Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Mike Pence, a 46-year-old former radio talk show host from eastern Indiana serving his third term in Congress, is currently chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC). He has tried hard to cooperate with the regular House Republican leadership rather than confront it. So, he could not have been happy last Tuesday when he found himself in a closed-door autodafe, with GOP leaders as the inquisitors and Pence as the heretic.

 Pence and the RSC's heresy was to propose that massive federal outlays resulting from Hurricane Katrina be offset by reduced spending elsewhere. Specifically, they requested offsets to cut highway projects earmarked by individual House members, and a delay in implementing President Bush's new Medicare prescription drug subsidy. The negative reaction by the leadership was reflected when Pence, offered a seat at a later meeting, explained that he would be more comfortable standing because House Speaker Dennis Hastert had just tanned his hide.

 Neither President Bush nor congressional leaders will tolerate tampering with the drug subsidy, the president's least popular initiative among conservatives. While the White House would be happy to see some highway pork eliminated, the House leaders absolutely refused. At stake here is a basic disagreement over the philosophy of government within the Republican Party as it nears the end of its 11th year controlling the House of Representatives.

 Hastert believes it is not just the privilege but the duty of a House member to deliver federal projects to his constituents. Many younger conservatives could not disagree more, but most -- like Pence -- are loyal Republicans who are loath to criticize their leaders. An exception on the RSC to such reticence is 42-year-old Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who like Pence ran a conservative think tank before entering Congress.

 Self-limited to three terms ending next year, Flake has acted as though there is no tomorrow from his first day in the House in January 2001. He, along with Pence, was one of only 25 Republicans to vote against the drug subsidy in 2003. Flake believes big government is addictive. "The leadership hooks the new members when they come into Congress," Flake told me, "and they stay hooked."

 Pence was far more discreet in Tuesday's session with his party's leadership, but that did not save him a going over, led by two powerful committee chairmen: Rep. Don Young (Transportation Committee) and Rep. Bill Thomas (Ways and Means Committee). The harshest treatment of Pence, however, was administered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who does not like his rank-and-file members depicting a free-spending Republican Party.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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