WASHINGTON – Four dissident Republican senators have stalled the budget process, refusing to go along with Republican leadership on a non-binding, fiscal year 2005 $2.4 trillion budget blueprint, and insisting that Congress take a more fiscally responsible approach.
They say they are not only staying true to their long-held political beliefs, but also those of the Republican Party, suggesting such GOP icons as Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater also would have insisted on fiscal responsibility.
"I am a proud Republican. I'm a Barry Goldwater Republican. I revere Ronald Reagan and his party of limited government. Sadly, that party is no longer. The current version of the Republican Party is engaged in an outrageous spending binge and they're being steadied and encouraged by the Democrats," Sen. John McCain of Arizona said last month at the Progressive Policy Institute (search).
"It used to be understood that no one ever voted for a Democrat to be a champion of fiscal responsibility. But at this point, is there a party to take up that worthy cause?" McCain said.
McCain, who described America's fiscal future as "bleak" because of a projected deficit of $521 billion, is joined by Republican Senators Lincoln Chafee (search) of Rhode Island, and Olympia Snowe (search) and Susan Collins (search) of Maine in holding out support for next year's spending plan.
"Senator Snowe steadfastly believes that we need to bring discipline back to the budget process, and that means bringing discipline back to both sides of the ledger: spending and taxes," Snowe Spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier told Foxnews.com.
Resistance by the four Republicans leaves the Senate GOP two votes short of passing the measure. House and Senate GOP leaders warn that their unwillingness to support the bill will force the Republican Party and the American people to pay the price.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., and his lieutenants may also be exposed to charges that they are incapable of governing effectively if they cannot bring the four in line.
The renegades insist that the budget include a five-year pay-as-you-go provision rather than the one-year provision currently in the legislation. Under pay-as-you-go (search), if any future tax cut is to be approved, spending would also have to be limited so that there would be no net impact on the deficit.
Snowe is a major supporter of tax cuts, but not "at the expense of the future health of our nation," Ferrier said, referring to the large deficits that have been racked up in the past few years.
The pay-as-you-go requirement would seriously limit the tax-cutting agenda of both the president and congressional Republicans. The provision could be ignored if 60 of the 100 senators voted to do so, but with such a close margin in the 51-48-1 Senate, Republicans have not been able to muster a simple majority to pass the overall bill, much less the supermajority needed to bypass the pay-as-you-go measure.
Senate Republican leadership offices did not return calls for comment about the effort to sway moderates or whether a budget vote would be coming soon. Privately, other Senate aides said no vote is imminent because the Republican leadership does not yet have the numbers to prevail.
President Bush has made cutting taxes a hallmark of his administration, believing that lower taxes, not balanced budgets, are a better way to stimulate the economy. The refusal of four senators from his party to support this initiative may signify a weakening of his influence on Capitol Hill that coincides with a drop in poll numbers, say some political observers.
"Surveys have shown recently that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans in reducing the deficit. They've lost credibility in terms of fighting waste and reducing the deficit," Citizens Against Government Waste (search) President Tom Schatz told Foxnews.com.
"I think from the political standpoint it gives Democrats another argument: 'Why should the Republicans be in charge? They can't even pass a budget, and they have the White House and Congress,'" Schatz said.
Bush has met privately with some senators in an effort to push the budget forward. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said last month that the president will "urge the Senate to pass that budget because it will make sure that we don't raise taxes, and that we do meet our nation's priorities. And so we will continue to work closely with Congress. But we urge the Senate to pass it."
Ferrier, Snowe's spokeswoman, said the president's lower poll numbers have nothing to do with the senator's position. While Snowe continues to strongly back tax cuts, she could not accept them without greater fiscal responsibility.
"She greatly respects the president, and certainly understands their perspective. This is a reflection of her historical stand," Ferrier said.
A bigger issue for the GOP might be that many voters now believe Democrats would be better suited to write up and pass budgets. GOP leaders pledged to wrap up the budget process by April 15 to show how well they could govern.
"We're seeing more and more of a do-nothing Senate, even though the priorities of the country are clear," said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., who added that Daschle is still hopeful that a budget will go through.
Feinberg said jobs and the economy, along with the budget, are of greatest concern to Americans.
"What the Republican leadership has failed to do is act on these priorities, and I think they're going to be held accountable for that in November."
Though the budget sets targets for appropriations bills, even without a budget outline, appropriations bills can be passed. But having a budget in place forces the Senate to follow special procedures to expedite tax and appropriations legislation. Without a budget, the Senate would also have to go through the politically charged ordeal of raising the debt ceiling. If a budget were passed, that would be unnecessary.
On May 19, the House narrowly passed its budget by a vote of 216 to 213. After the vote, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search), R-Illinois, said, “To those who don’t like this budget, I say this is the most fiscally responsible budget conference report we have considered on the House floor since I have been in the Congress. ... We want to keep the tax cuts in place — to keep more people working, to keep the economy growing, to keep America strong, and to win this war against terror. That is why we need to pass this budget."