The Magazine

Uncompassionate Conservatives

Call them heartless and frugal--they'll be flattered.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In the good old days when Republicans ruled Congress, their instructions for President Bush were: no vetoes, especially of spending bills. Republican leaders--House speaker Denny Hastert, for one--made it clear a Bush veto would cause ill will on Capitol Hill. So over a six-year period the president vetoed exactly one bill. And it was a bipartisan bid to increase funding for embryonic stem cell research. Meanwhile, spending increased, the number of pork barrel expenditures known as earmarks skyrocketed, and Republicans lost their reputation as skinflints. "We lost our brand," says a Republican official.

They want it back. And they are willing to be pilloried by Democrats as pitiless, cruel, unfeeling, callous, uncaring, coldhearted, and Scrooge-like to get it. That's how important it is to Republicans to be seen again as politicians who can be counted on to restrain or, better yet, slash government spending, even in the case of popular programs.

"It would be refreshing to be accused of being heartless and frugal, rather than getting in a bidding war on spending with the Democrats like we have lately," says Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. Ryan is one of the architects of the strategy to restore the image of Republicans as true fiscal conservatives.

Instead of signing spending bills, Republicans now want Bush to veto them with abandon. "We want to encourage and empower him to put the ink cartridge back in his veto pen," says Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members. "They're anxious for a fight," a White House official adds, "and the president is willing."

What looms now is a budget war much like the one in 1995 between House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Clinton. Only this time it's between a Democratic Congress and a Republican president.

Bush is prepared to veto at least 11 of the 12 appropriations bills that are expected to reach the White House by late summer. House Democrats have allocated $23 billion more for these bills than the president requested, thus providing a justification for the vetoes. The twelfth is the defense appropriation, which Democrats have set at slightly less than Bush asked for. But he may veto it too.

A veto can be overridden by two-thirds of the House and Senate, but that margin will be difficult to reach. The flip side is that one house of Congress can sustain a veto if one-third or more vote to do so.

In the House, that means 146 votes can sustain a veto. And last week, Hensarling announced that 147 House Republicans had signed a petition promising to uphold Bush vetoes of spending measures. "We intend to continue to use all means within our power to highlight the Democrats' empty promises of fiscal responsibility," Hensarling said.

House Republican leader John Boehner has successfully pursued one of those means to embarrass Democrats on spending. He noisily tied the House in procedural knots for days after Rep. David Obey, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, proposed to hide earmarks until the end of the budget process.

This, too, reverses a Republican practice. When they held Congress, Republicans escalated the number of earmarks, regarding them as "preservation tools" in helping incumbents win elections. In the 2006 election, however, the heavy use of earmarks backfired. Earmarks became a symbol for Republican misrule of Congress.

Bush has never been known as a spending hawk. But aides now say he was "frustrated" at times by the insistence of congressional Republicans that he shy away from vetoes. They concede, however, that he willingly signed a farm bill in 2002, perhaps the most egregious of spending bills in his first term. The excuse was 2002 was an election year.

Nor is the president a small government conservative with all the stinginess the name implies. On the contrary, he calls himself a compassionate conservative and has defended social spending programs aimed at the poor. Also, his creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit appalled some conservatives.

Bush and congressional Republicans learned a painful lesson from the 2006 election: Excessive spending made them politically vulnerable. Now they are unified in turning the tables on Democrats and attacking them as big spenders. The Democratic budget has "given us an ability to recast the differences between the parties again," said a House Republican leader.

Credit for Bush's emergence as a hardliner is shared by two White House officials, chief of staff Josh Bolten and budget chief Rob Portman, a former Republican House member. Bolten was Portman's predecessor in the budget post, one that usually leads to a strong preference for limits on spending and austere budgets.