WASHINGTON – Sacrifice, or at least talk of it, has suddenly become politically fashionable in the nation’s capital, thanks to the costly devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

President Bush is urging Americans to drive less and turn down their thermostats, and is even talking about spending cuts. Republicans in Congress are pondering across-the-board spending reductions and cutting some of the pork from already approved pork-laden legislation.

“We were elected to make hard choices, and we should make them,” said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. He added that he favors cutting discretionary spending by 1 percent to 2 percent and slashing many local pet political projects, two proposals that seem to be gathering more momentum in Congress.

How far the sacrifice will go no one knows, but the federal price tag for the two storms could easily top $100 billion and may go as high as $200 billion – a huge potential burden on taxpayers unless the expense is offset to some extent. So far, Congress has approved $70 billion in hurricane relief, but more is to come.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., chairman of the House Republican Conference, said he also favored 1 percent to 2 percent across-the-board cuts and whacking some of the pork in the recently passed transportation measure and other spending bills.

“I believe we need to go after spending in a dramatic way,” he said. “I think most members could be sold on a 1 to 2 percent across-the-board cut. It may need to be more than that.”

Each 1 percent cut in federal discretionary spending would save about $8 billion, and about half that much if defense and homeland security spending is excluded, according to Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at The Heritage Foundation. He said Congress could save far more money by simply slashing pork projects for local congressional districts.

The highway bill alone has $25 billion in such projects “earmarked” for specific districts, he said. If Congress were to impose a three-year moratorium on local-district spending in all legislation, Riedl said, it could save $100 billion, and go a long way toward paying for hurricane relief costs.

Some of the proposed cutbacks offered on Capitol Hill are highly controversial and may not have much of a chance. For example, conservative Republicans in the House have proposed a broad range of possible reductions, including delaying the prescription drug benefit under Medicare for a year. GOP leaders oppose changing the drug-benefit plan, which is scheduled to begin next year.

For Bush, sacrifice is something new. In his presidency, he has cut taxes significantly, raised spending for the war in Iraq and homeland security following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and done little to curb discretionary spending. He has yet to veto a bill.

The two storms, plus surging energy prices, have caused Bush to change his tune on fiscal matters. When a new spending bill to help pay for the costs of the hurricanes is introduced, the White House is expected to include spending cuts to offset these expenditures.

But Bush is not giving up on his tax cuts – and in fact, he wants to make them permanent, prompting many Democrats to say this shows he is not serious about reducing the budget deficit.

Because of the president’s refusal to touch tax cuts, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., ridicules the GOP’s new fiscal stance.

“These same individuals had no problem spending trillions of dollars in Iraq or on the Bush tax cuts when the deficits were mounting,” he said at a recent Democratic economic forum. “But now, in the wake of this disaster, when the federal government begins to help rebuild the lives and communities of Americans who have lost everything, they’ve found religion in fiscal discipline.”

Yet, on Capitol Hill even Democrats have joined the GOP in calling for offsetting some of the new spending with other spending reductions, particularly in local pork projects included in the highway bill.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., offered to give up $70 million of the $129 million in highway projects for her district to offset hurricane costs.

Kirk said his district north of Chicago received only $8 million in special projects, but he added, “I am totally open-minded” about giving up funds to offset hurricane relief spending.

Even the so-called “bridge to nowhere” could be on the chopping block. This span, included in the transportation bill by a powerful House Republican appropriator, Rep. Don Young of Alaska, would connect Ketchikan, Alaska, population 8,000, with nearby Gravina Island. The bridge, costing $233 million, would be longer than the Golden Gate Bridge and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge.

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After the extent of hurricane damage became clear and pressure began to build to eliminate spending for the bridge, Young told reporters those advocating such a thing could “kiss my ear.” This remark caused criticism of the project to mount and prompted a flood of letters to editors of newspapers in his district.

In a letter to the Anchorage Daily News, Jeff Sloss of Juneau wrote: “Hearing Young is a pain in the ear and to the heart and brain as well.”

Such a comment reflects an apparently growing sentiment for greater fiscal restraint in the wake of the heavy hurricane costs. Congress is expected to deal with budget reductions later this year as part of an omnibus budget package.

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Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., one of 32 members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a Democratic group favoring budget restraint, wrote a letter to Bush urging him to call an emergency bipartisan budget summit “to get our fiscal house in order.”

Tanner said he wants every aspect of federal spending and taxes to be on the table.

“There’s this political posturing with respect to sacrifice,” he said. “I am not interested in playing that game. I want to call on the president to lead. He’s the megaphone that we have to have to let the American people know how serious this deterioration of the nation’s balance sheet really is.”

Bush’s call for Americans to drive less, lower the thermostats in their homes as temperatures fall outside and use less energy drew some criticism. Democratic political consultant Mark Mellman said the poor bear a disproportionate burden in paying higher gasoline prices. He said the president should force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars.

“I think he is asking for sacrifice from the wrong people at the wrong time,” he said.

Other presidents have seen such voluntary appeals for energy conservation fail, including Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.



(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-01-05 1750EDT


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