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A Freshman Heads Home To Defend G.O.P. Agenda

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Grabill, Ind.

Rep. Mark E. Souder, R-Ind., returned to his hometown last week prepared to make a few enemies.

With nearly 100 people gathered in the Grabill Missionary Fellowship Hall here, Mr. Souder convened a "town meeting" and delivered his message--for the sixth time that day: As the House makes massive cuts in federal programs in an effort to balance the federal budget by 2002, everyone will feel the pain.

"That's why I say, 'If I don't make everyone in this room mad, I'm not doing my job,'" he said.

Like other House Republicans, Mr. Souder headed home this month for the first major recess after his party's first 100 days in power to celebrate--or defend--their efforts to chip away at the federal budget.

For the first-year representative from northeastern Indiana's predominantly rural, conservative 4th District, that meant meeting with constituents in Avilla, Albion, Ligonier, Rome City, and Kendallville before the meeting in Grabill, where he grew up and still owns an interest in the family's old-time general store.

Over all, Mr. Souder had used the recess to hold 31 such town meetings in the district--where Amish buggies are just as likely to cruise the streets as Ford trucks.

An evangelical Christian who calls himself a "grassroots" conservative, Mr. Souder is the vice president of a 73-member House G.O.P. freshman class that has vowed to reduce the influence of the federal government and place greater power in local hands.

Downsizing

As a member of the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities and the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Mr. Souder is in a particularly good position to figure in the debate over federal education programs.

He has already weighed in on one popular program. Republicans have taken a great deal of criticism for a plan to replace school-meals programs with a block grant, but Mr. Souder wanted to go further. He suggested proposing an annual 2 percent increase for school lunches rather than the 4.5 percent that G.O.P. leaders say their bill calls for. (See Education Week, 3/29/95.)

In Indiana, Mr. Souder said the federal government can usefully play a "bully pulpit" role and that it should probably continue funding research and administering college aid. But, he said, House Republicans will engage in a three-part strategy to limit the federal role in education--reducing spending on education programs, reducing the number of programs, and moving to eliminate the Education Department.

In several towns, he found support for that philosophy.

"Typically, if it's based out of Washington, it's a bad idea," said one Kendallville man who declined to give his name.

Residents also expressed deep suspicions of the Clinton Administration's Goals 2000: Educate America Act, a concern that Mr. Souder shares.

"There would be less concern if the federal government said everybody needs to learn to read and write, everybody needs to learn basic math. But no, they wouldn't leave it at that," Mr. Souder said in Grabill. "Behind this is a lot of social engineering. They want to attack the family structure, attack capitalism."

Defending Programs

However, like many of his colleagues, Mr. Souder found that some constituents' distrust of government is outweighed by their interest in particular programs.

Bill Creigh, a roofing contractor and a member of the Rome City town council, repeatedly questioned why the federal government would provide millions of dollars in foreign aid and simultaneously cut domestic programs.

"I'll spend my money on education, but you're going to cut it," Mr. Creigh said. "You're cutting stuff that means a lot to us."

Doris Goins, the director of the Kendallville library, asked for more federal spending on libraries, arguing that "our particular state has no interest in libraries and we've been fighting that for years."

But, Mr. Souder said, as federal funds become scarcer, library spending is likely to be reduced.

"If I have to cut [money for] handicapped kids or a fax machine for the library," he said, "I'm going to cut the fax machine for the library."

The Party Line

Mr. Souder has also proved himself to be unafraid to buck his party's leadership. He was one of two Republicans to vote against amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget. He said he opposed the decision to remove a provision requiring a three-fifths majority to increase taxes.

When sponsors of a family-privacy bill dropped language that would require written parental permission for students to participate in federal surveys--an item in House Republicans' "Contract With America"--he restored it with a floor amendment.

And when he objected in a G.O.P. conference to the leadership's unwillingness to call for a vote on efforts to bail out the Mexican economy, Mr. Souder said he produced 55 signatures and forced a conference vote, which he lost.

"That really pissed them off," he told constituents proudly.

"I liked him. He's not like some people who try and tell you something that pleases you," said Lee Reyes, 18, a senior at West Noble High School in Ligonier.

When the House begins work again next week, Mr. Souder acknowledges that he will probably contribute anew to divisions within his party as he turns his attention to the agenda of the freshman "family caucus."

Chaired by Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the caucus is closely aligned with the Washington-based Family Research Council, a conservative research and advocacy organization, and Mr. Souder said it will seek to enact legislation supporting "pro family" views on such topics as sex education, religion, and education reform.

Caucus members, Mr. Souder said, will fight to give these divisive issues prominence as the leadership seeks to concentrate on economic matters and the federal budget.

"I know a lot of you are concerned about social issues, and, frankly, I'm very afraid of where we're going. We did not deal with those much in the first 100 days," Mr. Souder told his Grabill audience. But "we're going to force votes on some of these things whether the Republican Party likes it or not."

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