Meet John Kasich, A `Root Canal' Republican For The '90 S

Representative John R. Kasich can barely sit still. Despite an exhausting day of meetings, the 42-year-old Ohio Republican is bubbling over with grand budget-cutting schemes. None will win him any friends. "I have some ideas in mind that will drive my colleagues crazy," he says.

As incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, Kasich gets to do the deficit dirty work. A self-described "supply-sider and deficit hawk," he aims to build a coalition for a '90s version of old-time GOP "root canal" fiscal policy. The problem: He'll have to work with Republicans who have shown more ardor for cutting taxes than spending.

Some of his "crazy" ideas include limiting Medicare benefits for well-off seniors; privatizing the air traffic control system, which could hike airfares; and abolishing the Commerce Dept., which may kill export-incentive programs. The brash Kasich ducks the details for now, but he has backed all three cuts--and more--in the past.

NASTY TAX BATTLE. Republicans have been making runs at these programs since the Reagan years. They've survived because all have powerful constituencies. This time, House Republicans have made an ironclad pledge to come up with a plan by spring to cut taxes, beef up the military, chop domestic spending, and balance the budget early in the next century. That translates into some $1 trillion in spending reductions. "We're talking about agonizingly tough choices," says Martha Phillips, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a private group that lobbies for deficit reduction.

The toughest fight may involve trimming the $150 billion Medicare program, which eats up 10% of federal spending. Incoming House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) opposes any efforts to cut Medicare, unless it's part of health-care reform. But Kasich says that curbing Medicare and other benefits for the wealthy "is a principle we're examining." His sole exception: Social Security.

The tax struggle will also get nasty. Kasich buys into the $200 billion in tax breaks promised by the Contract With America, but he parts company with Republican lawmakers who want even larger tax cuts. He favors "dynamic" estimating, which predicts that some tax cuts will generate higher revenue by boosting economic activity. Still, Kasich insists that many tax breaks are revenue losers and must be paid for with spending cuts. For example, a proposed $500-per-child credit for working families would cost the Treasury $107 billion over five years.

POLITICAL COVER. For now, Kasich has divided his GOP committee members into task forces that "will go through the government piece by piece" seeking spending cuts. Kasich figures it will be March before a blueprint is put together. That means President Clinton, who submits his budget first, may feel compelled to meet demands for spending and tax reductions--or risk having the GOP declare his budget dead on arrival.

Kasich has two things working in favor of serious spending cuts. One is a proposed constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget, which Congress expects to pass in January. Some Republicans would like to see the amendment require a balanced budget in five years; Kasich wants seven years. Either way, it gives political cover for tough cuts. He also has a potent ally in his close friend, incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), though even he may not want to go as far as his budget chairman.

The bottom line: If Kasich can hold some big feet to the fire, he may succeed where other budget-cutters have failed.

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