Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the prematurely white-haired leader of the House conservative caucus, set the stage for a tense week for the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue when he declared Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that to offset the cost of Katrina relief, “We've got to talk about big ticket items.” He said the nation “simply cannot break the bank of the federal budget that is currently running about an $8 trillion national debt, about $26,000 per family.” While House Republican leaders do not necessarily disagree with Pence, they have been publicly supportive of the White House. Pence’s official biography says he is “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” and the interplay of those last two priorities will be in sharp relief this week. House Republican aides said Sunday that leaders would look for ways to satisfy the conservatives of the Republican Study Committee, which Pence chairs.
“Leadership will have to be receptive,” said an aide to a House GOP leader. This aide said that the “conservatives were extremely hesitant about the initial jackpot, and they are even more worried about another” installment of Katrina spending. So what to do? Pence picked up the suggestion by several conservative commentators of forswearing the 6,000 pork projects in the highway bill passed this summer. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has suggested individual lawmakers offer to give up their own projects, known as earmarks. Pence also said he thinks the house “ought to take a really hard look at delaying implementation of the new prescription drug entitlement” for Medicare recipients.
One of the House leadership aides was extremely skeptical of the idea. “How do you stop a freight train?” But another top aide said it would be discussed, showing just how direly the fiscal situation is regarded in the Republican conference.
Also this week, as John Roberts heads toward confirmation as chief justice, the president plans to launch consultations with senators over his second pick for the high court, this one for the seat of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Republican officials familiar with White House plans said Bush plans to move swiftly and that he will name a conservative – “more in the mold of Roberts than O’Connor,” as one official put it. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a confirmation vote on Roberts this week. The nomination is to go to the Senate floor. Aides from both parties predicted the judge would get 70 to 80 votes, since many Democrats have calculated they will be in a stronger position to oppose a more conservative future nominee if they do not mount a futile drive against Roberts.
Bush returns to Mississippi and Louisiana on Tuesday, and on Thursday travels to the Ronald Reagan Building to deliver what his staff is billing as a new speech about the war on terror. Oh, and remember Social Security? Many Republicans on Capitol Hill believe that Katrina diminished the already slim chances that a significant bill will pass this year. But on Wednesday, he will invite still cameras into the Roosevelt Room to show him meeting with the President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security. Ironically, that divisive issue will give the president momentary respite in a week of friendly fire.