House Republicans flex their muscles

The House voted Wednesday to freeze federal workers' pay until the end of 2013.

The 309-117 vote put Democrats on the defensive — 72 crossed the aisle to join the Republican majority — and gave the GOP political momentum for the first time since the fall.

The Democratic defections came in defiance of opposition from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Obama, who has proposed a 0.5 percent federal raise for 2012. 

The legislation came in a blitz of GOP fiscal bills designed to regain the upper hand Republicans lost when Obama and the Democrats handed them a heavy defeat last year on extending the payroll tax holiday.

It was one of several victories Wednesday on the House floor.

The House also easily approved another bill aimed at cutting welfare fraud by preventing recipients from accessing money in strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores. Only a few dozen Democrats opposed that bill.

Republicans passed a third bill, a resolution chopping most committee budgets by 6.4 percent or more for 2012. Democrats put up token resistance to that proposal, but it was approved quickly on a voice vote.

And finally, the House approved legislation to repeal a piece of the 2010 healthcare law setting up a voluntary long-term health insurance program that even the Obama administration found to be financially untenable. More than two dozen Democrats joined Republicans in that 267-159 vote.

The Republicans’ fierce fiscal attack marked the first full week back at work after more than a month, during which Obama made four controversial recess appointments that Republicans opposed.

That continued a bad run for the GOP that began at the end of the last congressional session, when House Republicans balked at a deal their Senate colleagues made with the White House to extend the payroll tax cut for two months. The House eventually approved the deal, but only after taking a public-relations beating at the hands of Democrats.

Since then, congressional Republicans have generally faded to the background, ceding the spotlight to Obama and their own field of presidential candidates, something that has not always been helpful to the party. Obama has seen his approval numbers with independent voters, for example, rise through the fall and early this year.

But this week has not been the best for the White House, as the Republican push for fiscal restraint comes as Mitt Romney solidified his standing as the GOP’s front-runner, while the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected a rising deficit and higher unemployment this year.

The CBO also said federal workers make up to 16 percent more than similar private-sector works, a finding that played into the fight over the pay freeze and might have made it more difficult for Democrats to object.

"I ask members and federal employees to help share in the sacrifice necessary to help millions of Americans suffering under the Obama economy," Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) said Wednesday on the floor.

While 72 Democrats supported the pay freeze, 115 voted against it. They argued that federal workers are already stuck with a pay freeze, and that Congress should not keep going to the same well to solve the deficit problem.

"It's not as if the federal employees haven't tightened their belts," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). "They have." He added that federal workers have already contributed $60 billion to deficit reduction through the current pay freeze.

Democrats also bristled at the GOP plan to combine the pay freeze bill with language that also freezes congressional pay and accused Republicans of trying to shame Democrats into favoring the bill.

Repeal of the long-term health insurance program was another point of contention throughout the day. In the morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was ribbing Democrats for supporting the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program even after the Obama administration said it’s unworkable.

"Despite admitting this program is doomed to fail, the Obama administration refuses to take it off the books,” he said.

"The president is so determined to distract people from his own legislative record that he doesn't even want to have a conversation about it," McConnell added. "He's so determined, so determined to convince people that the ongoing economic crisis is somebody else's fault that he's acting as though the first three years of his presidency never even happened.”

Republicans on Tuesday also announced several longer-term initiatives, such as several bills meant to fix what they say is a broken budget process that leads to overspending. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) indicated that Republicans will continue to stick to the theme of federal spending cuts this year, saying the House hopes to approve a small-business tax cut, which Republicans will undoubtedly seek to offset through reduced federal spending.


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