November 27th 2005 - More than a decade after the Republican Revolution, when Newt Gingrich became House speaker on the promise to downsize government, Republicans are facing another revolution.
This one is from within.
When Congress returns next month from its Thanksgiving recess, Republican leaders who have never failed to marshal their forces on big party-line votes face the prospect of defeat on tax cuts and spending restraint -- the core issues that have united the party since President Ronald Reagan and gave them their House majority in 1994.
They have lost some tax and spending votes already, and postponed others because of the specter of losing. After a five-year spending spree on everything from the Iraq war to Medicare, deficits are now jeopardizing the tax cuts that were the centerpiece of President Bush's first term.
A move to preserve tax cuts on capital gains and dividends -- the gemstone of the Bush tax cuts for conservatives -- is in trouble in both the House and the Senate. For the first time since George W. Bush took office, House Democrats are united against tax cuts, and Republican moderates are bucking their party leadership.
GOP leaders are pushing a measure to control entitlement spending by shaving Medicaid and food stamps for the poor. But the combination of investor tax cuts and reductions in poverty programs has already led to a series of embarrassing defeats in committee and on the House floor. Republicans are headed for a pre-Christmas showdown that could turn into a political disaster.
Hurricane topples plans
Hurricane Katrina last summer was a tipping point. The storm forced Republicans to ditch the estate tax repeal because it was deemed unseemly to end a wealth tax after poor people had lost their homes. Sensing a public relations disaster, Republican leaders also postponed extending the investor tax cuts until the end of the year.
Congress quickly passed $62 billion in emergency disaster relief. But Bush's promise to "do whatever it takes" to rebuild the Gulf Coast set off a rebellion among conservatives, who demanded spending cuts to pay the bill.
"I think they blinked after Hurricane Katrina," said Brad Woodhouse, a liberal activist who helped defeat Bush's Social Security overhaul and has turned his fire on the Republican budget, heading a liberal alliance called the Emergency Campaign for American Priorities.
"It was such an acknowledgment of how inappropriate these spending cuts to finance tax cuts are," Woodhouse said. "It was like blood dripping in the water for us."
The budget outlook -- and the problems facing the GOP -- promise to get much worse. Medicare's costly new prescription drug benefit, an $18 trillion unfunded liability sponsored by the White House and Republican leadership, starts in January. Just two years from now, in 2008, the enormous Baby Boom generation will begin retiring, ceasing income tax payments and starting to collect benefits, leading to a budget squeeze unprecedented in U.S. history.
"We're seeing the future," said Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury official in the George H.W. Bush administration and tax-cut advocate. "The decisions that have been made over the last five years have resulted in the chickens coming home to roost."
Total spending increases under the current President Bush closely rival those of President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat famous for conducting the Vietnam War while simultaneously increasing domestic spending.
Discretionary spending rose 48.5 percent in Bush's first term, according to an analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute, twice as much as in two terms under President Bill Clinton, when spending rose 21.6 percent. Adjusted for inflation, Bush has increased total spending at an annualized rate of 5.6 percent, compared with 1.5 percent under Clinton.
"It's only a matter of time before we stop talking about cutting taxes for a very long period of time and talk basically about increasing taxes," Bartlett predicted. "The end of the era of tax cutting is going to put tremendous strain on the Republican coalition, just as the end of the era of big spending put tremendous strain on the Democratic coalition" in the 1980s. "You're hearing more and more people on the Republican side talking about major losses in the congressional elections next year and about 2008 being a really, really bad year for Republicans."
In the two months since Republicans pulled their tax cut bills, the atmosphere has only gotten worse. Republicans lost two important off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Bush's popularity has hit new lows, with the public now decidedly opposing the Iraq war. Leading GOP candidates, including Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative member of the Senate leadership who faces a tough re-election fight in Pennsylvania, have refused to appear with Bush at campaign events.
"Republican members of Congress recognize that the president can't help them very much any more," said Cato Institute Chairman Bill Niskanen, a former Reagan administration economist. In addition, the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seriously weakened party discipline in the House and exposed deep divisions between fiscal conservatives and moderates.
"There is a substantial ideological split, particularly among House Republicans, on fiscal responsibility," Niskanen said. "A lot of them have gone along with a high rate of growth of spending but have done so without any enthusiasm."
As the post-Katrina conservative revolt gelled, the Republican leadership turned to Medicaid, food stamps and student loans for spending restraint. The Senate is proposing $35 billion in reductions and the House $50 billion; both chambers are also seeking between $56 billion and $59 billion in tax cuts.
Large gap to cross
There are enormous differences between the House and Senate on both measures. Reconciling them will be very difficult in the two weeks Congress has left before adjourning for Christmas.
Combined, the measures increase the deficit. The spending restraint appeased conservatives but provoked an outcry from Democrats and GOP moderates. Efforts to console moderates by dropping a measure for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and adding subsidies for home heating costs and dairy farmers have done little but stoke more controversy.
The Medicaid and food stamp cuts have attracted the most fire, and barely passed the House 217-215 before Thanksgiving, with no Democratic support. Republicans recessed before attempting to pass the tax cuts.
Much of the roughly $11 billion in cuts over five years proposed by the Senate for Medicaid, a health care program for the poor that many elderly use to pay nursing home costs, were recommended by state governors. They contend the program is becoming burdensome for the states, which must come up with money to match federal funding. Democrats have portrayed the reduction in the growth of Medicaid spending as dire, but even liberal analysts concede they are not severe. One provision would increase co-payments from $3 to $5, and another would allow elderly nursing home residents to shield $750,000 in home equity, raised from $500,000 after Republican moderates objected.
The cuts are "not awful," said Jason Furman, a former adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry now at the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
"It's less about the magnitude and more about why should you be asking poor people to pay anything more for health care at the same time that you're giving brand-new tax cuts to the most fortunate," Furman said. "That is what is just completely wrong with this picture.
"A go-it-alone Republican strategy works when you're trying to cut taxes or increase spending, but when you're trying to make tougher choices, the only way to do it is to work together with the other party for shared sacrifice," Furman said. "Budget reality is starting to catch up with the Republican Party."
Heavy U.S. borrowing with much more on the horizon is stoking concern about a potential financial crisis. Any one of several big economic imbalances -- including looming pressures on the federal budget, the zero U.S. savings rate, the historically high trade deficit, a real estate boom that has supported consumer spending -- could provoke a sudden financial shift, economists say.
"It's not unrealistic to think that if we continue to delay -- and the Baby Boomers do start to retire as early as 2008 -- that sooner or later the lenders to this country may decide it's not the best place to park all their savings," said Maya MacGuineas, director of fiscal policy for centrist New American Foundation.
Bartlett warns of a "financial Katrina."
"It's just a matter of time before we have some kind of economic event that I think is just going to change the political situation 180 degrees and make deficit reduction the order of the day," he said. "I don't know what it will be. I just know that when you've got gasoline spilling onto the floor of your house, it doesn't really matter where the spark comes from."