The Week Ahead: Spending Debates Take Center Stage

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The high turnout, and probable approval, by Iraqis of their draft constitution over the weekend was welcome news for the Bush administration. "We're makings progress toward peace," Bush said on Sunday. Despite that success, the week will likely be full of stories depicting either GOP "division" or "disarray." Washington is abuzz with rumors that an indictment could come as soon as this week in the CIA leak case. Both Karl Rove, the president's top political advisor, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, could face charges. Bill Frist, the top Republican in the Senate, remains under investigation for a stock sale that that has raised suspicions of insider trading, while a prosecutor in Texas continues to go after Tom DeLay, who was forced to leave his post as the No. 2 Republican in the House after being indicated on money-laundering charges in a campaign-finance case. And only 38% of Americans now approve of President Bush's job performance, according to a Pew poll released last week, the lowest number of his presidency.

After taking a week off, Congress returns to work, with GOP members divided with President Bush on some issues and among themselves on others. Following Hurricane Katrina, the federal government offered more than $60 billion to the Gulf Coast, and Bush gave a speech last month in which he laid out what sounded like billions more in spending for that area. But GOP fiscal conservatives, long unhappy about the increasing levels of federal spending over the last several years, have instead seized the upper hand, insisting that the high spending on Katrina means the government needs to cut back everywhere else. "What people are saying is that our spending is getting out of hand," said House Republican Jack Kingston, who represents an area of southeastern Georgia. Congress already approved around $35 billion in cuts for programs like Medicaid and farm subsidies earlier this year, but House Republicans will this week explore raising that amount to $50 billion. They are also considering budget cuts of 1%, 2% or 5% that would affect programs throughout the federal government, drawing the concern of GOP moderates in the House and Senate, as well as Democrats. Many of the Democratic operatives who successfully organized against Bush's Social Security personal accounts plan earlier this year are now organizing events and sending reporters endless e-mails to oppose the spending cuts.

Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress, worried about wasteful spending, will continue their debate with the Bush administration over how to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Sen. Tom Coburn has asked Bush to appoint a CFO to monitor Katrina spending, Sen. Judd Gregg continues to call for a separate government agency to oversee Gulf Coast reconstruction and Sen. Chuck Grassley wants to create special Medicaid funding for Katrina victims. The administration has declined to support any of these proposals.

And of course, the most divisive issue, the Harriet Miers nomination, now enters its third week. Manny Miranda, a conservative activist and former GOP Senate aide, predicts more conservative groups will declare their opposition to her this week. But in the Senate, which will ultimately decide the nomination's fate, Miers will have a couple of opportunities to build support for herself. After a series of meetings two weeks ago that left many GOP senators underwhelmed, Miers will be back on Capitol Hill this week. The nominee is also expected to return a 12-page questionnaire this week that the Senate gave her last week, which included questions on her views on "judicial activism," cases she's worked on constitutional issues and whether she was asked or made promises to people on how she would vote on the Court before her nomination. Both Bush and Texas Senator John Cornyn will hold events with former Texas Supreme Court justices who will announce their support for Miers. And while Democrats have mostly been content to watch the Republican intramural fight, Senators Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein will meet with the nominee on Monday. Feinstein's impressions will be particularly important, as she is the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee and will closely examine Miers' views on abortion.

While Miers and Rove get most of the attention, a number of other issues are on the agenda in Washington this week:

  • Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of Education, will on Monday kick off her 19-member commission to examine higher education. Spellings, who was one of the leading administration officials behindthe No Child Left Behind initiative that focused on elementary and middle school students, has often talked about how both the cost and performance of American colleges need closer examination.

  • Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff will testify in front of a Senate committee Tuesday on immigration reform. The issue has divided Republicans, with Bush, John McCain and many business groups pushing for a program that puts immigrants into a guest worker program that would allow them to stay in the country, while many conservatives feel any provision on immigration must first focus on keeping out illegal immigrants.

  • Democrats in both the Senate and House will use one of the issues that is driving down Bush's poll ratings, high gas prices, to call for America to become more energy independent.

  • House Republicans will vote on one issue they almost always agree on: limiting lawsuits. The House is scheduled to vote on bills that limit legal liability for gun manufacturers and restaurants, who are worried about lawsuits by people who say they have become obese through eating fatty foods at their establishments.
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