As the House rushed to approve billions of dollars in aid for the victims of Hurricane Katrina this month, speaker after speaker talked about the devastation to the Gulf Coast.
Not Rep. Mike Pence. The Republican from Indiana warned about the potential devastation to the federal budget.
Declaring that he was committed to doing what was necessary to aid hurricane victims, Pence -- leader of a determined group of fiscal conservatives in the House -- this week launched a campaign to persuade fellow Republicans to offset the huge post-Katrina reconstruction costs with cuts elsewhere in federal spending.
In doing so, Pence and his fellow conservatives found themselves once again challenging the GOP-controlled Congress over its commitment to fiscal discipline.
“I thought being in Congress was about saying no to Democrats,” Pence said. “But I found out the hardest thing is, when on principle, you have to say no to a president you admire and to leaders you want to support.”
As Pence stepped into the spotlight to lead the charge for large budget cuts, critics -- including fellow Republicans -- accused him of grandstanding by proposing politically unrealistic reductions. Some Republicans worried about the political damage he could be inflicting on his party’s image by portraying it as not doing enough to control spending.
Pence appears to be comfortable taking on members of his own party. The 46-year-old lawmaker, in his third term in Congress, describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”
And he was once a Democrat.
As a youth, he was active in local Democratic politics. When he got to college, he found a new hero, Ronald Reagan, and became a Republican “committed to limited government and traditional moral values.”
He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988 and 1990, writing an essay after the second campaign titled “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.”
“It is wrong,” he wrote, “to squander a candidate’s priceless moment in history, a moment in which he or she could have brought critical issues before the citizenry, on partisan bickering.”
A lawyer, former head of an Indiana-based conservative think tank and onetime radio talk show host, Pence won a House seat in 2000.
“My dad really disliked lawyers and politicians. Had he lived, I’m sure he’d be very proud of my career,” he joked in an interview.
The group Pence leads, the Republican Study Committee, is made up of more than 100 House conservatives who advocate not only greater fiscal discipline, but a social agenda that includes restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research and a ban on same-sex marriage.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a member, described the group as “the last line of defense against the growth of government.” If the group fails to press for greater fiscal discipline, he said, the GOP leadership “is going to compromise left-of-center and, frankly, we lose our brand identity as a party.”
The Republican Study Committee garnered attention with its proposed cuts to offset hurricane-related costs projected to reach $200 billion or more, but whether any of its major suggestions will gain ground seems doubtful.
The group’s call for delaying implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit was quickly rejected by GOP congressional leaders and the White House.
So were its recommendations that lawmakers redirect funds from highway projects to hurricane reconstruction, cut spending for public broadcasting and eliminate federal subsidies that ensure airline service to rural communities.
All are seen as politically unrealistic. And some GOP leaders were displeased that Pence publicly aired differences with fellow Republicans.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said his door is open to any member who wishes to reduce unnecessary spending. But he added: “My preference is to consider any proposal in a thoughtful, deliberate manner rather than reading about it in the newspaper.”
Pence was unrepentant. “Now is the time for us to begin to make the tough choices necessary to ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and our grandchildren,” he said.
A GOP leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity when criticizing Pence said the congressman was providing aid to the enemy -- Democrats.
For instance, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) agreed with the call from Pence’s group that lawmakers cut some of the items contained in the $286.5-billion transportation bill Congress passed in July. She offered to sacrifice some of the projects targeted for her district.
“When you give Pelosi the opportunity to say she’s going to give up her projects -- knowing full well it’s never going to happen -- that’s not an opportunity you want to provide the Democratic leadership,” said the aide.
Pence previously boasted about the $16 million he secured for transportation projects in his district. But last week he said that if his constituents in eastern Indiana were “given a choice between helping and rebuilding a devastated section of our coast ... and improving roads in Muncie and Anderson and Richmond, they would choose to do the former.”
The efforts by Pence’s group are drawing praise from others concerned about the federal budget deficit.
“While it will be a significant uphill battle, we commend them for challenging the priorities of the few powerful lawmakers that control the nation’s purse strings,” said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group.
“I’m rooting for him,” added Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, another budget watchdog group. “The question is whether his concern about the deficit will lead him to oppose further tax cuts if he can’t convince his colleagues to cut spending.”
At that, Pence draws a line. He rejected the idea of canceling another $70 billion in additional tax cuts, saying they are critical to the nation’s economic health.