GOP Puts Its Mark on Congress and Deficit

Times Staff Writer

A full year of Republican dominance of government has left a legacy rich in conservative triumphs: cutting taxes, building a muscular defense, restricting abortion.

But the year has also brought an extraordinary expansion of government power and spending that showed Republicans were willing to deep-six their party's traditional commitment to fiscal conservatism and limited government.

The Republican-controlled Congress has passed the third tax cut in as many years, an enormous Pentagon budget, a costly experiment in nation-building in Iraq and a vast expansion of Medicare -- all at the request of President Bush. Their actions have left the federal budget swimming in the largest deficits in history.

As one lawmaker heard from a Republican friend, "Democrats are the party of 'tax and spend'; Republicans are the party of 'don't tax -- and spend.' " That is the ironic product of the first full year since 1954 that Republicans have controlled the White House and Congress.

Although the ideological message is mixed, Republicans have engineered significant changes in U.S. foreign, domestic and fiscal policy. The magnitude of change is surprising in light of the wafer-thin margins by which Bush was elected in 2000 and by which the GOP controls the House and Senate. Republicans have managed to do so in part by using extraordinary means to maintain party discipline -- and by being willing to spend taxpayer dollars freely to build their legislative coalitions.

"It shows what you can accomplish if you don't care about deficits," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.). "That's going to be the most lasting legacy of this Congress."

Congress is expected to reconvene briefly in early December to tie up loose ends and possibly pass a catch-all spending bill to finish the budget, but most of this year's legislative record has already been written.

When 2003 began, just how decisively Republicans would be able to reshape policy was an open question. It was clear that the House would continue to be a bastion of conservatism, especially as partisan firebrand Tom DeLay (R-Texas) ascended to House majority leader, the chamber's second-most-powerful post. Less certain was what could be accomplished in the Senate, where Republicans held 51 of the chamber's 100 seats and had a new majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who was considered less ideological than DeLay.

But on a variety of fronts, this Congress broke ground and steered policy in directions that would have been unthinkable under the Democrats.

To the delight of anti-tax conservatives, Congress by midyear had passed a $350-billion tax cut to stimulate the economy. That amount was less than Bush had sought, but much more than many thought possible at a time of growing deficits.

On social issues, Congress approved the first abortion restrictions in 30 years in a bill, signed by Bush, that banned a late-term procedure that doctors call "intact dilation and extraction" and opponents call "partial-birth abortion."

On the international front, Republicans rallied behind and financed Bush's doctrine of preemptive military action. Congress financed the war in Iraq and, despite reservations, put up almost $20 billion for rebuilding Iraq, the most ambitious foreign aid initiative since the Marshall Plan. The pro-business agenda thrived, as Congress cleared the way for Bush to limit overtime pay, relax certain clean-air requirements and increase logging in national forests. Congress almost passed -- and may do so early next year -- a bill bristling with tax breaks and subsidies for oil, gas and other energy industries.

Even in expanding the Medicare program, conservatives in Congress broke ground: The bill providing new prescription drug benefits also called for an unprecedented level of involvement by private health plans, a long-held and long-frustrated goal of free-market conservatives.

Many such major bills have passed by the narrowest of margins, with the help of heavy arm-twisting by Bush and Republican leaders who have tried to enforce strict party discipline.

In a display of political muscle, House Republican leaders kept the vote on Medicare open for almost three hours in order to win. Final versions of the energy bill and other major measures were negotiated with almost no Democratic input. Democrats were given little time to review such bills before they were brought to a vote: When Democrats protested at one committee meeting, the chairman called the police to break up the private strategy meeting.

Republicans said they had to rely on such tactics because Democrats had shown little interest in bipartisan cooperation. Democrats argue that the Republicans' hardball tactics were previewed during the 2000 Florida recount that gave Bush the presidency and the negative ads they ran in the 2002 Senate elections.

"There were plenty of indications that they were going to use brass knuckles -- that they were going to bend the rules and use any means necessary to win," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Republicans may have paid a price when the Senate voted Nov. 21 to block the energy bill. That vote reflected, in part, the resentment of Democrats who were cut out of the process of writing the final bill.

It also reflected some Republicans' frustration with their leaders' willingness to throw money at legislative problems. In an effort to stitch together a winning coalition, authors of the energy bill included $25.7 billion worth of tax breaks for special interests -- about three times the amount Bush wanted.

Similar concerns dogged the Medicare bill, which came under attack from conservatives who thought it cost too much and would grow much larger in the future. But Republican leaders built a powerful coalition behind the bill in part by diverting billions from the drug benefit to subsidies for private health plans, increased reimbursements for doctors (who were supposed to see a cut in payments) and increased funding for rural health-care providers.

"I'm concerned there has been an atmosphere on the Hill that the way we get bills passed is simply to load them with spending," said Robert S. Walker, a lobbyist who was a member of the House Republican leadership before he left Congress in 1997.

The nearly $400-billion Medicare bill was an emblematic conclusion to a year in which Republicans seemed willing to throw fiscal caution to the wind, putting the deficit on track to hit $500 billion in 2004.

Republican leaders offered no apology for the Medicare bill's price tag, saying it included some market-oriented reforms that could, in the long run, help control costs. And they have argued all year that controlling the deficit should take a back seat to other priorities at a time when the United States is embroiled in the conflict in Iraq and the economy is struggling to recover.

But other Republicans are concerned that war and recession have become an excuse for spending on programs that have nothing to do with national security or stimulating the economy.

"Republicans used to believe in fiscal responsibility, limited international entanglements and limited government," said Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) in a commentary published Wednesday in the Omaha World-Herald. "We have come loose from our moorings. The Medicare reform bill is a good example of our lack of direction, purpose and responsibility."

Rep. John B. Shadegg (R-Ariz.), a conservative leader, said this year's record shows how much the experience of running the government has eroded Republican commitment to limiting government. "It appears that Republicans have discovered the perks of power," Shadegg said, "and the most powerful of those is spending."

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