House conservatives ready to cut

February 8, 2011


t’s finally slash-and-burn time for conservatives, and the programs they target in a massive spending bill next week will help shape the national political debate over what the government can, and should, pay for.

Republicans are planning a freewheeling, open-ended debate that promises to test the party’s limits on how far it’s willing to go on spending cuts, and it may divide Democrats between those who want to embrace modest cuts and those who want to protect domestic programs from the GOP ax.

The most conservative faction in the House, the Republican Study Committee, already is preparing amendments that would choke off funding for President Barack Obama’s new health care law, cut domestic programs by $100 billion and force the government to pay creditors before funding other priorities if the limit on the national debt is hit. The RSC proposals would cut tens of billions of dollars more than Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has proposed, reflecting new tension within the GOP majority over how aggressive it should be.

The spending bill, called a “continuing resolution” or “CR,” is necessary because, without it, the government will run out of authority to spend money on March 4. Republican leaders rolled out the top-line spending number last week, and they’re expected to provide the details of the plan later this week. The bill is likely to hit the floor next week.

In a way, conservatives already have won in framing the debate: The president’s budget director, Jack Lew, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times over the weekend saying that next year’s budget will have to include cuts in some areas to fund “investments” in others. The debate has shifted from how to spend to how to cut. But conservatives also risk overreaching in etching targets on the backs of specific programs, each of which has a constituency powerful enough to have built its budget to the current level.

Traditionally, party leaders prohibit amendments on continuing resolutions. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his Republican leadership team have promised that it’s open season for rank-and-file lawmakers who want to offer amendments to spending bills — so long as they comport with new GOP-written House rules that make it tougher to spend and easier to cut.

That will test Republican leaders’ ability to keep control of their party’s message in the face of divisions that are certain to be laid bare by the kind of deep-cutting amendments that Democrats will use to portray Republicans as insensitive to the needs of their constituents.

GOP sources said the leadership is encouraging such fights, arguing that the House should work its will through several tough votes on spending cuts.

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