GOP conservatives in the House have an almost robotic loyalty to the White House and to stern leaders such as Tom DeLay. How, then, to explain Mike Pence of Indiana? As a freshman in 2001, he fought President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which he considered a Big Government boondoggle -- and was badly defeated. In his second term, he tried to scuttle Bush's $720 billion Medicare prescription benefit -- and lost by a whisker. This year, Pence, horrified by exploding federal spending, led a backbench rebellion against a blank check for the costs of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
But something surprising happened: He won. House leaders agreed to seek billions in spending cuts just days after DeLay insisted most of the fat had already been sweated out of the budget.
Pence, soft-spoken and prematurely gray at 46, is an unlikely rebel. An evangelical Christian and former radio talk-show host, he likes to recite Bill Cosby routines. But he has a bully pulpit for his jeremiads against runaway spending: leadership of the Republican Study Committee, a bloc of GOP budget hawks that includes more than 100 of the 231 House Republicans and is increasingly inclined to challenge its own leadership and a weakened President. While Pence has voted with Bush 95% of the time, it's the other 5% that sticks in his craw. "I've had reason to doubt [Bush's] commitment to limited government and fiscal discipline," says Pence, adding that "Hurricane Katrina laid bare a fiscal course...that was contrary to the hopes of millions of Americans."
That kind of criticism has many in the business community quietly applauding the backlash over big deficits. "Less government spending tends to be good for the long-term stability of the economy, which is good for business," says David K. Rehr, outgoing president of the National Beer Wholesalers Assn. But some corporate reps are concerned about Pence's emphasis on hot-button issues such as restricting immigration and battling Hollywood sex, which pit him against business interests. Indeed, cultural concerns drove Pence & Co. to block the leadership's hand-picked choice to replace DeLay, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), an economic conservative seen as soft on social issues. That power play led many to speculate that Pence eventually hopes to follow the path of his political hero, Newt Gingrich, to the Speakership of the House.
The grandson of an Irish immigrant bus driver, Pence was working at an Indianapolis law firm when he decided to become a foot soldier in Gingrich's conservative revolution. After failed bids for Congress in 1988 and 1990, he decided that "God had other plans for my life." He became host of a syndicated talk-radio show on 18 stations until his winning 2000 race.
As a lawmaker, he has ruffled powerful feathers by repeatedly opposing GOP proposals to expand the reach of Uncle Sam. But he hasn't been a consistent foe of federal largesse. He backed a 2002 farm bill that steered benefits to his agricultural district. "I have voted for my share of spending," he concedes. In penance, he has offered up some home-state highway projects to help offset hurricane cleanup spending. He's even produced a five-year, $370 billion "hit list" that targets Bush pet projects like NASA'S return-to-the-moon initiative.
The White House isn't ready to give up its rockets, but Pence's rebels appear to have turned the tide. The Administration is emphasizing the need to produce a lean budget and House leaders are demanding that balky committee chairmen make cuts in their own fiefdoms. And Pence, the new power broker, will be in the middle of the dealmaking. If he wields his clout deftly, many colleagues believe that the next Newt could be a self-effacing Hoosier as comfortable quoting Scripture as the Contract With America.
By Eamon Javers in Washington