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Hurricanes turn Capitol's politics topsy-turvy

Republican Lawmakers Call For Spending Cuts In Light of Hurrican Relief Cos
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.,  and other GOP senators Thursday call for cuts in spending to offset Hurricane Katrina costs.Win McNamee / Getty Images
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Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are wreaking havoc with politics as usual in Washington.

The storms have blown away conventional wisdom in the nation's capitol, with some politicians behaving in ways that seem to defy political common sense.

The conventional wisdom in recent weeks said Katrina had weakened President Bush and might well begin a new era of permanently higher domestic spending. But Bush also scored a major victory this week with the Judiciary Committee approval of Judge John Roberts to become chief justice of the United States.

Yet there is evidence that some Republicans feel free to challenge Bush.  An increasingly bold insurgency of fiscal hawks in Bush's own party, led in part by his old nemesis Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., demanded Thursday that the president and Congress cut spending to offset the cost to the treasury of hurricane relief.

Six GOP senators, including McCain, called for a five percent cut in all non-defense, non-entitlement spending — such as Medicare and Social Security —to free up money for hurricane relief.

Pressure on Bush to cut outlays
And they made clear that they want Bush to lead the way in advocating spending cuts and that he must do more than he's done so far.

“This group is calling on the president to join us, to be fiscally responsible, to show some leadership on specific proposals for offsets,” said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

“We’re giving him some cover,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Ensign, Coburn and their GOP allies called for a two-year delay in the start of Bush’s Medicare prescription drug benefit which is set to launch next year. Under their proposal, benefits would go only to the low-income elderly for 2006 and 2007.

“The opportunity is now,” McCain said.

“People are beginning to realize we can not sustain this level of spending, particularly in light of these emergencies.”

“We have a Category Five fiscal disaster with Social Security and Medicare and just like Katrina, it’s predicted, it’s inevitable, and in the case of these man-made disasters, we even know the date,” Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., told reporters.

“If we fail to address these problems now when we can address them in a reasonable way, we’re going to end up like we’re doing with Katrina: over-reacting to a crisis because we didn’t address the problem when we could have,” he said.

Why not a veto?
Some GOP members made it clear they wish Bush would do what he has never done in his five years as president: veto a spending bill.

Meanwhile, McCain has now taken on the role of Foe of Tax Increases: “If we were to address the issue of taxes, it would almost be a cop out,” McCain told reporters. “What we need to do is cut spending and waste before we ask the American people to pay more in taxes.”

Bush also took heat Thursday from Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the Democrats’ top target in the 2006 elections.

Santorum blamed Bush’s aides (and thus Bush ultimately) for bungling the Social Security redesign campaign to enact private accounts.

Santorum said he still “absolutely” supports the idea of private accounts for younger workers as part of Social Security, a contrarian view in Congress these days. But much beleaguered in his re-election bid, Santorum went in front of TV cameras to push his bill to guarantee Social Security benefits to workers born before 1950.

Blame for bungled campaign
“I’ve been very concerned from the very beginning that the administration led with the issue of Social Security immediately after the election, but then took a three-month hiatus before they launched the effort,” he said. “In the meantime these who were opposed … did not miss a beat and immediately began running a full-fledged campaign.”

Yet on a day when GOP senators such as DeMint, Santorum, and McCain were challenging Bush, he also scored a landmark victory on chief justice nominee John Roberts.

If Katrina had utterly changed the political landscape and weakened Bush, then why was Roberts approved by a bipartisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday morning, with “aye” votes coming from one of Bush’s harshest critics, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont and from potential 2008 presidential contender Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc.?

Feingold explained that he had "talked to a number of people who know John Roberts or to people who know people who know John Roberts." And those who know him, Feingold said, don't see Roberts "as a narrow ideologue who wants to impose his views on the country."

Asked for her reaction Thursday after Feingold cast his vote for Roberts, Nan Aron, head of the liberal advocacy group Alliance for Justice, said she was “totally perplexed and shocked.”

As for the oft-heard argument that a “yes” vote on Roberts would somehow help a Democrat senator cast a more credible “no” vote on the next Bush Supreme court nominee, Aron said, “I’ve never understood that argument — never have, never will.”

According to, a group of left-leaning Democrats, Feingold got grass-roots party members excited when he became the first 2008 presidential hopeful to call for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2006.

'Suicidal' move by Feingold?
“But today, Feingold threw it all away,” said in a statement. “Senator Feingold, you are worse than naive — you are a suicidal idiot.”

Neither party is speaking with a unified message right now. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid opposed Roberts while Leahy, Feingold, and probably a dozen other Democrats will support him when the full Senate votes Thursday.

But at the same time there is uneasiness in conservative GOP ranks that Bush’s next Supreme Court nominee won’t be conservative enough and that Bush will allow Democrats to delay the confirmation until next year.

One top Senate Republican staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said if Bush didn’t announce his nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by Monday or Tuesday, it was likely the Democrats could prevent a pre-Thanksgiving vote and then stall until 2006.

“If the Democrats want to stop us, they can stop us,” the staffer said.

Conservative fear of next nominee
Bush was also getting discreet pressure on his next nominee from the Right. “My fear is that we would get somebody that is very malleable, in order to get through the (confirmation) process easily,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. before casting his vote for Roberts in the Judiciary Committee.

Brownback said the Democrats will seek to filibuster the next nomination in any event. “You could nominate John Roberts’s absolute twin and he would be filibustered,” he predicted.

Brownback, who is said to have presidential ambitions in 2008, has urged Bush’s aides to not be swayed by Democrats’ filibuster threats.

“I told them this is what the whole 2004 election was about,” the Kansan said. “As one of them noted to me, for the president to nominate somebody who would be a legislator instead of a judge would be the equivalent of what his dad did in breaking his ‘no new taxes’ promise in 1991. That is how central this issue was in the last election…. People know who went door-to-door in Ohio for the president and who won Iowa for the first time in 20 years. It was predominantly social conservatives and people who are deeply concerned about the direction the Supreme Court is taking the country.”

Despite the storms turning much of the Capitol’s politics topsy-turvy, Brownback was advising Bush to heed one of the fixed rules of politics: don’t forget those whom you owe.