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Gutknecht ponders his future

By Edward Felker

*ews@postbulletin.com

WASHINGTON -- Republican U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Rochester will be in Europe this week for official meetings on farm trade and biotechnology, but it's no secret that he also will be plotting his future.

Gutknecht, 53, and his wife, Mary, plan to decide whether he will run for the U.S. Senate or run again in the 1st Congressional District. He also could decide to retire from public office at the end of this term.

Gutknecht, in an interview, gave no indication about his decision. He also said he won't announce until after he returns Feb. 28 whether he will seek the Senate seat, which is up for grabs next year in the wake of Democrat Sen. Mark Dayton's plans to retire.

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One factor might be how the House leadership and President George W. Bush appear to be turning a cold shoulder to fiscal conservatives like Gutknecht, who are starting to sound alarms about what they say is out-of-control government expansion.

Gutknecht acknowledged that he is increasingly frustrated in the House, where a looming battle is brewing.

"I normally can find the silver lining in the cloud, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I normally can find that. I'm having a little trouble finding that today," he said. With Medicare growing rapidly and the prescription drug benefit looming next year, he wonders if anyone is paying attention.

"This boulder is coming down the hill at us. It's getting closer and closer, and that's like the ultimate frustration. There aren't enough of my colleagues who want to concentrate on it."

Conservatives worry about mounting war costs, currently topping $300 billion, on top of a huge increase in estimated Medicare prescription drug payments.

Gutknecht, who just completed a six-year stint on the House Budget Committee, is skeptical that Congress will ever balance its books. "As a former budgeteer, I look at the numbers and sort of scratch my head," he said.

He lamented the fact that deficits this year alone will approach $500 billion once Bush's $82 billion war supplemental appropriation is approved.

Next year, the Medicare prescription drug benefit is to launch in earnest, with estimated expenses of between $724 billion and $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

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Gutknecht has been unequivocal in his response to Bush's vow to veto any changes that would cut the benefit's cost, calling his comments "irresponsible."

Gutknecht, who voted against the benefit over cost concerns, is sticking to his position that the goal of providing drugs to needy seniors could be met through a targeted extension of Medicaid, the federal-state low-income health program, rather than giving all seniors a prescription drug benefit.

And he continues to criticize the Bush administration for blocking large-scale drug importation as a key way to lower drug prices for all.

Underlying Gutknecht's concerns is a fear that federal tax revenue won't grow enough to reduce the deficit and still pay for all of the Bush agenda. To Gutknecht, the economy looks relatively strong, and he isn't buying the Bush administration's predictions that federal tax revenue will grow at 6 percent annually, or more than double the inflation rate.

"I have to step back and say, 'Am I living in a different universe?' Or are some of my friends here in Washington? I just don't think that's sustainable," Gutknecht said.

Unlike Bush, he wants Congress to revisit the Medicare prescription drug plan and resolve to fix only the core problem of indigent seniors' needs. Gutknecht took another shot at the plan, which Medicare this week said would cover Viagra and other male impotence drugs.

As for his time away, Gutknecht said he will focus on trade issues in England, Belgium, Romania and Greece, while getting to know the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia.

Within all that, however, Gutknecht is looking forward to the chance to discuss the future with his wife far from the demands of Washington and Minnesota.

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"It's also time for Mary and I to make some important decisions away from everyone, about what do we want to do? Sort of, what do we want to do when we grow up?"

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