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GOP Puts Its Mark on Congress and Deficit

November 30, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A full year of Republican dominance of government has left a legacy rich in conservative triumphs: cutting taxes, building a muscular defense, restricting abortion.

But the year has also brought an extraordinary expansion of government power and spending that showed Republicans were willing to deep-six their party's traditional commitment to fiscal conservatism and limited government.

The Republican-controlled Congress has passed the third tax cut in as many years, an enormous Pentagon budget, a costly experiment in nation-building in Iraq and a vast expansion of Medicare -- all at the request of President Bush. Their actions have left the federal budget swimming in the largest deficits in history.

As one lawmaker heard from a Republican friend, "Democrats are the party of 'tax and spend'; Republicans are the party of 'don't tax -- and spend.' " That is the ironic product of the first full year since 1954 that Republicans have controlled the White House and Congress.

Although the ideological message is mixed, Republicans have engineered significant changes in U.S. foreign, domestic and fiscal policy. The magnitude of change is surprising in light of the wafer-thin margins by which Bush was elected in 2000 and by which the GOP controls the House and Senate. Republicans have managed to do so in part by using extraordinary means to maintain party discipline -- and by being willing to spend taxpayer dollars freely to build their legislative coalitions.

"It shows what you can accomplish if you don't care about deficits," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.). "That's going to be the most lasting legacy of this Congress."

Congress is expected to reconvene briefly in early December to tie up loose ends and possibly pass a catch-all spending bill to finish the budget, but most of this year's legislative record has already been written.

When 2003 began, just how decisively Republicans would be able to reshape policy was an open question. It was clear that the House would continue to be a bastion of conservatism, especially as partisan firebrand Tom DeLay (R-Texas) ascended to House majority leader, the chamber's second-most-powerful post. Less certain was what could be accomplished in the Senate, where Republicans held 51 of the chamber's 100 seats and had a new majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who was considered less ideological than DeLay.

But on a variety of fronts, this Congress broke ground and steered policy in directions that would have been unthinkable under the Democrats.

To the delight of anti-tax conservatives, Congress by midyear had passed a $350-billion tax cut to stimulate the economy. That amount was less than Bush had sought, but much more than many thought possible at a time of growing deficits.

On social issues, Congress approved the first abortion restrictions in 30 years in a bill, signed by Bush, that banned a late-term procedure that doctors call "intact dilation and extraction" and opponents call "partial-birth abortion."

On the international front, Republicans rallied behind and financed Bush's doctrine of preemptive military action. Congress financed the war in Iraq and, despite reservations, put up almost $20 billion for rebuilding Iraq, the most ambitious foreign aid initiative since the Marshall Plan. The pro-business agenda thrived, as Congress cleared the way for Bush to limit overtime pay, relax certain clean-air requirements and increase logging in national forests. Congress almost passed -- and may do so early next year -- a bill bristling with tax breaks and subsidies for oil, gas and other energy industries.

Even in expanding the Medicare program, conservatives in Congress broke ground: The bill providing new prescription drug benefits also called for an unprecedented level of involvement by private health plans, a long-held and long-frustrated goal of free-market conservatives.

Many such major bills have passed by the narrowest of margins, with the help of heavy arm-twisting by Bush and Republican leaders who have tried to enforce strict party discipline.

In a display of political muscle, House Republican leaders kept the vote on Medicare open for almost three hours in order to win. Final versions of the energy bill and other major measures were negotiated with almost no Democratic input. Democrats were given little time to review such bills before they were brought to a vote: When Democrats protested at one committee meeting, the chairman called the police to break up the private strategy meeting.

Republicans said they had to rely on such tactics because Democrats had shown little interest in bipartisan cooperation. Democrats argue that the Republicans' hardball tactics were previewed during the 2000 Florida recount that gave Bush the presidency and the negative ads they ran in the 2002 Senate elections.

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