Nickles Finds His Niche

Posted March 7, 2003 at 6:16pm

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) has always craved the political spotlight, and he’s spent much of his 22-year career with designs on becoming his party’s leader in the chamber.

But Nickles hit a ceiling in the Whip job, where he served six years as an uncomfortable second-in-command to then-GOP leader Trent Lott (Miss.).

“Being a Whip was never Don’s cup of tea,” said one GOP Senator. “It was a step to something else. He’s a policy wonk.”

Now, as the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Nickles is finally about to take center stage in shepherding President Bush’s $2.2 trillion budget through the chamber. It’s a job that seems to play to his strengths.

“In the Whip job, he was kind of rudderless. … There wasn’t much for him to do,” said one senior GOP aide. “But now on Budget he has a job to do. This may be a dream job for him.”

Despite the potential for glory, it’s not going to be an easy task. Nickles faces a high-profile struggle to pass Bush’s budget blueprint through a Congress consumed with fears of rising deficits and an impending war with Iraq.

Nickles must now find the support among his 51 colleagues — which he never found in his quest to be Republican leader — in order to make sure Bush’s nearly $700 billion tax-cut package and other domestic priorities make it through his committee (possibly this week) and the Senate floor later this month.

“The biggest pressure is just to get a budget. That’s going to take all of his political skills,” noted moderate Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

Nickles agreed in a recent interview that his task is a daunting one and not without the potential for serious political pitfalls.

“It’s not going to be pretty or fun, because we’re starting out with the fact that whatever we end up with is going to have a big deficit. And nobody wants to vote for a budget with a big deficit,” said Nickles. “It’s heavy lifting, but in the end, it’s what we’ve got to do.”

Nickles’ job has been made much easier, say many Republicans, because of the Democrats’ inability to pass a budget resolution on the floor last year.

“What we learned from the Democrats is that if you don’t have a budget, you end up with a half-baked loaf,” said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Indeed, Republicans of all stripes point to the lack of a fiscal 2003 budget resolution as the cause of the problems that plagued the fiscal 2003 appropriations bills and therefore the government’s inability to move forward on a number of policy initiatives. Funding for this year was not enacted until the middle of February 2003 — nearly six months after the statutory deadline for passage.

Nickles is actively using that issue to press his colleagues to support the budget resolution no matter what. During last week’s regular policy lunch, Nickles urged his fellow Republicans to wait until the Finance Committee takes up the president’s tax cut before they voice their opposition or try to reduce it’s impact on the deficit.

“We don’t write the [president’s] growth package in the committee. We just set the parameter,” Nickles said.

It’s an argument that so far appears to be working on most GOP lawmakers.

“I think they recognize that no matter who is chairman this year, if it’s a reasonable resolution, we’ve got to move it,” said one GOP Senator.

Nickles also appears to be relying on that sentiment to help him cut back on federal spending on domestic programs, a Bush imperative. And he acknowledged that his colleagues are going to be disappointed by the reduction in pork projects.

“People are going to have to be more responsible in many areas,” he said. “We grew federal spending a lot in the prosperous years, and maybe we got addicted to spending a lot.”

Senate GOP leaders made Nickles’ job easier by giving him a heavily conservative Budget Committee membership to work with. Both Republicans and Democrats say the committee markup will be a slam-dunk for Nickles, no matter what budget plan he puts forth.

But Nickles’ reluctance to compromise and almost rigid adherence to conservative principles could still spell trouble for him when the bill hits the Senate floor.

Nickles’ predecessor at Budget, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), had the advantage of working well with GOP moderates, because he often voted with them on key issues. That gave him the leverage he needed with them to push through Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001.

Nickles has a reputation for being somewhat “clumsy” when he’s trying to get his way politically, said one Republican aide.

“If Nickles wanted to do something, he was a bull in a china shop,” the aide said of Nickles’ days as Whip. “He’s more or less, ‘take it or leave it.’”

That political clumsiness was on display in December 2002, when Nickles ratcheted up the pressure on his political nemesis, Lott, in the middle of a media firestorm over remarks Lott made at the 100th birthday party of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

One Republican Senator said Nickles effectively killed any chance he had of succeeding Lott as leader when he became the first GOP Senator to imply that the Mississippian might be a liability for the party as a whole. That move, said the Senator, angered many of Nickles’ colleagues, who up until that point had been loudly defending the embattled leader or demurring on the issue.

Still, Nickles kicked off the barrage of internal criticism that eventually led to Lott’s resignation and his replacement by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) — a well-liked Member who nevertheless has very little experience guiding legislation on the Senate floor.

That inexpert move combined with his lack of consultation with many moderates and Democrats in crafting this year’s budget resolution highlight the troubles Nickles faces on the road to passage.

“On the floor, it’s going to be a lift. He’s got to produce,” said one Republican colleague. “There are going to be some tough amendments, and he may lose some. And that’s going to make him look bad.”

Nickles acknowledged that he’s going to have a difficult time beating back Democratic amendments that take money from Bush’s tax cut and target it for popular government programs such as education, health care and homeland security.

“It’s only happened since I’ve been here, and I’m sure it’ll happen again,” said Nickles.

Democrats already appear to be drawing the battle lines against Nickles’ proposed budget, which is expected to closely mirror the president’s package.

“If he adopts the president’s proposal or anything close to it, it’s an utterly reckless course for the country,” said Budget ranking member Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Conrad said Democrats would likely pursue a strategy of offering amendments in the hopes of drawing moderate Republican votes on key issues.

It’s for that reason that Nickles hopes Republicans will dig in and support his budget regardless of the merits of Democratic proposals.

“We have to be prepared to produce it by Republican votes,” agreed Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who’s a senior member of the Budget panel.