House Republicans try to find middle ground on budget-cutting plan

House Republicans are putting together a floor debate plan that tries to broker a divide over how deeply to cut spending.

Under the two-step plan, Republicans are likely to bring a measure to the floor that would propose much more moderate cuts to the budget for 2011 than what many Republicans have sought.

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To mollify those who want deeper cuts, Republican leaders would allow the House to consider amendments offering more significant cuts to the budget, according to a House GOP aide.

This process would allow House leaders to put forward a budget plan for FY 2011 that would not propose the kind of drastic cuts that would be opposed by the Democratic Senate and White House. At the same time, it would give Republicans who want more cuts a chance to make their case through the amendment process.

The plan reflects the unusual circumstances of the current fiscal year. The continuing resolution (CR) for FY 2011 funding current government operations expires in early March, five months into fiscal year 2011. This means Republicans who have argued for $100 billion in cuts to discretionary, non-security programs in 2011 would have to jam these cuts into a seven-month period instead of 12 months. That would make the cutting more dramatic and possibly more difficult to pass, even in the Republican-led House.

Members of the House Republican Study Committee (RSC) last week said Republicans need to stick to the $100 billion figure, even as they acknowledged it would be difficult to do this over a shorter period of time.

The way around that is to start by prorating the cuts. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has yet to announce a specific number, but Brian Riedl, the Heritage Foundation's top budget analyst, said several factors point to cuts in the neighborhood of $50 billion.

First, he said Republicans who want a cut of $100 billion were basing that on the Democrats' original plan to spend $478 billion this year, which is $100 billion more than FY 2008. But that plan was never adopted, and the current CR would spend a little less this year, $463 billion. Riedl says that reduction means Republicans only have to cut $85 billion in the current fiscal year to reach 2008 levels, and prorating that over seven months means cuts in the neighborhood of $50 billion.

From there, members of the RSC could propose additional cuts on the House floor, and votes on various proposals would allow the GOP to test their popularity. A House GOP aide said this fits in with recent comments from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has said he wants the CR considered under an open rule that allows for amendments.

Riedl said it could prove "very tough" to go beyond the prorated cuts, but said even a $50 billion cut would be helpful in setting lower spending targets going forward. "Cutting $50 billion now is the same as setting a new baseline," he said.

Under their current plan, Republicans have given Ryan the job of setting discretionary, non-security spending at 2008 levels or less. After that, the House Appropriations Committee will turn those proposals into a new CR, which Republicans are hoping the House can vote on during the week of Feb. 14.

Whatever passes the House is likely to be contested by Senate Democrats, who may adopt President Obama's State of the Union plan to simply freeze spending at current levels. If so, the House and Senate may face a contentious two-week stretch in late February in which they will be under pressure to reach some agreement on government funding before the current CR expires on March 4.

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