Tension between OMB director, lawmaker could impact budget

If Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, decides to run for governor of Indiana in 2004, he might have a powerful ally-incoming Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who happens to be a native Hoosier.

It's not necessarily that Stevens thinks Daniels would make a fine governor. It's just that Stevens already has said he'd like it if Daniels would get out of his hair and go home.

Over the past two years, the two men have had a stormy relationship, as the short-fused Stevens has sought to protect his turf in the face of efforts by the blunt-talking Daniels to curb congressional spending. Now that the Republicans are poised to take back control of the Senate, the intramural GOP feud between Stevens and Daniels could lead to some serious budgetary problems. House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., is also no great fan of Daniels, but Young is much more soft-spoken than the fiery and stubborn Stevens.

During November 13 interviews with National Journal, both Stevens and Daniels were upbeat about their future relations. "We're in the majority now," Stevens said. "It's our duty to get along."

He said that because Senate Republicans will have the majority, "we'll have the opportunity for more input on decisions" at the White House. Stevens even added that he'd "be happy to assist Mitch Daniels if he decides to run for governor of Indiana." And Daniels said of Stevens, "I admire him a great deal. He deserves to be with the legends of the Senate.... You always know where you stand with the senator."

Things started out fine between Daniels and Stevens. In fact, the Appropriations chairman was thrilled when President Bush selected his OMB director in early 2001. During Daniels's Senate confirmation hearing, Stevens gushed, "I'm delighted that you have the experience in the government that you have, and that you have the experience in business that you have. We need both right now."

But by the end of 2001, after a series of disagreements over federal spending, the two were barely speaking. Daniels had prompted animosity on Capitol Hill by telling the Wall Street Journal editorial page that the motto of members of Congress is, " `Don't just stand there. Spend something.' This is the only way they feel relevant." And Stevens angrily responded in NJ that the OMB director should "go back to Indiana."

This summer, appropriators accused Daniels of trying to kill a deal on a supplemental spending package for defense and homeland security. After Daniels declared that the package's price tag-some $30.4 billion-was too high, Stevens and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., stridently attacked the budget director on the Senate floor.

"We have such a blind mind-set down there [at the OMB] about top lines that we are unwilling to look at reality," Stevens said. "It is time we had an understanding of what the role of the Congress is with regard to appropriations.... The president is ill-served by what is going on, in my opinion."

The Stevens-Daniels relationship may not matter if some Indiana Republicans get their way. During the state GOP convention in June, Daniels was the most-talked-about possible candidate for governor, according to The Indianapolis Star, which reported that some 200 convention-goers wore "Mitch" buttons. In an August letter to The Star, former state GOP Chairman Gordon K. Durnil concluded, "Hoosiers ... can only pray that Mitch will decide to run." For his part, Daniels has said he told party leaders that he would think about running for governor as long as they left him alone, for now, to do his job.

When the new Congress convenes, Daniels will have to be able to negotiate with Stevens and Byrd, who works closely with Stevens no matter which party holds the majority. Stevens, meanwhile, will be walking a fine line between the wishes of his own committee and those of new Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla. (who is much more conservative than outgoing Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M.), the Senate Republican Conference at large, House Republicans, and the White House.

Relations between Daniels and Stevens are unlikely to improve, according to Stanley Collender, managing director of the federal budget consulting group at Fleishman-Hillard, because Daniels will continue to play the bad guy in negotiations with appropriators. "He's going to be telling Byrd or Stevens `no' constantly," Collender predicted. "It would be good if they can make an improvement [in their dealings], but I don't think they can."

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