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In Congress, resolve falters on budget cuts

Critics say GOP is abandoning its revolutionary ideals to hold onto

There was $3 million tucked in for commercial reindeer ranchers in Alaska. Salt Lake City got $2.2 million to build sewers and other infrastructure for the 2002 Winter Olympics. And don't forget the $3.7 million for redoing the dormitory for House pages here in Washington.

Such "emergency" expenditures demonstrate the resurgent appetite of many in Congress for spending, including pork-barrel projects. Airports and roads, the military, and farming are all areas gaining from the recent surge in congressional generosity.

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A hefty budget surplus is erasing some of the rationale for fiscal austerity, but congressional observers see another force at work. The renewed willingness to heap up spending bills, they say, signals that the Republicans' revolutionary ideals are giving way to a more bread-and-butter goal: holding onto power.

Indeed, critics, including some GOP lawmakers, say their party is compromising the aims of fiscal discipline championed during its 1994 takeover of Congress, in an effort to keep control after the 2000 election.

"There was a genuine effort [in the mid-1990s] to do things differently ... to halt this burgeoning government," says Jill Lancelot of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington. "But the longer any party stays in power, business as usual continues. How do you stay in power? By supporting the feeding frenzy back home."

Yet the freer spending - coupled with a new distaste for the idea of term limits in office and in committee chairmanships - has drawbacks. Together, they are exacerbating generational and ideological splits between "old bulls" and young Class of '94 mavericks within the GOP. Moreover, the largess could hamper GOP plans for a tax cut, a centerpiece of the Republican agenda.

"[It's] a short-term tactical decision that may have a short-term plus but a long-term negative," says Rep. Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina.

Above all, critics oppose breaking or circumventing budget limits agreed upon in 1997 - thus dipping into the surplus - and rolling back term limits set in 1995 on committee leaders.

By several measures, Congress's willingness to spend is on the rise. Antispending sentiment by GOP lawmakers peaked in 1995 - and has weakened ever since, says the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) in Alexandria, Va. "Members of Congress are sponsoring more costly legislation, voting for more costly legislation" and voting for smaller spending cuts, says NTU spokesman Pete Sepp.

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Budget outlays for discretionary programs - the part of government spending that Congress allocates - were flat or fell in the mid-1990s but have risen ever since. Outlays for fiscal 1999 hit $584 billion, a sharp rise over the $534 billion for fiscal 1996, government figures show.

"It's a combination of the politics of surplus and the politics of good times that makes for a disastrous recipe in terms of holding the line on spending," says Representative Sanford, a young fiscal conservative elected in 1994 who has pushed for budget cuts.

Yet as a robust economy fuels the political temptation to spend, Congress is chafing under tight budget caps set by law in 1997. The caps envision cuts of $6 billion in fiscal 2000 discretionary spending compared with this year's levels. But with a planned $18 billion increase for defense, cuts required for domestic programs could exceed $25 billion.

"The tighter the caps get, the more likely members of Congress will seek ways around them, sort of like water going around a dam," says Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, which lobbies to eliminate the national debt.

As a result, lawmakers are trying to circumvent the caps, mainly by designating spending as "emergency" to shift it off budget. Billions of dollars for the military, farmers, aviation, and the oil and steel industries have been excluded from the caps in recent bills. Now, budget hawks fear a repeat of last year, when Congress passed an end-of-session bill with $21 billion in extra funding.

"They should be honest and raise the caps," rather than "abuse the emergency-spending loophole," says Mr. Bixby.

WHILE easing up fiscally, the GOP majority is also taking a softer line on term limits. The goal may be to encourage incumbents to stay on and help secure Republican dominance in the Senate and House. Three House GOP members have renounced or considered renouncing term-limit pledges.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has also evoked protests from younger Republican members by announcing that committee chairmen limited to six-year terms under a 1995 rule can switch to chair other House panels.

Mr. Hastert's decision will harm the House GOP by causing "calcification of power at the top," Sanford says.

Sanford credits his own term-limits pledge with freeing him to be more outspoken on the House floor. But he says fewer new members now share the views of the Class of '94 rebels. "Unfortunately, '94 turned out to be an anomaly," he says.

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