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Meet the New Bosses: John Spratt

Today we begin what will be a semi-regular Capitol Briefing feature on the "New Bosses" of Capitol Hill. The bosses are the Democratic chairmen charged with doing the gritty work of creating the legislation. We'll try to reveal a little about each of the chairmen, their critical issues, and the politics behind their motives -- both at home and on the Hill.

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Does Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) have any hobbies? Not unless burrowing himself in the latest 10-year estimates from a Congressional Budget Office report counts.

In a spate of recent interviews, the new House Budget Committee chairman has fumbled the question because, well, other than reading, he doesn't really have any. His wife, Jane, almost asked him to make up a hobby or two, just to look better.

"You better damn well figure out how you're going to answer that question," she yelled at her husband recently.

That is not the only tough question Spratt will have to answer over the next two years. The Democrat has one of the toughest jobs on Capitol Hill. He's in charge of drawing up a budget proposal that will erase the more than $200 billion deficit within five years. And, as Spratt put it himself, he has to "squirrel away a little money" for a half dozen to a dozen of the most important programs to Democrats, including funds for education, children's healthcare and other key priorities. And he's not supposed to raise taxes to pay for them.

John Spratt
Rep. John Spratt.

"We want to do it [eliminate the deficit], and be able to meet our priorities," Spratt said in a recent interview. "I know what my marching orders are."

To repeat those orders: Cut the deficit. Spend more. Don't raise taxes. No wonder the man has no hobbies.

Unlike his colleagues, Spratt cut short the congressional recess to return to Washington last week to work on trial runs of various budget proposals. The final word on how certain programs will fair under the Budget Committee microscope won't be public until the week of March 12-16, when Spratt will present his first budget. It's a prospect he's looking forward to with some trepidation: "Beware the Ides of March," he warned, half joking.

After passing it through committee, Spratt then has the even more daunting task of getting his budget passed on the House floor, where the competing dynamics of his ideologically diverse caucus leave little room for error. Democrats won't expect more than a couple GOP votes for the budget, so they can ill afford to lose more than 15 of their own.

But Democrats say he's the perfect fit for such a delicate task. A lawyer by training (Yale Law School), Spratt, 64, became a small-town banker in South Carolina's northernmost county before getting elected to Congress in 1982. A southern gentleman, Spratt has engendered some of the most loyal staff on Capitol Hill. Thomas Kahn, his committee staff director, has worked for him for 21 years, and a handful of staffers in his personal office have worked with Spratt even longer.

As a Democrat in a mostly rural district that went heavily for President Bush in 2000 and 2004, Spratt used to be a target for House Republicans at the start of each election cycle. But the GOP has largely given up, with Spratt running unopposed in 2004 and winning with 63 percent of the vote in 2006.

By virtue of his state's prominent presidential primary placement, Spratt and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) are two of the most sought-after endorsements in the nonstop White House race. He's tried to brush off the campaigners with a neutrality pledge, saying that he and Clyburn won't endorse early because they want the Palmetto State primary to be competitive and relevant.

But that hasn't stopped the calls. The morning she announced her campaign via a Web video, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) caught a surprised Spratt on the phone.

"I didn't even know she had announced," he said.

As presidential candidates clamor for his nod, Hill Dems hope Spratt has what it takes to thread the budget needle. An argument could be made that Spratt is the perfect man for the job: a southerner who knows what it's like to represent a red district, an Ivy League legal scholar with a banker's sense of accounts balancing, and a gentleman who has respect on both sides of the aisle for his sense of fairness.

But don't expect that to mean Republicans will go easy on Spratt. They're already relishing the chance to pounce on anything Spratt produces remotely resembling a tax increase to pay for the deficit reduction. "They'll call it revenue enhancement measures. We'll call it tax increases," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the former party campaign operative who otherwise praises Spratt for a "certain consistency" in his legislative dealings.

Democrats are adamant that won't happen. "We are not talking about tax increases," Kahn said.

To help with the heavy lifting, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has sat in on meetings with top committee chairmen and leaders of the key coalitions within the Democratic caucus. It's part of an effort to measure which programs are most essential, trying to build consensus in advance, and send a warning that some constituencies won't necessarily like what they see in two weeks.

Regardless of the assist from leadership, Spratt said he expects some of the credit or all of the blame to fall on his shoulders. Beware the Ides of March.

By Paul Kane  |  March 1, 2007; 7:00 AM ET
 
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