Wednesday, December 21, 2005 Why we need moderates

The Moderates' Integrity Test
Gary Bass
November 16, 2005

Gary Bass is the founder and executive director of OMB Watch , a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., promoting government accountability and citizen participation in public policy decisions.

The upcoming vote in the House over "mandatory spending" cuts is being hailed as one of the most important votes this year—as it rightly should be. The vote will indicate as much about the direction our country is headed as it will about Congress' spending priorities. And the outcome is likely to be shaped by the courage and integrity of moderate Republicans.

Until recently, with the Bush administration commanding high public approval ratings, conservatives quietly complained as Congress accelerated spending for defense, homeland security, and new entitlements. Behind closed doors, however, they grew bitter that deep cuts to domestic spending had not been accomplished, despite Republican control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. At the same time, conservatives pursued reckless tax cuts, largely benefiting corporate elites and wealthy individuals. Their "have your cake and eat it too" fiscal policies have exacerbated a ballooning deficit and created an unsustainable long-term structural problem in the federal budget.

Now, with Bush's popularity tanking and the House leadership in disarray, conservatives have stood up and taken the gloves off. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the House Republican Study Committee, a group of roughly 100 Republican conservatives, launched "Operation Offset"—a potpourri of proposals to de-fund the federal government by slashing budgets or completely removing programs.

This conservative assault came at a time when many believed Congress, faced with glaring domestic need, would suspend yet another set of new tax cuts, particularly those to the wealthy, in order to retain revenues and pay for Gulf Coast reconstruction. As public calls for an end to unrestrained tax and budget cuts increased, the moderate Republicans who hold real sway in Congress appeared poised to assert themselves.

These moderates certainly have public support. Various polls have repeatedly shown that the public believes hurricane recovery costs should be paid for by rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy. In one poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the Democracy Corps, 75 percent of respondents wanted planned tax cuts for those earning over $200,000 per year to be cancelled. The American people are clearly expressing their recognition of the current need for more government, not less.

It's not just polls where this message comes through loud and clear. In Colorado two weeks ago, the "starve the beast" coalition was soundly defeated by an alliance forged between a Republican governor and a Democratic House speaker. Fifty-three percent of Colorado voters supported Referendum C and agreed to give up $3.7 billion in automatic tax refunds over the next five years in order to ease strict limits on state spending on education, health care and transportation.

The voters in Colorado implicitly acknowledged the importance of government services and the need for an adequate revenue base to support these services. This notion of shared sacrifice, a long-standing American value, has been all but absent from this Congress and the current administration. This absence is particularly glaring when considering the realities of our “tax relief” policies: households earning more than $1 million will receive $103,000 in tax break windfalls this year, according to the Tax Policy Center; and, starting Jan. 1, they will get an extra $20,000 from two more tax breaks that benefit only the top 4 percent of wage-earners. Incredibly, the House and Senate are now debating an additional $70 billion tax cut that primarily benefits the wealthy, leaving many to wonder how Congress and the president can be so woefully out of touch with the desires of the American people.

Last Thursday, moderates in the House and Senate stepped up and exercised the power newly at their command. In the House, the vote on harsh spending cuts collapsed as the Republican leadership could not rally enough votes to pass the bill. This spending bill was one of two under the reconciliation process, making $35 billion in mandatory spending cuts, while the other cuts $70 billion in taxes. Despite purporting to be a deficit reduction tool, the reconciliation package will increase deficits by at least $35 billion.

It was assumed that, in light of Hurricane Katrina, Congress might choose to suspend these reconciliation bills. Yet when Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted and forced to give up his leadership post, the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) saw an opportunity and leaped.

Instead of canceling reconciliation, RSC members decided to up the ante, calling for a 58 percent increase in spending cuts. At first it appeared that their plan was to enact spending cuts across the board, including for defense and homeland security. But quickly the conservative agenda shifted even farther away from shared sacrifice: the cuts would target programs serving low- and moderate-income families, with about one-third of the spending cuts coming from poverty programs. The moderates were troubled by these cuts along with riders attached to the bill, including authorization of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—and their lack of support threatened the bill.

These conflicting pressures began to squeeze the options available to the House leadership team, and the action last week revealed the ugly inner workings of the lengths a desperate leadership will go to ram through misguided, unpopular policies. The GOP was willing to give up ANWR drilling to win moderate votes, but conservatives threatened to vote against a bill without ANWR drilling. Then the Republican leadership agreed—with a wink and a nod to conservatives—that ANWR drilling would be removed for now, but reinserted later in conference. But the moderates continued to withhold their support for the bill because of the cuts to Medicaid, student loans, food stamps and other low-income supports. With members anxious to return home for Veteran's Day, the Republican leadership gave up and withdrew the bill. Voting on the bill has been rescheduled for this Thursday.

In the Senate, a similar principled stand by a moderate Republican derailed efforts to pass more tax cuts for the wealthy—but an equally sneaky bait-and-switch may be in the works here as well. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, rejected extending the tax cuts on capital gains and stock dividends at a time when Congress is already enacting spending cuts affecting poor Americans. Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, accommodated Snowe’s concerns in order to move the tax cut bill out of committee, but the other Republicans reportedly went "ballistic" over dropping capital gains and dividends cuts. After postponing the markup a few days, it appears Grassley has executed a similar “wink and nod” maneuver with conservatives on the Finance Committee. The tax cut bill was approved yesterday without the capital gains and dividend cuts—but not so subtle assurances were given that they would be reinserted at a later time.

Fierce negotiations are underway in the House right now and enormous pressure is being applied to the moderates to cave. According to columnist Robert Novak, conservatives are "outraged" by the "coddling" of the moderates. "[W]istful Republicans [are] longing for the strong arm of suspended majority leader Tom DeLay." Conservatives have already made implicit threats of holding a vote for new House leadership in January or supporting more conservative Republicans against these moderates in the 2006 elections if spending cuts are not enacted this year.

With conservative Republicans increasingly advancing policies outside the mainstream, moderate Republicans are left with the burden of tempering the direction of future policy. It is clear that some combination of tax and spending cuts will continue to be pushed this year. The hope among those observing from the middle is that the moderates will stick with common sense and the will of the public and reject the radical minority's push to institute an ideological agenda of shrinking government.

Moderate Republicans in the House obviously have the power now to make an important statement about the immediate needs and proper priorities of the country by defeating the budget reconciliation bill this week. It remains to be seen, however, if they will have the integrity or the courage to stand up to their far-right colleagues.


Dick Cheney's Priorities
Alexandra Walker
December 20, 2005

It's good news for the rest of the world, but not for Americans. Dick Cheney is cutting short an overseas diplomatic mission to cast the tie-breaking vote in a Republican spending cuts bill. As readers well know , this bill accomplishes "savings" for the government by slashing funds for programs serving low-income Americans.

Today, the spokesman for the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities , one of the groups leading the fight for a moral budget, denounced Cheney's skewed priorities. Brad Woodhouse issued this statement:

It is an extraordinary testament to the skewed priorities of the Bush Administration and of the Republican leadership in Congress that the Vice President of the United States is breaking off a diplomatic mission abroad to be present to potentially break a tie vote on a bill that slashes health care for poor children and the elderly, that cuts child support enforcement and slashes student loans.

The bill faces a tight vote in the Senate in part because it contains more drastic cuts to Medicaid--which serves low-income and disabled Americans. Although the cuts to food stamps were dropped from the final version passed by the House over the weekend, it's still loaded with reductions to programs that are vital to the welfare of low-income families. This AP story offers a good overview of the problems with this bill:

Overall, the deficit reduction bill claimed savings of $39.7 billion over five years. That's just 2.5 percent of the $1.6 trillion in total red ink that congressional officials estimate will pile up during the same period. The slender results nonetheless pleased GOP conservatives.

The savings included $4.8 billion from Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. One provision would make it harder for beneficiaries to transfer assets to their children in order to qualify for government-paid nursing home care, which has raised the ire of the AARP, the powerful lobby for seniors.

Drug companies won a last-minute break against cuts to their Medicaid payments at the expense of beneficiaries, who face higher co-payments that advocates for the poor say will drive people out of the program. Regional health insurance companies, another powerful lobby, stopped a Senate bid to cut a subsidy fund designed to entice them into the Medicare market.

Moderate Republicans in the Senate also were angry over a last-minute deal to extend the 1996 welfare reform law. They complained it didn't provide enough child care help as more parents will have to meet work requirements to obtain benefits.

ECAP's Brad Woodhouse has taken to calling the Republicans pushing these cuts "Rolls Royce" Republicans. They support tax cuts that skew toward the wealthiest Americans while slashing funding for programs that help America's most vulnerable. This is a fight they cannot be allowed to win. Another group lobbying against this bill has issued a very specific action alert. The Coalition on Human Needs asks constituents of the following senators to call today:

While calls to all Senators are very important, it is urgently important that these Senators hear from their constituents: Chafee (RI), Coleman (MN), Collins (ME), DeWine (OH), Landrieu (LA), Nelson (NE), Smith (OR), Snowe (ME), Specter (PA)
Please use the toll-free number: 800-426-8073. Ask to be connected to your Senators, and tell them:

* Please vote NO on the budget reconciliation conference report (S. 1932). It hurts low-income children, families, the elderly and disabled. Do not allow these one-sided sacrifices to be inflicted on low-income Americans while Congress is preparing to give still more tax breaks to the rich.

(as a postscript..Chafee, Collins, DeWine, Landrieu, Jeffords, Snowe and Smith added their voices to Americans With Compassion.....Specter did not....And Dick Cheney was able to usurp power for the Executive Branch one more time. When will we wake up from this nightmare?)


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