Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert is an old wrestler, and last Thursday night he used a classic move of his sport by quickly reversing positions. On behalf of the Republican leadership, Hastert went before his colleagues to embrace essentially the same package of spending that two weeks earlier he had scourged conservative House members for proposing. The change was a matter of necessity rather than choice.

 It was required to quell the first really serious split in House Republican ranks since the GOP took control of the chamber a decade ago. But the rancor was not limited to Capitol Hill. As House Republicans convened their closed-door conference at 7 p.m. Thursday, 1,000 conservatives were in a foul mood eight blocks away at a black-tie dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of National Review magazine. They were outraged by the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, viewing it less as an aberration by President Bush than a last straw.

 In that climate, it was a bare minimum for Republican leaders to back away from their scandalous browbeating two weeks ago of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) for proposing Operation Offset. So, Hastert echoed the RSC's plans to offset massive Hurricane Katrina spending with reduced spending elsewhere. The question will be how serious the leadership is in stuffing these offsets down the throats of free-spending senior Republicans who hold positions of power in the House.

 RSC members approached Thursday night's meeting fearing another mindless performance by party leaders. At a Sept. 21 closed-door conference, Republican leaders made clear they would not tolerate criticism of their spending. Rep. Mike Pence, the RSC chairman, said not a word. He had been battered personally the night before by Hastert and other GOP leaders.

 Consequently, what happened Thursday was a most pleasant surprise to rank-and-file members. Hastert's plan, presented by Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, would increase cuts in mandatory spending from $35 billion to "at least" $50 billion, offset disaster spending on a dollar-for-dollar basis, press recisions of existing spending, and eliminate "duplicative, wasteful and/or unnecessary" programs. It was about what Pence and his colleagues proposed two weeks earlier. What's more, Hastert is pushing the first mid-session amendment of the budget in 28 years.

Robert Novak

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

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