone to blame. There was someone else to blame when Democrats reclaimed the Senate in 2001. But with Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the GOP hawks have no one to blame.

The plan proposed by the White House, including $1.6 trillion in new tax cuts, will produce a 10-year deficit of $1.8 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. (That estimate does not include the loss of $2.6 trillion in Social Security surpluses that members on both aisles of Congress have vowed not to touch.)

In addition, neither the White House nor the GOP budget chairman are including costs of war or its aftermath in their budget calculations this year. Nussle insists that his panel will write a resolution to bring the budget back into balance in 10 years, even with President Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut. Nickles isn't making predictions, until his plan is released Wednesday.

"I don't want to get into a situation where we budget wars. I want it to be very exceptional," said Senator Nickles in an interview. "The administration will submit an emergency spending request in the near future, and Congress will appropriate the money," he adds.

But both insist that expected emergency spending is a rationale for restraining spending wherever possible in the discretionary budget. With government revenues dropping 9 percent in the past two years, "it's going to be more challenging to impose fiscal discipline this year," says Nickles.

"If we accommodated all these requests, we would have a trillion [dollar] deficit this year," he adds, gesturing to a black binder on his desk with requests for new spending.

Senate efforts to curb spending this year will be aided by a shakeup on the Republican side of the Budget Committee, where seven of 12 members are newcomers. Senior moderates, who in the past have pushed for limits on tax cuts and more spending on social priorities, are no longer on the panel.

But Senate Democrats say that the changes were a deliberate effort to make the committee more inclined to be hawks on the spending side while overlooking the deficit impact of big tax cuts. Democrats also worry that the GOP will use the special rules in the budget process to shield key programs from a filibuster, which would require 60 votes instead of the simple majority needed to pass the budget resolution.

"I can see a session where all of the important spending programs are wrapped into that budget act which is going to virtually deny the free flow of debate and discussion in the United States Senate on these issues ... of central importance," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts at a Monitor breakfast last week.

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