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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

John Kasich

The GOP's Point Man in the Balanced-Budget Debate

December 15, 1996|Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — If balancing the federal budget required nothing but exuberance, Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) would have had Washington running in the black a long time ago.

Kasich, the 44-year-old chairman of the House Budget Committee, is renowned on Capitol Hill for leavening dry-as-dust budget debates with a boyish enthusiasm that invites comparison to a hyperactive child. When the new Congress convenes in January, Kasich will be in the vanguard of Republicans' renewed efforts to reach an agreement with the White House on how to balance the budget.

Kasich comes to the fight bearing battle scars from the last Congress' titanic struggle with the White House over the GOP budget-balancing plan, which President Bill Clinton vetoed. That plan was the new GOP majority's most ambitious undertaking, and most politically risky venture, as Democrats campaigned heavily against its controversial features in the 1996 elections.

Kasich's role as an architect of the budget helped catapult him to prominence among the GOP's emerging younger generation. His name surfaced as a possible running mate for Bob Dole this year, and has even popped up on lists of future White House contenders. The next two years may be crucial if he is to reach beyond his current role as a brash young Turk.

He brings to his work a kind of intense, ebullient passion that charms many but grates on others. "There are some folks who, when they say 'good morning,' you just want to hit them. John strikes some people that way," Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot (R-Iowa) once said. "Sometimes you've got to count to 10 before you say things. John only gets to three."

He defies the the button-down culture of the Capitol by bounding around its halls in high-topped sneakers and by frequenting Rolling Stones and heavy-metal concerts.

He also defies the bitter partisanship that has split the House in recent years by finding an unusual number of friends and allies on the other side of the aisle, including Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Oakland), one of the most liberal members of the House and who has teamed with Kasich to fight the B-2 bomber and other Pentagon spending they consider wasteful.

Although he is a solid conservative and loyal lieutenant of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Kasich has an independent streak. He has pushed hard for Pentagon reforms and cuts in corporate subsidies--often in the face of resistance from members of his own party.

Kasich, a 14-year House veteran who represents Columbus, Ohio, is divorced. But he is now engaged to be married in March to Karen Waldbillig, a public-relations consultant who has been his girlfriend for seven years. Kasich is the son of a mailman and grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Ohio State University in 1974 and won a seat in the Ohio state Senate four years later at age 26. He came to Congress in 1983, after he unseated a Democratic incumbent in an upset victory.

After Republicans took control of the House in 1994, he became chairman of the House Budget Committee, a post that thrust him into the leadership of the GOP's effort to transform the balance of power between Washington and the states while eliminating the deficit by 2002. He now returns to that task convinced that this time around, Clinton is going to have to take the lead.

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Question: You worked hard in the last Congress to get a balanced budget enacted, and it didn't happen. What are the prospects now?

Answer: I started this quest back in 1989, when I wrote my own budget and got a handful of votes. In fact, one guy once said that you could fit all the people who ever voted for Kasich's budget in a telephone booth . . . . In '95 and in '96, I think the House Budget Committee was successful in doing one thing: That is, we have permanently stamped the idea of the need to balance the budget in America on the federal government of the United States . . . . Now this may be, in a way, like an old jalopy that misfires here and there. We will ultimately get it done. And when the president of the United States comes out after the election and says his top priority is balancing the budget, to me, that's it. Now it's a matter of detail.

As to whether the administration really wants to have the courage to make the structural changes [needed to balance the budget] is yet to be decided. You have to prepare for the giant wave that's going to hit the people in the country over the course of the next decade plus. It's the wave of the baby boom. The number of people getting benefits is going to be very close to the number of people who are paying for them . . . . I just don't know what [Clinton is] willing to do. They're going to have to be the leaders in this.

Janet Hook covers Congress for The Times.

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