WASHINGTON — For the last seven months, Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) has been the House GOP's most vocal Cassandra.
As chairman of a key House appropriations subcommittee, he repeatedly warned his party's conservative leaders they could not maintain strict budget limits and still boost defense spending and cut taxes. And he cautioned that they could not provoke a budget showdown with President Clinton without risking a political debacle.
Now, as lawmakers return to the Capitol after their summer recess and Republicans gear up to pass the last few appropriations bills needed to operate the government for the next year, Porter is facing a doomsayer's ultimate nightmare: He is reluctantly having to take a hand in the process that may make his own predictions come true.
"Sure, it's frustrating," the 64-year-old congressman said recently, recalling the many times he has tried to steer the House Republican leadership away from the fiscal precipice it is nearing after months of denial. "But I have to do my job."
Porter is an unlikely player in this brewing political drama. A moderate who has represented the Chicago area's tony North Shore suburbs for 19 years, he has won a reputation as a serious-minded, task-oriented lawmaker unusually adept at hammering out compromises.
For years, his subcommittee's annual appropriations bills for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services--known as Labor-H, in Washington parlance--were a model of legislative craftsmanship and balance. Neither liberals nor conservatives wanted to risk upsetting them.
But this year, the GOP's own budget strategy changed all that.
Straining to juggle conflicting goals, House leaders have pushed through sharp increases in defense spending and massive tax reductions, deliberately putting off any of the spending cuts needed to pay for these proposals. At their request, Porter has held back his bill until the very last.
Now, with the 12 other appropriations bills either passed or awaiting imminent floor action and the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year approaching, Porter's giant Labor-H bill is promising to become the major battleground for Republicans and Democrats in the budget war.
Porter has proposed allotting $88.5 billion to the Labor and HHS departments--a $1-billion cut from the current year's spending level. This proposed reduction has already sparked Clinton's ire. Even with Porter's cut, however, the bill would be a whopping $15 billion over the maximum that House GOP leaders can accept and stay within Congress' overall spending limits.
Porter's own plan would be controversial enough. The proposal, which he unveiled in July, boosts money for health research, after-school programs and college scholarships but cuts job training, safety regulation and a slew of smaller programs.
It also squelches the president's widely touted proposal to provide funds that could be used solely for hiring 100,000 teachers. Clinton has threatened to veto any such move.
What will happen to Porter's effort still is uncertain. Strategists say it probably will be embraced by the full House Appropriations Committee but is unlikely to come to the floor unless GOP leaders can somehow find $15 billion worth of cuts elsewhere in order to offset it.
Most likely, his plan will serve as a marker, both for negotiations with the White House and for any stopgap spending resolutions that Congress may pass in the interim to avoid forcing a shutdown of the government, as happened twice during the winter of 1995-96.
Those shutdowns set off a voter backlash against the GOP that conservatives and moderates want to avoid--a factor that gives Clinton added clout in any bargaining.
The gentlemanly Porter isn't exactly saying "I told you so" to the House GOP leadership. But there's little doubt that his own patience is wearing thin.
Had House leaders raised the congressional spending caps slightly and then striven to stay within them, "we'd be in a far stronger position in our negotiations with the president," he asserts. But then again, that's just what Porter was saying last spring.