Out of power, Republicans appear to be retreating to familiar old ground. They’re becoming deficit hawks again.

GOP lawmakers didn’t seem to mind enjoying the fruits of government largesse for the past eight years while one of their own was in the White House. Now they’re struggling to regain footing at a time of economic rout, a record $1.2 trillion budget deficit and an incoming Democratic president claiming a mandate for change.

It might not be the best time for running against more government spending. But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from casting themselves as protectors of the public purse, striving for relevancy as Congress tackles President-elect Barack Obama’s stimulus legislation.

"Congress cannot keep writing checks and simply pass IOUs to our children and grandchildren," says Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Asks House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: "How much debt are we going to pile on future generations?"

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gets more specific: "We would like, on the spending side, obviously, to avoid funding things like a mob museums or water slides." Mob museums?

Las Vegas’ effort to include in the stimulus legislation federal money to set up a museum to showcase Nevada’s colorful and storied past in organized crime has suddenly become the cited example of wasteful spending for some Republicans.

Perhaps they hope the proposed project in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., can divert attention from the "Bridge to Nowhere," an Alaska project that was initially a Republican initiative and which became the target of Democratic scorn.

Obama has pledged the economic aid legislation will be free of such pork-barrel and "earmark" spending.

"It is somewhat disingenuous on the part of Republicans to be totally concerned about the debt and the deficit at this point because they were there when the debt went up," said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

When Republican President George W. Bush took office in 2001, the government had a projected $5.6 trillion, 10-year surplus.


Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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