Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Chabot has federal spending in cross hairs

By Derrick DePledge ddepledge@gns.gannett.com
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Sue Kelly caught the headline in the New York Post that morning, and she was steaming.

        No, not “Lies, All Lies: Husband Slams "DWI' Cop's Story,” about a drunken police officer who plowed his minivan into a family at a traffic light. The other one, next to the smiling picture of talk show host Rosie O'Donnell: “Rosie Gal Pal Pregnant.”

        “There is no moral outrage,” the New York Republican told other conservatives over breakfast in the Rayburn building. “No sense of embarrassment among our newspapers that print these things.”

        The tabloid was celebrating an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sending the horrible message to children that such behavior is acceptable, Mrs. Kelly said.

        On most weeks when Congress is in session, the Conservative Opportunity Society meets to trade strategy and talk over the issues of the day.

        Newt Gingrich started the gathering — part social, definitely political — back when conservatives had trouble being heard. Now, with Re publicans in control of the House, lawmakers like Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, see the get-togethers as a sounding board for ideas that later will thread their way into debates.

        This week the topic was welfare reform and how to pitch President Bush's goal of spending $300 million next year to promote marriage. The guest speaker was conservative culture czar William Bennett, who grinned when Mrs. Kelly held up a copy of the tabloid in disgust.

        “Let's just reform welfare,” he deadpanned. “Let's not try to reform the media.”

The art of the caucus

        The two major parties define politics in Congress. On the big occasions, the crucial votes, it is remarkable how much Republicans and Democrats enforce discipline on their diverse and combative troops.

        But in the day-to-day lives of lawmakers, much of the interesting work happens within factions and alliances that share interests.

        Wine and steel, the Great Lakes and surfing each have caucuses. There is a Northeast-Midwest caucus and a Taiwan caucus. Black and Hispanic lawmakers have caucuses.

        Conservative Democrats bond as Blue Dogs. Moderate Republicans have a lunch bunch.

        Each cluster has a set of issues or a list of demands. Lawmakers often belong to one or more of the groups to enlarge their presence in a chamber that often sways on the strength of personal relationships.

        Mr. Chabot, a lawyer from Westwood, is among the conservatives who in 1994 helped Republicans capture the House from Democrats for the first time in 40 years. This crop of lawmakers is fiery and less enamored of the business-as-usual attitudes that kept Republicans in the minority for so long.

        Although Mr. Chabot by temperament is not a revolutionary, the congressman adheres closely to the limited government, free-market principles of Ronald Reagan and expects other Republicans to do the same.

        He's a regular at the Conservative Opportunity Society and the Republican Study Committee — lawmakers who represent the more conservative wing of the party.

        He is usually at the center of debates on abortion and other social issues.

        And he has been willing, at times, to vote against bills that contain money for local projects to make a larger point about what he views as excessive federal spending.

        Some lawmakers, including many conservatives, measure their effectiveness by how much federal money or attention they can direct toward their congressional districts. Mr. Chabot has been an advocate for numerous local projects, but does not see his role as a funnel for Cincinnati.

        Mocked as “Congressman No” by some Democrats back home, Mr. Chabot said he weighs local projects on their merits.

        He has supported federal money for the University of Cincinnati Medical Sciences Building, flood control along Mill Creek and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

        He has opposed federal money for light rail and a $100 million guarantee for the city's empowerment zone.

        Contrary to his archconservative image, the congressman has worked with Democrats on issues such as victims' rights and preventing international child abduction.

        “I don't support local projects just because it's local,” Mr. Chabot said. “I do believe it's my job to help the community, but I'm very concerned about the direction of Congress when it comes to spending.”

        The irony is that many of Mr. Chabot's struggles continue to be with his own political party. Republicans rule the House and the White House, and only so much spending can be blamed on Democrats in the Senate.

        Instead of setting traps for the opposition, much of Mr. Chabot's and other conservatives' behind-the-scenes work seems to dwell on keeping Republicans ideologically honest.

        “The war is not over,” the congressman said. “I'm not totally satisfied. My principal concern continues to be out-of-control spending.”

        Winning or losing can depend on denying your foes ammunition.

        Mr. Bennett considers $300 million for marriage promotion an easy sale. Most studies have shown that children usually perform better in healthy, two-parent families.

        “I think it comes from deep in the human heart,” Mr. Bennett tells Mr. Chabot and other conservatives at breakfast. “But, so far, we haven't made this a part of our social policy.”

        Marriage, in this discussion, is assumed to be between a man and a woman. What about gay marriage? What about the movement to recognize couples — gay and straight — who live together as domestic partners?

        Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, thinks liberals are up to something. He said he has seen plans to give health benefits to city workers in Columbus who live with gay or lesbian partners by also covering grandchildren or disabled or elderly adults.

        “The left is getting smarter,” he said.

        Mr. Bennett, a talk-show warrior who has seen even the best arguments wilt under poor strategy, quickly warns against getting into the domestic-partner quicksand.

        “I think the best place to be in this fight is right there for healthy marriage,” he said.

        One in an occasional series: Ever wonder what it's really like to be a congressman? The Enquirer is following Steve Chabot as the Cincinnati Republican navigates Washington, the United Nations and a re-election campaign.


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