Last week, House Speaker Dennis Hastert gathered Republican Party members for a "mandatory" conference meeting to discuss what to do about the $521 billion federal budget deficit, according to The Hill. Afterward, he said, "Nothing is sacred in this business. Everything is on the table."

Not exactly what a Republican representative running for re-election -- who needs to show his constituents he's bringing home the bacon -- wants to hear. But Republicans also know that Democrats won't miss many chances to remind voters that when Bill Clinton left the White House, the government enjoyed a surplus, not a deficit. Those words aren't exactly music to a GOP representative's ears, either.

So top administration officials, such as Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten, are talking about bringing back some form of the line-item veto, as The Hill noted. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional in 1998, but no matter. Several GOP lawmakers have introduced bills to amend the Constitution and give the president such authority. As one top White House aide told the newspaper, a line-item veto would be "an important tool to help keep spending under control."

As Republicans consider this idea, they should think about George W. Bush's efforts to control spending. In his State of the Union address, Bush urged Congress to make tax cuts permanent, pledged to spend $23 million for drug testing, said he intends to double federal
funding for abstinence programs, and announced a plan to put $300 million toward a prison re-entry initiative to help former inmates find jobs, temporary housing, and mentoring from faith-based groups. (No, Bush hasn't forgotten the religious right in this election year.)

Whatever you think of these ideas, it doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure out that the nation simply can't afford them right now. Presidents in such circumstances don't have the luxury of talking about nonessential programs they would like to spend money
on -- they're faced with tough choices about cutting funds from existing programs they need to pay for.

The issue of tax cuts came up on Meet the Press last week when Tim Russert reminded Bush that every wartime president since the Civil War has raised taxes, not cut them. Bush responded that the best way to boost the economy is to help someone find a job by
holding tax rates down. (Bush has proved that's not true; the country has lost 3 million jobs despite his three tax cuts.) Asked whether he would not pass any more cuts until the budget is balanced, Bush replied, "That's a hypothetical question which I can't answer to you because I don't know how strong the economy is going to be."

Bush may not know how strong the economy will be, but he does know that we can't afford more tax cuts. If he'd said "yes" to Russert's question, he'd essentially be ruling out tax cuts for the rest of his presidency. He has said his current budget plan would cut the deficit in half over the next five years. That means the budget won't be anywhere near balanced in 2008, when Bush hopes to be handing the nation's fiscal problems off to someone else.

The House Republicans' plan now, according to The Hill, is to have a budget resolution ready to go by March 15 and passed by both chambers of Congress a month later. Good luck. Such timing is optimistic in the best of circumstances, never mind during a contentious election year.

Republicans would be much better off challenging Bush's thinking on tax cuts. That's unlikely to happen, however, given that lawmakers don't like going up against their party's president in an election year. But if they focus on spending cuts, they're going to face opposition from lawmakers whose districts or states would be affected. So, in the end, Republicans will do little, if anything, to help ease the nation's budget deficit, even as they talk about how much they want to do so.

That's a shame.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.

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