GOP debates how to cut spending: winners and losers, or share the pain

A withdrawn amendment has thrown a light on a disagreement among House Republicans on how they plan to curb spending -- whether by taking a selective ax to certain federal programs or in one fell and even swoop across all programs.   

Early Saturday morning, about an hour before the final House vote on the FY 2011 spending bill, House Republicans engaged in a revealing debate over whether their mission should be to defund certain programs completely to reduce government spending, or whether they should instead cut all programs evenly and spread the pain around.

The debate was not formally settled in a vote, because the amendment they were discussing was withdrawn by its sponsor, Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio). It nonetheless offered a glimpse into a GOP split over how to curb spending that is likely to be replayed in the months ahead.

LaTourette's amendment would have cut about $14 billion more than H.R. 1, the spending bill that ultimately passed. In his remarks on the floor, LaTourette said that perhaps more importantly, the amendment ensured that cuts were felt in all areas of the government.

As he put it, his amendment spared nothing from pain, but at the same time spared many Democrat-favored programs from the chopping block.

"This was a serious attempt to talk about shared sacrifice and the belief that, in some parts of the country, some programs are more popular than others," he said in his closing remarks. "So our belief was, if we're going to have shared sacrifice, everybody should be in the game. We shouldn't pick programs the Republicans like and keep them and pick programs that Democrats like and be done with them."

The amendment attracted a fair number of Republican supporters.

"Don't zero out programs without hearings," Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) said in support. "Don't pick winners and losers. Don't do this without having the proper hearings and oversight. By reducing our discretionary programs at the same rate across the board, we don't risk alienating future priorities or vulnerable constituencies that may receive funding which is at risk of being terminated."

Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) agreed. "Cutting programs to zero in the middle of a fiscal year may be good legislative policy, but it isn't really all that practical," he said. "We need to address the future size and scope of government in the normal, regular order of the appropriations process."

So did Robert Dold (R-Ill.). "The spirit of the amendment wasn't to necessarily pick winners and losers or to zero out programs; and as much as I do not like the idea of across-the-board cuts, I do think that the American public right now is thinking, 'How can we tighten our belts?' " he said.

But while LaTourette's vision was appealing to new members like Dold, it seemed to turn off longer-serving Republicans. Most notable in opposition was House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who rejected the notion of across-the-board spending cuts as something that would eliminate the dozens of amendment decisions the House was making.

"Rather, the amendment would replace our hard-fought spending decisions by taking the easy way out, by making no real decisions at all, by punting the ball to OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and the bureaucrats instead of making the decisions our electorate elected us to make," Rogers said.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the third-highest ranking member on the committee, put a finer point on it, and rejected LaTourette's central premise that the House should not be deciding to cut some programs while saving others. Instead, he said picking winners and losers is part of the job.

"We are elected to look at the whole mix and to pick winners and losers, to decide what programs should be cut significantly, and to decide which ones should be eliminated," Lewis said. "Indeed, that is part of our work."

LaTourette agreed to withdraw his amendment after being told that it mistakenly left out funding for Afghanistan and Iraq operations. But he insisted on some debate, and stressed in the end that he would not apologize for taking some time to "talk about the vision of some people on our side who don't think this bill represents shared sacrifice."

"In Cleveland, Ohio, people listen to the radio, and some of them like to listen to NPR," he said. "We don't think that that should be zeroed out. In Cleveland, Ohio, some people value the arts, and we don't think that there should be a tremendous cut to the National Endowment for the Arts. In Cleveland, Ohio, we build our communities with the Community Development Block Grant, and we don't think it should get a 66 percent cut."

"So I don't make any apologies for taking 20 minutes out of your busy lives to talk about this vision and why some of us wish that both sides would get together, not have the sacred cows that keep us from reaching a conclusion on this thing, and work this thing out," he concluded.