Find something to cut, Hoyer tells panel heads

House Democrats are scrambling to jumpstart a long-stalled effort to trim the federal budget, spurred by deficit worries that have left them unable to push much of their agenda.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said during a Wednesday morning meeting with committee chairmen that he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) intended to hold them to a Friday deadline to submit detailed lists of duplicative and wasteful programs that can be eliminated from the $3 trillion budget.

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“You need to produce something on this,” Hoyer said, according to a person in the room. “You all need to find some programs to cut.”

In leaning on the chairmen to get their proposals into the Speaker’s hands by Friday, Hoyer specifically mentioned the difficulty Democrats are having moving a package of tax extenders, unemployment insurance extensions and other items because the nearly $150 billion it would add to the deficit is considered by some to be too high.

“For the freshmen and sophomores, the thing that spooks them the most is that deficit number,” a Democratic leadership aide said Wednesday. “This is an obvious place to go for action.”

Democratic aides said Hoyer’s demand for proposals was met with a mixed reaction. Some chairmen, including Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), one of Pelosi’s most trusted champions of liberal causes, enthusiastically backed the new push, while others only nodded quietly.

Democrats in the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, however, were quite happy to see movement on any front to rein in spending.

“At a time when families, businesses, states and others around the world are tightening their belts, taking a hard look at how taxpayer money is being spent is simply the right thing to do,” Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), one of the original Blue Dogs, said in a statement.

If the vigor surrounding cost-cutting is new, the initiative itself is not. Pelosi in January 2009 ordered each of her chairmen to schedule a series of oversight hearings designed to root out “waste, fraud and abuse” from their areas of the federal budget.

She followed up several months later with a letter demanding a list of cost-cutting initiatives, saying: “A vigorous oversight process, with the goal of reducing inefficiency and consolidating operations, is one way for Congress to demonstrate our commitment to fiscal discipline.”

Some of those lists arrived on the Speaker’s desk. Many others failed to materialize. And for months, Democratic leaders declined to say which chairmen completed the task, which ignored it or what, if anything, they planned to do with recommendations they did receive.

But since then, many of the dynamics that kept the initiative grounded have changed dramatically.

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Democrats’ hope for a budget that could show significant spending reductions — and boost their credentials on fiscal discipline — has evaporated given a stalemate between Blue Dogs, who are pushing for a 2 percent cut in all non-defense discretionary spending for three years, and liberals, who are fighting such cuts.

Some Democrats also think the GOP has struck the right populist chord with House Republican Whip Eric Cantor’s (Va.) YouCut initiative, an online grassroots effort to get budget-cutting suggestions directly from the public.

Somewhat ironically, while YouCut has put increasing pressure on Democrats to somehow demonstrate their ability to trim whatever they can from the budget, it has also lowered the bar for what’s acceptable as a serious deficit-reducing effort and given Democrats cover to take small bites without looking disingenuous.

The first program that YouCut voters chose for elimination was an emergency welfare fund created by the 2009 stimulus bill — at an annual cost of $2.5 billion.

Democratic leaders are hoping that a credible effort from their chairmen to cut the budget can offset the concern many vulnerable members have about passing another bill that adds to the deficit without doing something to reduce it elsewhere.

“The freshmen and sophomores have been saying for a while we need to do something on spending,” another leadership aide said. “This is an obvious place to go for action.”