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SWING voters may be in relatively short supply this year, but they definitely exist, and a surprising number of them may be listening to Howard Stern on their way to church.
A new analysis found that 21 percent of voters were either undecided or so tentatively committed to one presidential candidate that they would be willing to reconsider. That is low compared with the share of voters up for grabs at this point in past elections - 33 percent in 2000, 27 percent in 1996 and 31 percent in 1992 - but enough to give one candidate a decisive victory.
"People have been saying that this election will be a repeat of what we saw four years ago, but there is still a sizable number of voters with a favorable view of both candidates," said Andrew Kohut, the director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which conducted the analysis. "The election might be close, but a candidate who did a really good job of reaching these persuadable voters could win by a gap of five percentage points or more."
Unfortunately for Republicans, a lot of these voters tune their radios to Mr. Stern, who has been crusading to oust President Bush. Mr. Stern is angry at the Federal Communications Commission, which cracked down on stations that broadcast a show of his that discussed anal sex and what the commission called "repeated flatulence sound effects."
Mr. Stern, who has backed Republican candidates in the past, has a mother lode of swing voters in his audience, according to a poll by the New Democrat Network, an advocacy group. Its pollster, Mark Penn, calculates that this "Stern Gang" of swing voters makes up 4 percent of the likely voters this year, nearly as large as the entire Hispanic vote in 2000.
But one bit of solace for Republicans is that Mr. Stern's listeners go to church frequently, which tends to correlate with voting Republican. The poll showed that Mr. Stern's listeners were slightly more likely than nonlisteners to call themselves born-again Christians and were three times more likely to attend church daily. The pollsters did not ask why they went to church after listening to Mr. Stern, so there is no way to calculate how many were performing an act of contrition.
Bite the Hand, if You Dare
HOW do Republicans opposed to big government stop themselves before they spend again? They had a much-anticipated opportunity in the wee hours of Friday morning, when the House voted on a bill supported by Republican leaders and the White House that imposed strict limits on future budgets. But Republicans joined with Democrats to defeat it.
That vote has some conservatives seeking a novel and more personal method of restraint: booting dispensers of largesse from coveted jobs on the Appropriations Committee. One way of removing spenders comes from Trent Franks, a Republican congressman from Arizona, who last year proposed prohibiting anyone from serving on the committee for more than 6 years in any 10-year period. Mr. Franks called it a "preventative measure that will allow fresh idealism into the appropriations process."
So far his proposal has gone nowhere in the House - few members want to lead the charge against the committee that doles out money to their home districts - but it has been endorsed by one influential Republican, Grover Norquist. He is the president of Americans for Tax Reform, which has persuaded 217 of the 435 House members to pledge not to raise income taxes.
"Now that we've effectively blocked them from raising taxes, we want a way to limit spending," Mr. Norquist said. "Under the current system, once you get on the Appropriations Committee, you're permanently defined as a spender. By limiting those appointments to six years, you'd change the incentive structure because no one would be a spender for their entire career. You could be celebrated as a guy who fought against spending."
An even more effective way to stop spending, Mr. Norquist said, is an idea he got from staff members of the Appropriations Committee (who understandably are remaining anonymous). Knowing the House's habit of setting a cap on the budget and then disregarding it, they suggested passing a rule requiring the chairman to step down if the final budget exceeded the cap.
"At first the chairman wouldn't like being the one accountable, but in fact it would empower him," Mr. Norquist said. "Any time he walked into a room to negotiate with members of the House or the Senate who want to spend more money, he could say, 'You know and I know that you know that I'm not walking out the door and losing my job.' "
Those arguments did not appeal to the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, C.W. Bill Young of Florida. "Grover's heart is in the right place when he tries to control spending, but I can't be supportive at all of that proposal," Mr. Young said. "There shouldn't be any automatic exercise to change the chairman. But I can tell you there are many times when the chairman would like another job. It's very frustrating to be haggling over the budget."
For Richer, at Least for Uncle Sam
ANOTHER new way to cut federal spending emerged last week, although it's not one that many Republicans are likely to endorse. The Congressional Budget Office concluded that allowing same-sex marriage would slightly reduce the budget deficit every year for the next decade.
Some opponents of same-sex marriage have complained that it would confer costly new benefits, Social Security payments to a widow or widower. But the budget office estimates that those costs would be relatively low. In heterosexual marriages, a wife typically outlives her husband by six or seven years (both because women are generally younger than their husbands and because women outlive men), but gay partners are usually about the same age and have a similar life expectancy.
The extra Social Security payments would be more than offset by the income taxes that gays would pay because of the so-called marriage penalty, the budget office estimates, and there would be other savings because fewer gays would qualify for Medicaid and federal benefits once spouses' incomes were factored in. The net annual gain to the government would be about $750 million by 2011.
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