WASHINGTON — With the bruising federal budget debate behind them, Orange County's five conservative congressmen stepped back this week to survey the wreckage. Despite losing the battle to stave off new taxes, they are not aghast at everything they see.
True, the five Republicans believe that the final budget package, intended to reduce the federal deficit by $490 billion over five years, is a mislabeled disaster that actually will do little to cut the exponential growth of federal borrowing.
And true, the lawmakers said, President Bush is taking what they consider a deserved beating for abandoning his pledge against raising taxes, a beating that is likely to translate into GOP losses at the polls on Nov. 6.
But the triumph of the Democratic budgeteers is likely to steel the Republican President against future tax hikes, the Orange County lawmakers said. And, they asserted, it already has infused conservative Republicans with a new resolve that will render them a more potent force in the 102nd Congress, which convenes in January.
"The entire exercise has galvanized Republicans in Congress," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), whose 40th Congressional District comprises central Orange County. "Having come through this ordeal, we will be much more united now on the issue of central importance to all of us--taxes and spending."
Cox and his colleagues--Reps. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) and Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad)--were among 126 House Republicans who voted against the final budget package as dawn broke over the Capitol on Saturday. Only 47 Republicans voted for the plan, which raises a number of taxes, including those on income, cigarettes, liquor and gasoline, and seeks to restrain increases in future federal spending. With the support of 181 Democrats, the budget was approved 228-200.
"This is nothing more than a total fraud on the American people," said Rohrabacher, whose 42nd Congressional District includes Seal Beach, Cypress and parts of Huntington Beach. "This is a massive tax increase being masked by a deficit reduction label. In the end, there will be no deficit reduction, and we will end up with nothing more than a massive tax increase."
The "spending cuts" included in the agreement are based on the assumption that funding for the affected programs would have increased at the rate of inflation if the accord had not been passed. As a result, some "reductions" will allow nominal increases in funding.
Similarly, the "deficit reduction" to be provided by the accord is based on the projected size of the deficit if funding for all programs had been allowed to rise with inflation and if no tax increases had been imposed.
Cox, agreeing that the deficit-reduction label is misleading, said the package contemplates increases in federal spending in the next five years of $734 billion, and tax increases of only $164 billion.
"The line that people are using right now is deficit reduction, (but) they are no longer talking about hard number, year-to-year comparisons. They're talking about how much they're going to cut back on their projected increases," Cox said.
"It is disingenuous to call that a cut in spending, and the American people are being misled. . . . The bill includes almost a quarter of a trillion dollars in mandated new spending."
Throughout the long debate on fiscal policy, congressional Democrats insisted that Republicans wanted to balance the federal budget on the backs of the poor by cutting spending for critical social programs and by proposing tax breaks for wealthier Americans.
House Democrats overwhelmingly rejected an earlier budget plan, painstakingly negotiated by congressional leaders and the White House, largely because it would have raised Medicare premiums and relied on increases in taxes they considered too regressive.
In recent days, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown has sharply criticized President Bush and his party, arguing that Democrats "were there to look out for the working men and women of this country."
"Chutzpah to the Nth degree!" exclaimed Dornan, who represents the 38th Congressional District in north-central Orange County. Brown is "calling Bush the tax raiser. . . . The gasoline tax was Bush's idea, to hear (Brown) tell it. . . . It's like a mantra. He says it over and over and over."
While Brown's criticism is unfair, Dornan said, the President must bear a measure of blame for the final package as well as for what Dornan expects will be a net loss of as many as five GOP seats in the House. That estimate is shared by other Orange County representatives, as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Dornan generally is one of Bush's most fervent congressional supporters.