The House just barely passed a bill Thursday that would replace the pending defense sequester with new and deeper cuts to entitlements and other social programs, a controversial vote that Republicans see as a backstop in case President Obama and the White House can't negotiate a way around the "fiscal cliff."
Members passed the Spending Reduction Act, H.R. 6684, in an extremely close 215-209 vote without any support from Democrats and with 21 Republicans voting against it. For Republicans, that's a slip from May, when the House passed a substantially similar bill and 16 Republicans opposed it.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) was the only member who voted "present."
Republicans decided Wednesday to add the bill to Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) "Plan B," which originally only included a bill that would prevent tax rates from increasing in January on incomes below $1 million. But Republicans insisted on a bill dealing with spending cuts in addition to the tax bill, which will get a vote later Thursday evening.
"This is our nation's best option, and Senate Democrats should take up both of these measures immediately," Cantor said during the debate. "The President has a choice… he can support these measures, or be responsible for reckless spending and the largest tax hike in American history."
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), returned from his campaign as GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's running mate, defended the bill as a way to trim waste and abuse from the federal government in order to limit the need for tax hikes on small companies.
"What we are trying to do here is limit the damage to the taxpayer," he said.
Democrats blasted the proposal as one that would spare defense programs but apply deeper cuts to needed social programs, and avoided ending tax breaks for oil companies. Democrats proposed a motion to take up their proposals, but the GOP House rejected them.
Among other things, the Spending Reduction Act would trim spending in the federal food stamp program, end child tax credit for non-U.S. citizens, cancel the Home Affordable Modification Program that the GOP has said is ineffective, and terminate a health prevention fund that the GOP has criticized as a slush fund.
But more broadly, Democrats warned that passing these Republican plans for dealing with the fiscal cliff is putting ongoing negotiations at risk. Several argued that the GOP was not being serious by pursuing a plan that White House and Senate Democrats have said they will not consider.
"We are engaged here in the House on this floor today in what has become a ridiculous political stunt, which will actually take us much closer as a country to going over the fiscal cliff," Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.
"We're wasting valuable time. The Speaker should be engaged with the President of the United States in negotiations rather than having walked away from those negotiations with the president. That walking away is becoming a bad habit."
House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) reacted sharply to Democratic complaints, and said Democrats at all levels have failed to offer their own cuts in the fiscal cliff talks.
"Shame on this body. We have a $10 trillion hole in the difference between our spending and our revenue, and we can't find a way to compromise?" he said.
"I say to the Democrats, quite frankly, shame on you for not being able to make a down payment on a $10 trillion shortfall."
Democrats, in turn, rejected GOP complaints that Obama has failed to make specific spending cut proposals. "That kind of a statement should not be made," Ways & Means ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) said.
Early in the debate, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) made a special plea for members to support the bill as a way to avoid what he described as steep cuts to the military.
"I call on the president to lead, rather than create a new crisis," he said. "We cannot stand idly by while we have American men and women fighting to keep us safe across the globe."