WASHINGTON – Out of power, Republicans appear to be retreating to familiar old ground. They're becoming deficit hawks again.
GOP lawmakers didn't seem to mind enjoying the fruits of government largesse for the past eight years while one of their own was in the White House. Now they're struggling to regain footing at a time of economic rout, a record $1.2 trillion budget deficit and an incoming Democratic president claiming a mandate for change.
It might not be the best time for running against more government spending. But that hasn't stopped Republicans from casting themselves as protectors of the public purse, striving for relevancy as Congress tackles President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus legislation.
"Congress cannot keep writing checks and simply pass IOUs to our children and grandchildren," says Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Asks House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: "How much debt are we going to pile on future generations?"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gets more specific: "We would like, on the spending side, obviously, to avoid funding things like a mob museums or water slides." Mob museums?
Las Vegas' effort to include in the stimulus legislation federal money to set up a museum to showcase Nevada's colorful and storied past in organized crime has suddenly become the cited example of wasteful spending for some Republicans, including McConnell.
Perhaps they hope the proposed project in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., can divert attention from the "Bridge to Nowhere," an Alaska project that was initially a Republican initiative and which became the target of Democratic scorn.
Obama has pledged that the economic aid legislation be free of such pork-barrel and "earmark" spending; Republicans have said they agree.
GOP lawmakers also are seeking to change the mix in Obama's proposal to include more tax breaks. But they know they can only go so far in trying to throw up obstacles to the new president.
"We all understand the need to do something — and to do it quickly," McConnell said late last week. "We intend to work with the new president ... and try and get this right."
Republicans "seem to be on a funny tightrope on which they're trying to enunciate a Republican position," said Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. "They're saying, `Yes it is a crisis', and `yes, a lot has to be done. But it shouldn't be too much. And it shouldn't be imprudent.' They seem to be stuck with platitudes and truisms."
Greenstein said the distinguishing traits now are "the intensity of the crisis" and Obama's ecumenical outreach to experts and political leaders in both parties.
Obama said he is seeking good ideas from all quarters for what will be the biggest public spending program since World War II, one he hopes will save or create 3 million jobs.
"I want this to work. This is not an intellectual exercise. And there's no pride of authorship," Obama said.
For Republicans, finding a politically sustainable position that balances the need for action with calls for fiscal discipline is a difficult balancing act.
"It's hard to oppose fixing the economy right now," said Stanley Collender, a former congressional budget analyst now with Qorvis Communications, a Washington consulting firm. Collender said the depth of the crisis makes it difficult for fiscal conservatives in either party "to say that deficits are something that should be addressed right now."
"If you say that, you kind of lose credibility," Collender said.
Republicans also are mindful they can overplay their hand, as they did in late 1995 when the government was shut down in a budget confrontation between House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and President Bill Clinton. Republicans expected voters to blame Clinton and his Democrats for the shutdown. They didn't. They blamed Gingrich's GOP troops and telegraphed that sentiment in 1996 when Clinton was handily re-elected and Democrats increased their numbers in Congress.
"It is somewhat disingenuous on the part of Republicans to be totally concerned about the debt and the deficit at this point because they were there when the debt went up," said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
When Bush took office in 2001, the government had a projected $5.6 trillion, 10-year surplus.
Obama has suggested his plan will come close to $800 billion, with roughly $300 billion in tax cuts for middle-income individuals and businesses. That itself was partly a concession to Republicans calling for more tax relief — and drew predictable complaints from liberal Democrats who want fewer tax cuts and more in public works projects.
"Even though Obama is very popular with his mandate for change, now we're figuring out just what the `change' is — in a separated system where Congress has the right to stand up and say what it wants, as does the minority party," said Thurber. "So it's messy."
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