Costs rising on Bush's plans

From Iraq to Katrina, the president's plans are putting strain on the federal budget.

Former President Clinton grumbles that he governed in "small times." The nation wasn't at war, and the economy roared ahead.

President Bush has no such complaint. This weekend alone was all about "big-time" events: the second massive storm in a month to hit the Gulf Coast, and the largest demonstration against the Iraq war since the US-led invasion 2-1/2 years ago. Mr. Bush missed seeing tens of thousands of protesters streaming past the White House because he was positioned at the US Northern Command headquarters in Colorado, from which he monitored the federal response to hurricane Rita.

If nothing else, Bush's nearly five years in office have been marked by "bigness." A stream of historic events - some of the president's own making, some not - have resulted in massive federal spending. On top of that, add the agenda he brought to the table on that first Inauguration Day that seems to be growing only larger.

Some items, like Social Security and tax reform, have been delayed, but nothing has been removed from the wish list altogether. Even immigration reform, controversial within Bush's own party, is still on the table.

"He is trying to have a very significant presidency at virtually any cost," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "The cost includes the Republicans' reputation for fiscal conservatism. That's dead - and it may be dead for a generation."

When hurricane Katrina hit in late August, wreaking devastation along the Gulf Coast, Bush promised to do "whatever it takes" to rebuild; Congress has obliged by approving all spending proposed thus far. The White House insists that this spending will be paid for by cuts elsewhere in the budget, but officials have yet to suggest specifics.

Bush does not have the excuse of a Congress controlled by the opposing party, forcing his hand by passing big-spending legislation, analysts say.

When the Republican-controlled Congress passed a massive highway bill this summer that will cost $286 billion over six years - at many billions of dollars over Bush's stated limit - he signed the legislation anyway.

Now suggestions that the bill's "pork" - such as a $223 million bridge in Alaska connecting two isolated areas - be sliced out have been rejected by the Republican congressional leadership. The White House, too, has rejected a proposal to delay implementation of the extensive new prescription0drug plan for seniors that will take effect in January. Deficit hawks have begun filling the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal with Katrina-induced outrage over Bush and other elected Republicans' spending habits.

"George W. Bush is a big spender," wrote Peggy Noonan, President Reagan's former speechwriter, on Sept. 22. "He has never vetoed a spending bill. When Congress serves up a big slab of fat, crackling pork, Mr. Bush responds with one big question: Got any barbecue sauce?"

Former Club for Growth head Stephen Moore, in a Sept. 19 column called "Welcome to the GOP's New Deal," complains that "both parties are now willing and eager to spend tax dollars as if they were passing out goody-bags to grabby four-year-olds at a birthday party."

Mr. Moore also refers to an "enraged" grass roots of the party over the ballooning deficit. But as long as the president's job approval rating hovers in the low 40s, his political advisers can argue that he has preserved the support of his base, at least.

Historically, the image of Republicans as the party of small government has not tended to play out in practice.

"Republicans rhetorically oppose big spending, but have seldom opposed it in practice," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California formerly involved in Republican politics. "Ronald Reagan came to office hinting he might eliminate cabinet departments and ended up adding one: the Department of Veterans Affairs. Republicans are no strangers to big government."

Eventually, politicians will feel some pressure to address the deficit because the economic consequences will be painful, but in the short run there will be more pressure to spend on disaster relief, Professor Pitney adds.

At heart, Bush's pledge to do "whatever it takes" in the wake of Katrina may be linked to his party's broader goal of expanding outreach to minorities.

In Louisiana, poor African-Americans who did not evacuate were particularly hard hit by the storm. Since becoming chairman of the Republican Party in February, Ken Mehlman had been traveling the country, addressing black and Hispanic audiences.

This represents a continuation of a longstanding plan to boost the party's minority ranks, an effort that bore some fruit in the 2004 elections.

Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, has also kept his eye on minority politics, even amid the latest crises.

He has been bringing groups of lawmakers into the White House to promote the administration's proposal for a temporary guest worker program.

The plan is controversial, because it would grant temporary legal status to illegal workers. But the White House reportedly argues that such a program could build support among Hispanics in this country, now the largest minority group.

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