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Call It a Timeout for Fiscal Disciplinarian

Budget: Conservative Republicans protest one of their own as Tom DeLay insists on $1.3 billion for Houston cleanup. It's a sign of more struggles to come.

July 27, 2001|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — At a time when President Bush is urging members of Congress to curb their appetite for big spending on hometown projects, a surprising figure is bellying up to the bar: Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), one of the House's staunchest fiscal conservatives.

DeLay, who as House Majority Whip also is one of Congress' premier power brokers, managed to add to a budget bill $1.3 billion in emergency spending for disaster assistance, saying the extra money is needed to help his hometown of Houston clean up after the damage caused by Tropical Storm Allison in June.

The maneuver raised the ire of other GOP conservatives, who usually count DeLay as a leader on fiscal discipline. Several of them registered their protest Thursday by breaking with DeLay and voting to block the overall budget bill from coming to the House floor.

Ironically, Democrats came to DeLay's rescue and provided the votes needed to bring up the bill--even as they accused him of hypocrisy because he voted for cutting disaster aid in a different bill earlier this year.

DeLay's push for the storm relief dramatizes just how hard it will be for Bush to maintain fiscal discipline as he heads into several months of wrangling with Congress over spending. Bush's effort to maintain a budget surplus, which has dipped of late, will come under constant strain from lawmakers--including the president's most reliable allies--who face political pressures to funnel money to their home states.

Bush signaled his awareness of these pressures, saying Thursday, "There's going to be some struggles over the budget, no question about it, as appropriators perhaps try to bust the budget."

But, referring to himself, he added: "They're going to find . . . somebody's going to hang tough on the budget."

DeLay added the Houston disaster aid to a bill that would provide $113 billion for an array of domestic policy agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The measure is one of 13 appropriation bills Congress must pass to keep the government running for the next fiscal year.

The Bush administration has been crusading against Congress' past practices of spending heavily on home-state projects and of using accounting techniques that exempt some funding from the budget caps the lawmakers pledge to maintain.

DeLay has been a powerful voice in the clamor for fiscal discipline and against the accounting gimmicks. But his constituents have made clear they expect him to deliver increased federal aid to flood-ravaged Houston.

With that in mind, he recently won approval of the $1.3 billion in aid for Houston as an emergency expense, even though the administration did not request it. Conservative Republicans objected that as an emergency expense the spending would not have to be offset by cuts in other areas. They threatened to vote against bringing the overall bill to the floor, forcing GOP leaders to negotiate deep into the night Wednesday to figure out how to get around their opposition.

During Thursday's House debate on the legislation, DeLay said he sympathized with conservatives' concerns. But he argued that Houston's problems amounted to a legitimate emergency.

"I've opposed--and will continue opposing--attempts to manipulate the process by lumping wasteful spending in with the legitimate expenses that we incur by responding to actual emergencies," he said. "That's not the case here. [Houston] just got hit with several feet of water in one day. . . . That's catastrophic damage."

Some Democrats complained that GOP leaders such as DeLay had not been so sympathetic when more aid had been sought for earthquake victims in El Salvador.

"The message here is: Get in a bus and get to Texas," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). "If there's any problem, it will get taken care of in Texas."

Conservative Republicans argued that, by not offsetting the $1.3-billion request, Congress moved closer to overspending the budget surplus--and dipping into Social Security and Medicare trust funds to make up the difference, as once was routine.

"In recent years, we've been spending too much money," said Rep. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). "We are in grave danger that, within a few short years, we could be back to raiding Medicare and Social Security."

In the end, 26 Republicans--mostly conservatives--voted against the procedural resolution needed to bring the bill to the House floor. But Democrats more than made up for those defections: 38 of them, many of them Texans or members of the Appropriations Committee, voted for the resolution.

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