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Budget debate now a fight for soul of GOP

Proposed spending cuts to help pay for Gulf Coast rebuilding is causing major tensions within the GOP.

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For House Republicans, loyalty to leaders and the mantra of fiscal discipline are articles of faith. But a debate over budget cuts to help offset the cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast has put those allegiances into open conflict. With the GOP's hierarchy in disarray, the dispute is becoming a fight for the party's soul.

This week will be critical. Facing a revolt from House conservatives, Speaker Dennis Hastert aims to cut at least $50 billion from spending plans for FY 2006, up from $34.7 billion agreed on earlier. But he must do it without the muscle of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, who is now fighting criminal indictments in Texas.

In the Senate, majority leader Bill Frist - facing ethical questions over a sale of stock - is struggling to reconcile conservative freshmen, who are demanding deeper cuts, and powerful committee chairmen, who are rejecting them.

Intraparty dispute

In a rare display of intraparty passions, the fight transformed the staid Senate floor into a rhetorical shooting gallery last week, as freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma took on one of the Senate's most powerful chairmen over the now-infamous "bridge to nowhere."

"We need to wake up.... No more low-priority projects in the face of half-trillion-dollar deficits. No more exorbitant bridges to nowhere," he said, referring to $453 million earmarked for two Alaskan bridges added to the highway bill by that state's senior senator, Ted Stevens. Senator Coburn proposed redirecting those funds to repair bridges in Louisiana destroyed by hurricane Katrina.

In a response laced with shouts, Senator Stevens denounced the Coburn amendment as a threat to state sovereignty. "This amendment is an offense to me.... It is a threat to every person in my state," he said. The amendment failed 15-82.

While embarrassing to Senate Republicans, the floor fight delighted many in the party's fiscal conservative base. "The Coburn amendment was an incredibly important thing. Instead of gentlemen deferring to each other, we saw a humiliating vote on a colleague's efforts to loot the general public," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax group.

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