Funny money

Will the Republicans be left to fight among themselves over the way to pay for Katrina?

Published September 21, 2005 1:58PM (EDT)

So the federal government needs $200 billion to cover the costs of Hurricane Katrina. No problem, says a group of conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives. As the New York Times reports this morning, they've got a plan to whack $500 billion out of the federal budget over the next 10 years.

Here's what you do. You delay the start of the Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors, saving $31 billion. You carve out $25 billion worth of pork from the transportation bill. You bail on NASA's fabulously ill-timed $104 billion proposal to put a man on the moon again. You finally kill off the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and pick up $4 billion in the process. You cut for funding political conventions and for the Presidential Election Campaign Fund ($600 million), and you start charging federal employees for parking ($1.5 billion). And then you find an additional $334 billion to cut from somewhere else.

If that sounds a little draconian for your tastes, there's always the Bush administration's alternative plan, which is ... which is ... well, what? The president last week ruled out raising taxes to pay for Katrina relief, but his administration seems to be getting wobbly on that vow. In a speech yesterday, Treasury Secretary John Snow said Katrina "will push to the back burner some issues that otherwise would have been on the agenda now," including the repeal of the estate tax and Bush's plan to make his tax cuts permanent. What about budget cuts? At the White House yesterday, Scott McClellan spoke of the "importance of finding spending cuts," but he dismissed as "speculative" a question about the president's ability to find $200 billion that could be cut.

The Republicans may well find themselves in an intraparty war over how to pay for Katrina. Tom DeLay has already declared that it's unacceptable to even think about delaying action on taxes, and he doesn't sound particularly interested in giving up his district's share of the transportation bill pork. White House Budget Director Josh Bolten tried to get Republican senators on board with the president yesterday, but John McCain walked out of their meeting scoffing. "Very entertaining," he told the Washington Post. "I haven't heard any specifics from the administration." The Post says that Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to worry that Bush is a liability for them: Moderate Republican voters seem to be fleeing from the president over Iraq, and fiscal conservatives could bolt if he dumps money on the Gulf Coast without finding a way to pay for it first. While Rick Santorum has trailed his Democratic challenger from the beginning of his 2006 reelection campaign, he went so far yesterday as to say that Bush's troubles may be bringing him down further.

Can the Democrats seize on Republican infighting by coming through with a clear Katrina plan of their own? You'd think so, but their response so far has been scattershot. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid says he won't consider spending cuts until the president agrees to roll back some of his tax cuts. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she she'd be willing to give up on some of the transportation bill pork she won for San Francisco. John Kerry gave his big speech on Katrina at Brown University Monday, but the subject of paying for the reconstruction somehow never came up.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Harry Reid Nancy Pelosi D-calif. Tom Delay